March 28, 2014

Ancien Regimes, Google Grokking, and Starstuff

This post is in two parts, and is cross-posted in part to Tumbld Thoughts. In Part I, I will review a number of papers, blog posts, and articles from my reading queue [1]. This time, I focus more on short threads than scientific papers. In Part II, I will provide supplementary reading to the third episode of the Cosmos reboot.

I. Reading Queue (recent papers, blog posts, and news stories).

An interesting interview with Sydney Brenner on the resistance to innovation in academic science. Driven by the nature of publishing and promotion.  Is academic science tailor-made for the most average mind? Kary Mullis and J. Craig Venter might agree with the sentiment. On the other hand, the open-access revolution is predicated on the idea that academic publication (and indeed all of proprietary and pre-internet scientific information dissemination) is a broken system. Whatever that means these days, since everyone in education and academia seems to be a revolutionary.

The "lack of innovation in academia" straw man argument, in graphical form. COURTESY: Macintosh Ad, 1984.

2) Bot and Dolly and the rise of creative robots. Bloomberg Businessweek, March 20 (2014) AND More news is being written by robots than you think. SingularityHub, March 25 (2014).

First article is a profile on the business of "smart" mechatronics for movies. I was really hoping for more, given the title. Like robots that write the news and the rise of so-called creative algorithms (second article). Bot and Dolly were behind the challenging special effects in the movie "Gravity" and the IRIS motion control system

IRIS on the set. Or writing a very large-print news article.

This article argues that the profit margins of a given industry determines how likely companies in that sector are to innovate. In other words Google (in the information/internet sector -- high profit margin) is a paragon of innovation, while General Motors or Delta Airlines (in the much less profitable automotive and airline industries, respectively) are not well-known for innovation. So, clearly, being ancien regime vs. being a Google Grokker has nothing to do with it, right?

The whole profit margins argument suffers from what I call a suppression of the perpendicular axis. Perhaps a better alternative hypothesis exists, but is tangential (or perpendicular) to the one being explored and is suppressed by the author's narrative. While the "profit margin by sector/rate of innovation" relationship seems to exist, it is superficial and does not account for variation within industries or even the way profits are acquired (e.g. pharmaceutical companies must innovate to have new sources of profit).

The Everett Rogers view of "getting with the program".

4) Strength of weak signals. McKinsey Quarterly, February (2014).

A play on the "strength of weak ties" idea, this article heeds our attention to weak signals (e.g. valuable information) inherent in the massive amount of data available via internet and through social media. The authors play up the idea that often these cryptic signals are embedded in noise -- and offer multiple ways to marshal this information. This goes beyond the typical filtering app for Facebook.

5) Collective attention in the age of misinformation. arXiv:1403.3344 [cs.SI]. AND The curious nature of sharing cascades. arXiv:1403.4608 [cs.SI].

The first paper looks at the emergence of alternative theories on Facebook. Theories that run counter to the established wisdom of the ancien regime, but are not reasonable by any means. This ranges from fringe theories to full-blown conspiracy theories. As an example, the authors looks at Facebook interactions during a recent Italian election. Unfortunately, unsubstantiated information (including conspiracy theories) spread much like factual information. That is, until someone knocks down the post with reason and facts, which is why we need skeptics to speak up.

A related paper (also using Facebook as a source of data) looks at the nature of resharing cascades (how far-reaching a post or story becomes). Not all information is shared equally, as some posts/stories get far more exposure than others. The nature of resharing is the essential to its longevity. However, the initial degree of exposure (e.g. being shared by people with lots of followers) is key to initiating what will become a long chain of resharing (e.g. cascade). Essentially, mass initial broadcasts have the best change of become long resharing chains -- but this is likely a quasi-stochastic process [2].

A revolutionary HMD? VR according to the Oculus Rift.

6) Jeffries, A.   Will Facebook ruin Oculus? Kickstarter backers voice concerns. The Verge.

Answer: depends on what you mean by "ruin". Such titles are always meant to be provocative, from the question mark to the verb. From the perspecitve of the ancien regime (Barry Ritholtz, Bloomberg News), if there is no return of equity to the initial Kickstarter investors, then it is a scam. However, it is like saying that because someone once gave me a research grant, then they are entitled to a future Nobel Prize or Distinguished Scholar award. Perhaps I shouldn't plant the seed of that idea, or am I too late? And would such an innovation (investing in potential) simply be new wine in old bottles?

Rather, let's suppose that the Google Grokkers who made initial investments in Oculus had a different goal in mind -- essentially "don't be evil" over "Wall Street". A different kind of social contract that focuses on building great things instead of tangible/immediate return on investment, perhaps. But is Facebook's offer of $2 billion a realistic investment in a company that resembles Fakespace (a non-hyped VR company)? If there's one thing that defines Oculus in my mind, it is hype. In fact, if there's one thing that defines Facebook and Kickstarter in my mind, it is also hype. But then there's this from the Prosthetic Knowledge tumblr. Nevertheless, perhaps the "scam" deepens, as Facebook's acquisition of Oculus has become a visual meme.

Perhaps the whole ancien regime vs. Google Grokker distinction is being falsely applied here. Or perhaps some people just want to see this particular ship go down.

Sometimes, when the part of the title says "transmission of genetic information", the Lamarkian imagination goes wild [3]. But really, they are talking about RNA and miRNA serving as messengers in complex signaling systems. Their discussion of miRNA is interesting -- while there is amazing diversity in miRNA types and families, their basic structure and function tends to be highly-conserved. This conservation (found in viroids as well as miRNA) is a consequence of an "information transfer mechanism" that emerged in some Eukaryote common ancestor. 

8) How tech became the enemy. SFGate, March 24 (2014).

9) The brutal ageism of tech. New Republic, March 23 (2014).

Who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? In the context of the tech industry, the answer might better suited to a discussion on video game development or the Winklevoss twins. But both the organizational man and counterculture ethos are well-represented in the tech world. This is cross-cut by the more recent phenomenon of the internet billionaire and their supposed lack of social responsibility [4]. And tech leaders who believe odd things about the way societies should be run [5]. I'm not sure if tech populism stems from the counterculture, but it looks like Henry Ford's obsession with social engineering all over again.

Fordlandia, not Silicon Valley. But still, it might all be the same.....

But if you haven't made your fortune by age 35, you should probably give up, at least according to reading #9. At least that's the gist of the ageism in tech argument. Apparently, eternal innovation is only a property of the young, and experience plays no role in the development of cutting-edge tech. People who remember the ancien regime should not try to work with Google Grokkers, as their ideas will simply get in the way [6].

10) The future of brain implants. Wall Street Journal. 

The article by Christof Koch and Gary Marcus in the WSJ (!) surveys the state-of-the-art technology in the area of brain-machine interfaces and implants to mitigate brain disorders and damage. Informative and not too technical, but with a nauseating dash of techno-optimism and Reagan-worship. Is this really the hallmark of a good tech story, or a way to placate the ancien regime?

11) Nonhuman Gamblers: lessons from rodents, primates, and robots. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8, 33 (2014).

A comprehensive, cross-species review of the neural substrate and mechanisms involved in pathological gambling. Also includes computational examples (robot models). The authors also favor methodological integration, which is always a good thing. Definitely a trait of the most astute Google Grokkers.

Rat casinos. For purposes of studying the Neuroscience of addiction.

Using stable isotope analysis, the authors were able to better understand the hydrologic and thermodynamic processes behind extra-tropical hurricanes. Notoriously hard to predict, a sufficient understanding can only be gained from a large-scale spatiotemporal analysis. But wait....this analysis (685 samples) was done by the crowd! Google Grokkers at work! An excellent emerging method applied to a very hard-to-predict storm. This might also be useful in gauging the true effect size of anthropogenic climate change.

COURTESY: Figure 1 from Article #12.

[1] To do this, I use the theme of the ancien regime and Google Grokking. The former refers to the landed gentry (e.g. old guard) during the French Revolution, while the latter refers to upstart information technology companies such as Google and Grok (Jeff Hawkins' analytics start-up). Grok is also a science fiction reference, courtesy of Robert Heinlein, and American tech-oriented slang for "passionately liking something".

[2] This principle works for Twitter posts as well: Anderson, M.   Forecasting when hashtags will go viral. IEEE Spectrum, March 27 (2014).

[3] This Technology Review article discusses an older set of studies, but every time a paper involving an "epigenetic" phenomenon of significant consequence (e.g. life-history effects, cognitive effects) comes out, the media speculation is predictable.

[4] On the whole, the tech world has some notable exceptions to this. A recent story about Tim Cook vs. climate change deniers at Apple's annual shareholder meeting is one such example.

[5] For examples, see exhibits A and B. Just so you know that I'm not making this up. But sometimes it is ridiculousness in the name of free publicity.

[6] this section is deeply infused with sarcasm. Is this simply a lack of perspective on the part of young techies and investors, or the consequences of a major generation gap

II. Supplemental Readings for Cosmos, episode III.

Here are the supplemental readings for the Cosmos reboot, episode III: "When Knowledge Conquered Fear". Topics are take-off points from the show's segments and are in no particular order.

History of Science, or, fishes vs. first principles:
Sample, I.   How a book about fish nearly sank Isaac Newton's Principia. April 18 (2012).

False Pattern Recognition:
Shermer, M.   Patternicity: finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Scientific American, December (2008).

Hubscher, S.   Apophenia: definition and analysis. WebCite, Article 117. November 4 (2007).

Transition from Astrology to Astronomy:
Harmonices Mundi, Wikipedia.

Lyman, D.   Kepler's The Harmonies of the World - A Transition from Astrology to Astronomy. Yahoo! voices, October 29 (2009).

The Orbit Simulator. Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado.

Astrology and Astronomy in Other Cultures:
Placing, K.   Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: a web-based activity exploring how different cultures have interpreted constellations. University of Sydney Uniserve Science.

Earliest Ancient Observatory in the Americas. COURTESY:

Berger, K.   Ingenious: Edwin C. Krupp., March 27 (2014).

Predictive Demography:
Alho, J. and Spencer, B.   Statistical Demography and Forecasting. Springer, Berlin (2006).

Mueller, L.D., Nusbaum, T.J., and Rose, M.R.   The Gompertz equation as a predictive tool in demography. Experimental Gerontology, 30(6), 553-569 (1995).

Other Notes:
Interestingly, the LaRouche PAC hosts a site devoted to the Harmonices Mundi. The LaRouche movement seems quite pseudo-scientific to me, even though they advocate a more scientific approach to governance and policy. This paradox might be similar to Isaac Newton's fascination with pseudo-science (e.g. search for a Bible code), which was mentioned in Episode 3. Sometimes, the more things look enlightened, the more they stay the same.

March 24, 2014

Official Host of Carnival of Evolution, #70

Synthetic Daisies is one again playing host to Carnival of Evolution's April edition, which goes live on April 1. This year's theme will be the games of evolution. To know exactly what this means, you will have to join us on April 1. This marks the third consecutive year of blogrolling [1]. I have been contributing posts for a bit longer). There are three ways to contribute: 1) log in to the Blog Carnival site and fill out the form, 2) post the link to the Carnival of Evolution Facebook page, or 3) e-mail me directly with “Carnival of Evolution” in the title.

Until then, here are some anatomical renderings and faux-developmental biology of alien hearts and brains [2]. A throwback to the theme of Carnival of Evolution #58: visions from the Evolutionary Future. According to the futurist George Dvorsky [3] and as implicitly suggested on Memory Alpha, we have indeed (but perhaps not ethically) won over these hearts and minds -- and brains. 


[2] Carrick, L.M.   Cranial, Brain, and Heart Development: Human, Andorian, Klingon, Gorn, Tellarite, Vulcan. Vibrant Oxymoron blog, July 7 (2011).

[3] Dvorsky, G.   Star Trek's 'prime directive' is stupid. Sentient Developments blog, January 13 (2007).

March 20, 2014

Tech and Science, Futures and More Starstuff

More technology and science, with an assist from Tumbld Thoughts. This time, our "tech and science" tour will focus on new visions of futurism (I) and the second (evolution-focused) episode of the Cosmos reboot (II). 

I. Futurist Terms for the 21rst Century

A possible future with lots of skyscrapers, bridges, and clouds. Apparently, the earth's atmospheric consists of a lot more water vapor then......

Do you want to be "in the know" when it comes to futurist trendmaking? Or at least sound like you know what you are talking about? George Dvorsky [1] went out and asked people already in the know (or at least in the vision) about which terms one should use to characterize up-and-coming technological trends. 

Candidates include:
* co-veillance. Reciprocal vision and supervision -- or scrutiny from below. A combination of several pre-existing ideas, including the participatory panopticon and sousveillance [2], all in one slightly more visionary package.

* multiplex parenting. A reproductive technology that involves the genetic material (sperm, egg, and mitochondria) of three parents.

* longetivity dividend. Related to the more well-known demographic dividend, but focuses on lifespan rather than fecundity

* repressive desublimation. Feeling free by repressing your human urges (with pharmaceutical enhancement this time around) and adding a dash of soft paternalism. Break out the soma, kids.

* mules. Black-swan-like events that are not only extremely rare, but are outside our scope of understanding. The field of predicting rare events is replete with animal metaphors [3].

* evolvability risk. The production of superlative (much stronger or faster than average) variants -- the focus here is more on cultural evolution than on genetic engineering-assisted biological evolution. You get the idea?

I find this list fascinating for more than a couple of reasons. For one, it tells us what the state-of-the-art is in terms of future prediction. For example, modernist-era (1950's era) visions of the future were dominated by flying cars and jetpacks. Not exclusively, but that was the mode of thinking. But when many of those technologies have either been realized to some extent or realized to be impractical, what is left to inform your vision of the future? In this list, the future trends can be broken down into four categories:

COURTESY: Derren Brown's Milgram Experiment replication.

1) 4 out of 20 terms have to do with moral/social control. A staple of science fiction, I thought that there would be more terms in this category. Nevertheless, there is a distinct "Brave New World" flavor to this group of terms [4]. One highlight is "effective altruism", which seems to presume that not only can altruism can be enhanced, it is our moral duty to make it as efficient as possible. Cultural bias, anyone?

2) 8 out of 20 terms have to do with biological enhancement/optimization. This is unsurprising, since biotechnology and bioengineering are fields where most technologists think the future breakthroughs lie. But as Stephen Zweig once observed: "Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be". Subcategories include life extension (extropianism), reproductive technologies, and cognitive enhancement [5, 6].

This is the extropian's scala naturae-inspired vision of the future. Not sure what the extropian "branching bush" would look like.

3) 6 out of 20 terms have to do with characterization and/or analysis of the future. In this bucket, I include "computational overhang" (a big data-related concept), "technological unemployment" (an observational term), and the forementioned "mules". These terms are a little more grounded in data and reality, mainly because they pick up on already-observable trends.

4) 2 out of 20 terms have to do with autonomous systems. This is in conflict with the modernist-era view of the future, mainly in terms of focus. While many concrete advances have been made in such systems (e.g. robots, self-driving cars) in recent years, this survey of futurists tends to lump autonomous systems in with advances in biotechnology (e.g. substrate-autonomous person, intelligence amplification). And while this survey is by no means a representative sample, this tells us something about expectations.

Is this the future? No, that's a relic of the past.....

[1] Dvorsky, G.   20 Crucial Terms Every 21rst Century Futurist Should Know. io9, March 17 (2014).

[3] Cascio, J.   3 Reasons Why Your Predictions Of The Future Will Go Wrong. Co.EXIST Blog, March 27 (2013).

[4] Pearce, D.   Utopian Neuroscience. Superhappiness Notes (2008).

[5] Regis, E.   Meet the Extropians. Wired Magazine, Issue 2.10, October (1994).

[6] Marcus, G. and Koch, C.   The Future of Brain Implants. WSJ Saturday Essay, March 14 (2014).

II. Recap of Cosmos, Episode II

Links and supplementary reading for the Cosmos reboot, episode 2 (The Interesting Things Molecules Do). There were a few parts in which scientific accuracy and nuance were sacrificed in the name of "coherent narrative" (a.k.a. the narrative fallacy). But of course, coherent narratives make the science go down easier, especially for the uninitiated. Apparently, that's the nature of our species. You will have to watch to see why these categories are interesting/relevant.

COURTESY: Thomson, J.   Walking Molecules. Chemical Society Reviews blog, March 29 (2011). But aside from the ease of visualization and understanding, it is important to remember that molecular machines are no more "creatures" than are a spinning top or a passive dynamic walker

Dog domestication:
Goldman, J.G.   Two theories of dog domestication. The Thoughtful Animal, October 7 (2010).

Harmon, K.   Origin of Dogs. Scientific American, August 20 (2009).

Freedman, A.H.   Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs. PLoS Genetics, 10 (1), e1004016 (2014).

Artificial selection:
Artificial selection. Understanding Evolution, UC-Berkeley.


Phototaxis and vision:
Drescher, K., Goldstein, R.E., and Tuval, I.   Fidelity of adaptive phototaxis. PNAS, 107(25), 11171-11176 (2010).

Brouers, L.   Animal vision evolved 700 million years ago. Thoughtomics blog, November 20 (2012).

Nilsson, D-E. and Pelger, S.   A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 256(1345), 53-58 (1994).

Blurred vision, Squid and Spider:
Tripp, E.   The Squid's Blurred Vision: judging distance underwater. Marine Science Today, January 27 (2014).

Coghlan, A.   Zoologger: squid snares prey using badly blurred vision. New Scientist Zoologger, January 20 (2014).

Yong, E.   Jumping Spides use blurry vision to judge distance. Not Exactly Rocket Science, January 26 (2012).

COURTESY: Pharyngula blog.

Frank, A.   A human-driven extinction: good or bad? NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, January 28 (2014).

Jablonski, D.   Lessons from the past: evolutionary impacts of mass extinctions. PNAS, 98(10), 5393-5398 (2001).

A final point in the form of sculpture.....

Giant Key West Chicken by Derek Arnold. A steampunk-style, ridable source of metal eggs (according to cartoon evolution rules).

March 16, 2014

Tech and Science, Bits and Starstuff

Here are two features cross-posted to Tumbld Thoughts. This time, we will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (I) and be introduced to readings that accompany the first episode of the Cosmos reboot (II). 

I. Happy 25th, World Wide Web! You're so HTTP.

Celebrate the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web with a summary of the Reddit with Tim Berners-Lee, and an emulator of the NCSA Mosaic browser. Here is a link to Berners-Lee's original proposal for the CERN Information Management system (circa 1989). And see what the next 20 years may (or may not) bring in terms of tech innovation in an NY Times magazine article on the generation gap in Silicon Valley.

II. Cosmos reboot, episode 1 recommended readings

It appears that the first episode of the Cosmos reboot was a success. While some things were glossed over and over-simplified, it is one successful remake. Here are a few relevant references:

Biography of Lucretius (author of "De Rerum Natura") and "On the Nature of Things" from the Internet Classics Archive.

"If the Moon Were Only One Pixel" by Josh Worth.

Q&A: Neil DeGrasse Tyson from National Geographic.

Carl Sagan's original "Spaceship of the Imagination" (YouTube).

Lenton, T.   Revolutions that made earth. Slideshow based on a book of the same name.

Chow, D.   The Universe: Big Bang to now in 10 easy steps., October 18 (2011).

March 8, 2014

Taking the Pulse of a Boiling Fishbowl

I have put an interesting and potentially useful new page on the blog -- something I am calling Blogospherics (roughly translated from marketing-tinged English: ways of the blogosphere). It's a collection of phenomena and curiosities of blogs, bloggers, and people who consume blog content. One section moves into the area of bibliometrics (academic article citations), but is still fairly relevant to blogging.

Blogospherics, GTN (go there now) or ASAP' (as soon as plausible). There is no prize for diligence, only inspiring content to be found.

March 2, 2014

Fireside Science: Logical Fallacy vs. Logical Fallacy

This content is cross-posted to Fireside Science. To get the most out of this post, please review the following materials:

Alicea, B.   Informed Intuition > Pure Logic, Reason + No Information = Fallacy? Synthetic Daisies blog, January 4 (2014).

The peer-review committee for pure rationality. For more, please see [1].

Awhile back, I posted some critiques of and modifications to the conventional approach to logical fallacies [1] here on Synthetic Daisies. It seems as though every debate of the issues on the internet involves an accusation that one side is engaging in some sort of "fallacy". This is especially true of topics of broader societal relevance, where the notion of logical fallacies has become entangled with denialism [2] and epistemic closure [3].

Social Media argumentation, one person's take.

To recap (full version of the post here), I proposed that we replace six fallacies on the chart above and replace them with seven fallacies that are more inclusive of moral (e.g. emotional) and cultural biases. To me, the "Skeptic's Guide to the Universe" model feels like a 12-step program of rationality. It may help you think in a desirable way (e.g. pure rationality). However, pure rationality does not provide you with a means to place conditions on an objective argument. The triumph of logical rigor ultimately becomes a straight-jacket of the mind, reducing one's ability to think situationally.

Are the arbiters of deduction wrong on six counts?

Now it appears that I'm not alone in my concerns. Big Think now has a theme "The Fallacy Fallacy" on the fallacies of logical fallacies [4], with contributions from Alex Berezow, Julia Galef, Daniel Honan, and James Lawrence Powell

In this collection of essays and interviews, the overuse of logical fallacies itself is cited as a fallacy of composition, and provides better ways to construct arguments. These include several general observations related to the validity of reason itself. These transcend the popular "identify the fallacy" model.

One theme involves making the case for consensus through joint argumentation. Correct answers are not to be found via the most rigorous argument, but by exploring many complementary arguments, each with their own flaws.  

Another theme involves being mindful of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias or subconscious cultural preferences. Even when an argument is highly rigorous by the standards of logical consistency, they may still suffer from a lack of perspective. 

The third major theme involves the recognition that ignorance is a valid starting point [5] for many arguments. It is impossible to know everything about a topic, so any principled argument is bound to be incomplete. And the traditional fallacy model [6] is likely to make things worse.

[1] This is a list of 24 common logical fallacies, courtesy of (Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith, and Som Meadon). Also, most of these are individually found on Wikipedia with a more detailed explanation.

[2] Reinert, C.   Denialism vs. Skepticism. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies blog, February 23 (2014).

[3] Cohen, P.   "Epistemic Closure"? Those are fighting words. NY Times Books, April 27 (2010).

[4] This is not a tautology! But it's not the same thing as the formal version of the fallacy fallacy (a.k.a. argumentum ad logicam).

[5] Contrast with: Argument from Ignorance. RationalWiki.

[6] A nice resource for better understanding all possible logical fallacies: The Fallacy-a-Day-Podcast. A fallacy a day, in readable and podcast form.