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.

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