Monday, November 29, 2010

books

Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Any description would fall short.

Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, by Noam Chomsky - Very interesting big picture take on the American intellectual view of the Vietnam War, Spanish revolution, and miscellaneous other things.* Chomsky really is one of the smartest people alive. Did you know he's the only living member of the top 10 all-time most-cited people in all of the humanities?

The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak - Bookclub book; not something I would read on my own. I didn't hate reading it, in the moment, but I have almost nothing good to say about it. The writing style was sometimes beautiful but usually much too feminine, ornamentally poetic or something, for my taste. Any one of the interesting, complex characters would have made a great protagonist, but instead none got enough facetime to delve into their characters thoroughly enough to make any sense at all. Likewise, the ending could have been great, but it relied on characters' actions and reactions that didn't make sense from what was earlier said about them. The actual main protagonist was mindnumbingly dull and seemed to exist solely as a vessel for the expression of enough identity politics to turn your brain into message-beaten mush. All of the "action" was in identity crises and resolutions. I was never emotionally invested in anyone's outcome.

*Dad, read this and then try to keep telling me that universities and the government have a monopoly on judgment for what ought to be researched and that outside money can only be a corrupting influence...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

octopuses

I think they are my new favorite animal (except for most cat species). They are crazy!

They eat sharks:


They imitate bunches of other, very diverse, species:



And now it looks like they might have an entirely different kind of intelligence* from what we usually think of (in closely-related vertebrates like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins). It's already thought to be the most intelligent invertebrate, but with fully half of its neurons distributed among its arms, it may be that each arm has a separate pseudo-mind of its own.

And learning that there is more than one kind of intelligence even on our own single planet points the way towards even greater diversity on others.

Man, science is so cool.

*Stolen from MR

Friday, November 26, 2010

science and humanities

I'm reading this sort of disappointingly annoying book of essays on "science and the creative spirit." Contrary to the title, it's really about trying to reconcile science and the humanities in the minds of some very humanities-ish* authors who seem to think that they are two different and complementary approaches to attaining truth.

The traditional division of conceit is between hard scientists who scoff at the humanities for being fluff detached from reality, and artistic scholars who scoff at the sciences for being one-dimensional and flat, devoid of the humanity that makes life actually interesting. As a social scientist (albeit with roots in the hard sciences, although mathematics is arguably more of an art than a science as well...) I don't quite fit in with either of those camps, although I subscribe to a modified version of the scientific conceit wholeheartedly: Science is the path to the truth and its object can be the physical universe or the human experience. Anything else is fluff and detached from reality.

Am I missing something there? I'm really trying to be open minded, but honestly that seems so obviously true I can hardly believe anyone who disagrees is entirely mentally healthy...

It's not that there's no value in that aspect of the humanities, of course, just like there's plenty of value in fictional literature and art. But that value is aesthetic, not truth. Yes, everyone experiences the world differently, and those varied thoughts and feelings and our collective consciousnesses and culturally revisionist histories are all truths in themselves. But that doesn't make them true, and the humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of their coexistence. And while we can create many alternate stories to explain actions or events or written words or art, and those stories may be aesthetically pleasing and even internally consistent to varying degrees, that doesn't make them true. The humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of its lack of a requirement of discriminating proof to support those stories, either.

Science is how we learn about the universe, our history, and ourselves. Much of the work done in the name of the humanities or liberal arts is a (usually very informal/sloppy) form of science. The rest is art, which is simply the creation of new experiences that science can later study. Art is not an alternate path to truth, it is an entirely different activity.

*What is the adjective form of humanities??

Friday, November 19, 2010

two completely different but equally great things

First, "It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that." -David Brooks

I don't know squat about macroeconomics (I mean, relative to macroeconomists...) but I agree entirely. Common sense becomes common for a reason. I think any economic analyst that doesn't preface any argument for some kind of emergency stimulus or anything else counterintuitive with an acknowledgment of those core principles comes off like a crazy lost-touch-with-reality dimwitted clown. And frequently, that's a pretty accurate assessment...

Then there's this, which is awesome:


I would bet a whole lot of money that the number one factor in the gender gap in science is that as soon as girls get to middle school, hit puberty, and suddenly start devoting most of their energy to being popular, former interests in math and science go out the window as way too geeky to be their identity anymore. Even the girls who are known as very smart are overwhelming so in a general way, rather than a specifically science way. It's much safer to get straight A's and be in the debate or drama club than the math club.

In this day and age girls never ever hear that they can't be scientists because they're girls. All they hear is "Yes, girls can be scientists! Really, you can! No really!". That's not exactly a convincing argument to a girl who hadn't ever even considered the possibility that girls weren't suited for those jobs (although they might not like them as much.) I grew up in one of the most behind-the-times states in the country and never once thought to myself "Huh, I'm a girl, and I'm a huge science and math geek. That's weird. Maybe I'd be better off loving literature." That is, until those zealous feminists in high school starting cramming that message down my throat...

Schoolmarmy teachers and curmudgeonly old school counselors and empty-platitude-spewing school counselors and totally-uncool-omg parents telling girls "Science is cool! You'll be popular if you're good at math!" will never work. Trust me, you're better off shutting up and letting them hopefully stumble on it on their own.

Nauseatingly-girly cheerleaders in tight spandex and platinum-dyed hair, though? That just might work.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

weird obsessions are interesting

Yes yes yes yes yes!

Yeah, I'm very biased, since I have some really eclectic nonstandard hobbies, and am bored to tears by smalltalk of fancy food, fashion, decorating, conspicuously-highbrow anything, etc. But I also love hearing from anyone else who is passionate and knowledgeable about something unusual. If you're genuinely excited about something, chances are I'll be happy to have you talk my ear off.

Actually, that's probably the real difference between those dull "sophisticated" people and the interesting obsessive ones. If someone is genuinely and openly excited about some obscure Russian author, or about fermenting their own sauerkraut and cheese curds, or anything else that would be incredibly tedious in the context of quippy smalltalk, I'd love to hear about it. It's just the manner of acting that goes with sophistication that is dull.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the U-word

You know you've been studying behavioral economics for too long when you're convinced the ultimatum game is the most complicated game ever invented.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

female writers

I will preface this with one of my biggest pet peeves. That is, the following conversation:

"X's are more Y than Z's"
"What about [exception]?"

Even when I carefully follow those statements with "on average"! Don't you people understand that every distribution is not degenerate??

With that said, male authors are so much better than females. At book club last night someone suggested that since we read a book by a male author last month we should choose something by a female author, and I immediately groaned (along with the five men in the room.) It's not that good books by female authors don't exist, they're just so hard to find. Even the women who look at the world in the same way I do and are objectively amazing writers frequently write awful books because they get sucked into identity politics and use their stories as a platform for advocating against all the injustices they've experienced. Or they feel they have to write all these really horribly feminine stories to fill the gap that men have ignored over the centuries.

So of course there's a stereotype of female writers! "Male writer" doesn't mean squat but "female writer" instantly evokes "sensitive feminist". And I don't like sensitive feminist literature. So of course my list of favorite authors is all male... except for Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia, who reject that stereotype in almost comic proportions...

Therefore, a book club that trades off between male and female writers is going to have a disproportionate fraction of sensitive feminist books. And that's why, while I loved the groups, I hated the books, in both of the two women's book clubs I've been in. And that's also why, if you know of female authors with a male style of writing, please let me know so I can suggest books by her if this gender-balance discussion comes up again =)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

neuroeconomics and trained disgust

I went to a really fascinating seminar on Tuesday by Antonio Rangel of Caltech. At Berkeley, despite our huge, renowned, and varied behavioral economics group, I don't hear too much about the neurobiological bases of decision making. But, much as macroeconomics begs for microeconomic foundations, behavioral economics begs for neurological foundations. Despite spending four years at the university that is at the forefront of that investigation, I apparently had to move somewhere else and be revisited by my past to appreciate that fact.*

This, of course, requires extensive collaboration between biologists and economists, and Rangel, a trained economics, is actually in the "Computation & Neural Systems" department. His talk, filled with intimidating vocabulary like "ventromedial prefrontal cortex", had never before been presented to an audience of economists, and the first 15 minutes or so had to be spent reconciling two paradigms of research. I think these kinds of discussions are incredibly valuable as they spur us to disregard our ingrained thought modes for a minute and take a chance on a different approach. Interdisciplinary research prevents groupthink.

Anyway, the exact subject of the talk was the neurobiology of self-control. I don't want to rehash everything (mostly because I'd embarrass myself with my neurology ignorance), but ultimately the most interesting result was that people who are good at exercising self-control when faced with an option they hedonistically desire but rationally want to avoid have a stronger link between two parts of the brain. The vmPFC is the part that immediately reacts to choices and tells us whether they are good or bad. It sees chocolate and says "WANT!" The other part, the (dorsolateral maybe?)PFC, is a slower rational trigger that considers long term desires and modulates the vmPFC signal. If the dlPFC has a strong link to the vmPFC, it is easier to avoid temptation, because chocolate just doesn't seem as tempting.

I thought that was incredibly cool because it exactly verifies my own intuition for what works in developing good habits. I try to eat healthily and not to overconsume, but it used to be much harder to do that than it is now. Somewhere along the line, my instinctive reaction towards chocolate or fettuccine alfredo switched from "delicious" to "sick to the stomach". (Don't get me wrong, I still LOVE chocolate, and cheese, and cookie dough, and doritos, and and and you get the idea, but only a little at a time...) Same applies to spending money, procrastination, keeping my room livable, etc. Ok, I am still a huge unsanitary slob (germs that don't kill you make you stronger!) but it almost hurts to spend money and if anywhere close to pushing a deadline I get overwhelmed by anxiety.

The problem is that this 'method' (other than being hard to develop) only seems to apply to avoiding temptation, rather than seeking out good investments. The only way I ever get any exercise is when I one-sidedly bet a friend that I will, as a commitment device. I don't seek out enough research grants or collaboration partners (or even just classmates to bounce ideas off of.) I don't get out and see creatures other than my roommate, boyfriend, and cats unless thoroughly prodded (I promise I'm not crazy, I was like that long before I had three cats...) And good luck making me get up before 11am on a regular basis.

So, I'm doing an experiment. Exercise is the most important of those things to me right now (I rarely mind being a recluse, don't have large research expenses yet, and I work really well at night when the rest of the world is sleeping.) So, I set up DDR in a constantly-easily-accessible place in my bedroom, bought a cheap craigslist treadmill, and bet my boyfriend that any week I don't run at least x miles (I'm setting the initial bar so low that I don't want to reveal it...) I have to take him out to dinner at his favorite Ethiopian restaurant. And I'm announcing all this in a really public place.

More importantly, I'm trying really hard to focus on how good it feels to be mildly sore the day after running hard, how awake and energetic you feel the rest of the day after playing DDR for an hour, and how good it feels to take a shower after dripping with sweat and go back to work all fresh and in clean clothes. And how as long as I'm on the treadmill I can watch stupid TV shows completely guilt free...

Hopefully, brains are directly manipulable even when aware of being manipulated.

*I was an undergrad at Caltech, and am therefore very biased on the subject. However, I am terrible at biology and never tried to get involved in neuroeconomics research, aside from as a lab subject, so I promise I'm not just advocating for my former professors. In fact, sadly, Antonio Rangel arrived just as I left so I never had the opportunity to be swept into his big enthusiastic bubble of influence.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

gamma ray bubbles

It's not every day that astrophysics makes the "top stories" widget on my igoogle. This is freaking awesome. That link has a neat animation and shows the actual data as well.

(Two huge energy bubbles half the length of the entire galaxy, of unknown origin, exploding out of the center of the Milky Way.)



That NASA article linked above is great if you want some substance. But the NYT article was entertaining in a completely different, hilarious, way...:
“They’re big,” said Doug Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, leader of the team that discovered them.

“Wow,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who was not involved in the work.
My only guess for why those quotes would be included is that there is some kind of ongoing prank on scientists, trying to make them look as dumb as humanly possible in the popular press...

Monday, November 8, 2010

the dismal science

The "economists as soulless money-grubbers" stereotype I don't think usually extends to "economists as soulless scientists manipulating human lab rats" but this title almost sounds like it. I love it =)


The abstract reverts to the term "peer group", which makes more sense in terms of feasibility. The title, I'm sure, is meant (in a somewhat drolly self-aware manner) to point out how cool it is that randomized peer groups allow causal identification even though true 'randomly assigned friends' are impossible. But I don't think noneconomists would necessarily read it that way.

As for the euphemism "dismal science", let's please set the record straight on its origin...

Thomas Carlyle coined the term in 1850 in the context of criticizing economics for justifying black emancipation, in what is the most phenomenal racist diatribe I've ever encountered. He called economics a rueful science "which finds the secret of this universe in 'supply-and-demand', and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." And in the West Indies, where fruits were plentiful and black men, the "indolent, two-legged cattle", could allegedly live happily with little labor, the outcome of this law of supply and demand infuriated Carlyle, as "no black man, who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be, but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by the real proprietors of said land, to do competent work for his living."

Sounds more like the optimistic, uplifting, confidence-inspiring, life-affirming science to me!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

blogs should be on point?

Various blogs I read periodically offer "advice" to "serious" bloggers (the one who have delusions of riches). And they all start with "pick a subject, and write about that subject, all the time." Is it just me or is that really terrible advice? Blogs about specific subjects get tiring really quickly and I only stay subscribed to them for a couple months. But my favorites are really varied, even if the posts superficially relate back to a common theme. Marginal Revolution, NYT Opinion (ok that's not a blog, but same principle...), Freakonomics, Penelope Trunk, and Steven Landsburg are probably my favorites right now (and have been for ages and ages) and they all fall in that category.

I think people's interests are usually correlated well enough that some variety will attract more people than it bores.

I guess the exception is for blogs that are a source of news. I will stay subscribed to the Fifth Down football blog, the Farnam Street behavioral econ blog that mostly posts new research, an amateur astronomy event blog (if I can find a good one...) and a news blog (again, if I can find a good one that isn't all commentary and only posts the major headlines...)

Friday, November 5, 2010

I hate politics

Thank god midterm elections are over.

I don't really have much to say except that I am SO SICK of hearing about party strategy, campaign tactics, painfully embarrassing Christine O'Donnell videos, Washington rallies, tea parties, media speculation, ridiculous rhetoric about bipartisanship and mandates that magically materialize when vote shares jump from 49.999% to 50, good politicians being martyred for virtuous actions, bad politicians being elevated for hogging the microphone, character attacks, moralizing about pragmatic issues, fingerpointing, and the fact that everyone around me is continually ranting about how idiotic party/person X is. And especially the fact that about 30% of the time I don't agree (at least with the logic, if not the conclusion) and it's really bad for my blood pressure...

The only race that really held my interest was Prop 19. No, not because I'm a pothead... just because the pyrrhic war on a basically harmless drug exemplifies every characteristic of bad government. In early October intrade.com was showing a very high probability of it passing, which got me all excited, so the 54-46 defeat was pretty disappointing (the intrade market dropped precipitously before the election, but I didn't see that ahead of time...)

I don't want to elaborately restate all the arguments in favor of legalization (decreased law enforcement costs, getting nonviolent 'criminals' out of the overcrowded prisons, increased tax revenues, a safer regulated market, a much smaller black market potentially leading to less drug abuse by underage consumers, less violence and fewer accidents as men substitute weed for alcohol, etc etc etc...) The most important thing is that in a free society, the burden of proof is on those who want to decrease freedom, and that burden has not nearly been met. I also think that victimless crimes are not crimes and that "nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced" but I suspect that unanimity on those truisms is much farther off than on the principles of a free society, so I'll pick my battles.

Sigh. I guess the ultimate reason I hate politics, which applies even when elections are far off and we're debating the real issues, is that it's so dang disheartening.