Friday, June 26, 2020

Friday Night Links

  • This "little model that could" is proving to be the no-pay, no-fame, no-acceptance academic-mathematical equivalent of, say, some college undergraduate inventing an optimal radio receiver frequency arrangement, now in use by the circuitry of your smartphone, as part of an independent senior project he decided to work on weekend after weekend a quarter century ago. [Ed Suominen]
  • Over the past two weeks, what began as a simple new usage example to include with my free, open-source evolutionary parameter-finding software wound up turning into something of a ghoulish personal challenge: to identify a statistically plausible mathematical model that would fit decently with the exploding numbers of reported Covid-19 cases in my beloved but increasingly broken country, the United States of America. I've made lots of refinements to the code and its underlying modeling over that time, and discussed that along with some projections (accompanied by important disclaimers, which also apply here) along the way in my blog posts of March 19, March 22, and March 25. Along the way, I tried several different approaches to modeling this thing: the logistic growth model, the power law with exponential decay, and even a linear combination of the two, always accompanied by a small linear term. What increasingly intrigued and frustrated me, though, was the inability of any of those models to deal with a slight "flattening of the curve" that has become apparent in the U.S. national numbers of recent days. [Ed Suominen]
  • More often than not, the best art to apply against a patent has not been cited in the portfolio. Deep neural network sentence encoders can be a very powerful tool to help you automate the process of reviewing and applying an inhuman number of potential invalidating references against patent claims in a short period of time. [JDBIP]
  • In my prior article “Validity and the Duty of Candor”, I discuss the importance of filing Information Disclosure Statements during prosecution of patent applications for satisfying the duty of candor under 37 CFR 1.56.    The benefits of comprehensive art citations also can help include strengthening the patent against the prior art:      establishing the state of the art at the time of the invention, and      strengthening the resulting issued patent if issued issue in view of and with consideration of the art.  In other words, with more comprehensive art citations during prosecution, a patent will be more likely to withstand attacks under 35 USC 102 and 35 USC 103.  That is, so long as these citations are helpful to the Examiner, and the public (and not merely overwhelming). [JDBIP]
  • China has a highly unusual business environment- the government is currently holding 2 Canadians hostage to benefit a private company (Huawei). Those with the right connections regularly use government resources for their own benefit. As far as investing in Chinese stocks go, it is a trap for foreign capital: Massive fraud. The CCP encourages mainlanders to be racist, nationalist, and xenophobic. Because of state-sponsored racism and xenophobia, there are far fewer (or no) consequences when somebody cheats a foreigner versus an ethnic Han Chinese citizen. The CCP often exploits foreign capital and sponsors the theft of intellectual property. Relations between the CCP and most developed countries will deteriorate because the CCP has been increasingly antagonistic towards other countries. The resulting trade wars will hurt China's economy and make the environment sketchier for foreign capital. [Glenn Chan]
  • This newsletter has historically been Bon Appétit's Letter from the Editor. Until we have a new editor in chief, the BA and Epicurious staff will use this platform to update you on the work we're doing to address racism and biases at the brands, both internally and in our editorial coverage. This week, BA's research director Joey Hernandez talks about how we're auditing our existing recipes to add cultural context and address appropriation and tokenization. [Bon Appétit]
  • So, I kind of deleted the blog. Sorry. Here's my explanation. Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex. He told me it would be a mostly positive piece about how we were an interesting gathering place for people in tech, and how we were ahead of the curve on some aspects of the coronavirus situation. It probably would have been a very nice article. Unfortunately, he told me he had discovered my real name and would reveal it in the article, ie doxx me. "Scott Alexander" is my real first and middle name, but I've tried to keep my last name secret. I haven't always done great at this, but I've done better than "have it get printed in the New York Times". [SSC]
  • Non-fiction writers can have careers where they churn out 4/5 and 5/5 books, like John McPhee. (He has a stellar batting average.) Fiction writers do not seem to have this ability. (This may have to do with the fact that fiction is autobiographical and people only have one biography, hence only one good story in them at most.) Stephenson lives in Seattle on Lake Washington. It turns out he is (or has become) a tiresome shitlib. He thinks if left to their own devices, rural Americans (in Iowa!) would spray gunfire like opium addled Afghans, and also literally crucify people for minor violations of the Old Testament. He calls it "Ameristan." He thinks the biggest problem with the internet is that it is not sufficiently censored; that people in "Ameristan" are allowed to use social media for "shared hallucinations". [CBS]
  • All health, beauty, intelligence, and social grace has been teased from a vast butcher's yard of unbounded carnage, requiring incalculable eons of massacre to draw forth even the subtlest of advantages. This is not only a matter of the bloody grinding mills of selection, either, but also of the innumerable mutational abominations thrown up by the madness of chance, as it pursues its directionless path to some negligible preservable trait, and then — still further — of the unavowable horrors that 'fitness' (or sheer survival) itself predominantly entails. We are a minuscule sample of agonized matter, comprising genetic survival monsters, fished from a cosmic ocean of vile mutants, by a pitiless killing machine of infinite appetite. (This is still, perhaps, to put an irresponsibly positive spin on the story, but it should suffice for our purposes here.) [Nick Land]


Allan Folz said...

I never followed SSC closely. His synopsis of Albion's Seed was excellent, but that's all I specifically remember of his writing. It was also something I enjoyed reading more than once. I have it saved to my Amazon personal docs by way of "Push to Kindle," which is fortunate.

Interestingly enough, his is not the first content I did that with out of convenience, and then later it proved to be fortuitous as the blog was shutdown without warning by its owner. I know this is not new to anyone, but I always find it jarring when content on the internet is removed. I reckon that's a discussion for another day.

If anyone remembers the Albion's Seed synopsis and wants a copy, let me know. I've seen people sharing links to archives of his entire site on twitter. Maybe it won't be so hard to come by. For that matter, it could also be on the Internet Wayback machine. I haven't looked.

CP said...

He (or his commenters) made it into my links a number of times:

*His model imagines three kinds of people: naives, radicals, and moderates. At the start of a cycle, most people are naive, with a few radicals. Radicals gradually spread radicalism, either by converting their friends or provoking their enemies (eg a terrorist attack by one side convinces previously disengaged people to join the other side). This spreads like any other epidemic. But as violence gets worse, some people convert to "moderates", here meaning not "wishy-washy people who don't care" but something more like "people disenchanted with the cycle of violence, determined to get peace at any price". Moderates suppress radicals, but as they die off most people are naive and the cycle begins again. Using various parameters for his model Turchin claims this predicts the forty-to-sixty year cycle of violence observed in the data. So this is the basic thesis of Secular Cycles. Pre-industrial history operates on two cycles: first, a three-hundred year cycle of the rise-and-fall of civilizations. And second, a 40-60 year cycle of violent disorder that only becomes relevant during the lowest parts of the first cycle.

*It's becoming increasingly clear that a big (maybe the biggest) risk factor for coronavirus transmission is speaking. Singing is even worse. The louder you speak or sing, the worse it gets. Some confirmed early superspreader events were choirs. A lot of others were churches, where everyone gets together and sings hymns full-blast. This person's explanation for the surprisingly low rate of subway-mediated transmission in Japan is that nobody talks on a Japanese subway. All this makes sense. Coronavirus has mostly droplet transmission. There are three ways to get droplets: coughing, sneezing, or talking/singing. You do one of those about a thousand times more often than either of the others.

*Many Indo-European languages use euphemisms for "bear", sometime several layers of euphemism, because of a fear that speaking the bear's true name might summon it. The English word "bear" is a euphemism originally meaning "brown one". Inside the quest to reconstruct the bear's True Name.

*There are rich people, and then there are rich people. Leonardo Dicaprio is the former but not the latter. His net worth is $245 million according to some Googling, and yet even he is willing to hang out with some nerdy, awkward guy for money. This is something the book brings up a lot - even people accustomed to wealth, like Paris Hilton who was born an heiress, were simply astounded by Jho Low's spending habits. He would show up at a club and just spend more than everybody. He would bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on single hands of poker. He would hand out handbags worth tens of thousands of dollars to random girls at parties. He would send strangers private jets to give them lifts. There is a level of wealth that even the wealthy can't resist.

CP said...


*You don't do many RCTs on the effectiveness of masks during viral outbreaks for the same reason you don't do many RCTs on the effectiveness of parachutes during plane crashes. I know of no Western IRB that would approve a study like that. That's Tuskegee lab-level stuff. The thing is, we don't need a clinical RCT to make valid conclusions about mask effectiveness. It's directly observable. Take a white sheet of paper and cough into it. Put a mask on and do the same thing. Count the droplets deposited. There you have it, masks work. If the number of droplets is less when you're wearing a mask, that means those droplets aren't on a doorknob or somebody else's face. This should be enough for everybody who thinks about it for a second, but some people work themselves into an epistemic lockup.

*One way this should affect us Westerners is by making us worried that an Asian-style containment strategy wouldn't work here. The evidence in favor of such a strategy is that it worked in a bunch of Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But if there's something about wealthy orderly mask-wearing Asian societies that makes them mysteriously immune to the pandemic, maybe their containment strategies aren't really that impressive. Maybe they just needed a little bit of containment to tip them over the edge. I don't know, things sure seemed bad in South Korea a few weeks ago (and in Wuhan). I am so boggled by this that I don't know what to think.

*However admirable his attempts to reverse the Depression, stabilize banking, etc, he drew the line at a national dole for the Depression's victims. This was one of FDR's chief accusations against him, and it was entirely correct. Hoover suspected that going down that route would lead pretty much where it led Roosevelt – to a dectupling of the size of government and the abandonment of the Constitutional vision of a small federal government presiding over substantially autonomous states. He decided it wasn't worth it. So Herbert Hoover, history's greatest philanthropist and ender-of-famines, would go down in history as the guy who refused to feed starving people. And they hated him for it.

*My guess is the reason we can't prescribe bromantane is the same reason we can't prescribe melatonin and we can't prescribe fish oil without the charade of calling it LOVAZA™®©. The FDA won't approve a treatment unless some drug company has invested a billion dollars in doing a lot of studies about it. It doesn't count if some foreign scientists already did a bunch of studies. It doesn't count if millions of Russians have been using the drug for decades and are by and large still alive. You've got to have the entire thing analyzed by the FDA and then rejected at the last second without explanation. Absent an extremely strong patent on the drug there's no reason a drug company would want to go forward with all of this. I don't know what the legalities of buying Russian drug rights from Russian companies are, but I expect they're complicated and that pharmaceutical companies have made a reasoned decision not to bother.

*What Intellectual Progress Did I Make In The 2010s? One of the best parts of writing a blog is being able to answer questions like this. Whenever I felt like I understood new and important, I wrote a post about it. This makes it easy to track what I learned. I think the single most important thing I discovered this decade (due to a random comment in the SSC subreddit!) was the predictive coding theory of the brain.

CP said...

*My (very wild) guess is that in the end psychiatric disorders will mostly turn out to be computational conditions. That is, something like "the learning rate of this system is set too high" or "the threshold for errors in this error-detector is too low". There will be lots of different things that will cause that, from biological (because these computations are implemented on biological systems including the usual range of things like serotonin and dopamine and synapses) to psychological (because the brain is plastic enough that its computational parameters can change with experience) to environmental (because if you pour a bucket of battery acid onto a computer, probably its computational parameters will change in some way). This is just my personal bias towards computational explanations speaking, and it could be that these disorders will be better explained by regional stories (ie "the amygdala is broken" or "the hippocampus is broken"), by biochemical stories ("there's too much serotonin"), by structural stories ("there are too few synapses"), by some combination of these, by something totally different, or by something that's on a totally different level than any of this.

*In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain. And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn't do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.

*Dopamine is mildly toxic. The body is usually pretty good at protecting itself, but the mechanism fails under stress; this is why too much methamphetamine rots your brain. Why would you use a toxic chemical as a neurotransmitter? For the same reason you would use antiparasitic drugs – because you want to kill anything smaller than you that tries to synthesize it.

*Everything happens faster these days. It took Christianity three hundred years to go from Christ to Constantine. It only took fifty for gay pride to go from the Stonewall riots to rainbow-colored gay bracelets urging you to support your local sheriff deparment.

CP said...

*Only a few visionaries considered the hypothesis that the most complex and subtle of human traits might depend on more than one protein? Only the boldest revolutionaries dared to ask whether maybe cystic fibrosis was not the best model for the entirety of human experience? This side of the veil, instead of looking for the "gene for intelligence", we try to find "polygenic scores". Given a person's entire genome, what function best predicts their intelligence? The most recent such effort uses over a thousand genes and is able to predict 10% of variability in educational attainment. This isn't much, but it's a heck of a lot better than anyone was able to do under the old "dozen genes" model, and it's getting better every year in the way healthy paradigms are supposed to. Genetics is interesting as an example of a science that overcame a diseased paradigm. For years, basically all candidate gene studies were fake. "How come we can't find genes for anything?" was never as popular as "where's my flying car?" as a symbol of how science never advances in the way we optimistically feel like it should. But it could have been. And now it works. What lessons can we draw from this, for domains that still seem disappointing and intractable? Turn-of-the-millennium behavioral genetics was intractable because it was more polycausal than anyone expected. Everything interesting was an excruciating interaction of a thousand different things.

*It sure looks like the Industrial Revolution was a big deal. But Paul Christiano argues your eyes may be deceiving you. That graph is a hyperbola, ie corresponds to a single simple equation. There is no break in the pattern at any point. If you transformed it to a log doubling time graph, you'd just get the graph above that looks like a straight line until 1960. On this view, the Industiral Revolution didn't change historical GDP trends. It just shifted the world from a Malthusian regime where economic growth increased the population to a modern regime where economic growth increased per capita income. For the entire history of the world until 1000, GDP per capita was the same for everyone everywhere during all historical eras. An Israelite shepherd would have had about as much stuff as a Roman farmer or a medieval serf.

*We were too tired to think much about it that evening, but the next day we – Brad and the two remaining members of the coding team – had a meeting. We talked about what we had. Blake gave it its name: Shiri's Scissor. In some dead language, scissor shares a root with schism. A scissor is a schism-er, a schism-creator. And that was what we had. We were going to pivot from online advertising to superweapons. We would call the Pentagon. Tell them we had a program that could make people hate each other. Was this ethical? We were in online ads; we would sell our grandmothers to Somali slavers if we thought it would get us clicks. That horse had left the barn a long time ago. It's hard to just call up the Pentagon and tell them you have a superweapon. Even in Silicon Valley, they don't believe you right away. But Brad called in favors from his friends, and about a week after David and Shiri got fired, we had a colonel from DARPA standing in the meeting room, asking what the hell we thought was so important.

*Maybe you've heard of Buran, the Soviet space shuttle. But maybe you didn't know the story behind why it was built. NASA screwed up the space shuttle design process so completely that it was a bad match for pretty much all of its stated goals. The Soviets figured the Americans couldn't really be that stupid, and so the shuttle project must just be a cover story for some amazing secret military capability America expected from having a space plane. They decided to build an exact replica so that after the amazing secret military capability was revealed, they could do whatever it was too.

CP said...

*Perfectly reasonable hypotheses get attacked as conspiracy theories, derailing the discussion into arguments over when you're allowed to use the phrase. These arguments are surprisingly tough. Which of the following do you think should be classified as "conspiracy theories"? Which ones are so deranged that people espousing them should be excluded from civilized discussion?

*For example, one might try to test the Copernican vs. Ptolemaic worldviews by observing the parallax of the fixed stars over the course of a year. Copernicus predicts it should be visible; Ptolemy predicts it shouldn't be. It isn't, which means either the Earth is fixed and unmoving, or the stars are unutterably unimaginably immensely impossibly far away. Nobody expected the stars to be that far away, so advantage Ptolemy. Meanwhile, the Copernicans posit far-off stars in order to save their paradigm. What looked like a test to select one paradigm or the other has turned into a wedge pushing the two paradigms even further apart.

*To oversimplify: fast strategies (think "live fast, die young") are well-adapted for unpredictable dangerous environments. Each organism has a pretty good chance of randomly dying in some unavoidable way before adulthood; the species survives by sheer numbers. Fast organisms should grow up as quickly as possible in order to maximize the chance of reaching reproductive age before they unpredictably die. They should mate with anybody around, to maximize the chance of mating before they unpredictably die. They should ignore their offspring, since they expect most offspring to unpredictably die, and since they have too many to take care of anyway. They should be willing to take risks, since the downside (death without reproducing) is already their default expectation, and the upside (becoming one of the few individuals to give birth to the 10,000 offspring of the next generation) is high.

*A lot of commonly-accepted social norms (especially among Blue Tribe, but also in religious Red Tribe settings) have to do with safeguarding against flagrant assholes and sociopaths, but catch overthinking nerd types in the net.

*For most of recorded history, almost every human was a subsistence farmer, likely under-using their cognitive abilities, yet no middle-paying jobs materialized to use their full potential. Then, during the first century or so of the industrial revolution, most people in industrialized countries were assembly line workers, jobs even less cognitively demanding than subsistence farming, and still no middle-paying jobs appeared until most of that low-skilled factory work could be automated. There is nothing in standard economic theory that predicts that jobs that allow average people to use their full cognitive ability should exist and pay middle-class wages. In fact, there is nothing that predicts that a middle-class should exist.

Allan Folz said...

True or false: SSC had the smartest median commenter of any blog with more than 30 commenters?