Archive for February, 2009

Reader Survey Results

By Razib Khan | February 28, 2009 6:54 pm

There are nearly 500 complete responses to the survey from last week. Here’s a CSV file of the results. Below the fold are the frequencies as well as N’s. I might report some trends in the data, but a lot of it is predictable. People who only read ScienceBlogs GNXP are way more liberal than those who do not.

Reads…. Only GNXP ScienceBlogs Only GNXP Classic Both
No Answer 1.83 2.08 2.87
Far Left 13.76 4.17 2.87
Left 28.44 5.56 11.48
Center Left 16.51 10.42 15.31
Center 8.26 6.94 11.00
Center Right 2.75 10.42 11.00
Right 1.83 13.19 10.05
Far Right 0.92 9.03 5.74
Libertarian 20.18 31.94 19.62
Other 5.50 6.25 10.05

Full results below the fold.

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10,000 Year Explosion &

By Razib Khan | February 28, 2009 8:45 am

You can watch me talk to Greg Cochran about his book The 10,000 Year Explosion on this weekend….

There’s something interesting about the front page of right now.

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The Ontology Of Voltron, not Transformers

By Razib Khan | February 27, 2009 12:49 pm

Matt Yglesias says:

There’s no denying that this is a pretty amusing poster. Still, it reminds me that I think the film engaged in a bit of revisionism when it portrayed the Autobots as humanoid-shaped robots capable of change into cars and trucks and so forth. My understanding from my childhood is that we should think of them as car-shaped robots capable of changing into humanoid-shaped ones. After all, they’re called autobots, like automobiles. Their essential property is their car-ishness.

No surprise that Matt is being ahistorical, and relying on analysis of terminology, instead of relying on the facts (his background is in philosophy). As it happens, in the cartoon the Transformers are shown as humanoids on Cybertron, with their transformed state being different! In other words, the constant and essential aspect of Transformers was their humanoid, not their mechanical, form. Additionally naive human psychology does not generally attribute theory of mind to machines, but obviously Transformers were active agents.
voltron.jpgMatt’s argument makes sense with Voltron. This was a mechanical entity whose humanoid form was entirely incidental and cosmetic, and the constituent lions were themselves mechanical objects under human control.


Estonians are not like Finns

By Razib Khan | February 27, 2009 2:09 am

20081001120400!Baltic_Sea_m.jpgPolish Genetics & Anthropology points out that the Estonian Genetics Project is reporting:

The more than 25,000 blood samples collected already make it possible to conduct various background studies. For example, comparing the genetic data of Estonians with other European nations has revealed that Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and some Russians are genetically much more similar to Estonians than the Finns with whom Estonians share a similar language.

The genetic maps I post on now and then are real popular (invariably they are the ones that sites like reddit pick up), but the sample sizes aren’t that big. Often “France” means some patients in a study from Bordeaux and Paris. The goal with the Estonian Genetics Project is to collect 100,000 samples. As it is, there are only 1.25 million speakers of Estonian, so if the project is limited to ethnic Estonians we’re talking about ~10% of all Estonians. For most questions on historical-population size scales I doubt that there is any difference in power between a sample size of 100,000 and 1 million, assuming that it is modestly representative.

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Evolution was racist

By Razib Khan | February 26, 2009 7:12 pm

I just got pointed to Confronting Evolution’s Racists Roots via my RSS. This is a common tactic. And it might work for unsophisticated people on the margins. Just like a tract like “Christianity’s racist past” would also sell. Or, “Socialism’s white supremacist heritage.” But intellectually it’s a rather low-brow tactic. The real question is: Is It True? The racism of European intellectuals and the racialist inferences made from evolutionary theory are of historical interest, but not of scientific ones. It isn’t as if a tract with the title “Jesus Christ, Semitic Supremacist,” would disabuse most Christians of the truth of their faith.
This really doesn’t matter except in a meta sense. Many Intelligent Design proponents want to recast their movement as something separate & distinct from the crass lowbrow methods of Young Earth Creationism. John West, who is flogging Darwin’s racism in the article (and has done so elsewhere) is a fellow at the Discovery Institute. Of course it doesn’t surprise me that they’re going this route, but it confirms.


Chimpanzees are 2 X as strong as humans

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2009 5:25 pm

So says John Hawks in Slate.


Shoot the bankers in the knees?

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2009 3:57 pm

How bank bonuses let us all down:

…Because banking is not about true risks but perceived volatility of returns: you earn a stream of steady bonuses for seven or eight years, then when the losses take place, you are not asked to disburse anything. You might even start again, after blaming a “systemic crisis” or a “black swan” for your losses. As you do not disgorge previous compensation, the incentive is to engage in trades that explode rarely, after a period of steady gains.

If capitalism is about incentives, it should be about true incentives, those resistant to blow-ups. And there should be disincentives to remove the asymmetry of the free option. Entrepreneurs are rewarded for their gains; they are also penalised for their losses. Now, by comparison, consider that Robert Rubin, the former US Treasury secretary, earned close to $115m (€90m, £80m) from Citigroup for taking risks that we are paying for. So far no attempt has been made to claw it back from him – only UBS, the Swiss bank, has managed to reclaim some past bonuses from its former executives.

One of the issues that comes up in predictions about political prospects is that the party in power tends to be buffeted by the business cycle, and receives both the credit and the blame, even though they may only control the dynamic to a modest extent. In this way many of the large financial firms resembled governments; they blew up on the bubble, and now with the collapse it’s rather clear that they didn’t add all the value that they claimed. But as readers have pointed out on an individual level those who received windfalls through a winner-take-all-system have no incentive to avoid risks. I think the chance of non-trivial clawbacks is close to zero (I’ll be happy to be proven wrong!).
The contrast with entrepreneurs is telling. The .com bubble & burst was tragic, but it did produce notable technologies, the seed of later gains in economic productivity. The asset and finance bubble seem unlikely to generate the same positive externalities in the wake of correction of irrational exuberance. But all that being said, even though we are moving past an age of massive economic parasitism due to principle-agent problems the potential engines of productivity through innovation remain. There are still entrepreneurs, and with the shrinking of the financial industry the pool of those who engage in the real game of risk and reward is increasing in size.


Aryan Brazilian twins aren't that exciting

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2009 3:38 pm

A few days ago I mentioned that the story about a bumper crop of twins in a German town in southern Brazil was notable because of the elevated frequency of identical, not fraternal, twins. A reader points out that that was an error, and The New York Times has appended a correction:

The Cândido Godói Journal article on Monday, about the unexplained proliferation of twins born in the farming town of Cândido Godói in southern Brazil, misstated the type of twins usually associated with a genetic tendency of the mother. They are fraternal twins — like a majority of those born in the town. They are not identical twins, which are generally believed to be conceived by chance.

As I noted before, variation between populations and due to environmental inputs that affect twinning rates affect the rate of fraternal, not identical, twins. Inbreeding* or some environmental parameter, or a combination, probably explain this then.
* Since twinning is somewhat heritable, the alleles which modulate twinning rates could have increased in frequency in an inbred population through drift.


More Financial Morons

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2009 3:26 pm

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent smack-down, Financial Morons, and Quadratics vs. Linears. Mark notes:

There’s one minor problem with that argument: it doesn’t work. A couple of weeks ago, some idiot at JP Morgan circulated a chart that was supposed to summarize just how bad the financial disaster has been. The chart circulated for a couple of weeks – bounced from mailbox to mailbox, sent from one financial genius to another.
Only the chart was blatantly, obviously, trivially wrong, and anyone who had the slightest damned clue of the assets those businesses managed - i.e., the kind of thing that the idiot who drew the chart was supposed to know – should have been able to tell at a glance how wrong it was. But they didn’t. In fact, the damned thing didn’t stop circulating until (of all people) Bob Cringely flamed it. Go look at the chart – it’s up at the top of this post.

What Mark is pointing to is a pretty clear cognitive bias in terms of how we humans take in quantitative data presented in graphical form. You don’t have to be a moron, you just have to be processing on the the reflexive and implicit cognitive level. Here’s the problem: people were being paid a lot of money because of their presumed ability to extract themselves out of their animal milieu and operate as rational actors who engaged in reflective analysis. There’s not that much value-add in gut-level intuition. Below the fold is a commercial that anyone who has worked with MBAs might find amusing.

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Culture & cognition (and biology too)

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2009 4:12 am

Just a heads up, the old “AlphaPsy” weblog is now Cognition & Culture. One of the contributors is Dan Sperber, who I interviewed a few years ago.


Moron is as moron does; the dumb money

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2009 8:10 pm

Daniel Gross of Slate has a piece up, Dumb Money: The villains of the financial catastrophe aren’t criminals. They’re morons. I just love the use of the term “morons.” As Gross notes though there was plenty of g to go around, but that didn’t prevent moronic behavior. But, I do think it is worth considering whether the behavior was really that stupid. After all it isn’t as if wizards of high finance are going to go through the same sort of crash toward subsistence or penury of middle class borrowers who recklessly increased consumption during the bubble years. Remember that the individuals at the heart of the colossal f**k-up that was Long Term Capital Management not only avoided personal bankruptcy and remained safely in the upper middle class, but most of them are back working in the financial sector. If you’re a finance type who burns out and drops out of the industry you are likely to have a relatively soft-landing compared to an autoworker who is laid off. Not only do you likely have greater innate intelligence, but you can liquidate assets you’ve accumulated and move far down the consumption ladder without really affecting first-order pleasures proportionality.*

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New method to detect Down Syndrome

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2009 5:23 pm

New Safety, New Concerns In Tests for Down Syndrome:

The new tests take advantage of techniques that can isolate and analyze tiny bits of genetic information from the fetus that circulate in a woman’s bloodstream, in this case from cells or free-floating snippets of DNA or the related molecule RNA.
At least four companies are developing such tests, including Sequenom of San Diego, which plans to be the first on the market in June. The other companies hope to have their versions on the market within a year.
“For 50 years, folks have been working to develop a noninvasive genetic test for Down syndrome,” said Sequenom chief executive Harry Stylii. “People have described it as the Holy Grail of genetic testing. We are on the cusp of delivering that.”
At a meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in San Diego last month, the company reported that results from 858 women showed that its test did not miss a single case of Down syndrome and produced only one false alarm, making it much more accurate than the currently available screening tests and on a par with amniocentesis.

At the current rate Genetic Future should rename itself to Genetic Present.
Related: Down syndrome and abortion rates.


Vitamin D deficiency & respiratory infections

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2009 4:44 pm

Association Between Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Level and Upper Respiratory Tract Infection in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey:

The median serum 25(OH)D level was 29 ng/mL…and 19%…of participants reported a recent URTI

no images were found

. Recent URTI was reported by 24% of participants with 25(OH)D levels less than 10 ng/mL, by 20% with levels of 10 to less than 30 ng/mL, and by 17% with levels of 30 ng/mL or more…Even after adjusting for demographic and clinical characteristics, lower 25(OH)D levels were independently associated with recent URTI (compared with 25[OH]D levels of 30 ng/mL: odds ratio [OR], 1.36; 95% CI, 1.01-1.84 for <10 ng/mL and 1.24; 1.07-1.43 for 10 to <30 ng/mL). The association between 25(OH)D level and URTI seemed to be stronger in individuals with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (OR, 5.67 and 2.26, respectively).

Some caution from ScienceDaily:

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Complex traits and evolution

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2009 12:51 pm

Wings, Horns, and Butterfly Eyespots: How Do Complex Traits Evolve?:

Complex traits require co-ordinated expression of many transcription factors and signaling pathways to guide their development. Creating a developmental program de novo would involve linking many genes one-by-one, requiring each mutation to drift into fixation, or to confer some selective advantage at every intermediate step in order to spread in the population. While this lengthy process is not completely unlikely, it could be circumvented with fewer steps by recruiting a top regulator of an already existing gene network, i.e., by means of gene network co-option. Subsequent modifications of the co-opted network could further optimize its role in the new developmental context.


Kindle Cool

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2009 4:11 am

The Kindle: Good Before, Better Now. A woman was using a Kindle at Starbucks the other day. She really didn’t get much reading done, people kept wanting to talk to her about her Kindle, and look at it themselves. The Kindle will have made it when people can actually use it in a public place without being harassed.


The function that f**ked the world?

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2009 8:20 pm

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street:

In hindsight, ignoring those warnings looks foolhardy. But at the time, it was easy. Banks dismissed them, partly because the managers empowered to apply the brakes didn’t understand the arguments between various arms of the quant universe. Besides, they were making too much money to stop.

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

Pr[TA < 1, TB < 1] = Φ2-1(FA(1)),Φ-1(FB(1),γ)), the Gaussian copula. I’m waiting for the book to come out titled “The World Is Not Normal.” Here’s a PDF of the paper referenced in the article, a quick skim doesn’t suggest that it’s really that opaque a piece of financial mathematics. The problem seems to be the same as with Value at Risk which was profiled in The New York Times Magazine. Long Term Capital Management was claiming regular occurrences of “10 sigma events” when it was going through its meltdown in 1998. Risk has a tail as long and vicious as a Diplodocus.
Update: See comments at Marginal Revolution.


Aryan twins in Brazil

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2009 3:47 pm

sweet-high-valley.jpgMystery of the ‘Land of Twins’: Something in the Water? Mengele?:

There was no evidence of the use of contraceptives or fertility drugs among the women, nor of any genetic mixing with people of African origin, who have higher twinning rates than caucasians, Dr. Matte said. But the rate of identical twins here, at 47 percent of all twin births, is far higher than the 30 percent that is expected in the general population, she found.

The part about monozygotic (identical) vs. dizygotic is strange. I knew about this village, but not the high frequency of identical twins. The between population twinning variance alluded to in that passage usually applies to dizygotic twins. The higher twinning rates of Northern Europeans than Southern Europeans, probably due to higher levels of milk consumption, are because of higher rates of fraternal births. My money is on some environmental factor. Though I would be curious about data which show that monozygotic twinning runs in families….


fMRI is voodoo?

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2009 1:19 pm

Seed Magazine has a nice review of the brewing controversy over shoddy statistical methods in the field of fMRI. To some extent science is politics, this is a sexy and appealing field. A friend of mine who is a psychologist mentioned that though he doesn’t think much of fMRI the head of his lab group wanted to make sure that there was always some neural imaging in their papers to increase the likelihood of acceptance. A few vivid images is worth a lot of turgid prose; even if some of the criticisms of fMRI are overblown I suspect that it was necessary that the field be brought down a few pegs. Here’s Andrew Gelman weighing in:

Conversely, I suspect one of the frustrations of Lieberman et al. is that they are doing a lot more than correlations and fishing expeditions–they’re running experiments to test theories in psychology, they’re trying to synthesize results from many different labs. And from that perspective it must be frustrating for them to see a criticism (featured in the popular press) that is so focused on correlation, which is really the least of their concerns.

In other words, fMRI is good as a part of a well-rounded scientific portfolio, but not as a silver-bullet.


Reader Survey Results, day 1

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2009 7:56 am

Since I asked regular readers to fill out a survey, I’ve received over 300 responses. My own experience with these surveys is that about 50% of the total responses come within 24 hours. Next weekend I’ll put up the .csv file with all the data, and present some of my analyses as well. But below the fold I’ve placed the raw frequency data if you are curious; there isn’t likely to be any major changes in proportions with the next 300 respondents, and there weren’t any great surprises. Here’s a foretaste of weirdness in the survey data that I’ll present next week. 66 respondents claimed they were Muslim or Christian. Of these, here are their attitudes toward the existence of God:
No Answer – 1.52%
Does Not Exist – 12.12%
Skeptical of Existence – 16.7%
Doubtful of Existence – 1.52%
Believe Existence Possible – 24.24%
Beliee Existence Probable – 18.18%
Know God Exists – 19.70%
No Opinion – 6.06%
For comparison, here is two GSS results for all Christians & Muslims on God:
Does Not Exist – 1.2%
Know God Exists – 70%
(For the record, of the 5 Muslims in the GNXP readership, only 1 knew God existed, and 3 were atheists or agnostics on the God question!)

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The original Hitler cat

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2009 4:14 am

socksii.gifObit Magazine has a fascinating rumination on the life & times of Socks Currie-Clinton:

One of the most telling political photographs of the past few decades is a snapshot of a cat. Against an unassuming suburban backdrop, the picture shows a black-and-white feline crouched on a sidewalk while an equipment-laden quintet of photographers close in. The paparazzi, it turned out, had lured the cat outside so they could get the shot all America wanted to see. It was November of 1992, and that animal’s owner, Bill Clinton, had just been elected president of the United States.


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