What’s a fire alarm for?

March 17th, 2018

What is the function of a fire alarm?

One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.

(I’ve read a number of replications and variations on this research, and the effect size is blatant. I would not expect this to be one of the results that dies to the replication crisis, and I haven’t yet heard about the replication crisis touching it. But we have to put a maybe-not marker on everything now.)

A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.

But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.

That’s Eliezer Yudkowsky leading up to his real point, that there’s no fire alarm for Artificial General Intelligence.

How psychopaths see the world

March 16th, 2018

A new study looks at how psychopaths see the world:

Here are people who can understand what their victims are thinking but just don’t care. Hence their actions. But Baskin-Sommers found that there’s more to their minds than it seems.

Most of us mentalize automatically. From infancy, other minds involuntarily seep into our own. The same thing, apparently, happens less strongly in psychopaths. By studying the Connecticut inmates, Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues, Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, showed that these people can deliberately take another person’s perspective, but on average, they don’t automatically do so to the extent that most other people do. “This is the first time we’re seeing evidence that psychopaths don’t have this automatic ability that most of us have,” Baskin-Sommers says.


The U.S. prison system doesn’t assess psychopathy at intake, so Baskin-Sommers administered a standard test herself to 106 male inmates from the Connecticut prison. Of them, 22 proved to be psychopaths, 28 were not, and the rest fell in a gray zone.


The psychopaths proved to be “glib, narcissistic, and conniving,” she adds. “They can be aggressive, and they like to tell us gruesome details of murders, I think to shock us. But it’s not like that all the time. They do a lot of impression management.”

After assessing the 106 volunteers, she then gave them a computer-based task. They saw a picture of a human avatar in prison khakis, standing in a room, and facing either right or left. There were either two red dots on the wall in front of the avatar, or one dot in front of them and one dot behind them. Their job was to verify how many dots either they or the avatar could see.

Normally, people can accurately say how many dots the avatar sees, but they’re slower if there are dots behind the avatar. That’s because what they see (two dots) interferes with their ability to see through the avatar’s eyes (one dot). This is called egocentric interference. But they’re also slower to say how many dots they can see if that number differs from the avatar’s count. This shows how readily humans take other perspectives: Volunteers are automatically affected by the avatar’s perspective, even when it hurts their own performance. This is called altercentric interference.

Baskin-Sommers found that the psychopathic inmates showed the usual level of egocentric interference — that is, their own perspective was muscling in on the avatar’s. But they showed much less altercentric interference than the other inmates — the avatar’s perspective wasn’t messing with their own, as it would for most other people.

This sounds a bit like another condition:

Other groups of people also show differences in their theory of mind. For example, in one study, Frith asked people to predict where a girl might search for a marble that had been moved without her knowledge. The onlookers knew the marble’s whereabouts, so could they override their own knowledge to step into the girl’s shoes? Eye-tracking software revealed that neurotypical adults look at the same place the girl would, but people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to. They don’t seem to spontaneously anticipate others’ actions. “It is a bit worrying if [Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues] are proposing the very same underlying mechanism to explain callousness in psychopathy that we used previously to explain communication problems in autism, albeit based on a different test,” Frith says. “These are very different conditions, after all.”

Giving us what we actually pay attention to

March 15th, 2018

Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker looks at Reddit and the struggle to detoxify the Internet:

The_Donald, with more than half a million subscribers, is by far the biggest pro-Trump subreddit, but it ranks just below No. 150 on the list of all subreddits; it’s roughly the same size as r/CryptoCurrency and r/ComicBooks. “Some people on The_Donald are expressing their genuine political beliefs, and obviously that’s something we want to encourage,” Huffman said. “Others are maybe not expressing sincere beliefs, but are treating it more like a game—If I post this ridiculous or offensive thing, can I get people to upvote it? And then some people, to quote ‘The Dark Knight,’ just want to watch the world burn.” On some smaller far-right subreddits, the discourse is more unhinged. One, created in July of 2016, was called r/Physical_Removal. According to its “About Us” section, it was a subreddit for people who believe that liberals “qualify to get a helicopter ride.” “Helicopter ride,” an allusion to Augusto Pinochet’s reputed habit of throwing Communists out of helicopters, is alt-right slang for murder.

The_Donald accounts for less than one per cent of Reddit’s traffic, but it occupies far more than one per cent of the Reddit-wide conversation. Trolls set a cunning trap. By ignoring their provocations, you risk seeming complicit. By responding, you amplify their message. Trump, perhaps the world’s most skilled troll, can get attention whenever he wants, simply by being outrageous. Traditional journalists and editors can decide to resist the bait, and sometimes they do, but that option isn’t available on user-generated platforms. Social-media executives claim to transcend subjectivity, and they have designed their platforms to be feedback machines, giving us not what we claim to want, nor what might be good for us, but what we actually pay attention to.

There are no good solutions to this problem, and so tech executives tend to discuss it as seldom as possible, and only in the airiest of platitudes. Twitter has rebuffed repeated calls to ban President Trump’s account, despite his many apparent violations of company policy. (If tweeting that North Korea “won’t be around much longer” doesn’t break Twitter’s rule against “specific threats of violence,” it’s not clear what would.) Last fall, on his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg addressed—sort of, obliquely—the widespread critique that his company was exacerbating political polarization. “We’ll keep working to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy,” he wrote, then stepped away as a global howl of frustration grew in the comments.

I asked a few social-media executives to talk to me about all this. I didn’t expect definitive answers, I told them; I just wanted to hear them think through the questions. Unsurprisingly, no one jumped at the chance. Twitter mostly ignored my e-mails. Snapchat’s P.R. representatives had breakfast with me once, then ignored my e-mails. Facebook’s representatives talked to me for weeks, asking precise, intelligent questions, before they started to ignore my e-mails.

Reddit has more reason to be transparent. It’s big, but doesn’t feel indispensable to most Internet users or, for that matter, to most advertisers. Moreover, Anderson Cooper’s CNN segment was hardly the only bit of vividly terrible press that Reddit has received over the years. All social networks contain vitriol and bigotry, but not all social networks are equally associated with these things in the public imagination. Recently, I typed “Reddit is” into Google. Three of the top suggested auto-completions were “toxic,” “cancer,” and “hot garbage.”

A proton battery combines the best aspects of hydrogen fuel cells and conventional batteries

March 14th, 2018

Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia have produced a working-prototype proton battery, which combines the best aspects of hydrogen fuel cells and battery-based electrical power:

The latest version combines a carbon electrode for solid-state storage of hydrogen with a reversible fuel cell to provide an integrated rechargeable unit.

The successful use of an electrode made from activated carbon in a proton battery is a significant step forward and is reported in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

During charging, protons produced by water splitting in a reversible fuel cell are conducted through the cell membrane and directly bond with the storage material with the aid of electrons supplied by the applied voltage, without forming hydrogen gas.

In electricity supply mode this process is reversed; hydrogen atoms are released from the storage and lose an electron to become protons once again. These protons then pass back through the cell membrane where they combine with oxygen and electrons from the external circuit to re-form water.

A major potential advantage of the proton battery is much higher energy efficiency than conventional hydrogen systems, making it comparable to lithium ion batteries. The losses associated with hydrogen gas evolution and splitting back into protons are eliminated.

Several years ago the RMIT team showed that a proton battery with a metal alloy electrode for storing hydrogen could work, but its reversibility and rechargeability was too low. Also the alloy employed contained rare-earth elements, and was thus heavy and costly.

The latest experimental results showed that a porous activated-carbon electrode made from phenolic resin was able to store around 1 wt% hydrogen in the electrode. This is an energy per unit mass already comparable with commercially-available lithium ion batteries, even though the proton battery is far from being optimised. The maximum cell voltage was 1.2 volt.

Waking up to hidden motives

March 13th, 2018

I haven’t read The Elephant in the Brain (yet), but I enjoyed Robin Hanson’s talk with Sam Harris about hidden motives:

They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

I especially enjoyed the misguided questions from the audience.

Let’s talk about bombs for a minute

March 13th, 2018

Let’s talk about bombs for a minute, Greg Ellifritz suggests:

This week, a Utah high school student was arrested after he attempted to detonate a large backpack bomb in his school. Luckily, the bomb malfunctioned and the school was evacuated before anyone was hurt.

Those of you who have taken my “Response to a Terrorist Bombing” class might remember how I discussed that in worldwide terrorist events, the trend is moving more and more towards combining bombs and guns in the attack.

If you find yourself in the middle of a mass shooting, you must be prepared for the coming bomb blasts. If you survive a bomb blast, you must be looking out for people with guns shooting up the evacuation site. That’s simply the reality of modern terrorist attacks worldwide.

This particular incident had only a bombing component (likely because it was committed by a lone high school student without any true support of a terrorist network). I predict we will see more and more of these as well.

After the Las Vegas concert shooting and the Florida school shooting, people are becoming more conscious of the potential carnage that can be inflicted by a deranged gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a lot of ammunition. There are currently multiple social and political pressures being applied to limit the purchase and/or possession of these rifles. While I don’t personally think that tactic will be effective at reducing mass casualties in a terrorist attack, I believe it will become harder and harder to legally acquire semi-automatic rifles in the future.

What will the terrorist resort to if he can’t get a rifle and lots of ammo? You guessed it…bombs. Look at terrorist attacks worldwide. In countries with very strict gun control, we see terrorists use bombs more often. Bombs are easy to make and can cause massive casualties if placed in the right location at the right time. Bombs also bring a disproportionate amount of media attention, which is exactly what the killers and terrorists crave.

If you predict that semi-automatic rifles will become harder to legally acquire in the future, then you have to be prepared for more terrorist bombing incidents.

Be careful what you wish for.

The culture will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself

March 12th, 2018

Amazon Studios recently announced plans to adapt the first novel of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series, Consider Phlebas.

Philosophy professor Joseph Heath offers an appreciations of Banks’ Culture:

In this context, what distinguishes Banks’s work is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has also driven changes in the social structure, such that the social and political challenges people confront are new. Indeed, Banks distinguishes himself in having thought carefully about the social and political consequences of technological development. For example, once a society has semi-intelligent drones that can be assigned to supervise individuals at all times, what need is there for a criminal justice system? Thus in the Culture, an individual who commits a sufficiently serious crime is assigned — involuntarily — a “slap drone,” who simply prevents that person from committing any crime again. Not only does this reduce recidivism to zero, the prospect of being supervised by a drone for the rest of one’s life also serves as a powerful deterrent to crime.

This is an absolutely plausible extrapolation from current trends — even just looking at how ankle monitoring bracelets work today. But it also raises further questions. For instance, once there is no need for a criminal justice system, one of the central functions of the state has been eliminated. This is one of the social changes underlying the political anarchism that is a central feature of the Culture. There is, however, a more fundamental postulate. The core feature of Banks’s universe is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has freed culture from all functional constraints — and thus, he imagines a situation in which culture has become purely memetic. This is perhaps the most important idea in his work, but it requires some unpacking.

The term “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to articulate some cultural equivalent to the role that the “gene” plays in biological evolution.2 The basic building-block of life for Dawkins, one may recall, is “the replicator,” understood simply as “that which reproduces itself.” His key observation is that one can find replicators not just in the biological sphere, but in human social behaviour. In many cases, these “memes” produce obvious benefits to their host, so it is not difficult to see how they succeed in reproducing themselves — consider, for instance, the human practice of using fire to cook food, which is reproduced culturally. In other cases, however, cultural patterns get reproduced, not because they offer any particular benefits — in some cases they are even costly to the host — but because they have a particularly effective “trick,” when it comes to getting themselves reproduced.


Historically, in this process of competition among cultures, a dominant source of competitive advantage has been the ability to promote a desirable social structure, or an effective system of cooperation. Consider the enormous influence that Roman culture exercised in the West. The fact that, one thousand years after the fall of Rome, schoolboys were still memorizing Cicero, the Justinian code remained de facto law throughout vast regions, and Latin was still the written language of the learned classes of Europe, is an extraordinary legacy. The major reason for imitation of the Romans was simply that their culture is one that sustained the greatest, most long-lasting empire the West has ever seen.

Similarly, Han culture was able to spread throughout China in large part through the institutions that it promoted, not just the imperial system, but the vast bureaucracy that sustained it, along with the competitive examination system that promoted effective administration.

Societies with strong institutions become wealthier, more powerful militarily, or some combination of the two. These are the ones whose culture reproduces, either because it is imitated, or because it is imposed on others.4 And yet the dominant trend in human societies, over the past century, has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. Most importantly, there has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level. One can think of this as the basic blueprint of a “successful” society. This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.

This winnowing down of cultural possibilities is what constitutes the trend that is often falsely described as “Westernization.” Much of it is actually just a process of adaptation that any society must undergo, in order to bring its culture into alignment with the functional requirements of capitalism and bureaucracy. It is not that other cultures are becoming more “Western,” it is that all cultures, including Western ones, are converging around a small number of variants.5

One interesting consequence of this process is that the competition between cultures is becoming defunctionalized. The institutions of modern bureaucratic capitalism solve many of the traditional problems of social integration in an almost mechanical way. As a result, when considering the modern “hypercultures” — e.g. American, Japanese, European — there is little to choose from a functional point of view. None are particularly better or worse, from the standpoint of constructing a successful society. And so what is there left to compete on? All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself.


Now consider Banks’s scenario. Consider the process that is generating modern hypercultures, and imagine it continuing for another three or four hundred years. The first consequence is that the culture will become entirely defunctionalized. Banks imagines a scenario in which all of the endemic problems of human society have been given essentially technological solutions (in much the same way that drones have solved the problem of criminal justice). Most importantly, he imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish). All important decisions are made by a benevolent technocracy of AIs (or the “Minds”).

And so what is left for humanity (or, more accurately, humanoids)? At the individual level, Banks imagines a life very much like the one described by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper — everything becomes a game, and thus at some level, non-serious. But where Banks went further than Suits was in thinking about the social consequences. What happens when culture becomes freed from all functional constraints? It seems clear that, in the interplanetary competition that develops, the culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious. In other words, “the Culture” will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself, by appealing to the sensibilities and tastes of humanoid life-forms.

Try several sports before specializing

March 11th, 2018

The logic of early specialization is straightforward:

Training is necessary to develop skill, but there is a limit to how much a person can train, not just because there are only 24 hours in a day, but because training is physically and psychologically exhausting. A person can train intensively for only a few hours a day without injuring themselves or getting burned out. Thus, the child who starts training early will have a virtually insurmountable training advantage over the child who starts later. Training is, of course, necessary to develop skill. However, the findings of a study recently published in the Journal of Sports Sciences show that later specialization may actually lead to better performance in the long-term.

Professor Arne Güllich, director of the Institute of Applied Sport Science at the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany, compared the training histories of 83 athletes who medaled in the Olympics, or a World Championship event, to those of 83 athletes who competed at that level but did not medal. (The groups were matched on age, gender, and sport to control for any influence of these factors on the results. For every medalist in a given event, the sample included a non-medalist in that event of the same gender and roughly the same age.) The results showed that both the medalists and non-medalists started practicing in their main sport before the age of 12. However, the medalists started training in their main sport an average of 18 months later than the non-medalists. (The medalists started at age 11.8, on average, compared to age 10.3 for the non-medalists.) The medalists also accumulated significantly less training in their sport during adolescence and significantly more training in other sports. This pattern of results held across a wide range of sports, from skiing to basketball to archery.

Along with reducing the risk of burnout and injury, allowing children to sample a range of activities before specializing allows a process known as gene-environment correlation to operate to its full extent. This is the idea that our genetically-influenced traits have an influence on the environments that we seek out and create for ourselves. As recently argued by the behavioral geneticist Elliot Tucker-Drob, gene-environment correlation is fundamental to understanding how expertise develops in children. For example, given the opportunity to try several sports, a child may discover that she has a high level of physical endurance and gravitate towards soccer because it places a premium on this attribute. She may also prefer soccer over other sports because she is extroverted and enjoys having teammates. In turn, after some initial success in the sport, the child’s coach may encourage her to continue playing soccer, setting in motion a “virtuous cycle” of effort followed by improvement, followed by further effort and improvement. However, this natural selection process will never unfold if the child isn’t given ample opportunity to try several sports before specializing.

Why some people become sudden geniuses

March 10th, 2018

In 1860 Eadweard Muybridge was thrown from a stagecoach — and became a creative genius:

He abandoned bookselling and became a photographer, one of the most famous in the world. He was also a prolific inventor. Before the accident, he hadn’t filed a single patent. In the following two decades, he applied for at least 10.

In 1877 he took a bet that allowed him to combine invention and photography. Legend has it that his friend, a wealthy railroad tycoon called Leland Stanford, was convinced that horses could fly. Or, more accurately, he was convinced that when they run, all their legs leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge said they didn’t.

To prove it he placed 12 cameras along a horse track and installed a tripwire that would set them off automatically as Stanford’s favourite racing horse, Occident, ran. Next he invented the inelegantly named “zoopraxiscope”, a device which allowed him to project several images in quick succession and give the impression of motion. To his amazement, the horse was briefly suspended, mid-gallop. Muybridge had filmed the first movie – and with it proven that yes, horses can fly.

The abrupt turnaround of Muybridge’s life, from ordinary bookseller to creative genius, has prompted speculation that it was a direct result of his accident. It’s possible that he had “sudden savant syndrome”, in which exceptional abilities emerge after a brain injury or disease. It’s extremely rare, with just 25 verified cases on the planet.

There’s Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning at a New York park in 1994. It went straight through his head and left him with an irresistible desire to play the piano. To begin with he was playing other people’s music, but soon he started writing down the melodies that were constantly running through his head. Today he’s a pianist and composer, as well as a practicing surgeon.

Another case is Jon Sarkin, who was transformed from a chiropractor into an artist after a stroke. The urge to draw landed almost immediately. He was having “all kinds” of therapy at the hospital – speech therapy, art therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental therapy – “And they stuck a crayon in my hand and said ‘want to draw?’ And I said ‘fine’,” he says.


Most strikingly there’s Jason Padgett, who was attacked at a bar in Tacoma, Washington in 2002. Before the attack, Padgett was a college dropout who worked at a futon store. His primary passions in life were partying and chasing girls. He had no interest in maths – at school, he didn’t even get into algebra class.

But that night, everything changed. Initially he was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion. “I remember thinking that everything looked funky, but I thought it was just the narcotic pain shot they gave me” he says. “Then the next morning I woke up and turned on the water. It looked like little tangent lines [a straight line that touches a single point on a curve], spiralling down.”.


There are two leading ideas. The first is that when you’re bashed on the head, the effects are similar to a dose of LSD. Psychedelic drugs are thought to enhance creativity by increasing the levels of serotonin, the so-called “happiness hormone”, in the brain. This leads to “synaesthesia”, in which more than one region is simultaneously activated and senses which are usually separate become linked.


But there is an alternative. The first clue emerged in 1998, when a group of neurologists noticed that five of their patients with dementia were also artists – remarkably good ones. Specifically, they had frontotemporal dementia, which is unusual in that it only affects some parts of the brain. For example, visual creativity may be spared, while language and social skills are progressively destroyed.


To find out what was going on, the scientists performed 3D scans of their patients’ brains. In four out of five cases, they found lesions on the left hemisphere. Nobel Prize-winning research from the 1960s shows that the two halves of the brain specialise in different tasks; in general, the right side is home to creativity and the left is the centre of logic and language.

But the left side is also something of a bully. “It tends to be the dominant brain region,” says Brogaard. “It tends to suppress very marginal types of thinking — highly original, highly creative thinking, because it’s beneficial for our decision-making abilities and our ability to function in normal life.”. The theory goes that as the patients’ left hemispheres became progressively more damaged, their right hemispheres were free to flourish.

This is backed up by several other studies, including one in which creative insight was roused in healthy volunteers by temporarily dialling down activity in the left hemisphere and increasing it in the right. “[the lead researcher] Allen Snyder’s work was replicated by another person, so that’s the theory that I think is responsible,” says Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who has been studying savant syndrome for decades.


It’s been estimated that as many as one in 10 people with autism have savant syndrome and there’s mounting evidence the disorder is associated with enhanced creativity. And though it’s difficult to prove, it’s been speculated that numerous intellectual giants, including Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Darwin and Michelangelo, were on the spectrum.

One theory suggests that autism arises from abnormally low levels of serotonin in the left hemisphere in childhood, which prevents the region from developing normally. Just like with sudden savant syndrome, this allows the right hemisphere to become more active.

Interestingly, many people with sudden savant syndrome also develop symptoms of autism, including social problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and all-consuming interests.

An effortless way to improve your memory

March 9th, 2018

The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of undisturbed rest were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker:

In one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Muller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables. Following a short study period, half the group were immediately given a second list to learn — while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.

When tested one-and-a-half-hours later, the two groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall. The participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries. The finding suggested that our memory for new information is especially fragile just after it has first been encoded, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.

Although a handful of other psychologists occasionally returned to the finding, it was only in the early 2000s that the broader implications of it started to become known, with a pioneering study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri.

The team was interested in discovering whether reduced interference might improve the memories of people who had suffered a neurological injury, such as a stroke. Using a similar set-up to Muller and Pilzecker’s original study, they presented their participants with lists of 15 words and tested them 10 minutes later. In some trials, the participants remained busy with some standard cognitive tests; in others, they were asked to lie in a darkened room and avoid falling asleep.

The impact of the small intervention was more profound than anyone might have believed. Although the two most severely amnesic patients showed no benefit, the others tripled the number of words they could remember — from 14% to 49%, placing them almost within the range of healthy people with no neurological damage.

The next results were even more impressive. The participants were asked to listen to some stories and answer questions an hour later. Without the chance to rest, they could recall just 7% of the facts in the story; with the rest, this jumped to 79% — an astronomical 11-fold increase in the information they retained. The researchers also found a similar, though less pronounced, benefit for healthy participants in each case, boosting recall between 10 and 30%.

Della Sala and Cowan’s former student, Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University, has now led several follow-up studies, replicating the finding in many different contexts. In healthy participants, they have found that these short periods of rest can also improve our spatial memories, for instance — helping participants to recall the location of different landmarks in a virtual reality environment. Crucially, this advantage lingers a week after the original learning task, and it seems to benefit young and old people alike. And besides the stroke survivors, they have also found similar benefits for people in the earlier, milder stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

On my way to where the air is sweet

March 7th, 2018

Freakonomics Radio looks at an early education intervention that taught poor parents in Chicago Heights how to teach their own preschool-age children cogntivie and non-cognitive skills:

LIST: So, a first thing to note is we have huge differences across kids. Now, what I mean by that is that our program really, really helps Hispanic and white students and it doesn’t help blacks at all.

DUBNER: How disappointing was it to see that Hispanics and whites moved a lot and blacks didn’t?

LIST: Yeah, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that when we started down this research agenda, part of our mission was, first of all, to learn about the racial achievement gap and learn about how we can lower that gap. Most of the time we lump Hispanic and African-American kids together, and we say, “What is the solution for minorities in public education?”


LEVITT: And to be honest, we have no real theory for why that is. The two sets of parents were equally engaged in the program and we can control for all sorts of background characteristics and nothing really explains it. So to me that’s really a puzzle, and a puzzle that I don’t have an answer for.


LEVITT: Upon entry into the program, we tested kids to see where they stood in terms of their cognitive skills — how well they could, you know, do the alphabet and math and whatnot — and also their non-cognitive skills, about how well they could sit still and keep things in memory. And what was incredibly interesting to me in our findings is that for the kids who were below average on these non-cognitive skills — the ability to concentrate, to remember things, to kind of think their way through problems — the below-average kids made no progress in our program. So if you started behind, in terms of how ready you were to learn in some sense, then you got nothing out of our program. And that was true whether you scored high on the cognitive scores or not. So, kids could be really high achievers in terms of math and reading but gain nothing from our program if they didn’t have these sort of sit-still skills. But on the other hand if you were above average on these non-cognitive skills, you got huge benefits from our program.

A different intervention seemed to work better at closing the gap:

KEARNEY: We find that kids who were pre-school age in places where they could watch Sesame Street were 14 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to elementary school. If we try and make a comparison of that number to what we see in the literature studying, for example, the Head Start program, our nation’s publicly funded pre-school program, the estimated effects on school performance are very similar.


KEARNEY: This costs $5 a year per kid to produce [vs. $8,000 for Head Start].


KEARNEY: And in fact, that effect is entirely driven by kids who grew up in counties with higher levels of economic disadvantage. So, I mean places that had higher levels of high school drop-out, had a higher rate of single-parent households, had lower household income on average — these were the kids that really saw a relative improvement in their school performance. The effect is largest for boys and African-Americans.

People who want to do anything except confront evil men

March 6th, 2018

A law-enforcement veteran with 20 years’ experience shares his thoughts on contemporary policing:

This really is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. There has been a tension since the 60’s about what we want police to do. We no longer have fit men with a strong capacity for violence occupying the majority of patrol cars in this country. What we have been slipping towards for decades are a mass of armed social workers with a small force of violent proficient SWAT guys who are supposed to save the day when bad things really, really need to happen but are never there when you really need them.

Two forces seem to be driving this. First, the massive expansion of the police’s job in this country. Cops no longer just enforce the law and arrest bad guys — we expect them to do everything from run after-school athletic leagues to treat drug overdoses. When a group’s mission is this broad and diverse something, or a lot of things, are not going to be done well. Also, when a mission is this broad, you will bring people into the organization who are better suited for these non-enforcement jobs but they all end up wearing the same uniform and vested with the same trust. Many people familiar with the field would go so far as to argue that for decades we have been deliberately recruiting people for police jobs who want to do anything except confront evil men.

Second, we as a nation have become increasingly uncomfortable with violence, regardless of who does it or why. There is no use of force by police, no matter how legally and morally right that looks “pretty.” For those raised on movies and TV, violence is sanitary and sterile with none of the realities, such as reaction time, that are dealt with in the real world. The simple, ugly, unpopular truth is that one of the jobs police do is to shoot and beat people into submission. Now, we want them to shoot and beat the right people within a well-defined legal context but the reality remains that the effective police officer is an applied violence specialist — or should be.

Recently, there has been a tremendous focus placed on police use of force. We have been told that the police deliberately target minorities and seem to take perverse pleasure in shooting unarmed ethnic minorities. We are asked to ignore the fact that on average 15% of officers murdered are murdered with “personal weapons” (aka hands and feet) and we are supposed to be shocked when the police perceive a threat from someone who doesn’t have a weapon.


Second, we need to recruit people for their ability to control themselves under stress and their mental fitness to do necessary harm to others. A lot of agencies deliberately hire folks with no capacity for violence in hopes it will solve their use of force problems. This never works as these folks end up overreacting since they are scared. Police officers should have an immense capacity for violence — a capacity exceeded only by their ability to control it and apply it in a lawful and moral context. (There are agencies which refuse to hire anyone with an interest in firearms — this is the exact wrong approach)


Finally, our society needs to adjust its attitudes towards violence. There is the recently coined term “pro-social violence” which is used to describe “lawful, moral violence in the service of good.” We need to restore the idea that when violent things happen to bad people, it’s OK and society is better as a whole.

You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

March 5th, 2018

Robin Hanson discusses signaling and self deception in the latest of Professor Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler:

TYLER COWEN: Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we have my colleague Robin Hanson. With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?

ROBIN HANSON: As you know, in my new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we have a whole chapter on conversation, which I expect you have perused.

The claim we make in there is that, although we like to talk about conversation as if it was about imparting information and finding out useful things, more plausibly it’s about showing off your backpack of tools and skills in context.

COWEN: So what am I trying to signal with the first question in the podcast?

HANSON: [laughs] You are showing your versatility here; you are showing lots of things. You’re showing how well you know me, and that this is the sort of question I like and can engage. You’re showing the audience that you have an unusual perspective on things.

As usual, apparently, people like your conversations because you have some magic sauce, some special way that you can show that you get to people in a way that other people can’t.

COWEN: In your wonderful new book, The Elephant in the Brain, you outline a theory of human behavior where signaling has a great deal of explanatory power. If you had to, in as crude or blunt terms as possible, how much of human behavior ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signaling? What’s your short, quick, and dirty answer?

HANSON: In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.


HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain‘s main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes — they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

In a world where, say, we’re all showing what strong, virile men we are by fighting battles every day, physical battles, we may each enjoy that until the day we die at 25. [laughs] But from a larger social point of view, there’s a huge loss.

The focus here is on the coordination failure, on the equilibrium being inefficient because we have these huge negative externalities. It’s the negative externalities that are the problem and the fault with the signaling, not so much the fact that you like to show off. You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Media and the consequences of fear

March 4th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok shares some thoughts on school shootings, media, and the consequences of fear:

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns (data here).

It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries and the US is not a notable outlier in this regard. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska — as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events. (Someone should test this theory.)

I worry about turning schools into prisons and what kinds of citizens this will create. My letter to my son’s high school principal was sent before the recent shootings but I stand by it now more than ever:

Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report

March 3rd, 2018

If you haven’t yet watched Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report, now’s your chance: