How to Gain New Skills

Friday, March 24th, 2017

In his How to Gain New Skills guide for students, Ulrich Boser (Learn Better) discusses an experiment that took place years ago at a Catholic all-girls school in New York City:

As part of the experiment, the girls were taught how to play darts for the first time, and the two psychologists conducting the study divided the young women into some groups. Let’s call members of the first group “Team Performance,” and they were told that they should learn the game of darts by trying to throw the darts as close to the center of the board as possible. In other words, the researchers informed the women that the best way to win was to rack up some points.

The psychologists also pulled together another group of young women. Let’s call them “Team Learning Method,” and they learned to play darts very differently. The researchers had these girls focus on the process of gaining expertise, and the women started by focusing on how exactly to throw the darts, mastering some basic processes like “keep your arm close to your body.” Then, after the women showed some proficiency, they were encouraged to aim at the bull’s eye, slowly shifting from some process goals to some outcome goals like hitting the target.

Finally, there was the control group. Their instructions? The researchers told them to learn to “do their best.” In other words, these young women could take any approach that they wanted to learning darts. Let’s think of this group as “Team Conventional Wisdom.”

To learn more about the experiment, I met up with Anastasia Kitsantas, who ran the study together with psychologist Barry Zimmerman. While the experiment took place some years ago, Kitsantas still has the darts stashed away in her office at George Mason University, and on a rainy afternoon, she pulled out the little yellow missiles from an office cabinet to show them to me, laying the darts out like an important relic from some forgotten South American tribe.

Kitsantas held onto the darts because of the study’s surprisingly large outcomes, and by the end of the experiment, the young women on Team Learning Method dramatically outperformed the others, with scores nearly twice as high as Team Conventional Wisdom. The women also enjoyed the experience much more. “Several of the students asked me to teach them more about darts after the experiment. They kept asking me for weeks,” Kitsantas told me.

The best basketball player in the world is not the tallest

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Even a strong predictor of outcome is seldom able to pick out the very top performer, Stephen Hsu notes — e.g., taller people are on average better at basketball, but the best player in the world is not the tallest:

This seems like a trivial point (as are most things, when explained clearly), however, it still eludes the vast majority. For example, in the Atlantic article I linked to in the earlier post Creative Minds, the neuroscientist professor who studies creative genius misunderstands the implications of the Terman study. She repeats the common claim that Terman’s study fails to support the importance of high cognitive ability to “genius”-level achievement: none of the Termites won a Nobel prize, whereas Shockley and Alvarez, who narrowly missed the (verbally loaded) Stanford-Binet cut for the study, each won for work in experimental physics. But luck, drive, creativity, and other factors, all at least somewhat independent of intelligence, influence success in science. Combine this with the fact that there are exponentially more people a bit below the Terman cut than above it, and Terman’s results do little more than confirm that cognitive ability is positively but not perfectly correlated with creative output.

Strong Predictor Graph

In the SMPY study probability of having published a literary work or earned a patent was increasing with ability even within the top 1%. The “IQ over 120 doesn’t matter” meme falls apart if one measures individual likelihood of success, as opposed to the total number of individuals at, e.g., IQ 120 vs IQ 145, who have achieved some milestone. The base population of the former is 100 times that of the latter!

Please remember this perverse outcome

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Charlie Munger was not impressed with academic psychology, but he was impressed with Robert Cialdini‘s Influence:

Cialdini had made himself into a super-tenured “Regents’ Professor” at a very young age by devising, describing, and explaining a vast group of clever experiments in which man manipulated man to his detriment, with all of this made possible by man’s intrinsic thinking flaws.

I immediately sent copies of Cialdini’s book to all my children — I also gave Cialdini a share of Berkshire stock [Class A] to thank him for what he had done for me and the public. Incidentally, the sale by Cialdini of hundreds of thousands of copies of a book about social psychology was a huge feat, considering that Cialdini didn’t claim that he was going to improve your sex life or make you any money.

Part of Cialdini’s large book-buying audience came because, like me, it wanted to learn how to become less often tricked by salesmen and circumstances. However, as an outcome not sought by Cialdini, who is a profoundly ethical man, a huge number of his books were bought by salesmen who wanted to learn how to become more effective in misleading customers. Please remember this perverse outcome when my discussion comes to incentive-caused biases a consequence of the superpower of incentives.

Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion came out recently.

Collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Charlie Munger was always interested in psychology, but he didn’t turn to psychology textbooks for a long, long time:

Motivated as I was, by midlife I should probably have turned to psychology textbooks, but I didn’t, displaying my share of the outcome predicted by the German folk saving: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” However, as I later found out, I may have been lucky to avoid for so long the academic psychology that was then laid out in most textbooks. These would not then have guided me well with respect to cults and were often written as if the authors were collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies — with a passion for more butterflies and more contact with fellow collectors and little craving for synthesis in what is already possessed. When I finally got to the psychology texts, I was reminded of the observation of Jacob Viner, the great economist; that many an academic is like the truffle hound, an animal so trained and bred for one narrow purpose that it is no good at anything else. I was also appalled by hundreds of pages of extremely not scientific musing about comparative weights of nature and nurture in human outcomes. And I found that introductory psychology texts, by and large, didn’t deal appropriately with a fundamental issue: Psychological tendencies tend to be both numerous and inseparably intertwined, now and forever, as they interplay in life. Yet the complex parsing out of effects from intertwined tendencies was usually avoided by the writers of the elementary texts. Possibly the authors did not wish, through complexity, to repel entry of new devotees to their discipline. And, possibly, the cause of their inadequacy was the one given by Samuel Johnson in response to a woman who inquired as to what accounted for his dictionary’s mis-definition of the word “pastern.” “Pure ignorance,” Johnson replied. And, finally, the text writers showed little interest in describing standard antidotes to standard, psychology-driven folly, and they thus avoided most discussion of exactly what most interested me.

Bright Eyes

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Researchers have confirmed that baseline pupil size is related to cognitive ability. Bright people look bright.

No invertebrate on land would have been a match for it

Friday, March 10th, 2017

The earliest tetrapods had much bigger eyes than their fishy forebears, and those bigger eyes evolved before walking legs:

Eyes don’t fossilize, but you can estimate how big they would have been by measuring the eye sockets of a fossilized skull. MacIver and his colleagues, including fossil eye expert Lars Schmitz, did this for the skulls of 59 species — from finned fish to intermediate fishapods to legged tetrapods. They showed that over 12 million years, the group’s eyes nearly tripled in size. Why?

Eyes are expensive organs: it takes a lot of energy to maintain them, and even more so if they’re big. If a fish is paying those costs, the eyes must provide some kind of benefit. It seems intuitive that bigger eyes let you see better or further, but MacIver’s team found otherwise. By simulating the kinds of shallow freshwater environments where their fossil species lived — day to night, clear to murky — they showed that bigger eyes make precious little difference underwater. But once those animals started peeking out above the waterline, everything changed. In the air, a bigger eye can see 10 times further than it could underwater, and scan an area that’s 5 million times bigger.

In the air, it’s also easier for a big eye to pay for itself. A predator with short-range vision has to constantly move about to search the zone immediately in front of its face. But bigger-eyes species could spot prey at a distance, and recoup the energy they would otherwise have spent on foraging. “Long-range vision gives you a free lunch,” says MacIver. “You can just look around, instead of moving to inspect somewhere else.”

Tiktaalik with Eyes Above Surface

Those early hunters would have seen plenty of appetizing prey. Centipedes and millipedes had colonized the land millions of years before, and had never encountered fishapod predators. “I imagine guys like Tiktaalik lurking there like a crocodile, waiting for a giant millipede to walk by, and chomping on it,” says MacIver. “No invertebrate on land would have been a match for it.”

Absorbent Beads Could Save Energy

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Porous zeolite beads could cut the energy used in large-scale drying operations in half, according to UC Davis plant scientist Kent Bradford:

The beads were developed by Rhino Research in Thailand. Bradford and his collaborators there have spent several years testing and refining the technology with local farmers in that country as well as in India, Nepal, Kenya, and other tropical nations, where as much as a third of crops are lost before reaching consumers. In those areas, the beads are placed alongside, say, harvested rice or maize seeds, separated in mesh sacks or screened-in compartments within containers. They then capture water from the air, significantly reducing the moisture that leads to rot and fungal infections.

Now the researchers are working to bring the technology to richer nations at the industrial scale, exploring its use to dry harvested almonds, walnuts, rice, and grains. Typically, farming operations blow hot air through harvested crops as they pass through drying towers or silos. But experiments show that ambient air can work just as well, if it’s first dried by passing it through the beads. The researchers also believe this approach can improve the quality of the end product, because uneven air heating frequently scorches parts of the batch, ruining the taste of nuts and other foods.

The beads themselves still need to be heated in the end, in order to remove the water so they can be reused. But that can be done in a compact space like an oven, which is far more efficient than blowing around heated air.

The Biological Origins of Higher Civilizations

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Elfnonationalist explores the biological origins of higher civilizations:

It is my opinion that the most successful civilized nations of Europe, namely, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, (and to a lesser degree, Northern Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, and Russia) have been so successful, not necessarily due to early adoption of manorialism, but rather due to this balance of genetic input from both genetically pacified farmers, who were accustomed to a settled, relatively peaceful existence, as well as the more mobile, “barbaric” in Nietzschean terms, Indo-Europeans who were descended primarily from hunters and fishers who had recently adopted a highly competitive pastoralist lifestyle on the Pontic steppe (see David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language). The aristocracies of early Greece and Rome would have also possessed this ideal mix of genetically inherited traits, being descended from Indo-European invaders who married local Neolithic farmers, introducing the early Greek and Italic languages into the Mediterranean basin. This aristocracy is practically gone now, however, through an overwhelming genetic absorption into the conquered Neolithic farmer populace, who were ultimately descended primarily from early Near-Eastern agriculturalists.

The end result of the ideal genetic admixture which I have described is a people which are both civilized and politically organized, and also are also willing to innovate, take risks (like exploring the New World), and challenge old notions of thought, as was done in the scientific revolution.

Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Moral outrage is self-serving, Bowdoin psychology professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas A. Keefer have found:

Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target. For instance, respondents who read that Americans are the biggest consumer drivers of climate change “reported significantly higher levels of outrage at the environmental destruction” caused by “multinational oil corporations” than did the respondents who read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.

The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” For instance, participants in study one read about sweatshop labor exploitation, rated their own identification with common consumer practices that allegedly contribute, then rated their level of anger at “international corporations” who perpetuate the exploitative system and desire to punish these entities. The results showed that increased guilt “predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer due to increased moral outrage at the target.”

Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “ingroup immorality.” Study participants who read that Americans were the biggest drivers of man-made climate change showed significantly higher guilt scores than those who read the blame-China article when they weren’t given an opportunity to express anger at or assign blame to a third-party. However, having this opportunity to rage against hypothetical corporations led respondents who read the blame-America story to express significantly lower levels of guilt than the China group. Respondents who read that Chinese consumers were to blame had similar guilt levels regardless of whether they had the opportunity to express moral outrage.

“The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.

Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” Study five used the labor exploitation article, asked all participants questions to assess their level of “collective guilt” (i.e., “feelings of guilt for the harm caused by one’s own group”) about the situation, then gave them an article about horrific conditions at Apple product factories. After that, a control group was given a neutral exercise, while others were asked to briefly describe what made them a good and decent person; both exercises were followed by an assessment of empathy and moral outrage. The researchers found that for those with high collective-guilt levels, having the chance to assert their moral goodness first led to less moral outrage at corporations. But when the high-collective-guilt folks were given the neutral exercise and couldn’t assert they were good people, they wound up with more moral outrage at third parties. Meanwhile, for those low in collective guilt, affirming their own moral goodness first led to marginally more moral outrage at corporations.

Monarch miscalculation

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

It looks like a scientific error about butterflies has persisted for more than 40 years:

A few years ago, Christopher Hamm was reading up on monarch butterflies when he noticed something peculiar. All of the scientific articles that mentioned the number of the insect’s chromosomes — 30, it seemed — referenced a 2004 paper, which in turn cited a 1975 paper. But when Hamm, then a postdoc at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, did a genetic analysis of his own, he found that his monarchs only had 28 chromosomes, suggesting that an error has pervaded the literature for more than 40 years. Another twist, however, was just around the corner.

Hamm suspected a mistake when he read the original 1975 paper. The authors, biologists N. Nageswara Rao and A. S. Murty at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, India, had studied what they claimed was an Indian monarch butterfly in their work. But there’s a problem: Monarchs are nearly exclusively a North American species. “It’s implied they just went outside their building and collected some butterflies,” Hamm says. “I immediately thought, ‘Monarch butterflies in India? Really?’”

Sure monarchs are master travelers, with the longest-known seasonal migration of any insect. And it’s not uncommon for a few to get blown off course to Australia, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and a handful of other places from time to time. But ending up as far away as India seemed like a stretch. Hamm, now a data scientist at Monsanto in Woodland, California, also knew that taxonomists since Carl Linnaeus have struggled to distinguish species in Lepidoptera, the order of insects to which monarchs belong. For example, the monarch (Danaus plexippus) and a similar-looking butterfly known as the common tiger butterfly (D. genutia) were thought to be the same for more than a century until they were reclassified as separate species in 1954. And guess what: D. genutia lives in India.

Common Tiger Butterfly and Monarch Butterfly

Hamm thinks that Rao and Murty, perhaps not knowing about the reclassification, netted bugs they assumed were monarchs but were actually common tiger butterflies. Back in the lab, they performed a technique known as a chromosome squash — squeezing the butterflies’ cells between thin films of glass until individual chromosomes are visible under a microscope — counted to 30, and published the results. Then, in 2004, Brazilian zoologist Keith Brown Jr. cited the work in his own research exploring the evolutionary history of butterflies; he never suspected that Rao and Murty might have been working with a misidentified species. Brown’s paper has been cited a dozen times since, and the idea that monarchs have 30 chromosomes is now well established in the literature.

Smallpox, Salmonella, and Cocoliztli

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they conquered great empires through a combination of Guns, Germs, and Steel — but mainly germs:

In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.

The largest of these disease outbreaks were known as cocoliztli (from the word for ‘pestilence’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language). Two major cocoliztli, beginning in 1545 and 1576, killed an estimated 7 million to 18 million people living in Mexico’s highland regions.

“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” noted a Franciscan historian who witnessed the 1576 outbreak.

There has been little consensus on the cause of cocoliztli — although measles, smallpox and typhus have all been mooted. In 2002, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City proposed that a viral haemorrhagic fever, exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, was behind the carnage2. They compared the magnitude of the 1545 outbreak to that of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe.

A couple new studies point to salmonella:

In an attempt to settle the question, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, extracted and sequenced DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried in the Oaxacan highlands of southern Mexico. All but five were linked to a cocoliztli that researchers think ran from 1545 to 1550.

Ancient bacterial DNA recovered from several of the people matched that of Salmonella, based on comparisons with a database of more than 2,700 modern bacterial genomes.

Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.

It’s perfectly reasonable that the bacterium could have caused this epidemic, says Schroeder. “They make a really good case.” But María Ávila-Arcos, an evolutionary geneticist at UNAM, isn’t convinced. She notes that some people suggest that a virus caused the cocoliztli, and that wouldn’t have been picked up by the team’s method.

Krause and his colleagues’ proposal is helped by another study posted on bioRxiv last week, which raises the possibility that Salmonella Paratyphi C arrived in Mexico from Europe.

A team led by Mark Achtman, a microbiologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, collected and sequenced the genome of the bacterial strain from the remains of a young woman buried around 1200 in a cemetery in Trondheim, Norway. It is the earliest evidence for the now-rare Salmonella strain, and proof that it was circulating in Europe, according to the study.

If you read the firsthand account of The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico by Bernal Diaz Del Castillo — and I highly recommend that you do! — he mentions smallpox specifically five separate times:

Xicotencatl made various other offers of his services in the name of his country. This Xicotencatl was a tall man, broad shouldered, and well built, with a large fresh coloured face, full of scars, as if pitted with the smallpox. He may have been about thirty-five years of age, and was earnest and dignified in his deportment. Cortes thanked him most sincerely, saying, ” he would acknowledge them as vassals of our emperor, and would, for the future, look upon them as our friends.


But to return to Narvaez. He happened to have a negro servant with him ill with the smallpox, through whom this terrific disease, which, according to the accounts of the inhabitants, was previously unknown in the country, spread itself through New Spain, where it created the greater devastation, from the poor Indians, in their ignorance, solely applying cold water as a remedy, with which they constantly bathed themselves; so that vast numbers were cut off before they had the blessing of being received into the bosom of the Christian church.


About this time another king had been raised to the throne of Mexico, as the former, who beat us out of the town, had died of the smallpox. The new monarch was a nephew, or, at least, a very near relative of Motecusuma, and was called Quauhtemoctzin. He was about twenty-five years of age, and a very well-bred man for an Indian. He was likewise a person of great courage, and soon made himself so greatly feared among his people that they trembled in his presence. His wife was one of Motecusuma’s daughters, and passed for a great beauty among her countrywomen.


This expedition was attended by many beneficial results ; for the whole country was thereby tranquilized, while it spread a vast idea of Cortes’ justice and bravery throughout the whole of New Spain; so that every one feared him, and particularly Quauhtemoctzin, the new king of Mexico. Indeed Cortes’ authority rose at once to so great a height, that the inhabitants came from the most distant parts to lay their disputes before him, particularly respecting the election of caziques, right of tenure, and division of property and subjects. About this time thousands of people were carried off by the smallpox, and among them numbers of caziques ; and Cortes, as though he had been lord of the whole country, appointed the new caziques, but made a point of nominating those who had the best claim.


On our arrival in Tlascalla, we found that our old friend Maxixcatzin, one of his majesty’s most faithful vassals, was no more, he having died of the smallpox. We were all sorely grieved at this loss, and Cortes himself, as he assured us, felt it as much as if he had lost his own father. We put on black cloaks in mourning for him, and paid the last honours to the remains of our departed friend, in conjunction with his sons and relations.

My reaction to that book, by the way, was, Why didn’t we read this in school?

Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.

A Hotel California for Apex Predators

Monday, February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

The Billy Beane of Murder

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Thomas Hargrove, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia, was always the numbers guy at his paper:

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”


Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing — plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.


His innovation was to teach a computer to spot trends in unsolved murders, using publicly available information that no one, including anyone in law enforcement, had used before. This makes him, in a manner of speaking, the Billy Beane of murder. His work shines light on a question that’s gone unanswered for too long: Why, exactly, aren’t the police getting any better at solving murder? And how can we even dream of reversing any upticks in the homicide rate while so many killers remain out on the streets?

It took a few years for Hargrove’s editors at Scripps to agree to give him enough time to lose himself in the FBI’s homicide data. With help from a University of Missouri grad student, Hargrove first dumped the homicide report into statistics software in 2008. He spent months trying to develop an algorithm that would identify unsolved cases with enough commonalities to suggest the same murderer. Eventually, he decided to reverse-engineer the algorithm by testing his ideas against one well-known case, that of Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, who confessed to killing 48 women over two decades in the Seattle area. Hargrove thought that if he could devise an algorithm that turned up the Green River Killer’s victims, he’d know he was on the right track.

“We found a hundred things that didn’t work,” he recalls. Finally, he settled on four characteristics for what’s called a cluster analysis: geography, sex, age group, and method of killing. For gender, he stuck with women, since they make up the vast majority of multiple-murder victims who aren’t connected to gang-related activity. When he used women between the ages of 20 and 50 — the cohort most commonly targeted by serial killers — the algorithm lit up like a slot machine. “It became clear that this thing was working,” he says. “In fact, it was working too well.”

The Green River Killer came up right away in this algorithm. That was good news. Hargrove’s algorithm also pulled up 77 unsolved murders in Los Angeles, which he learned were attributed to several different killers the police were pursuing (including the so-called Southside Slayer and, most recently, the Grim Sleeper), and 64 unsolved murders of women in Phoenix.

Then there was a second group of possible serial killers, those unrecognized by local police. “The whole point of the algorithm was to find the low-hanging fruit, the obvious clusters,” Hargrove says. “But there were dozens and dozens of them all over the country.”

In 2015, Scripps spun off the last of its newspapers, and Hargrove and the other print reporters lost their jobs. “The only guy who left with a skip was me,” he says. Hargrove, who was 59 at the time and had worked at the company for 37 years, qualified for a large severance and a nice pension, leaving him well-covered. Now he had enough time to go all in on his data project. He founded the Murder Accountability Project, or MAP, a tiny nonprofit seeking to make FBI murder data more widely and easily available.

Using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, MAP has tried to chase down data from the many municipalities and counties that weren’t supplying their murder data to the FBI, out of bureaucratic laziness, a lack of manpower, or perhaps just rank incompetence. MAP has already assembled case details on 638,454 homicides from 1980 through 2014, including 23,219 cases that hadn’t been reported to the FBI. This is the most complete list of case-level details of U.S. murders available anywhere, and the group’s website has open-sourced all of it. Anyone with statistical analysis software, available for free online, can start looking, across jurisdictions, for serial killers. Anyone can compare convicted killers’ timelines against the timing of unsolved murders to determine if a connection is plausible. “You can call up your hometown and look and see if you see anything suspicious,” Hargrove says. “If you’re the father of a murdered daughter, you can call up her record, and you can see if there might be other records that match. We wanted to be able to crowdsource murder.”

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

No, the wooly mammoth won’t be resurrected by 2019:

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Harvard’s George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The key word there is embryo. Church’s team — the Wooly Mammoth Revival project — is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to put genetic traits collected from frozen mammoth corpses into Asian elephant DNA.

So far, they’ve managed to incorporate traits of the mammoth’s ears, fat, and hair into elephant DNA. In a few years they hope to make an embryo, but that’s a long way from creating a viable embryo. A viable embryo would have to be able to survive long enough to move from a Petri dish to some kind of womb — and then it would have to grow into a healthy calf that the team could successfully deliver and raise.

Artificial gestation is considered the most likely option for any viable embryo, because Asian elephants, the closest living relatives of mammoths, are currently endangered. Church has created an artificial womb capable of gestating a mouse embryo for 10 days but that’s a far cry from the 660-day gestation period of an elephant calf.

So while an embryo may indeed be possible by 2019, there’s no telling how many years would stretch between that milestone and the actual reintroduction of the woolly mammoth. Researchers have already created embryos of chickens with dinosaur snouts, for example, and those dino-chickens aren’t clucking around a co-op. The first attempts to make a living mammoth are many more years away.

Flag Football Is More Dangerous

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Flag football is more dangerous than tackle football:

The study, which examined 3,794 players in grades 2-7 in two tackle football leagues and one flag football league, is one of the largest to compare injury rates in the different types of football. It was published online last week in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.


All injuries that resulted in loss of playing time were recorded. An injury was considered severe if it resulted in a concussion, fracture or ligament tear. All other injuries were considered nonsevere.

Across all leagues, 128 injuries were reported out of 46,416 exposures—that is, a practice or a game. The overall injury rate was 2.76 injuries per 1,000 exposures, which Dr. Peterson notes is similar to the injury rate in high school football.

Tackle football players in the study reported 2.6 injuries per 1,000 exposures, compared with 5.77 injuries per 1,000 exposures in flag football. While tackle football players reported concussions at a slightly higher rate, the difference with flag players wasn’t statistically significant.

Dr. Peterson theorizes that tackle football players suffer concussions individually, whereas in flag football, concussions often result from two people running into each other. Looking at the injury logs, he noticed, “concussions seemed to come in pairs in the flag league.”