Scientists are hoping to train the body to accept new organs

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Before the discovery of anti-rejection drugs, organ transplants were simply impossible, but anti-rejection drugs are immune-depressant drugs. Now scientists are hoping to train the body to accept new organs:

In 1953, Dr. Peter Medawar and his colleagues in Britain did an experiment with a result so stunning that he shared a Nobel Prize for it. He showed that it was possible to “train” the immune systems of mice so that they would not reject tissue transplanted from other mice.

His method was not exactly practical. It involved injecting newborn or fetal mice with white blood cells from unrelated mice. When the mice were adults, researchers placed skin grafts from the unrelated mice onto the backs of those that had received the blood cells.

The mice accepted the grafts as if they were their own skin, suggesting that the immune system can be modified. The study led to a scientific quest to find a way to train the immune systems of adults who needed new organs.

[...]

Many types of white blood cells work together to create and control immune responses. A number of researchers, including Dr. Markmann and his colleague, Dr. Eva Guinan of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, chose to focus on cells called regulatory T lymphocytes.

These are rare white blood cells that help the body identify its own cells as not foreign. If these regulatory cells are missing or impaired, people can develop diseases in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.

The idea is to isolate regulatory T cells from a patient about to have a liver or kidney transplant. Then scientists attempt to grow them in the lab along with cells from the donor.

Then the T cells are infused back to the patient. The process, scientists hope, will teach the immune system to accept the donated organ as part of the patient’s body.

“The new T cells signal the rest of the immune system to leave the organ alone,” said Angus Thomson, director of transplant immunology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Dr. Markmann, working with liver transplant patients, and Dr. Leventhal, working with kidney transplant patients, are starting studies using regulatory T cells.

At Pittsburgh, the plan is to modify a different immune system cell, called regulatory dendritic cells. Like regulatory T cells, they are rare and enable the rest of the immune system to distinguish self from non-self.

One advantage of regulatory dendritic cells is that researchers do not have to isolate them and grow them in sufficient quantities. Instead, scientists can prod a more abundant type of cell — immature white blood cells — to turn into dendritic cells in petri dishes.

“It takes one week to generate dendritic cells,” Dr. Thomson said. In contrast, it can take weeks to grow enough regulatory T cells.

The regulatory T cells also have to remain in the bloodstream to control the immune response, while dendritic cells need not stay around long — they control the immune system during a brief journey through the circulation.

“Each of us is taking advantage of a different approach,” Dr. Markmann said. “It is not clear yet which is best. But the field is at a fascinating point.”

They aren’t gaming the system

Saturday, January 26th, 2019

Amazon isn’t just the world’s largest book retailer. It’s also a publisher:

When veteran book author Mark Sullivan tried to sell a World War II saga in 2015, eight New York book publishers rejected it. Then Amazon’s publishing arm scooped up Beneath a Scarlet Sky for an advance in the low five figures.

The novel was released in 2017 and featured on Amazon First Reads. The online promotion also is emailed each month to more than 7 million U.S. subscribers and exclusively showcases titles from Amazon Publishing.

“Wham, we get 300,000 downloads,” said Mr. Sullivan, whose title has sold more than 1.5 million print books, e-books and audio books. It was ranked No. 56 on USA Today’s top 100 best-seller list for all of 2018.

The Seattle-based giant houses 15 imprints in the U.S. under the Amazon Publishing banner, turning out everything from thrillers to romance novels to books translated from other languages. Amazon published 1,231 titles in the U.S. in 2017, up from 373 in 2009, the year it entered the $16 billion-a-year consumer book publishing business.

To promote these works, it has tools other publishers can only dream about owning, including Amazon First Reads and Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s e-book subscription service. Together, they reach an estimated 10 million or more customers who can read offered titles with a few keystrokes.

“They aren’t gaming the system,” literary agent Rick Pascocello said. “They own the system.”

[...]

On Wednesday, 16 of the top 20 books on Amazon’s romance best-seller list were titles from its book-publishing arm or were self-published on Amazon’s platform.

[...]

Amazon commands some 72% of adult new book sales online, and 49% of all new book sales by units, according to book-industry research firm Codex Group LLC.

[...]

Amazon has more than 100 million Amazon Prime members world-wide, and its U.S. subscribers can pick one title from Amazon First Reads free each month. Non-Prime members pay $1.99.

On Jan. 2, Amazon First Reads sent an email to members about six new titles from Amazon Publishing. By early evening, those books were the top six on Amazon’s Kindle store e-book best-seller list.

The power extends to Amazon’s $9.99-a-month Kindle Unlimited e-book subscription service. The service enables subscribers to select as many as 10 e-books at a time. It had an estimated 4.6 million paid subscribers in June 2018, according to Codex. Amazon Publishing titles and Amazon’s self-published books get prominent display, industry executives said,

[...]

Industry trackers say Amazon is shrinking publishing revenue in adult fiction by releasing so many low-price books from Amazon imprints and its self-published authors. Publisher revenue from adult fiction fell 16% to $4.4 billion in 2017 from 2013, the Association of American Publishers said.

[...]

Mr. Hildick-Smith said the decline in revenue for fiction issued by traditional publishers coincided with the Kindle e-book store’s growing share of the overall adult book market—up 43% between 2013 and 2017—to a bit more than a quarter of the total market. E-books skew heavily to fiction, and much of that increase comes from books self-published on Amazon.

[...]

An Amazon spokesman said thousands of self-published authors in 2018 “earned more than $50,000, with more than a thousand surpassing $100,000 in royalties.”

Who is supporting you? Big Kale?

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, says it’s time we studied diet as seriously as we study drugs:

Several months before my surgical procedure, a cancer patient asked me whether she should change her diet. She had lost her appetite. One nutritionist had advised her to start consuming highly caloric, sugar-loaded drinks to maintain her body weight. But, she worried, what if the sugar ended up “feeding” her cancer? Her anxiety was built on nearly eight decades of science: In the 1920s, Otto Warburg, a German physiologist, demonstrated that tumor cells, unlike most normal cells, metabolize glucose using alternative pathways to sustain their rapid growth, provoking the idea that sugar might promote tumor growth.

You might therefore expect the medical literature on “sugar feeding cancer” to be rich with deep randomized or prospective studies. Instead, when I searched, I could find only a handful of such trials. In 2012, a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston divided patients with Stage 3 colon cancer into different groups based on their dietary consumption, and determined their survival and rate of relapse. The study generated provocative data — but far from an open-and-shut case. Patients whose diets consisted of foods with a high glycemic load (a measure of how much blood glucose rises after eating a typical portion of a food) generally had shorter survival than patients with lower glycemic load. But a higher glycemic index (a measure of how much 50 grams of carbohydrate from a food, which may require eating a huge portion, raises blood glucose) or total fructose intake had no significant association with overall survival or relapse.

While the effect of sugar on cancer was being explored in scattered studies, the so-called ketogenic diet, which consists of high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate, was also being promoted. It isn’t sugars that are feeding the tumor, the logic runs. It’s insulin — the hormone that is released when glucose enters the blood. By reducing carbohydrates and thus keeping a strong curb on insulin, the keto diet would decrease the insulin exposure of tumor cells, and so restrict tumor growth. Yet the search for “ketogenic diet, randomized study and cancer” in the National Library of Medicine database returned a mere 11 articles. Not one of them reported an effect on a patient’s survival, or relapse.

But what if diet, rather than acting alone, collaborates with a drug to produce an effect on a tumor? In the winter of 2016, I had dinner with Lewis Cantley, director of the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Decades ago, Cantley discovered an enzyme named PI3 kinase, which regulates the growth and survival of cells in the presence of nutrients. By inhibiting this enzyme using novel drugs, researchers had hoped to target the signals used by tumor cells to grow, thus “starving” the cancer. But the drugs designed thus far were only marginally effective. Why, we wondered over salmon teriyaki in a nondescript Upper East Side joint, might blocking such a central hub of growth activity have had only a modest effect on tumor growth?

The trials gave us a crucial, obvious clue that we had missed: Many patients had become diabetic, a phenomenon seen as a side effect of the drug that had been ignored. Perhaps the drug wasn’t just providing a “starvationlike” signal only to the tumor cells, we speculated. As most drugs do, the molecule circulated through the entire body of the patient and also acted on the liver, which sensed the same starvationlike signal and, as a reflexive response, sent glucose soaring into the blood. The glucose, in turn, most likely incited insulin release in the pancreas. And some patients treated with the medicine returned to the clinic with sky-high levels of glucose and insulin — in essence, in the throes of drug-induced diabetes.

Cantley wondered whether the additional insulin was reactivating the signals within the tumor cells that had been shut off by the PI3 kinase inhibitor, and so allowing the cells to survive — in effect, undoing all the good being done by the drug. On a paper napkin borrowed from the waiter, he drew out a scheme to outwit this vicious cycle. What if we cut off all extra insulin released, by putting patients on a low-carb, ketogenic diet while on the drug? It would be a novel kind of trial — one in which diet itself would become a drug, or a co-drug, with the PI3 kinase inhibitors.

Between 2016 and 2018, postdoctoral researchers in Cantley’s laboratory and mine established that this strategy worked on several mouse cancers, and on human cancers implanted into mice. By 2019, working with clinicians at Columbia, Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering, we hope to begin a study in humans with lymphomas, endometrial cancer and breast cancer, to use ketogenic diets in concert with the PI3 kinase inhibitors. (In the meantime, a host of other studies have also demonstrated that other diets could potently modulate the effects of targeted therapies on cancers in mouse models.)

But the experiments on mice also warned us of an important pitfall of such an approach. While the “drug plus diet” model worked on experimental mouse and human cancers, the ketogenic diet had a limited effect by itself. For some cancers in the mouse models, the keto diet alone kept the tumor growth at bay. But for others, like some leukemias implanted into mice, the diet alone accelerated the cancer, while the drug-plus-diet approach slowed it down.

We published this data in the scientific journal Nature early this year. I sent out a tweet with the results, emphasizing that the human trial was about to be started, and that the keto diet alone might have a negative effect on some tumors — in essence, a “folks, don’t try this at home” message. The response over social media was unexpected — brisk, vicious, angry, suspicious and, at times, funny. “Keto is pure hype,” one responder wrote. Another countered: “Who is supporting you? Big Kale?”

Humor at its best is a kind of heightened truth

Friday, January 4th, 2019

Supernormal stimuli are key to certain kinds of wit, skewing or exaggerating our usual patterns of perception:

The great silent comic Buster Keaton is a case in point.

In The High Sign (1921), as Keaton settles down on a bench to read his local daily, he unfolds the paper to standard broadsheet format. He soon notices, though, that the newspaper is bigger than he expected, so he continues unfolding it — first to roughly the surface area of an ample picnic blanket, then easily to the proportions of a king-size bedsheet, until he’s finally engulfed by a single gigantic swath of newsprint.

In Seven Chances (1925), Keaton, a stockbroker on the verge of financial ruin, learns that he will inherit handsomely from his grandfather — if he weds by 7 p.m. When his sweetheart rebuffs him (she will marry for love, not for money), he places an open offer of marriage, with details of the pecuniary benefits, in the newspaper. Hundreds of women turn up at the church for the ceremony, only to become enraged at Keaton’s tactics. The bevy of would-be brides chases him out of town and onto a nearby hill, where he dislodges a single rock, which sets in motion an avalanche of boulders, which rain down on our hapless groom’s head.

Keaton’s gags start innocuously enough, with some ordinary object, then snowball into supernormal stimuli. But stimuli can also be made supernormal by visual or verbal tricks that disrupt the ordinary ways we see and understand the world.

Marcel Marien’s work is rife with such tricks. Marien started out as a photographer’s apprentice while still in his teens. But in 1935, after seeing the work of René Magritte for the first time, he decided on a career as an artist, soon becoming a close friend of Magritte and one of the most prominent of the Belgian surrealists. He worked in a variety of media — photography; film; collage; and “ready-mades,” works of art assembled from discarded materials, common household items, or unused parts of other objects.

In Star Dancer (1991), Marien attached a doll’s high-heel shoe to one of the arms of a dead starfish, transforming it into a wispy, Matisse-esque ballerina. The strange juxtaposition makes the viewer do a double take. How can such a clearly alien creature have such distinctly human expressiveness? Like the volleyball/egg that birds try to incubate, the cobbled-together starfish/doll becomes a supernormal stimulus that alters viewers’ perceptions.

The same principle is at work in verbal wit. The English film director Anthony Asquith, for example, once introduced Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond 1930s Hollywood star, to his mother, Lady Margot Asquith, the author and wife of the longtime British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Harlow mispronounced Lady Margot’s first name, sounding the final t, as in forgot. “The t is silent, my dear,” Asquith snipped, “as in Harlow.” Lady Margot isolated and exaggerated the significance of the simple t, just as Tinbergen isolated and exaggerated the herring gull’s orange spot, thereby dramatically enhancing its impact.

What is a punch line but a supernormal stimulus?

We respond to witty words and images more intensely than to “normal” objects, just as Tinbergen’s theory of supernormal stimuli suggests. “Humor at its best is a kind of heightened truth — a super-truth,” E. B. White wrote. This is also true of wit, which takes routine seeing and heightens it by shearing ordinary things and meanings of their habitual context, revealing them as suddenly strange and unfamiliar.

Wouldn’t staying in school obviously make you smarter?

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

The history of brain-training programs for small children is littered with failures.

Remember marketers’ claims in the 1990s, later discredited, that playing Baby Einstein videos for infants in their cribs would make them smarter? (The Baby Einstein brand lives on, selling other baby products and toys.)

Here’s an assessment of other pursuits often promoted as ways to improve your child’s intelligence:

Learning a Musical Instrument

The notion that becoming a musician makes you smarter has long been popular. Learning to play an instrument has been linked in several studies to higher intelligence.

After controlling for genetic factors and shared home environment, however, a 2015 study of 10,500 twins couldn’t replicate the finding.

Instead, researchers found people with high IQs are more likely to take up a musical instrument and stick to it.

Still, learning an instrument may have a beneficial placebo effect, exciting and motivating children to work hard. Also, music training may hone self-control, including focused attention and memorization.

Learning Chess

Chess fans love to proclaim the game’s brain-building power, and numerous studies have found links between chess and broader problem-solving ability.

However, while a 2016 review of 24 studies found that children who play chess score higher in math, the research had some methodological flaws, says Giovanni Sala, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Osaka University in Japan. Two later studies he co-wrote found chess training had no significant impact on math skills.

Chess students may do better in school because of a placebo effect. “Most pupils are enthusiastic about chess. This enthusiasm may make the pupils more motivated about school,” says a follow-up study co-written by Dr. Sala. It’s also possible that children might benefit if coaches teach them to apply chess skills to math.

Enriching the Environment

Researchers have been battling for decades over whether a person’s IQ is fixed for life or can increase through effort. One area of agreement is that while intelligence is determined mainly by genetic factors, the environment shapes how those genetic predispositions play out. This is especially true during the first few years of life, when the brain is most malleable.

A stimulating home environment is pivotal, says Richard E. Nisbett, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan. Engaging children in lively conversations with challenging vocabulary can help. This is often most evident at the dinner table. “There’s a verbal tennis game going on. The parent asks a question, the child answers, the parent makes a comment, the child asks a question,” says Dr. Nisbett, author of “Intelligence and How to Get It.”

Another powerful factor is interactive reading with children under 4, inviting them to participate and helping them elaborate on their ideas. Such activity is linked to IQ gains of more than six points, according to a 2013 research analysis. (Typical IQs range from 85 to 115, with 100 as the mean.)

Working Memory Training

Carefully designed video-training programs show promise in improving children’s working memory, or the capacity to hold information in mind for short periods of time. Several recent studies found evidence that working-memory training may improve children’s math or reading skills or their fluid intelligence: the ability to reason in novel situations.

Kindergartners who had working-memory training showed improvements in number skills, according to a 2017 study of 81 children in the Journal of Numerical Cognition.

The training was delivered via a tablet videogame. While viewing a series of identical characters in various colors, the children were asked to signal whether each image was upside down or right-side up. Afterward they were prompted to recall the sequence of colors of the characters and click on the same-colored characters in order.

“I do think there is value in training working memory in children,” says Susanne Jaeggi, an associate professor of education and cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a co-author of several studies on the topic.

Playing card and board games like Set, Blink or Mastermind may have similar effects. Free apps targeting working memory and other skills are described at the University of California, Riverside’s Brain Game Center.

Staying in School

This might seem like a no-brainer. Wouldn’t staying in school obviously make you smarter?

A huge new study offers a more conclusive answer than past research. Students gain about one to five additional IQ points for every year they remain in school, according to the analysis of 42 data sets with a total of 600,000 people published in June in Psychological Science.

The studies were based largely on natural experiments, in which students received more or less schooling due to factors that had nothing to do with them, such as government changes in minimum schooling requirements.

The research also lends insight into why many apps and training programs aimed at raising IQ fail to produce lasting effects, says Elliot Tucker-Drob, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-author of the study.

Raising IQ may require the kind of sustained involvement that comes with attending school, with all the practice and challenges it entails. “It’s not like you just go in for an hour of treatment a week. It’s a real lifestyle change,” he says.

Their habits require habits!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

Ryan Holiday explains how to develop better habits in 2019. I’ve edited down his advice:

Think Small — Really Small

The writer James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title). An atomic habit is a small habit that makes an enormous difference in your life. He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1 percent improvements in every area. That sounds small, but it accumulates and adds up in a big way. He emphasizes thinking small with big habits. Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day.

Create a Physical Reminder

The author and minister Will Bowen has a simple system that helps people quit complaining. He provides each member of his congregation with a purple bracelet, and each time they complain, they switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other. This method is simple and straightforward and makes it easy to hold yourself accountable.

Lay Out Your Supplies

When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them.

Piggyback New Habits on Old Habits

I listened to an interview with David Sedaris, who talked about how he likes to go on long walks and pick up trash near his home. I go for a walk nearly every morning. It’s an ingrained habit that’s part of my routine. Boom: I just added picking up garbage to my walk. This was easy because I had already done the heavy lifting of creating the first habit. Now it’s harder not to pick up trash, like when I don’t have a bag.

Surround Yourself With Good People

“Tell me who you spend time with and I will tell you who you are” was Goethe’s line. Jim Rohn came up with the phrase that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If you want to have better habits, find better friends.

Commit to a Challenge

In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic Challenge, which was 30 consecutive days of different challenges and activities based on Stoic philosophy. It was an awesome experience. Even I, the person who created the challenge, got a lot out of it. Why? I think it was the process of handing myself over to a script. It’s the reason personal trainers are so effective. You just show up at the gym and they tell you what to do, and it’s never the same thing as the last time. Deciding what we want to do, determining our own habits, and making the right choices is exhausting. Handing the wheel over to someone else is a way to narrow our focus and put everything into the commitment.

Make It Interesting

Right now I’m in a 50-push-up challenge with about two dozen people. Every day, we do 50 push-ups and upload video proof that we’ve done them. If you miss a day, the app charges you $5. At first you do the daily deed just so you don’t lose money. But soon enough, it’s about competing with the people in the group. Then a few days in, another motivation kicks in: The winners (people with the fewest misses) split the pot of everyone else’s fees.

It’s About the Ritual

Professional dancer Twyla Tharp has written about how every morning she gets up early, dresses, and takes a cab to the same gym, where she works out for several hours. This is how she trains and keeps herself fit. Her workouts are tough and exhausting, and you’d think she would need a lot of discipline to commit to showing up each morning. But, as she writes in The Creative Habit, she just has to get herself to the cab. That’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The ritual takes over.

It Doesn’t Have to Be an Everyday Thing

I read a lot, but not usually every day. I do most of my reading when I travel, when I binge on books. Trying to force myself to read every single day (or for a set amount of time or a set amount of pages) would not be as productive or as enjoyable as periods of three to five days of really heavy reading (where I might finish three to five books). Binge reading may not be the right thing for everyone, but not every good habit has to be part of a daily routine. Sprints or batching can work too. What matters is that the results average out.

Focus on Yourself

One of the reasons I’ve talked about watching less news and not obsessing over things outside your control is simple: resource allocation. If your morning is ruined because you woke up to CNN reports of another ridiculous Trump 2 a.m. tweet-storm, you’re not going to have the energy or the motivation to focus on making the right dietary choices or sitting down to do that hard piece of work. I don’t watch the news, I don’t check social media much, and I don’t stress about everything going on in the world—not because I’m apathetic, but because there are all sorts of changes I want to make. I just believe these changes start at home. I want to get myself together before I bemoan what’s going on in Washington or whether the U.K. will figure out a Brexit strategy. “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to be seen as ignorant or clueless about some things.” (Or a lot of things.)

Make It About Your Identity

Generally, I agree with Paul Graham that we should keep our identities small, and generally, I think identity politics are toxic. It’s a huge advantage, however, to cultivate certain habits or commitments that are foundational to your identity. For example, it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. That I see myself as a writer is also valuable because if I’m not writing, I’m not earning that image.

Keep It Simple

Most people are way too obsessed with productivity and optimization. They want to know all the tools a successful writer or an artist uses because they think this is what makes these individuals so great. In reality, they are great because they love what they do and they have something they’re trying to say. When I look at some people’s routines and all the stuff they’re trying to manage, I shudder. Their habits require habits!

Pick Yourself Up When You Fall

The path to self-improvement is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, or you’ll complain and have to switch the bracelet from one wrist to another. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall.

Popular Posts of 2018

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2018. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, four of which are new, six of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. The Bob Rubin Trade (new)
  3. Polar Bear Turns Purple After Medication
  4. The Father of Social-Science
  5. Fast Friends Protocol
  6. Observations from Actual Shootings
  7. He-Man Opening Monologue
  8. I’ve been blogging for 15 years (new)
  9. Maximum effective range of buckshot (new)
  10. The most expensive new public school in San Francisco history failed (new)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2018 and not from an earlier year:

  1. The Bob Rubin Trade
  2. I’ve been blogging for 15 years
  3. Maximum effective range of buckshot
  4. The most expensive new public school in San Francisco history failed
  5. The physical strength of nations varies considerably
  6. Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?
  7. Why some people become sudden geniuses
  8. Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?
  9. Where education was tried it turned out to be futile
  10. Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Also, I should thank some of my top referrers: Social MatterZ ManMapping The Dark Enlightenment, and The Scholar’s Stage.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018

Please enjoy these yuletide posts of Christmas Past:

All Hallows’ Eve

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

We’ve all been planet chauvinists

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Gerard K. O’Neill (The High Frontier) and Isaac Asimov appeared in a 1975 Roundtable TV interview, where Asimov noted that he and his fellow science-fiction writers failed to imagine free-floating space colonies:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon. So have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the Asteroid Belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the Earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Steven Levy was able to interview Jeff Bezos — head of Amazon, of course, but also Blue Origin — only after watching that O’Neill-Asimov interview.

That vision captivated a generation of space nerds, including Bezos, who believed it back then, as a brainy schoolkid. And he believes it now, with “increasing conviction” every passing year. Earth is destined to run out of resources, he explains patiently to anyone questioning his priorities. Humans need a plan B. While he readily concedes that building a space company qualifies as a cool adventure, the ultimate point, he always insists, is getting people to live in space. He often remarks with astonishment and disgust that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He’s out to change that, by creating the backbone needed for O’Neill’s millions, billions, maybe even a trillion people to reside off-planet.

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, explains why English is so weirdly different from other languages:

The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a “spelling bee” competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

[...]

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian.

[...]

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family — Indo-European — and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

[...]

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s — why just that? The present-tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult?

Read the whole thing.

McWhorter’s book, The Language Hoax, refutes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking.

The Russians are considering a semi-catamaran aircraft carrier

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much about naval architecture, but I remember idly musing — while reading about World War II, of course — that a catamaran design would allow an almost arbitrarily large flight deck on an aircraft carrier — and I wondered what I was missing.

Now it looks like the Russians are considering a semi-catamaran design for their new Krylov light aircraft carrier:

The underwater part of the light aircraft carrier features a semi-catamaran hull which is the major distinction of the project designed by the Krylov Scientific Center, a representative of the organization told TASS.

Krylov Light Aircraft Carrier Stern

“The project is distinguished by the underwater part of a semi-catamaran form. Catamaran actually means two hulls united by a platform. It has a wide deck which is important for an aircraft carrier. The design adds flight deck space on which the number of aircraft depends. As a result, a medium-displacement ship can carry a full-fledged air wing,” he said.

Abixia is a paracosm

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Alison Gopnik explores the imaginary worlds of childhood:

In 19th-century England, the Brontë children created Gondal, an imaginary kingdom full of melodrama and intrigue. Emily and Charlotte Brontë grew up to write the great novels “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” The fictional land of Narnia, chronicled by C.S. Lewis in a series of classic 20th-century novels, grew out of Boxen, an imaginary kingdom that Lewis shared with his brother when they were children. And when the novelist Anne Perry was growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, she and another girl created an imaginary kingdom called Borovnia as part of an obsessive friendship that ended in murder — the film “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story.

But what about Abixia? Abixia is an island nation on the planet Rooark, with its own currency (the iinter, divided into 12 skilches), flag and national anthem. It’s inhabited by cat-humans who wear flannel shirts and revere Swiss army knives — the detailed description could go on for pages. And it was created by a pair of perfectly ordinary Oregon 10-year-olds.

Abixia is a “paracosm,” an extremely detailed and extensive imaginary world with its own geography and history. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon and her colleagues discovered Abixia, and many other worlds like it, by talking to children. Most of what we know about paracosms comes from writers who described the worlds they created when they were children. But in a paper forthcoming in the journal Child Development, Prof. Taylor shows that paracosms aren’t just the province of budding novelists. Instead, they are a surprisingly common part of childhood.

Prof. Taylor asked 169 children, ages eight to 12, whether they had an imaginary world and what it was like. They found that about 17 percent of the children had created their own complicated universe. Often a group of children would jointly create a world and maintain it, sometimes for years, like the Brontë sisters or the Lewis brothers. And grown-ups were not invited in.

Prof. Taylor also tried to find out what made the paracosm creators special. They didn’t score any higher than other children in terms of IQ, vocabulary, creativity or memory. Interestingly, they scored worse on a test that measured their ability to inhibit irrelevant thoughts. Focusing on the stern and earnest real world may keep us from wandering off into possible ones.

But the paracosm creators were better at telling stories, and they were more likely to report that they also had an imaginary companion. In earlier research, Prof. Taylor found that around 66% of preschoolers have imaginary companions; many paracosms began with older children finding a home for their preschool imaginary friends.

Children with paracosms, like children with imaginary companions, weren’t neurotic loners either, as popular stereotypes might suggest. In fact, if anything, they were more socially skillful than other children.

Why do imaginary worlds start to show up when children are eight to 12 years old? Even when 10-year-olds don’t create paracosms, they seem to have a special affinity for them — think of all the young “Harry Potter” fanatics. And as Prof. Taylor points out, paracosms seem to be linked to all the private clubhouses, hidden rituals and secret societies of middle childhood.

Prof. Taylor showed that preschoolers who create imaginary friends are particularly good at understanding other people’s minds — they are expert at everyday psychology. For older children, the agenda seems to shift to what we might call everyday sociology or geography. Children may create alternative societies and countries in their play as a way of learning how to navigate real ones in adult life.

You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.

Mechanical jokes and flat cats

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

I never read any of Heinlein’s “juveniles” while a juvenile, but I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Rolling Stones, which includes a rant about cars:

Despite their great sizes and tremendous power spaceships are surprisingly simple machines. Every technology goes through three stages: first a crudely simple and quite unsatisfactory gadget; second, an enormously complicated group of gadgets designed to overcome the short-comings of the original and achieving thereby somewhat satisfactory performance through extremely complex compromise; third, a final proper design therefrom.

In transportation the ox cart and the rowboat represent the first stage of technology.

The second stage may well be represented by the automobiles of the middle twentieth century just before the opening of interplanatery travel. These unbelievable museum pieces were fro their time fast, sleek and powerful — but inside their skins were assembled a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery. The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one’s lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design — for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were “powered” (if on may call it that) by “reciprocating engines.” A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused the wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

The prime mover was used only to accelerate and to overcome “friction” — a concept then in much wider engineering use. To decelerate, stop, or turn, the heroic human operator used his own muscle power, multiplied precariously through a series of levers.

Despite the name “automobile” these vehicles had no autocontrol circuits; control, such as it was, was exercised second by second for hours on end by a human being peering out through a small pane of dirty silica glass, and judging unassisted and often disastrously his own motion and those of other objects. In almost all cases the operator had no notion of the kinetic energy stored in his missile and could not have written the basic equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion were to him mysteries as profound as the meaning of the universe.

Nevertheless millions of these mechanical jokes swarmed over our home planet, dodging each other by inches or failing to dodge. None of them ever worked right; by their nature they could not work right; and they were constantly getting out of order. Their operators were usually mightily pleased when they worked at all. When they did not, which was every few hundred miles (hundred, not hundred thousand), they hired a member of a social class of arcane specialists to make inadequate and always expensive temporary repairs.

Despite their mad shortcomings, these “automobiles” were the most characteristic form of wealth and the most cherished possessions of their time. Three whole generations were slaves to them.

The book is also the source of the original tribble and its associated troubles:

The similarities to the flat cats and the some specific story events involving them was brought to the attention of the Star Trek staff when Desilu/Paramount’s primary in-house clearance group, Kellam de Forest Research, submitted a report on the script on August of 1967, noting the similarities of “a small, featureless, fluffy, purring animal, friendly and loving, that reproduces rapidly when fed, and nearly engulfs a spaceship”. So worrisome was this matter that the producers contacted Heinlein and asked for a waiver, which Heinlein granted. In his authorized biography Heinlein said he was called by producer Gene Coon about the issue and agreed to waive claim to the “similarity” to his flat cats because he’d just been through one plagiarism lawsuit and did not wish to embroil himself in another. He had misgivings upon seeing the actual script but let it go, an action he later regretted.