Dogs follow a strict code of conduct

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

Canids (members of the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play:

1. Ask first and communicate clearly. Many nonhumans announce that they want to play and not fight or mate. Canids punctuate play sequences using a bow to solicit play, crouching on their forelimbs while standing on their hind legs. Bows are used almost exclusively during play and are highly stereotyped — that is, they always look the same — so the message “Come play with me” or “I still want to play” is clear. Play bows are honest signals, a sign of trust.

Even when an individual follows a play bow with seemingly aggressive actions such as baring teeth, growling or biting, their companions demonstrate submission or avoidance only around 15% of the time, which suggests they trust the bow’s message that whatever follows is meant in fun. Trust in one another’s honest communication is vital for fair play and a smoothly functioning social group.

2. Mind your manners. Animals consider their play partners’ abilities and engage in self-handicapping and role reversing to create and maintain equal footing. For instance, a coyote might not bite their play partner as hard as they can, handicapping themselves to keep things fair. And a dominant pack member might perform a role reversal, rolling over on their back (a sign of submission that they would never offer during real aggression) to let their lower-status play partner take a turn at “winning.”

Human children also behave this way when they play, for instance, taking turns overpowering each other in a mock wrestling match. By keeping things fair in this manner, every member of the group can play with every other member, building bonds that keep the group cohesive and strong.

3. Admit when you are wrong. Even when everyone wants to keep things fair, play can sometimes get out of hand. When an animal misbehaves or accidentally hurts his play partner, they typically apologize, just like a human would. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, “Sorry I bit you so hard — this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” For play to continue, the other individual must forgive the wrongdoing. And forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant during play as well as in daily pack life.

4. Be honest. An apology, like an invitation to play, must be sincere. Individuals who continue to play unfairly or send dishonest signals often quickly find themselves ostracized. This has far greater consequences than simply reduced playtime. For example, my long-term field research shows that juvenile coyotes who do not play fair often end up leaving their pack and are up to four times more likely to die than those individuals who remain with others. There are substantial risks associated with dispersal by young coyotes, and violating social norms, established during play, is not good for perpetuating one’s genes.


A few people have asked me if dogs always play fair, mentioning a few examples in which play escalated into an encounter that seemed to be aggressive or it seemed like this was going to happen. I explain that this is extremely rare, and tell them about a study by Melissa Shyan and her colleagues in which it was reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters.

Almost any change led to increased productivity

Friday, January 10th, 2020

The term Hawthorne effect was coined in 1958 by Henry A. Landsberger when he was analyzing earlier experiments from 1924–32 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago) to describe the surprising finding of the numerous productivity studies:

The original purpose of the Hawthorne studies was to examine how different aspects of the work environment, such as lighting, the timing of breaks, and the length of the workday, had on worker productivity.

In the most famous of the experiments, the focus of the study was to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light that workers received would have an effect on how productive workers were during their shifts. Employee productivity seemed to increase due to the changes but then decreased once the experiment was over.

What the researchers in the original studies found was that almost any change to the experimental conditions led to increases in productivity. When illumination was decreased to the levels of candlelight, production increased. In other variations of the experiments, the production also improved when breaks were eliminated entirely and when the workday was lengthened.

The results were surprising and the researchers concluded at the time that workers were actually responding to the increased attention from their supervisors. Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention and not because of changes in the experimental variables. Landsberger defined the Hawthorne effect as a short-term improvement in performance caused by observing workers.

Roman numerals were used in academia

Friday, January 10th, 2020

The Hindu-Arabic number system was invented in India around the year 500 AD, and during the Early Middle Ages spread throughout Arabic-speaking world, but it did not spread quickly throughout Europe:

Crossley examined 1398 manuscripts created between the years 1200 and 1500 to see how much use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, and found that throughout this period Roman numerals were still largely preferred. For the 13th century, only 7% of manuscripts had the new numbers, rising to 17% for the 14th century and 47% for the 15th century. He also found that in many instances where writers were mixing the two systems, sometimes within the same number – for example, one sometimes found M (for 1000) followed by Arabic numerals.

That crazy, mixed-up example sounds like a superior system, like a more readable scientific notation, where you succinctly clarify the order of magnitude (M = 103) and then rattle off the significant digits.

The new and old systems continued side by side, but in different domains:

Roman numerals were used in academia where universities taught about abstract properties: square numbers, triangular numbers, etc. Hindu-Arabic numerals were used for the practical world of commerce. This occurred in special, so-called abacus schools where merchants and their employees were taught the new Hindu-Arabic numerals. Such schools were prevalent in Italy. Since they were intimately involved with sometimes quite complicated calculations, the commercial use ultimately led to the development of algebra. It was not until the sixteenth century that the two domains came together. At that time academia at last embraced the study of methods of calculation, in particular algebra, while retaining its theoretical concern with abstract properties of numbers.

The hot spots on the suicide map and the hot spots on the homicide map would coincide

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019

BJ Campbell points to geographic evidence that gun deaths are cultural:

I was recently pointed to a pretty amazing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project hosted by The Oregonian, which uses CDC data and population rate data to determine the gun death rate, gun homicide rate, and gun suicide rate within the country on a county by county basis. [...] Deaths are expressed as rates per 100,000 population, and above average rates are red, while below average rates are blue.

Gun deaths per 100k people

We hear a lot of banter from the “anti-gun” media that these problems are gun problems, and they’ve concocted this “gun deaths” number in order to lump these into the same problem and gloss over the differences. But if the problem were “guns,” then the hot spots on the suicide map and the hot spots on the homicide map would coincide, and would be related to gun ownership rates. There are only a few places where they overlap. Most of the hot zones for suicide have low homicide rates, and most of the hot zones for homicide have low suicide rates.

Gun homicides per 100k people

Gun suicides per 100k people

Poor black folks have a gun homicide problem, while poor white folks have a gun suicide problem.

American Nations Today

The break between systemic firearm suicide and sporadic firearm suicide within the south is almost directly foretold by the boundaries between Greater Appalachia and the Deep South.

By virtue of their superior ambition and energy but also by default

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is also a history of European Jews:

The operators of those mechanisms [of capitalism and industrialization], by virtue of their superior ambition and energy but also by default, were Jews, who represented about 5 percent of the Hungarian population in 1910. The stubbornly rural and militaristic Magyar nobility had managed to keep 33 percent of the Hungarian people illiterate as late as 1918 and wanted nothing of vulgar commerce except its fruits. As a result, by 1904 Jewish families owned 37.5 percent of Hungary’s arable land; by 1910, although Jews comprised only 0.1 percent of agricultural laborers and 7.3 percent of industrial workers, they counted 50.6 percent of Hungary’s lawyers, 53 percent of its commercial businessmen, 59.9 percent of its doctors and 80 percent of it financiers.

America’s culture of achievement is inducing Murray to continue to produce major works

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

Charles Murray’s Human Diversity is not as controversial as you might think, Tyler Cowen says:

Overall this is a serious and well-written book that presents a great deal of scientific evidence very effectively. Anyone reading it will learn a lot. But it didn’t change my mind on much, least of all the most controversial questions in this area. If anything, in the Bayesian sense it probably nudged me away from geneticist-based arguments, simply because it did not push me any further towards them.

Murray of course will write the book he wants to, but my personal wish list was two-fold: a) a book leaving most of the normal science behind, and focusing only on the uncertain and controversial frontier issues, in great detail, and b) much more discussion of the import of culture.

Most of all, I am happy that America’s culture of achievement is inducing Murray to continue to produce major works at the age of 76, soon to be 77.

Vanadium dioxide conducts electricity without conducting heat

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

Researchers have identified a metal that conducts electricity without conducting heat:

The metal, found in 2017, contradicts something called the Wiedemann-Franz Law, which basically states that good conductors of electricity will also be proportionally good conductors of heat, which is why things like motors and appliances get so hot when you use them regularly.

But a team in the US showed this isn’t the case for metallic vanadium dioxide (VO2) — a material that’s already well known for its strange ability to switch from a see-through insulator to a conductive metal at the temperature of 67 degrees Celsius (152 degrees Fahrenheit).


“For electrons, heat is a random motion. Normal metals transport heat efficiently because there are so many different possible microscopic configurations that the individual electrons can jump between.”

“In contrast, the coordinated, marching-band-like motion of electrons in vanadium dioxide is detrimental to heat transfer as there are fewer configurations available for the electrons to hop randomly between,” he added.

There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center have used MRI scanners to find a Goldilocks effect in how children react to being read to:

For a small 2018 study involving 27 children around the age of 4, the researchers watched how the young brains responded to different stimuli. As with the first bowl of porridge that Goldilocks finds in the house of the Three Bears, the sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

Just as Goldilocks sighs with relief when she takes a spoonful from the third bowl of porridge and finds that it is “just right,” so a small child can relax into the experience of being read a picture book. There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life — a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.

By contrast, fast-paced TV shows have been shown to impair executive function in young children after as little as nine minutes of viewing. Nor is that the only tech-related downside. Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to our electronic devices, that’s what will draw their gaze too. What they see may not be what we want them to see. As the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has written: “Babies are often distressed when they look to their parent for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.”

A Tesla valve allows a fluid to flow preferentially in one direction, without moving parts

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

In 1920, Nikola Tesla was awarded U.S. Patent 1,329,559 for his valvular conduit, or Tesla valve, which allows a fluid to flow preferentially in one direction, without moving parts:

Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

One tool for avoiding cognitive entrenchment, David Epstein reports (in Range), is to keep one foot outside your world:

Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation. And those who have won the Nobel Prize are more likely still. Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still. The most successful experts also belong to the wider world. “To him who observes them from afar,” said Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, “it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”


“When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” [Steve Jobs] said. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

Or electrical engineer Claude Shannon, who launched the Information Age thanks to a philosophy course he took to fulfill a requirement at the University of Michigan. In it, he was exposed to the work of self-taught nineteenth-century English logician George Boole, who assigned a value of 1 to true statements and 0 to false statements and showed that logic problems could be solved like math equations. It resulted in absolutely nothing of practical importance until seventy years after Boole passed away, when Shannon did a summer internship at AT&T’s Bell Labs research facility. There he recognized that he could combine telephone call-routing technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time,” Shannon said.


Connolly’s primary finding was that early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty.


They employed what Hogarth called a “circuit breaker.” They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns.

No hardcoded program is perfect

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Is our taste for politics so different from our taste for sugar?

Instinct is not intelligence. No hardcoded program is perfect. But in a stable adaptive environment, an instinct that fails systematically will have long since been revised by evolution.

In the tribal world, not only were political instincts like loyalty and ambition productive for us individually — they also tended to work out well collectively for the tribe.

Biologists still argue about group selection, but a dysfunctional tribe is unlikely to pass on any DNA. Massacre has always been a thing. While you’re bickering endlessly around the cave fire, the next tribe over is figuring out how to just eat you.

In modern civilization, these equations need not hold. Any of our instincts may be dangerous individually or collectively. Evolution just hasn’t had enough time yet to tune our biology.

Domes are overrated

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

It is an unwritten rule of space journalism that any article about Moon or Mars bases needs to have a conceptual drawing of habitation domes, Casey Handmer notes, but domes are overrated:

Domes feature compound curvature, which complicates manufacturing. If assembled from triangular panels, junctions contain multiple intersecting acute angled parts, which makes sealing a nightmare. In fact, even residential dome houses are notoriously difficult to insulate and seal! A rectangular room has 6 faces and 12 edges, which can be framed, sealed, and painted in a day or two. A dome room has a new wall every few feet, all with weird triangular faces and angles, and enormously increased labor overhead.


It turns out that the main advantage of domes — no internal supports — becomes a major liability on Mars. While rigid geodesic domes on Earth are compressive structures, on Mars, a pressurized dome actually supports its own weight and then some. As a result, the structure is under tension and the dome is attempting to tear itself out of the ground. Since lifting force scales with area, while anchoring force scales with circumference, domes on Mars can’t be much wider than about 150 feet, and even then would require extensive foundation engineering.

Once a dome is built and the interior occupied, it can’t be extended. Allocation of space within the dome is zero sum, and much of the volume is occupied by weird wedge-shaped segments that are hard to use. Instead, more domes will be required, but since they don’t tesselate, tunnels of some kind would be needed to connect to other structures. Each tunnel has to mate with curved walls, a rigid structure that must accept variable mechanical tolerances, be broad enough to enable large vehicles to pass, yet narrow enough to enable a bulkhead to be sealed in the event of an inevitable seal failure. Since it’s a rigid structure, it has to be structurally capable of enduring pressure cycling across areas with variable radii of curvature without fatigue, creep, or deflection mismatch.

A concerned citizen is largely helpless

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

In Loserthink Scott Adams cites a celebrity’s global warming climate change tweet as an example of a bright person talking about something without training in economics or business:

Now let’s say you had experience in economics and business, as I do. In those domains, anyone telling you they can predict the future in ten years with their complicated multivariate models is automatically considered a fraud.


You might be debating me in your mind right now and thinking that, unlike the field of finance, the scientific process drives out bias over time. Studies are peer reviewed, and experiments that can’t be reproduced are discarded.

Is that what is happening?

Here I draw upon my sixteen years working in corporate America. If my job involved reviewing a complicated paper from a peer, how much checking of the data and the math would I do when I am already overworked? Would I travel to the original measuring instruments all over the world and check their calibrations? Would I compare the raw data to the “adjusted” data that is used in the paper? Would I do a deep dive on the math and reasoning, or would I skim it for obvious mistakes? Unless scientists are a different kind of human being than the rest of us, they would intelligently cut corners whenever they think they could get away with it, just like everyone else. Assuming scientists are human, you would expect lots of peer-reviewed studies to be flawed. And that turns out to be the situation. As the New York Times reported in 2018, the peer review process is defective to the point of being laughable.


My point is that a concerned citizen is largely helpless in trying to understand how settled the science of climate change really is. But that doesn’t stop us from having firm opinions on the topic.


Whenever you have a lot of money in play, combined with the ability to hide misbehavior behind complexity, you should expect widespread fraud to happen. Take, for example, the 2019 Duke University settlement in which the university agreed to pay $112.5 million for repeatedly submitting research grant requests with falsified data. Duke had a lot of grant money at stake, and lots of complexity in which to hide bad behavior. Fraud was nearly guaranteed.

If you have been on this planet for a long time, as I have, and you pay attention to science, you know that the consensus of scientists on the topic of nutrition was wrong for decades.


Over time, it became painfully obvious to me that nutrition science wasn’t science at all. It was some unholy marriage of industry influence, junk science, and government. Any one of those things is bad, but when you put those three forces together, people die. That isn’t hyperbole. Bad nutrition science has probably killed a lot of people in the past few decades.

What were these watermelons good for?

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Native to Africa, watermelons have been grown throughout the continent since ancient times — despite the fact that watermelons were not sweet until much, much later:

In southwest Libya, 5,000-year-old seeds were excavated, and watermelon remnants from 1500 B.C. have been discovered in the foundational deposits beneath walls of a Sudanese temple. Archeologists have also found seeds and paintings of various species of watermelon in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back from as long as 4,000 years ago. These species include wild watermelons, as well as the oblong predecessors of the “dessert” watermelon.

But if not a flavorful fruit, what were these watermelons good for? According to the work of Harry S. Paris, a horticulturalist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, ancient Egyptians likely harvested the round fruit for its water. Wild, or “spontaneous” plants, Paris writes, can be sources of clean water during the long, dry season, and can provide food for livestock and animals.


Living travelers, too, needed reliable water sources to sustain them. According to Paris, it’s likely that travelers took watermelons with them as a kind of nature-made canteen. Along with trade, he writes, the watermelon’s role as a portable fresh water supply helped the fruit find its way into new regions.

Once the Greeks got a hold of the pepo (as they called it) around 400 B.C., they, too, put it to use. While some varieties were eaten (and others had to be boiled, fried, or simply avoided), the watermelon made a splash in the medical world. Pliny the Elder found pepones to be incredibly refreshing, and, according to one translation, “also laxative.” The first-century physician Dioscorides also noted that the pepon was cooling, wet, and diuretic.


But by the first few centuries A.D., posits Paris, the watermelon had likely sweetened up. Writings in Hebrew from the end of the second century, as well as sixth-century Latin texts, group the watermelon with other sweet fruits, including pomegranates, figs, and grapes.

Eating marmot is thought to be good for health

Monday, November 18th, 2019

China has been hit with the plague:

On Tuesday, Beijing authorities announced a municipal hospital had taken in a married couple from Inner Mongolia, a sparsely populated autonomous region in northwest China, seeking treatment for pneumonic plague. One patient is stable while the other is in critical condition but not deteriorating, according to Beijing’s health commission.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention assured the public on Weibo, a Chinese social media site that is the equivalent of Twitter, that chances of a plague outbreak are “extremely low.” The city’s health commission has quarantined the infected patients, provided preventative care for those exposed to the couple and sterilized the relevant medical facilities, the center said.

Police are also guarding the quarantined emergency room of Chaoyang hospital, where the infected patients were first received and diagnosed, according to Caixin, an independent Chinese news outlet.


China has a checkered record in managing public health crises. In 2002, the central government initially refused to acknowledge a nationwide outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, an illness with flu- and pneumonia-like symptoms.


Mongolia, which borders the autonomous region where the infected Chinese couple lives, reported two fatal cases of bubonic plague just this year, after the patients ate raw marmot, a species of wild rodent that often carry the offending bacterium. In Mongolia, eating marmot is thought to be good for health.

At least it’s not African rabies.