Changing Styles in the Meta-Narrative of Science

J.S. Zerbe's 'multi-plane' in 1910, when, Thompson tells us, 'aircraft' was one of the most common words in patents. (Wikimedia Commons)

J.S. Zerbe’s ‘multi-plane’ in 1910, when, Thompson tells us, ‘aircraft’ was one of the most common words in patents. (Wikimedia Commons)

From Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

In a series of papers studying the history of American innovation, Packalen and Bhattacharya indexed every one-word, two-word, and three-word phrase that appeared in more than 4 million patent texts in the last 175 years. To focus their search on truly new concepts, they recorded the year those phrases first appeared in a patent. Finally, they ranked each concept’s popularity based on how many times it reappeared in later patents. Essentially, they trawled the billion-word literature of patents to document the birth-year and the lifespan of American concepts, from “plastic” to “world wide web” and “instant messaging.”

The overall story, Bhattacharya told me, follows the shift from “atoms to bits”—from the loud world of trains and cars in the 19th century to the invisible life of software. But within that meta-narrative (and this is where the colors come in handy), you can see moments where one industry dominated the patent literature—like chemistry (black) in the 1930s, medicine (red) in the 1980s, and computers (green) in the last few decades.

And the serious winners are medicine and computers, which, Thompson says, “have reigned over patents like no two categories have dominated any previous period of invention in U.S. history.

This is a fun read and a good reminder (we can’t get them too often) that not just patents but science tends to reflect the cultural obsessions of an age.

 

Putin has Asperger’s? Pete Etchells says Now wait just a goddamned minute here

 

Vladimir Putin looks skeptical. But maybe it's just Davos. Photo courtesy WikiMedia, creative commons license.

Vladimir Putin cannot believe this bullshit. Though maybe that’s just Davos.

On Wednesday, USA Today ran a report about a US Naval College researcher’s conclusion that “movement pattern analysis” indicated that Vladimir Putin has Asperger’s. The fabulous Pete Etchells, over at the Guardian, shows why we should wonder not only about this idea, but, yet again, about how the Pentagon spends its money.

I’ve not seen the original study, but the contents reported in the news bear similarities to a 2005 patent from Connors. You can see the patent for yourself here. The swamp-like prose makes for difficult reading, but the basic idea goes like this: first, get a video of the person in question. Next, strip out the audio, and ‘examine’ the video to establish ‘a baseline pattern’ of the speaker’s movements. In case you’re wondering, here’s the definition of baseline:

Baseline style is composed of: The universal— what gets passed down through evolution, and, the individual—the scaffolding of what gets stamped through our families, our culture, and social factors such as gender, class, social convention, region, etc. … It is the hardwired DNA of your communicative expression. It is composed of both “quantity,” the mass of self (the posture, body parts, the subsystems) and “quality,” the glue or dynamic energetic organization of weight and how that integrates it all together in expression.

Good, that’s cleared that up then. So once you’ve established this baseline, you examine the video again – this time with the audio back in – and decode “said person’s emotional, cognitive and performance processes”. Finally, you need to get hold of other videos of the speaker, to see whether the patterns you’ve established crop up repeatedly. This isn’t an analysis method specifically designed to test for Asperger’s syndrome – much the opposite, in fact. It’s so generic as to be meaningless.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can. Get the rest at  The “Putin has Asperger’s” story highlights the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance.

Photo courtesy WikiMedia, creative commons license.

Brian Williams might well be misremembering rather than lying

It seems incredible that someone might misremember whether they were in a chopper crash. Ford Vox, a physician who specializes in spinal and brain injuries and has treated many people with memory problems, explains how it could happen:

You may wonder how its possible that Williams tricked himself into such a vivid false memory told in such detail. He did experience some aspects of the events.

Though he wasnt in the Chinook that took a hit, he landed in that forward position with it and spent three days on the ground without communication with NBC or his family. He formed bonds with the servicemen around him. He felt vulnerability and stress during that period.Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it.

Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on whats going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.The emotions he’s feeling when he’s retelling the story also infect the original memory. The NBC videos of the downed Chinook that hes viewed repeatedly are dredged up as well.

Clever studies tell us just how powerfully words and images can manipulate memory to the point of inserting false memories. In one, researchers interviewed the parents of their experimental subjects, all college students, and collected true stories about events each of the studies had experienced.After presenting these true stories mixed with false ones, researchers were able to trick 25% of the perfectly healthy students into thinking they had experienced one of the false stories just by having had them imagine any connections they might have to what they couldn’t remember.

Brian Williams had plenty of connection to the downed helicopter. He was trapped right there for several days.

In another study demonstrating the disturbing ease with which the human mind can create a false memory, researchers doctored a photograph to show adult subjects as children in a hot air balloon, and 50% of the adults ultimately believed they really took the balloon ride. Mr. Williams has been saturated in photos and video of the downed Chinook for many years now.

via Cut Brian Williams a break on Iraq claim – CNN.com.

The gassy dead. A million-genome march. How to do science.

Highgate cemetery

What to do with the dead? This timeless problem took extra urgency in Victorian London. Excerpted from the book Dirty Old London, by Lee Jackson, in the Guardian.

The existence of such gases was undisputed – sextons and undertakers were often called up to “tap” coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force. Walker dutifully recorded the effects of leaking miasma on the constitution of gravediggers, ranging from general ill health (“pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting”) to sudden death. Gas could, indeed, prove fatal: graveyard workers who broke into bloated coffins were occasionally suffocated by the release of “cadaverous vapours”.

Ken Weiss is not too thrilled with the million-genome project. At The Mermaid’s Tale.

In desperate need for a huge new mega-project to lock up even more NIH funds before the Republicans (or other research projects that are actually focused on a real problem) take them away, or before individual investigators who actually have some scientific ideas to test, we read that Francis Collins has apparently persuaded someone who’s not paying attention to fund the genome sequencing of a million people! Well, why not? First we had the (one) human genome project. Then after a couple of iterations, the 1000 genomes project, then the hundred thousand genomes ‘project’. So, what next? Can’t just go up by dribs and drabs, can we? This is America, after all! So let’s open the bank for a cool million.

John Hawks likes the small questions: How do we make science better?

Simply, we have to begin to expect failure. Ideas are like mutations: Most of them will be bad or neutral, and only a few good. A grant panel of experts may be able to eliminate many of the bad ideas. But we know from the history of science that most good ideas are not obvious at the time, and that it’s hard to distinguish the neutral ones from the good ones. We should be funding science where the outcomes cannot be easily predicted, putting ideas to the test. To do that we need to accept that a high proportion of these ideas will be dead ends. But we need to fund a broader range of creative people to increase the chance of finding a really good idea, the kind that can give rise to new fields of inquiry.

These items are 3 of the 5 in today’s edition of my Read 2 newsletter. .

Photo by dani0010 at flickr, creative commons, some rights reserved. 

 

Alice Munro has some very bad news. Plus consciousness and Brits on the dole.

Three of thefive reads from today’s edition of my Read Two newsletter. You can get the other two here or sign up for more.

Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? They don’t call it the hard problem for nothing. By Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian.

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

A fascinating subject that many stories manage to make boring. Burkeman lights it up nicely.

“The slow-burning fuse that is a Munro story frequently hides, then exposes, something violent, shameful, or sensational.” Hermione Lee on Alice Munro, at NYRB.

Down-and-out characters struggling on the edges, psychopathic killers, vindictive children or vengeful old people, abused women, passionately self-abnegating lovers, irresponsible adulterers, horrible acts of cruelty, startlingly show up inside these domestic, realistic narratives. “Southern Ontario Gothic,” this gets called, though the luridness of “Gothic” doesn’t quite fit the remarkable mixture of savage extremes and formal control.

The mixture is at full blast in the first story in the selection, “The Love of a Good Woman” (1996), which follows one of Munro’s favorite structures, or plots, the slow uncovering of a secret act of violence, emerging from an environment where there is too much surveillance, too much unspoken knowledge, too many collaborations in silence, too much shame. In this story, the corpse of a small-town optometrist is found in his car in an icy river by a gang of boys, and the secret story of his murder is revealed, as unpleasantly as possible, to the nurse of a malevolent dying woman. The vindictiveness of the characters in this story can take your breath away:

Once a woman had asked Enid to bring her a willow platter from the cupboard and Enid had thought that she wanted the comfort of looking at this one pretty possession for the last time. But it turned out that she wanted to use her last, surprising strength to smash it against the bedpost.

“Now I know my sister’s never going to get her hands on that,” she said.

Euro-freeriders are not the problem some Brits may think. Vice-versa as well. The Guardian.

About 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits – the same level as the roughly 65,000 EU nationals claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the UK. Dr Roxana Barbulescu, researcher on international migration at the University of Sheffield, said the numbers claiming unemployment benefits were minuscule. “Thirty thousand people, or 2.5% of all British nationals, in other EU member states means that the overwhelming majority of Brits abroad as well as European citizens in Britain are not an undue burden for the countries in which they live.”

The war on Billie Holiday; happy marriages; racist Oregon

Billie_Holiday_and_Mister,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._June_1946_(William_P._Gottlieb_04271)

Billie Holiday and her dog, Mister, in NYC, 1946. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

 

The War on Drugs started with Billie Holiday. – Johann Hari, POLITICO

Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”

He wanted to bring the full thump of the federal government down upon that scourge of modern society, his Public Enemy #1: Billie Holiday.

Happy Marriages Hint at Horrors of Middle Age. by Maya Dusenbery at Pacific Standard.

No wonder people whose spouses also happen to be their best friends get such a greater benefit from marriage than others. For some, this particular “super-friend” may well be one of the only close friends they see with any regularity—it helps to really, really like them.

Looked at from that angle, the fact that marrying your best friend seems to make middle age “slightly less terrible” (as the headline of the Washington Post’s coverage of the study sardonically boasts) seems less a ringing endorsement of marriage than an indictment of the way many of us spend our middle age—in socially isolated domestic units, each consumed with the nearly impossible task of balancing work and family, made bearable only by having a close friend in the trenches with us.

Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia by Matt Novak at Gizmodo.

The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted.

These were 3 of the 5 links in today’s edition of Read 2. You can sign up here or in the form at right.

The 80 richest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion

A 1916 leaflet proposes to segregate St. Louis. The measure passed. (Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, via Coates at The Atlantic

 

Hand it to the rich — no, wait, they already took it. Anyway, they get the job done. From my latest Read 2 roundup, a connection of pieces on wealth paints a dismal picture. (Unless you’re one of those 80).

First, from Michael M. Phillips at The Wall Street Journal:

In 2010, it would have taken the combined riches of the 388 top billionaires to equal the combined assets of the bottom 50% of the planet. But the billionaires’ assets have appreciated so quickly since then, and the total value of the poor’s resources has dropped so precipitously, that last year it took just the top 80 billionaires to equal the wealth of the bottom 3.5 billion people on the planet, Oxfam said.

The wealthiest 80 people have a combined net worth of $1.9 trillion, up from $1.3 trillion in 2010, with the bulk of their fortunes coming from the financial, pharmaceutical and health care industries. More than a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, Oxfam said.

That’s a 50% increase, in just 5 years, in the wealth of the wealthiest 80 people. (And yours?) Conceivably that has something to do with what Ta-Nahesi Coates, in an essay from last fall, calls segregation as a system of plunder. In this superb round-up, Coates, having summarized a report showing how housing policies established in the early 20th-century systematically pushed poor blacks into specific underserved neighborhoods, describes how

Once the big game has been fenced off, then comes the hunt:

According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One town, Sycamore Hills, has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate.

With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people—despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites).

It gets worse. In an essay Coates links to, John Light at Moyers & Company, drawing from a fine story by Matthew Goldstein at the Times, shows how this profiteering continues, with a boost from the still-lingering 2008 economic bust, in the very housing economy that the original segregation created:

Nationally, 17 percent of homeowners are underwater — they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are actually worth. In Ferguson, that figure sits at 50 percent. Because so many homeowners are struggling, the town is ripe for institutional investors — often hedge funds or private equity groups on the coasts, thousands of miles away — to buy up homes, then rent them to low-income tenants. And that’s what has happened. Investment firms are responsible for roughly a quarter of all recent housing purchases in the town.

As Goldstein notes, tenant advocates say the problem comes when investors try to turn too quick a profit on their investment — or fail to turn a profit at all. In New York City, for example, private equity firms have invested in neighborhoods — often low-income communities that investors were unfamiliar with — where the economics of their investment didn’t work out and tenants suffered. In some cases, residents watched their buildings fall into disrepair as their new Wall Street landlords sought to wring maximum profit. In others, tenants faced intense pressure to leave their homes as new landlords tried to gentrify neighborhoods and raise rents. Tenants’ rights groups have dubbed this style of landlordship “predatory equity.”

These practices have spread far beyond urban neighborhoods to the suburbs, where an abundance of cheap homes are teetering on the brink of foreclosure. In the wake of the housing crisis, Bloomberg reported, Blackstone Group raised $20 billion to purchase “as many as 200,000 homes.” As of 2013, the fund was renting residences in 14 cities. Ferguson was “largely avoided” by Blackstone, Goldstein writes, but other investment groups filled the gap.

From my semi-daily and sometimes very occasional newsletter, Read 2: Sneaky cops, sneakier capitalists, healthier minds, and parachuting beavers.

The Spy Who Wasn’t, or how a guy named Simons walked home with a vial of plutonium

DM US cover

Being immersed lately in tales of deception, deceit, and betrayal lately — my voracious read of Ben Macintyre’s magnificent A Spy Among Friends is only the tip of the iceberg — I was fascinated to read this morning P.D. Smith’s story of a true innocent who was swept up in early Cold War paranoia. Sanford Lawrence Simons, who died of cancer last week at 92 in Colorado, was best known for pocketing a vial of plutonium when he worked at Los Alamos in the 1940s. Smith tells this in his book The Doomsday Men, and briskly in a piece he posted at Kafka’s Mouse, his excellent blog, yesterday:

Simons, who had trained as a metallurgical engineer, readily admitted taking the radioactive material, but he claimed it was just a “souvenir” of his time at Los Alamos, which he left in July 1946. Flanked by two impassive FBI men wearing Humphrey Bogart fedoras, Simons talked freely with journalists after he’d been committed for trial. Unshaven and handcuffed, though still clutching his pipe, Simons seemed remarkably unfazed by his predicament. Under the Atomic Energy Act he faced a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Just a few weeks earlier, the FBI had arrested Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in New York on suspicion of atomic espionage. They were both convicted the following year and, despite international pleas for clemency including from Einstein, the couple were subsequently executed in the electric chair.

“Why did I take it?”, said Simons sheepishly, in answer to reporters’ questions. “Well, it seems pretty silly now, but I’ve always collected mineral samples. I realized almost instantly that I didn’t want it, but it was like having a bull by the tail. I couldn’t let go!”

One of the press men asked how he managed to smuggle the plutonium out of the top-secret military research laboratory.

Simons grinned: “I just walked out with it.”

The whole thing is delicious. Check out the fuller tale, and other wonders, at  Kafka’s mouse.

The Art of Deception: When Kindness is a Lure to Betrayal

Over at NPR, Barbara King has a post about the mostly amusing deceptions that chimpanzee mothers sometimes engage in. It’s a nice post that includes an amusing video, which I’ve pasted below; note the look on the face of the mom when she cashes in on the deception, which is centered around an exchange of favors, and take her child’s tools. “Thanks; I’ll have that.”

King’s post put me in mind of an example of chimpanzee deception I highlighted in an article a few years ago. In this one, far more cruel, an act of apparent generosity is used to disguise something quite different. It came from the work of Frans de Waal.

Deception runs deep. In his book, “Our Inner Ape,” Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, describes a simple but cruel deception perpetrated by a female chimp named Puist. One day, Puist chases but cannot catch a younger, faster female rival. Some minutes later, writes de Waal, “Puist makes a friendly gesture from a distance, stretching out an open hand. The young female hesitates at first, then approaches Puist with classic signs of mistrust, like frequent stopping, looking around at others and a nervous grin on her face. Puist persists, adding soft pants when the younger female comes closer. Soft pants have a particularly friendly meaning; they are often followed by a kiss, the chimpanzee’s chief conciliatory gesture. Then, suddenly, Puist lunges and grabs the younger female, biting her fiercely before she manages to free herself.”

Happy holidays, folks — and careful what offers you accept at those office parties.