Workout notes 51:04 for my hilly 5.1 mile Cornstalk course; perfect weather; this is the best time of the year to be outside. But I was heavy legged from the start.
Monday Morning Quaterbacking
Some events are all but impossible to foresee, no matter how much data you gather: (via Bruce Schneier)
The FBI and the CIA are being criticized for not keeping better track of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the months before the Boston Marathon bombings. How could they have ignored such a dangerous person? How do we reform the intelligence community to ensure this kind of failure doesn’t happen again?
It’s an old song by now, one we heard after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and after the Underwear Bomber’s failed attack in 2009. The problem is that connecting the dots is a bad metaphor, and focusing on it makes us more likely to implement useless reforms.
Connecting the dots in a coloring book is easy and fun. They’re right there on the page, and they’re all numbered. All you have to do is move your pencil from one dot to the next, and when you’re done, you’ve drawn a sailboat. Or a tiger. It’s so simple that 5-year-olds can do it.
But in real life, the dots can only be numbered after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to draw lines from a Russian request for information to a foreign visit to some other piece of information that might have been collected.
In hindsight, we know who the bad guys are. Before the fact, there are an enormous number of potential bad guys. [...]
Piling more data onto the mix makes it harder, not easier. The best way to think of it is a needle-in-a-haystack problem; the last thing you want to do is increase the amount of hay you have to search through. The television show Person of Interest is fiction, not fact.
There’s a name for this sort of logical fallacy: hindsight bias. First explained by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it’s surprisingly common. Since what actually happened is so obvious once it happens, we overestimate how obvious it was before it happened.
We actually misremember what we once thought, believing that we knew all along that what happened would happen. It’s a surprisingly strong tendency, one that has been observed in countless laboratory experiments and real-world examples of behavior. And it’s what all the post-Boston-Marathon bombing dot-connectors are doing.
Before we start blaming agencies for failing to stop the Boston bombers, and before we push “intelligence reforms” that will shred civil liberties without making us any safer, we need to stop seeing the past as a bunch of obvious dots that need connecting.
Schneier concludes: there will always be incidents; it is impossible to stop them all.
In statistics, one can often back fit key factors AFTER the fact and come up with a model that…well…might “make sense” but utterly fail the next time.
Politics and Economics
Paul Krugman reminds the Very Serious People that, yes, there was political bickering over the last stimulus fight, but the politics was mostly from the right wing. All too often Republicans turn economic policy debates into a morality play of sorts.
So, why hasn’t President Obama been as effective as, say, President Franklin Roosevelt? Hint: look at how Congress was made up during President Roosevelt’s time. Look at it during President Johnson’s time. The caveat is that during those eras, the president did have to compromise with southern Democrats (who are now Republicans)
Yes, some scientists behave badly and fake data.
But most don’t. Here are two good articles:
1. This is one about human brain cells which were grown in the laboratory and then put into mice...where they functioned…AS MOUSE brain cells.
A key type of human brain cell developed in the laboratory grows seamlessly when transplanted into the brains of mice, UC San Francisco researchers have discovered, raising hope that these cells might one day be used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease, as well as and complications of spinal cord injury such as chronic pain and spasticity.
“We think this one type of cell may be useful in treating several types of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders in a targeted way,” said Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF and co-lead author on the paper.
The researchers generated and transplanted a type of human nerve-cell progenitor called the medial ganglionic eminence (MGE) cell, in experiments described in the May 2 edition of Cell Stem Cell. Development of these human MGE cells within the mouse brain mimics what occurs in human development, they said.
Kriegstein sees MGE cells as a potential treatment to better control nerve circuits that become overactive in certain neurological disorders. Unlike other neural stem cells that can form many cell types — and that may potentially be less controllable as a consequence — most MGE cells are restricted to producing a type of cell called an interneuron. Interneurons integrate into the brain and provide controlled inhibition to balance the activity of nerve circuits.
Honey Bees and Pesticides
Yes, there is a bee die off and some have wondered if pesticides are to blame. Well, lots of things are to blame:
This week’s federally sponsored report about the mysterious disappearance of honeybees, known as colony collapse disorder, pointed to a complex combination of factors, ranging from parasitic mites to pesticides. But what are experts going to do about it? And what about the pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are facing a ban in European countries?
In an email to NBC News, the Environmental Protection Agency says it’s speeding up its schedule for reviewing research on neonicotinoids and their potential effects on honeybees. It’s also fine-tuning existing regulatory practices and setting up new educational efforts to deal with colony collapse disorder. Here’s how the EPA responded to NBC News’ questions about the next steps to counter the honeybee die-off:
Are there any specific policy questions under consideration? Anything relating to the next steps in the wake of the report?
“EPA is working collaboratively with beekeepers, growers, pesticide manufacturers, seed manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, USDA and states to apply technologies to reduce pesticide dust drift, to advance best management practices, to improve enforcement guidance and to explore enhancing pesticide labeling in order to protect bees.
Specifically, EPA is:
Moving to change pesticide labels which will limit applications to protect bees and be more clear and precise.
Moving to add warning statements to each bag of pesticide-treated seed.
Issuing new enforcement guidance to federal, state and tribal enforcement officials to help them investigate bee kills.
Working with the equipment manufacturer and pesticide and seed industry and USDA to develop and apply technologies to reduce pesticide dust drift during planting seasons.
Working with USDA and other partners to promote Best Management Practices for growers and beekeeping via a new website, education and training modules for professional applicators, video, and other mechanisms
Finally, EPA is working on a range of national and international efforts to develop appropriate tests for evaluating both exposure to and effects of pesticides on insect pollinators. EPA is also requiring new lab and field studies to inform the risk assessment process to better understand pollinator risks.”
Economy: job growth continues to be weak:
We remain in the gravitational pull of the Great Recession. The Labor Department reports that 165,000 new jobs were created in April – below the average gains of 183,000 in the previous three months.
We can’t achieve escape velocity. Since mid-2010, the three-month rolling average of job gains hasn’t dipped below 100,000 but has exceeded 250,000 jobs just twice.
This isn’t enough to ease the backlog of at least 3 million (estimates range up to 8 million) job losses since 2007, just before the Great Recession began. (And as I’ll point out in a moment, 2007 wasn’t exactly jobs nirvana.)
Moreover, most of the new jobs now being created pay less than the ones that were lost.
First, government is doing exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. It raised payroll taxes in January (ending the temporary tax holiday), thereby reducing the incomes of the typical family by about $1,000 this year.
More damaging, government cut spending through the damnable sequester – thereby reducing overall demand for goods and services. (Direct government employment dropped another 11,000 in April.)
There’s also a deepening structural problem. All the economic gains from the recovery have gone to the very top, leaving the middle class (and everyone aspiring to join it) with a shrinking portion of the pie.
Consumers are still spending, but tentatively at best. And much of the spending is coming from the rich, whose stock portfolios have grown nicely. (The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own 90 percent of all shares of stock.)
But the rich don’t spend as much of their earnings as everyone else. They save and speculate around the world wherever they can get the highest return.
We have a demand problem; businesses won’t hire unless there is demand to warrant it.
And no: we don’t always call for more spending; spending is for bust times; austerity is for boom times.
Every so often, someone announces that they have solved a big problem. What happens: mathematicians check the solution…and the vast majority of the time: it isn’t a correct solution. This recently happened with the claim:
On August 6, 2010, a computer scientist named Vinay Deolalikar published a paper with a name as concise as it was audacious: “P ≠ NP.” If Deolalikar was right, he had cut one of mathematics’ most tightly tied Gordian knots. In 2000, the P = NP problem was designated by the Clay Mathematics Institute as one of seven Millennium Problems—“important classic questions that have resisted solution for many years”—only one of which has been solved since. (The Poincaré Conjecture was vanquished in 2003 by the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, who refused the attached million-dollar prize.)
A few of the Clay problems are long-standing head-scratchers. The Riemann hypothesis, for example, made its debut in 1859. By contrast, P versus NP is relatively young, having been introduced by the University of Toronto mathematical theorist Stephen Cook in 1971, in a paper titled “The complexity of theorem-proving procedures,” though it had been touched upon two decades earlier in a letter by Kurt Gödel, whom David Foster Wallace branded “modern math’s absolute Prince of Darkness.” The question inherent in those three letters is a devilish one: Does P (problems that we can easily solve) equal NP (problems that we can easily check)? [...]
If Deolalikar’s audacious proof were to hold, he could not only quit his day job as a researcher for Hewlett-Packard but rightly expect to enter the pantheon as one of the day’s great mathematicians. But such glory was not forthcoming. Computer scientists and mathematicians went at Deolalikar’s proof—which runs to dozens of pages of fixed-point logistics and k-SAT structures and other such goodies—with the ferocity of sharks in the presence of blood. The M.I.T. computational theorist Scott Aaronson (with whom I consulted on this essay’s factual assertions) wrote on his blog, “If Vinay Deolalikar is awarded the $1,000,000 Clay Millennium Prize for his proof of P ≠ NP, then I, Scott Aaronson, will personally supplement his prize by the amount of $200,000.” It wasn’t long before Deolalikar’s paper was thoroughly discredited, with Dr. Moshe Vardi, a computer-science professor at Rice University, telling the Times, “I think Deolalikar got his 15 minutes of fame.”
As Lance Fortnow describes in his new book, “The Golden Ticket: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible,” P versus NP is “one of the great open problems in all of mathematics” not only because it is extremely difficult to solve but because it has such obvious practical applications. It is the dream of total ease, of the confidence that there is an efficient way to calculate nearly everything, “from cures to deadly diseases to the nature of the universe,” even “an algorithmic process to recognize greatness.” So while a solution for the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, another of the Clay Millennium Prize problems, would be an impressive feat, it would have less practical application than definitive proof that anything we are able to quickly check (NP), we can also quickly solve (P).
For a “quick and dirty” of P versus NP, read this. Basically, the “P” stands for “polynomial time” and things that can either be checked or solved in polynomial time are more tractable. A problem is “P” if it can be solved in polynomial time and a problem is “NP” if a solution can be verified in polynomial time. Now it is “common sense” that it should be easier to check if a solution is correct than to come up with the correct solution to begin with, but as of right now, we don’t have a proof of this assertion.
To see what I am talking about: suppose you have a graph with nodes (think of this as a collection of cities in, say, a state with the roads between the cities being the segments of the graphs. If you want to find the shortest path in a graph from one vertex to another (say, find the shortest distance to get from Peoria to Chicago via roads), that is an example of a P problem; it can be readily solved in a reasonable amount of time.
On the other hand, if you wanted to solve the “travelling salesman problem” (find the shortest path to travel to ALL cities, hit each city only once and then return); that problem is “NP complete”: it might not be solvable in a reasonable amount of time in all cases.
Something Good about Peoria, IL
We do have first rank science being done here:
It began in South Korea with a baby girl born without a windpipe. Unable to eat, drink or swallow on her own, she breathed through a tube inserted into her esophagus. She was a prisoner of the neo-natal intensive care unit, her father said.
The next chapter moved to Peoria, where about three weeks ago doctors performed the experimental surgery that could change her life and upend traditional organ transplantation.
Her name is Hannah, she’s almost 3 and she tasted her first lollipop Friday.
With an artificial windpipe made of plastic fibers bathed in Hannah’s own living cells, surgeons at Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center successfully performed the first bio-engineered transplant on a child in the United States and the first bio-engineered trachea transplant on a child in the world. It also was the first stem cell therapy at the Catholic hospital.
“I cannot express what it means to me as a scientist, a man, a father,” said Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, the expert in regenerative medicine and tracheal transplantation from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, who led the intricate 11-hour surgery on April 9.
Officials at Children’s Hospital and St. Francis announced the ground-breaking surgery Tuesday in a St. Francis conference room packed with media, either live or online, from throughout the world, plus the surgical team, researchers and businesses involved in building the expensive devices needed to regenerate human tissue into organs.
It doesn’t get more big-time than this folks!
Now in another “man-bites-dog” story, Paul Krugman points out something:
Brad DeLong directs me to a screed by Clive Crook, who sort of admits that I’ve been right about a lot of things but accuses me of being, well, shrill. Where have I heard that before?
But the Crook piece is actually useful, in an unintended way.
Brad points out, correctly, that Crook demands that I engage respectfully with reasonable people on the other side, but somehow fails to offer even one example of such a person. Not long ago Crook was offering Paul Ryan as an exemplar of serious, honest conservatism, while I was shrilly declaring Ryan a con man. But I suspect that even Crook now admits, at least to himself, that Ryan is indeed a con man.
But in a way the most revealing point here is Crook’s demand that I engage with
thoughtful, public-spirited Americans whose views on the proper scale and scope of government are different from his, yet worthy of respect.
Wait — is that what it’s about? If you read my original post, and Noah Smith’s KrugTron the Invincible post that inspired it, you’ll see that it’s all about macroeconomics — about questions like whether budget deficits in a depressed economy drive up interest rates and crowd out private investment, about whether printing money in a depressed economy is inflationary, about whether rising government debt has severe negative impacts on growth.
What do these questions have in common? They’re factual questions, with factual answers — and they have absolutely no necessary relationship to the “proper scale and scope of government”. You could, in principle, believe that we need a drastically downsized government, and at the same time believe that cutting government spending right now will increase unemployment. You could believe that discretionary policy of any kind is a mistake, and at the same time admit that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet isn’t at all inflationary under current circumstances.
So where’s this stuff about the scale of government coming from? Well, in practice it turns out that many conservatives are unwilling to concede that Keynesian macro has any validity to it, or that you can sometimes run the printing presses without unleashing runaway inflation, because they fear that any such admission would open the doors to much wider government intervention. But that’s exactly my point! They’re letting their views about how the world works be dictated by their vision of the kind of society they want; they’re politicizing their economic analysis. And that’s why they keep getting everything wrong.
They do the same in science; after all creationists and intelligent design advocates say that standard science “is only a theory; only one point of view”.
Conservatives might bash liberals for “moral relativism” but they are happy to use “relativism” themselves when the facts don’t fit their world view.
Oh yes, liberals do that to, but liberals don’t accuse conservatives of being “relativists”. But in fact, we should, because they are!
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