Saturday, October 31, 2015

October Links

Here's some speculation that Tesla's new Model X is mostly about developing an automated electric taxi.

James Lind pioneered medical trials in figuring out that limes can prevent scurvy.  But by 1911 the measures used to fight scurvy had become ineffective without anybody realizing it because they changed how the lime juice was prepared without checking to see if it was still effective.  Nobody knew what vitamins were and nobody was going to give someone scurvy and then see if the new preparation cured it.

But in more optimistic news, this month the United Launch Alliance completed 100 satellite launches in a row with no failures.  Considering that this is rocket science and that somewhat more than one out of every 20 satellite launches fails that's really impressive.  So happy 100!

In other space news that doesn't actually take place in space The Martian came out and I loved it.  It captured most of what I loved about the book, was really pretty, and was remarkably accurate to what a real Mars mission might be like.  Here's some fun (for people like me) nitpicking at the book and here's a better orbit for getting Watney home but which nobody would have been able to figure out when the novel was published.  Which just goes to show that doing something like sending people to Mars is the effort of a civilization and that nobody is smart enough or knows enough to get everything right.  You really ought to see the movie or read the book.

We like to make fun of the Victorians for believing they could determine someone's personality based on the shape of their skull.  But at the same time there's been a lot of research since the late 90s showing that most people tend to reflexively make judgments about other people's personalities just based on their faces.  And there is some evidence that at least some of this is at least correlates with real effects.  Especially face width and testosterone.

There were some political debates.  I can't say I'm really excited about any of the countries.  I know a lot of people are excited about Bernie Sanders.  For myself, I can't really take someone seriously when they keep calling Denmark socialist given that Denmark is pretty much a neoliberal poster child with no minimum wage, privatized fire departments, and ranks 4th in the world in terms of ease of doing business.  And here's the Danish PM explaining why his country isn't socialist but be warned, it's a long video.

A while ago I blogged that I thought there'd have to be some sort of drone registration at some point.  Clearly someone at the Department of Transportation was listening because they'll be attempting to register drones now.  And there's more details on the matter here.  I don't know how they're hoping to get the registration of drones that, e.g., buzz people but it looks like they're thinking about it.

A few years ago I mostly thought of mutations as mostly being about germ line mutations or cancer.  Germ line mutations are particularly important because without that there's no way that evolution can give rise to new species and for a while there was a big war in biology between the Darwinians and the Mendelians.  A recent book I read about Mitochondira, Power, Sex, and Suicide, contended that accumulating mitochondrial mutations were one of the main mechanisms of aging which shifted my view.  Then I learned that the immune system mostly learns about new pathogens by mutations in immune cells.  And now it looks like there's a certain amount of genetic re-writing going on in your brain as well.  When people talk about the heritablility of intelligence they talk about the part that the part that is genetic, the part that comes from the environment you share with your family, and the non-shared environment.  It looks like a chunk of the non-shared environment might be what non-heritable mutations you happened to get when your brain was developing.

23andme is a company that lets you get your genome mostly-sequenced for $200 and used to tell you all sorts of interesting things about the traits you carry.  I bought there service and was really happy with it.  They'd started out being regulated as a genetics laboratory under the CMS.  But the FDA thought that doing sequencing and explaining what those sequences mean under the same roof made 23andme a medical device rather than just a lab and essentially closed the analysis part down until the FDA did a review.  Thankfully you can still find you genes on 23andme and then put them into SNPedia to find out what they mean.  Even more thankfully the FDA has completed some of its review after 2 years and now you can find out some of what you could if you had signed up before 2013.  Or you could move to Canada or the UK where regulators have given 23andme full approval since 2014.

You might remember last month that a company jacked up the price of the (off patent) drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 a tablet.  Some good news is that someone is now offering the drug for $1.  They can get away with that because they're a compounding pharmacy and don't have to sepend the 3 years and $100 million that you normally would to have the FDA let you start manufacture of a new drug.  That's probably illegal since compounding pharmacies aren't supposed to make big batches but hopefully the FDA won't enforce the law here?  I understand the desire to standardize drug production practices because of what happened with lemon juice near the top of this post but I wonder if we haven't gone overboard here.

Here's a Youtube video of Vecna's "Robot Race" that I was in this last spring.  You can see me at some points.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ethics at a distance

I recently read a blog post  talking about the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics:
The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.
Jai then goes on to list a bunch of examples which it would probably be worth your while to read through but that's the important part there.  It's a thing I had noticed before in a few places.  Here's a short passage from Debt: The First 5000 Years:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that "natives" operated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis.
That sounds really weird to modern ears but there's some important logic to it.  You or I interact with complete strangers every day.  If there isn't any state that enforces laws on everybody within its boundaries then meeting with strangers is a dangerous business.  So everybody you interact with is going to be a neighbor or relative and generally people share more than people who live in states do, especially if they're hunter gatherers rather than farmers.  And if saving someone's life makes you no longer a stranger and the person is much wealthier than you then it makes sense to want them to give you their knife.

And of course that's no serious issue.  The rescuer was still free to refuse and to eventually go home on their own.  And the rescuee is still alive even if they're being rejected.  In the long history of cultural conflicts brought about by European colonialism this is barely worth mentioning in terms of impact but I think it illustrates the issue rather well.

And of course there are some much bigger issues in the world where our desire to not interact with evil can cause trouble.  The first example that springs to mind for me is the anti-sweatshop movement.  As Krugman pointed out in his famous article the conditions of people who work in sweatshops are almost invariably worse before they get their sweatshop jobs.  It's perfectly natural to feel worse about someone slaving away for something you use then about that same person having an even worse time with no relation to you.  But if we want to make the world a better place our reaction to the knowledge that the people who made our clothes suffered shouldn't be to cut our connection to them.

And of course I can relate this to my hobby horse of immigration too.  People often cite the cost of immigration in terms of government support or letting in people who might vote foolishly.  But as Bryan Caplan argues:

If immigrants hurt German workers, Merkel can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden German taxpayers, Merkel can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt German culture, Merkel can impose tests of German fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt German liberty, Merkel can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.
This is true but of course we all quail in horror at the idea of keeping people as second class citizens in our countries.  It might be objectively less harsh but that's not how it feels to us because the people we would be denying things to would now be close to us and clearly our problem whereas if we just kept them out of the country they'd be far away and the problem of other nations just as much as ours.

And of course those two examples are things aligned with my own politics.  I'm sure there must be ways in which I fail prey to this that my biases prevent me from seeing.  All I can do is watch myself for this and hope to avoid it in the future.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

September Links



An alternate possibility is to locate a colony on the surface of another planet. Most recently, the case for colonizing the surface of Mars has been argued by Zubrin [1996]. However, at least compared to the benign environment of Earth, the surface of Mars has several disadvantages. It has a low atmospheric pressure, low temperatures, and high exposure to cosmic radiation, and, while it is not a zero-gravity environment, it is not yet known whether the roughly one-third Earth-normal gravity of Mars is sufficient to avoid the bone decalcification and muscle tone loss experienced by astronauts in microgravity.

So let's colonize Venus (pdf)

Here's a blog on art at Burning Man.  Here's some more. Sort of makes me want to go.

There was a recent quiz on Vox to help people figure out how much their political beliefs influence their factual beliefs.  I'm reminded of this.

This huge photo of Pluto is gorgeous.  This has a lot of good pictures of mountains that seem huge compared to the former planets curvature.  And here are some more cool photos with nifty explanations.

In addition to New Horizons unburdening itself of all the photos it took there was also a big discovery of liquid water on Mars.  There'd been a lot of evidence pointing that way previously so I guess I wasn't too excited about that.

All probes that we send to Mars are sterilized to make sure we don't spread Earth life there but I wonder if there's any point to that.  We've found that meteors that originated on Mars can land on Earth with structures showing they haven't been sterilized.  Now, ok, the escape velocity of Earth is 11 km/s and the value for Mars is just 5 km/s so it's probably easier for rocks to be ejected from Mars than from Earth.  But Earth has had life for a long time and I think that if Earth life could live on Mars it probably would have gotten there already.  Or maybe there's something I'm missing?

Japan passed a law allowing the deployment of military forces oversees.  It seems like that would run afoul of the constitution to me but I'm no expert.

There was a pretty good article in 538 earlier this month about how the FDA could change how it approves drugs to allow less scrutiny for drugs treating very deadly diseases but more scrutiny for drugs treating less serious things.  Seems like a good idea to me.  In other drug related news someone jacked up the price of a generic drug from $15 to $750 a tablet.  Which is a terrible thing done by a terrible person.  But it's bad that we've created a system where terrible people can do terrible things.  Companies in India are selling it for about 10 cents now and if we don't trust India then in theory we could import it from Europe for it's previous, reasonable price.  But that would be illegal.  Here's a much longer (but worthwhile) discussion of generic drugs.

In Oklahoma it looks a lot like an innocent man is going to be executed soon.  He was going to be killed today but the governor delayed things due to a procedural issues.

On a sort of happier note I want to say how happy I am about Germany welcoming Syrian refugees.

Book review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  by Jonathan Haidt is a book about morality.  It's about the wa...