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Archive for January 2006

Pinker pulls no punches

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From the Edge.org Web site. It will be a good sign for science if Pinker isn’t burned in effigy like Larry Summers. I imagine in some quarters he is already the bogey man of the 21st century.

Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments

The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.

In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.

In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin’s Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don’t differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense. )

In June, the Times reported a forthcoming study by physicist Greg Cochran, anthropologist Jason Hardy, and population geneticist Henry Harpending proposing that Ashkenazi Jews have been biologically selected for high intelligence, and that their well-documented genetic diseases are a by-product of this evolutionary history.

In September, political scientist Charles Murray published an article in Commentary reiterating his argument from The Bell Curve that average racial differences in intelligence are intractable and partly genetic.

Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. Summers was subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents). The underlying fear, that reports of group differences will fuel bigotry, is not, of course, groundless.

The intellectual tools to defuse the danger are available. “Is” does not imply “ought. ” Group differences, when they exist, pertain to the average or variance of a statistical distribution, rather than to individual men and women. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable. Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to say nothing of the wider world community.

Advances in genetics and genomics will soon provide the ability to test hypotheses about group differences rigorously. Perhaps geneticists will forbear performing these tests, but one shouldn’t count on it. The tests could very well emerge as by-products of research in biomedicine, genealogy, and deep history which no one wants to stop.

The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they may raise a child’s IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), “designer babies” will lose whatever appeal they have. But the prospect of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely and more incendiary, and is one that the current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.

The point about costs associated with benefits from certain genes is a bit off the mark. Even if it is so, there are still desirable combinations of genes, just as there are some people who are above average over a broad range of abilities. (Or, some parents will accept associated problems in order for their child to be the next Michael Jordan or Einstein.) I would be surprised if market-driven technologies did not arise to satisfy the demand for genetic engineering.

Written by infoproc

January 27, 2006 at 3:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chinese exceptionalism

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Thanks to Brad Setser for recommending the following paper by economist Dani Rodrik, which describes how China’s economy is quite atypical of a developing country at its income level. Setser adds that it is quite unusual for a developing country to expend 10% of GDP each year intervening in FX markets to keep its currency cheap. All this sounds like an argument that the RMB is undervalued…

NewEconomist: In a new paper, Harvard’s Dani Rodrik asks What’s So Special About China’s Exports? (PDF) The short answer is that “China is exporting stuff that is way too sophisticated for its level of income, and that explains part of its success”. Here’s the longer version:

..what is so special about China’s exports is not that they are voluminous or that its large pool of labor gives it a huge labor cost advantage. What stands out is that China sells products that are associated with a productivity level that is much higher than a country at China’s level of income. This helps account both for why China’s trade is viewed as problematic in advanced countries, and for China’s rapid economic growth.

The economically relevant question for sustainability is not whether trade-GDP can keep on rising, but whether China will manage to latch on to higher- and higher-income products over time, and continue to fuel its growth thereby.

Rodrik is sceptical that China can manage it; if not, “this is something that is likely to slow down growth.” He concludes by discussing the nature of future industrial policies:

A clear implication of this paper is that China’s industrial policies – however incoherent they may have been – have had a hand in China’s past success. Future economic performance may also need to be supported by such policies.

…Therefore, a key question for China going forward is whether Chinese policies will maintain their experimental and flexible nature – whether governments will remain willing to support new industries but also willing to turn against ventures that under-perform. Designing the appropriate institutional structure to foster such an experimental, carrot-and-stick approach to industrial policy is an important challenge facing Chinese policy makers. This is an area where institutional transplantation does not work very well.

…The challenge for China therefore is to develop institutional models that are based on Chinese realities.

Written by infoproc

January 27, 2006 at 3:35 am

Posted in globalization

More podcasts

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Sorry for the lack of posts — I’m being slowly crushed down by two babies, a startup and physics research!

Here are more podcast recommendations. The first two are hilarious, despite the serious topics!

Evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers (previously profiled here) discusses the evolution of deceit and self-deception. It’s plausible to me that the ability to decieve yourself is adaptive — it makes it easier to lie convincingly, vilify your enemies, justify your actions, etc.

Trilogy co-founder and CEO Joe Liemandt describes how he dropped out of Stanford and ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt to start his company. Although it’s a big, well-known software company, I never knew what Trilogy actually did until I listened to this podcast. Their original product was a “configurator” which solved very complicated constraints (i.e., compatibility of components) faced by computer manufacturers like Silicon Graphics, HP and IBM. Nowadays Liemandt describes their software as performing constrained, object-oriented database search. He conveys just how tough and exhilarating it is to start a company.

Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to start TheFaceBook, strikes me as a naturally talented entrepreneur, despite his youth (he is still in his early twenties). With over 5 million users (many of them obsessive), TheFaceBook is set to surpass Google in number of pageviews per day! Given the positive network effects for social software, and the fact that at many schools something like 80+ percent of students already use TheFaceBook, I don’t see how competitors will ever displace these guys.

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January 24, 2006 at 5:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Outsourcing CS homework?

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Those creative, enterprising Americans are at it again! They’ve outsourced boring, low value-added tasks like learning C++ to foreigners! Thanks to yankee ingenuity we’ll grow our GDP through real cutting edge innovation, like organizing raves or inventing new ways to dispense shots. Who needs all that math anyway? 🙂

WSJ: …But what the computer-programming student who goes by the handle “Lover Of Nightlife” did last month, as the fall semester raced to a close, could only have happened in the age of the Internet: He went online to outsource his predicament.

“This is homework I did not have time to study for,” he said in a message on a Web site devoted to outsourcing computer projects. “I need you guys to help me.”

Attached was a take-home final exam for a computer class that Mr. Nightlife Lover wanted to pay someone else — presumably, someone from a place where people can’t afford a lot of night life to begin with — to take for him.

This bit of commerce took place on Rentacoder.com, a Web site that has been mentioned before in this column as an example of globalization in all its blood-curdling efficiency. Rent A Coder enables people — usually Americans — who need computer programs to put them out to bid — usually for cut-throat prices by Indians and Eastern Europeans.

But if U.S. companies can go online to outsource their programming, why can’t U.S. computer students outsource their homework — which, after all, often involves writing sample programs? Scruples aside, no reason at all. Search for “homework” in the data base of Rent A Coder projects, and you get 1,000 hits. (An impressive number, but still a tiny fraction of all computer students, the vast majority of whom are no doubt an honest and hardworking lot.)

A few examples: “I need a simple console-based program and a PHP script written that uses the openssl library.” “I need 2 algorithms filtering — median and Gaussian.” “A C++ program that will implement a billing system using threads. Needs to be completed tonight if possible.”

Indeed, some programming students appear to be outsourcing their way through college. “Pascal Rookie,” from Colorado Springs, Colo., has put five school projects to bid. And while he may be a plagiarist, at least he treats his helpers well: Mr. Rookie has received the highest marks possible for a buyer in the eBay-like rating system used by Rent A Coder. “A pleasure to work with him,” said one.

You can’t tell from the site how much was paid for the help, but usually it’s well less than $100.

Written by infoproc

January 18, 2006 at 12:47 pm

Posted in globalization

Math rules!

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Says the cover of BusinessWeek. It’s a pretty lightweight article (see the amusing graphic How much math do you need to know?), but in all seriousness I do believe the economic returns to mathematical ability are going up and up. Yet, oddly, salaries of scientists have been stagnant in real terms over the last decade. (See also here.)

Written by infoproc

January 16, 2006 at 5:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Prediction markets and the LHC

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We’re nearing a new era in particle physics, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN begins operation, and hopefully we’ll finally discover the mechanism by which spontaneous symmetry breaking occurs in the electroweak theory. The vacuum state of our universe chooses a direction in the SU(2) x U(1) gauge space, thereby making the W and Z bosons heavy, and giving masses to spin-1/2 particles like the electron. We’ve been waiting for decades now to understand the detailed dynamics by which this occurs. Had the US SuperCollider project not been terminated in the early 1990’s, we would have known the answer back in the 20th century. Now our hopes rest on a less powerful machine in Geneva.

In an earlier post I noted the inability of “experts” in certain fields (economics, political science, foreign affairs) to predict the future. They barely outperform monkeys throwing darts, and do not outperform well-informed lay people in their predictions. Can particle theorists do better? Over the years, theorists have expended an incredible number of high IQ person-hours investigating certain models of electroweak symmetry breaking (ranging from supersymmetry, to strong QCD-like interactions, to extra dimensions, etc.). These are more or less mutually exclusive possibilities, so it will turn out that much (if not most) of the time spent will have been completely wasted once the dust settles and the data tells us how Nature really works. (You might argue that time spent on exploring a speculative particle physics model is not wasted, even if the model fails to describe reality, and I might accept that point of view for the 10 or 100 best papers written on a particular model or idea, but not for the 1000th!)

I propose that we set up a prediction market where theorists can put their money (inevitably, small sums 🙂 where their mouths are. In a prediction market one trades outcome contracts which pay off a fixed amount (say, one dollar) in the event that the outcome matches reality (Kerry wins 2004 election, superpartner to gluon discovered with mass less than 100 GeV, etc.). If the set of contracts is exhaustive — constructed to cover all possibilities (in our case, there may have to be a “none of the above” contract), the prices of each contract will reflect the probability that the community collectively assigns to a given outcome. It would be very interesting to see if this market does a good job of predicting the future, or if proud particle theorists are just as subject to the madness of crowds as stock and real estate speculators.

We might get the Iowa Electronic Markets to help us with this.

Written by infoproc

January 14, 2006 at 7:39 pm

Posted in physics

Barry Diller interview

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Nice podcast of an interview with former media mogul (now Internet mogul) Barry Diller. Diller recently added Ask Jeeves (which bought its search technology from Teoma) to his list of Internet properties, which includes Match and Expedia. Diller reasons very cogently about risk taking and business strategy, and seems to have a much firmer grasp of where Internet technologies are heading than most media-industry transplants. His description of the assumptions behind the Ask acquisition, and of his partnership with Rupert Murdoch in FoxTV are both revealing. I don’t agree with everything he says (he’s quite negative about the prospects for user-generated content, and overconfident about the efficiency of talent-filtering in our current system), but it is definitely worth a listen. It amuses me greatly that Diller has a better intuitive grasp of the term speculative than many researchers (string theorists) in my field 🙂 He refers to the $2.6 billion Skype acquisition using that term, as well other recent transactions.

Written by infoproc

January 10, 2006 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized