Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's Your Ideal Country?

Check out this fascinating tool by the OECD that matches your preferences over big life categories (quality of health, quality of government, community, etc.) to countries doing well in those areas. I got Canada, but the test didn't include a climate dimension, which would shift my results dramatically (towards the equator). There also isn't any sort of freedom dimension (economic, political, religious, etc.), which seems to be a pretty important value for most people.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neologism Watch: Spandrel

Okay, so this isn't really a true neologism, but every so often I'll run across a word or idea that instantly clarifies something I didn't even know I was confused about. Typically this means unifying some set of diverse concepts, or providing a crystal-clear framing of some complex theoretical notion. A good example is the idea of the meme. Recently, I've observed a concept popping up that is potentially quite epic in its utility and scope: the spandrel.

Originally an architectural term for the triangular-shaped space between the outside of an arch and some other boundary (corner, pillar, another arch, etc.), spandrels were appropriated by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin in a fascinating (and quite readable) 1979 paper on evolutionary biology. In it, they define spandrels as "the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves." A casual observer might see the highly ornamented spandrels of a Renaissance cathedral and conclude that they were designed and constructed specifically for artistic reasons. In fact, the space was simply left over by architectural necessity, and later endowed with purpose.

Although employed primarily in evolutionary biology, other fields can clearly benefit from a succinct and clever term for forms arising as byproducts rather than as adaptations or from planning. Are dreams a neurological spandrel? Did language arise as a cultural spandrel? Are the 10 (or 11, or 26, or whatever) dimensions proposed by some models in theoretical physics just mathematical spandrels? In evolutionary biology, certain species' maladaptive characteristics that had long confounded trait-based theories were easily explained using spandrels. What other sorts of behaviors or characteristics might be best conceptualized as spandrels?

One of the most interesting theories explaining the human predisposition toward magical thinking and religion involves spandrels. It goes like this: as a human, you have access only to your own consciousness (and nobody else's). That means determining which objects in the external world are also conscious (endowed with agency) is in principle impossible. As young humans develop, they learn to distinguish between inanimate objects (like rocks) and objects with agency (like other humans, or animals). For those objects with agency, we project the sensation of consciousness onto them. Usually this works out pretty well, but sometimes mistakes are made. Because the psychological machinery for projection exists, it occasionally misfires and we accidentally project consciousness onto inanimate objects or phenomena. So when a fire destroys the village but spares your hut, or when lightning destroys your hut but nobody else's, God didn't do it; rather that gut reaction is just an unfortunate byproduct of human psychology. A cognitive spandrel.

Start looking, and you'll begin to see spandrels everywhere. More often than not you'll walk away with some fascinating original insights.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Information Nexus

1. A Science of Morality?
2. A Tree Farm is Not a Forest
3. The Future of Medical Diagnosis
4. News Hour on The Great Stagnation
5. Wait... What!?

The Airline Industry

Richard Posner analyzes the industry's woes:
The airline is providing a bundled or “one size fits all” product to most of its customers, and unbundling can increase demand by enabling a better matching of price to consumer preference. But except for the tiny sliver of flyers who can afford private planes, the cost structure of the airline industry, rooted in airliner design, prevents significant quality differentiation. 
The crux of the issue is this: airlines want desperately to differentiate their products so as to compete on the basis of services (food, customer experience, etc.) instead of simply ticket price. Two factors make this difficult: 1) technological constraints (airliner design largely determines the parameters of service) and 2) a huge set of travelers who care only about price (magnified by small, low-cost carriers). Consequently, this homogeneity (and commodification) of air travel has resulted in a decline in service quality. The new Department of Transportation consumer protection regulations set minimum requirements for service but, perversely, further entrench the air-travel-as-a-commodity trend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Quote of the Week

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer on risk literacy:
"Simply stated, statistical thinking is the ability to understand and critically evaluate uncertainties and risks. Yet 76 percent of U.S. adults and 54 percent of Germans do not know how to express a 1 in 1,000 chance as a percentage (0.1%). Schools spend most of their time teaching children the mathematics of certainty — geometry, trigonometry — and spend little if any time on the mathematics of uncertainty. If taught at all, it is mostly in the form of coin and dice problems that tend to bore young students to death. But statistical thinking could be taught as the art of real-world problem solving, i.e. the risks of drinking, AIDS, pregnancy, horseback riding, and other dangerous things. Out of all mathematical disciplines, statistical thinking connects most directly to a teenager's world.
Even at the university level, law and medical students are rarely taught statistical thinking — even though they are pursuing professions whose very nature it is to deal with matters of uncertainty. U.S. judges and lawyers have been confused by DNA statistics and fallen prey to the prosecutor's fallacy; their British colleagues drew incorrect conclusions about the probability of recurring sudden infant death. Many doctors worldwide misunderstand the likelihood that a patient has cancer after a positive screening test and can't critically evaluate new evidence presented in medical journals. Experts without risk literacy skills are part of the problem rather than the solution."
The quote comes from Edge's annual question, which brings together some of the top minds in the world to submit answers. This year's question was 'what scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?' Heady stuff for sure, but definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Greatest Supervillains of All Time

From time to time it's fun to take a step back from the seriousness and gravity of daily world events and  enjoy the insights available to us from fictional domains. In this spirit, here's a list of some fascinating imaginary rogues:

1. Apocalypse: (X-Men) Born in ancient Egypt, he was the world's first mutant. Conquering in the name of a twisted Darwinian creed, technology from the future makes this time-traveling techno-tyrant the ultimate supervillain.

2. Ra's Al Ghul: (Batman) Hailing from ancient Arabia, this alchemist discovered the secret to immortality and used his long life to build a global organization intent on halting ecological destruction at any cost. The ideal eco-terrorist.

3. Lex Luthor: (Superman) The quintessential mad scientist, businessman, and politician. A prolific genius, Luthor exists to destroy Superman, thereby showing humanity it doesn't need alien saviors to decide its fate.

4. Magneto: (X-Men) This Nazi concentration camp survivor fights to protect the mutant minority from institutionalized bigotry and slavery around the world.

5. The Emperor: (Star Wars) He created the greatest military force the galaxy had ever seen, and nearly succeeded in exterminating the Jedi. One bad galactic tyrant.

6. David Xanatos: (Gargoyles) Machiavellian businessman obsessed with obtaining immortality. A curiously thoughtful self-made man, this supervillain is perhaps the most complex.

7. Hush: (Batman) A childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's, Hush secretly coveted the death of his parents and the resultant wealth and freedom. When Wayne received this blessing instead of him, Hush swore vengeance.

8. Q: (Star Trek) The archetypal trickster god, this omnipotent intellect delights in manipulating the Enterprise crew.

9. Alpharius: (Warhammer) The youngest of his bio-engineered brothers, this planet-conquering general takes a resilience-based, ecological approach to combat strategy. Sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time simply to test the individuality and adaptability of his lieutenants, Alpharius is a man of secrets.

10. Mr. Sinister: (X-Men) Originally a human geneticist in Victorian England, Mr. Sinister made a Faustian bargain with a higher power resulting in the loss of his family. He now exists to destroy that which created him.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Paradox of Wilderness Intervention

Let's face it, wilderness managers are damned if they do, damned if they don't. When it comes to designated wilderness areas like state parks, active intervention (fire suppression, invasive species control, etc.) means injecting artificiality into systems where artificiality is anathema. On the flip side, however, lack of intervention means important values like native biodiversity, ecosystem function, and ecosystem services, could be lost forever. In Beyond Naturalness: Rethinking Park Wilderness Stewardship in an Era of Rapid Change, editors David Cole and Laurie Yung look at this problem through the lens of several competing wilderness management approaches.

Historically, early approaches to management focused around the notion of "naturalness," but this concept proved to be too vague. Early laws enshrined the language of "naturalness" and caused havoc: its many definitions meant implementation was often arbitrary and ill-coordinated. Additionally, new anthropological research into the impact of early human cultures demolished the idea of a historic "primitive state." Modern ecology, with the adoption of dynamic equilibrium models, destroyed the notion that nature exists in a "natural" equilibrium or climax state. Add to this the global reach of human impact and it's very unclear what our specific management goals are regarding wilderness areas.

Four "post-naturalness" approaches attempt to categorize the different facets of "naturalness":

1. Hands-Off Approach: This is just what it sounds like: not taking any conscious action that manipulates, controls, or hinders the conditions (e.g. habitat), components (e.g. species), or processes (e.g. fire) of an ecological system. Let nature roll the dice. This approach is an alternative to being locked into managing a rapidly-changing system not fully understood. It encourages scientific humility, eliminates the risk of unintended adverse consequences (of intervention), and provides unmanipulated control data. However, this approach may increase the risk to specific elements of biodiversity, and result in the loss of cultural resources (archeological sites, etc.) and property.

2. Ecological Integrity Approach: In this approach, managed intervention is justified in order to maintain ecosystem health, biodiversity, sustainability, etc. Managers must set up specific goals such as: retaining a large population of native species, selecting and monitoring viable indicator species, mixing disturbance regimes (fire, herbivory) over time and area, and ensuring productivity and decomposition operate within limits for system persistence (not too much entropy, example: clear-cutting, bark beetles). This approach is very dependent on the effective operationalization of goals (measuring the right things).

3. Historical Fidelity Approach: Maintain a connection to the past; pass legacy of natural and cultural heritage. Restore past conditions wherever possible. In this approach, species that were historically the most abundant, iconic, or charismatic are the species most critical to ecosystem function (as opposed to keystone species or species that are least redundant). In addition to cultural and philosophical justifications, animals have evolved to fit niches and thus their survival potential is reduced if future environmental conditions deviate too much from the past. A challenge to this approach concerns the inherent dynamism of ecosystems.

4. Resilience Approach: This approach targets an ecosystem's ability to adapt to change, specifically "the capacity of a system to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes." Instead of pursuing specific landscape or ecological objectives, managers should focus on the core goal of sustaining functional, adaptable systems. Ecosystem qualities that typically enhance resilience are diversity and modularity (ecosystem sub-systems are coherent and loosely-connected so that if one fails, others can persist and rebuild).

Each approach has a certain naivete, yet also an understandable appeal. By being so narrow in scope, the trade-offs between approaches are revealed, making comparisons much easier. Clearly some mixture of all four approaches is currently being implemented, by design or by default, which is warranted. However I do believe the resilience framework shows the most promise considering the level of global ecological decline.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Power Players: Amartya Sen

Check out this great interview by Al Jazeera English:

Amartya Sen is a true polymath whose intellectual contributions are quite possibly unmatched by any other living person. A Nobel laureate, he made major headway in incorporating normative concerns (like poverty and gender inequality) back into the economics discipline. He is a giant among political scientists for his contributions to social choice theory (a quantitative subfield concerned with preference aggregation, example: voting). Lately he has focused on philosophy, probably establishing himself as the most important contemporary philosopher since John Rawls with his capabilities approach to measuring justice.

(Caps) Lock-In

The idea of path dependence (or lock-in) is an incredibly useful concept that explains many of the ridiculous technological conventions currently in use by society. Best conceptualized as a sort of historical inertia for technology, path dependence is basically a symptom of incremental progress in innovation. Most technologies improve slowly over time, with peripheral modifications gradually adding up that never change the core ideas. Often this results in inefficient or inferior technologies persisting through time. Rockets are a great example, as is the "three-box" configuration of automobiles (engine compartment, cab, trunk).

Often the only way out of lock-in is to think big: General Motors' Hy-Wire concept car builds all the essential components (engine, fuel storage, system controls, crush zones, etc.) into a six-inch wheeled platform, thus allowing designers to snap on top any number of unconstricted car designs.

Probably the most famous example of lock-in is the qwerty keyboard. Originally designed to accommodate engineering limitations in typewriters, this preposterous technological dinosaur drastically limits the speed and convenience of our typing. A related absurdity is the caps-lock key: how often does the average person use it? (hint: not much) Now compare that with the frequency of accidental activation and the case for its continued existence disappears.

And it's happening: Google's new laptop replaces the caps-lock key with a search button. Many smartphone keyboards have an '@' key, which is a great idea, and I've also heard of a push to create an internet history eraser button. If you start looking, you'll see examples of path dependence everywhere. Let's start innovating from the ground up.

Question: does internet remix culture increase or decrease path-dependence?