Tuesday, July 22, 2014
newyorker | If, for instance, a fourteen-year-old girl says, “So we, like, um, went to the pizza place, but the, uh, you know—the guy?—said, like, no, so we were, like, O.K., so we, uh, decided that we’d go to, like, a coffee shop, but, uh, Colette can’t—she has, like, a gluten thing. You know what I mean? So that’s, like, why we came home, and, um, you know, would you, like, make us eggs?” To a sensitized listener, who recognizes the meaning of the circumlocutions, the nuanced space between language and event, the sentence really means: “So we tried, as it were, to go and enjoy a pizza, but the, so to speak, maître d’ of the establishment claimed—a statement that we were in no social position to dispute—that there was, so to speak, ‘no room for us at the inn.’ And then Colette insisted—and far be it for me either to contest or endorse her self-diagnosis—that she could not eat wheat-based food, so, knowing full well that it is likely to be irksome and ill-timed, could you feed us with scrambled eggs?” The point of the “likes”s and other tics is to supply the information that there is a lot more information not being offered, and that the whole thing is held at a certain circumspect remove. It didn’t happen exactly this way, and, of course, one might quibble with a detail here or there, but this is the gist of what happened. Each “like” is a Jamesian “as it were.”
It turns out that three sociolinguists at the University of Texas at Austin have been studying these things systematically. The paper they produced, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, has the beautiful title “Um … Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender and Personality.” The study they conducted “aimed to investigate how the frequency of filled pauses and discourse markers used in the English language varies with two basic demographic variables (gender and age) and personality traits.” The researchers explain that, to do this, they “focused on three common discourse markers … (I mean, you know, and like) and two filled pauses (uh and um).”
They recorded and transcribed interviews with the speakers, noted how often the speakers used so-called “discourse markers,” and concluded that these markers are, indeed, used most frequently by women and girls. More important, the study also shows that the use of the discourse markers is particularly common among speakers who score on a personality test as “conscientious”—“people who are more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings.” Discourse markers, far from being opaque, automatic, or zombie-like, show that the speaker has “a desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.” In other words, those “like”s are being used to register that what’s being narrated may not be utterly faithful to each detail—that it may not be, as a fourteen-year-old might say, “literally” true—but that it is essentially true, and, what’s more, that an innate sense of conscientiousness and empathy with the listener forbids the speaker from pretending to a more closely tuned accuracy than she in fact possesses.
Monday, July 21, 2014
ancient-origins | A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed that a series of mysterious lines and geometric shapes carved into the Amazonian landscape were created thousands of years ago before the rainforest even existed, according to a report in Discovery News. The purpose of the massive earthworks and who created them remains unknown, and scientists are beginning to realise just how much there still is to learn about the prehistoric cultures of the Amazon and life before the arrival of Europeans.
The unusual earthworks, which include square, straight, and ring-like ditches, were first uncovered in 1999, after large areas of pristine forest was cleared for cattle grazing. Since then, hundreds of the earthen foundations have been found in a region more than 150 miles across, covering northern Bolivia and Brazil’s Amazonas state.
The ditches were sculpted from the clay rich soils of the Amazon and are typically around 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep, alongside 3 feet high walls. However, the largest ring ditches found so far are an incredible 1,000 feet in diameter. The purpose of the ditches remains a complete mystery. The fact that many of them are clustered on a 200 metre high plateau suggests they may have been used for defence, however, others have suggested they were used for drainage or for channelling water since most were placed near spring water source. A team of researchers who published a paper in the journal Antiquity in 2010 argued that the layout of the ditches is highly symbolic suggestion a ceremonial and religious function.
Until now, it was believed that the earthworks dated back to around 200 AD. However, the latest study has revealed that they are, in fact, much older. Study author John Francis Carson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, explained that sediment cores had been taken from two lakes near the major earthwork sites. These sediment cores hold ancient pollen grains and charcoal from long-ago fires, and can reveal information about the climate and ecosystem that existed when the sediment was laid down as far back as 6,000 years ago.
The results revealed that the oldest sediments did not come from a rainforest ecosystem at all. Rather, they showed that the landscape, before about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, looked more like the savannahs of Africa than today’s lush rainforest.
tdf | Climate Change Could Bring Catastrophe in Next Century. It's an idea that most of us would rather not face - that within the next century, life as we know it could come to an end. Our civilization could crumble, leaving only traces of modern human existence behind.
It seems outlandish, extreme - even impossible. But according to cutting edge scientific research, it is a very real possibility. And unless we make drastic changes now, it could very well happen. Experts have a stark warning: that unless we change course, the perfect storm of population growth, dwindling resources and climate change has the potential to converge in the next century with catastrophic results.
In order to plan for the worst, we must anticipate it. In that spirit, guided by some of the world's experts, ABC News' "Earth 2100," hosted by Bob Woodruff, will journey through the next century and explore what might be our worst-case scenario. But no one can predict the future, so how do we address the possibilities that lie ahead? Our solution is Lucy, a fictional character devised by the producers at ABC to guide us through the twists and turns of what the next 100 years could look like. It is through her eyes and experiences that we can truly imagine the experts' worst-case scenario -- and be inspired to make changes for the better.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
mashable | Humans are currently the most intelligent beings on the planet — the result of a long history of evolutionary pressure and adaptation. But could we some day design and build machines that surpass the human intellect?
This is the concept of superintelligence, a growing area of research that aims to improve understanding of what such machines might be like, how they might come to exist, and what they would mean for humanity's future.
Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom's recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies discusses a variety of technological paths that could reach superintelligent artificial intelligence (AI), from mathematical approaches to the digital emulation of human brain tissue.
And although it sounds like science fiction, a group of experts, including Stephen Hawking, wrote an article on the topic noting that "There is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains."
Brain as computer
The idea that the brain performs "computation" is widespread in cognitive science and AI since the brain deals in information, converting a pattern of input nerve signals to output nerve signals.
Another well-accepted theory is that physics is Turing-computable: That whatever goes on in a particular volume of space, including the space occupied by human brains could be simulated by a Turing machine, a kind of idealized information processor. Physical computers perform these same information-processing tasks, though they aren't yet at the level of Turing's hypothetical device.
These two ideas come together to give us the conclusion that intelligence itself is the result of physical computation. And, as Hawking and colleagues go on to argue, there is no reason to believe that the brain is the most intelligent possible computer.
In fact, the brain is limited by many factors, from its physical composition to its evolutionary past. Brains were not selected exclusively to be smart, but to generally maximize human reproductive fitness. Brains are not only tuned to the tasks of the hunter gatherer, but also designed to fit through the human birth canal; supercomputing clusters or data-centers have no such constraints.
Synthetic hardware has a number of advantages over the human brain both in speed and scale, but the software is what creates the intelligence. How could we possibly get smarter-than-human software?
Simonfoundation | Michael Doebeli, a mathematical biologist at the University of British Columbia, wondered how E. coli would evolve if it had two kinds of food instead of just one. In the mid-2000s, he ran an experiment in which he provided glucose — the sole staple of Lenski’s experiment — and another compound E. coli can grow on, known as acetate.
Doebeli chose the two compounds because he knew that E. coli treats them very differently. When given a choice between the two, it will devour all the glucose before switching on the molecular machinery for feeding on acetate. That’s because glucose is a better source of energy. Feeding on acetate, by contrast, E. coli can only grow slowly.
Something remarkable happened in Doebeli’s experiment — and it happened over and over again. The bacteria split into two kinds, each specialized for a different way of feeding. One population became better adapted to growing on glucose. These glucose-specialists fed on the sugar until it ran out and then slowly switched over to feeding on acetate. The other population became acetate-specialists; they evolved to switch over to feeding on acetate even before the glucose supply ran out and could grow fairly quickly on acetate.
When two different kinds of organisms are competing for the same food, it’s common for one to outcompete the other. But in Doebeli’s experiment, the two kinds of bacteria developed a stable coexistence. That’s because both strategies, while good, are not perfect. The glucose-specialists start out growing quickly, but once the glucose runs out, they slow down drastically. The acetate-specialists, on the other hand, don’t get as much benefit from the glucose. But they’re able to grow faster than their rivals once the glucose runs out.
Doebeli’s bacteria echoed the evolution of lizards in the Caribbean. Each time the lizards arrived on an island, they diversified into many of the same forms, each with its own set of adaptations. Doebeli’s bacteria diversified as well — and did so in flask after flask.
To get a deeper understanding of this predictable evolution, Doebeli and his postdoctoral researcher, Matthew Herron, sequenced the genomes of some of the bacteria from these experiments. In three separate populations they discovered that the bacteria had evolved in remarkable parallel. In every case, many of the same genes had mutated.
Although Doebeli’s experiments are more complex than Lenski’s, they’re still simple compared with what E. coli encounters in real life. E. coli is a resident of the gut, where it feeds on dozens of compounds, where it coexists with hundreds of other species, where it must survive changing levels of oxygen and pH, and where it must negotiate an uneasy truce with our immune system. Even if E. coli’s evolution might be predictable in a flask of glucose and acetate, it would be difficult to predict how the bacteria would evolve in the jungle of our digestive system.
newscientist | Unlike any other life on Earth, these extraordinary bacteria use energy in its purest form – they eat and breathe electrons – and they are everywhere
STICK an electrode in the ground, pump electrons down it, and they will come: living cells that eat electricity. We have known bacteria to survive on a variety of energy sources, but none as weird as this. Think of Frankenstein's monster, brought to life by galvanic energy, except these "electric bacteria" are very real and are popping up all over the place.
Unlike any other living thing on Earth, electric bacteria use energy in its purest form – naked electricity in the shape of electrons harvested from rocks and metals. We already knew about two types, Shewanella and Geobacter. Now, biologists are showing that they can entice many more out of rocks and marine mud by tempting them with a bit of electrical juice. Experiments growing bacteria on battery electrodes demonstrate that these novel, mind-boggling forms of life are essentially eating and excreting electricity.
That should not come as a complete surprise, says Kenneth Nealson at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. We know that life, when you boil it right down, is a flow of electrons: "You eat sugars that have excess electrons, and you breathe in oxygen that willingly takes them." Our cells break down the sugars, and the electrons flow through them in a complex set of chemical reactions until they are passed on to electron-hungry oxygen.
In the process, cells make ATP, a molecule that acts as an energy storage unit for almost all living things. Moving electrons around is a key part of making ATP. "Life's very clever," says Nealson. "It figures out how to suck electrons out of everything we eat and keep them under control." In most living things, the body packages the electrons up into molecules that can safely carry them through the cells until they are dumped on to oxygen.
"That's the way we make all our energy and it's the same for every organism on this planet," says Nealson. "Electrons must flow in order for energy to be gained. This is why when someone suffocates another person they are dead within minutes. You have stopped the supply of oxygen, so the electrons can no longer flow."
The discovery of electric bacteria shows that some very basic forms of life can do away with sugary middlemen and handle the energy in its purest form – electrons, harvested from the surface of minerals. "It is truly foreign, you know," says Nealson. "In a sense, alien."
Saturday, July 19, 2014
|126 year old Jose Aguinelo dos Santos - world's oldest living person|
westhunter | The Dark Lords of the IRS have proclaimed that West Hunter Incorporated has Federal tax-exempt status. Contributions, including various forms of real property, are deductible. For details, write firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Hunter’s purpose is the advancement of education and science in anthropology and evolution. That means this blog, scientific and popular articles, books, talks, and research projects. Depending on resources, possible projects might include a search for effective nootropics (possibly inspired by some of the Ashkenazi mutations), cloning a super-Neanderthal, or breeding the Kwisatz Haderach.
Robert Heinlein, in Methuselah’s Children, imagined the Howard Foundation. Founded by Ira Howard, who made a pile in the California Gold Rush but died young (of old age!) and childless, the foundation bribed people with unusually long-lived ancestors into marrying people with similar backgrounds, thus selectively breeding for longevity. This was written in 1941, when many people still knew that such things were possible.
You can imagine a similar foundation that breeds for intelligence: Cyril Kornbluth did, as background for The Marching Morons. But today, there’s no such thing. Any attempt would be denounced, even if utterly non-coercive and completely successful.
Nobody’s thinking about the long run, the big issues. Well, hardly anybody.
NYTimes | Ten thousand years ago, people in southern China began to cultivate rice and quickly made an all-too-tempting discovery — the cereal could be fermented into alcoholic liquors. Carousing and drunkenness must have started to pose a serious threat to survival because a variant gene that protects against alcohol became almost universal among southern Chinese and spread throughout the rest of China in the wake of rice cultivation.
The variant gene rapidly degrades alcohol to a chemical that is not intoxicating but makes people flush, leaving many people of Asian descent a legacy of turning red in the face when they drink alcohol.
The spread of the new gene, described in January by Bing Su of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is just one instance of recent human evolution and in particular of a specific population’s changing genetically in response to local conditions.
Scientists from the Beijing Genomics Institute last month discovered another striking instance of human genetic change. Among Tibetans, they found, a set of genes evolved to cope with low oxygen levels as recently as 3,000 years ago. This, if confirmed, would be the most recent known instance of human evolution.
Many have assumed that humans ceased to evolve in the distant past, perhaps when people first learned to protect themselves against cold, famine and other harsh agents of natural selection. But in the last few years, biologists peering into the human genome sequences now available from around the world have found increasing evidence of natural selection at work in the last few thousand years, leading many to assume that human evolution is still in progress.
“I don’t think there is any reason to suppose that the rate has slowed down or decreased,” says Mark Stoneking, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
wikipedia | Cochran and Harpending put forward the idea that the development of agriculture has caused an enormous increase in the rate of human evolution, including numerous evolutionary adaptations to the different challenges and lifestyles that resulted. Moreover, they argue that these adaptations have varied across different human populations, depending on factors such as when the various groups developed agriculture, and the extent to which they mixed genetically with other population groups.
Such changes, they argue, include not just well-known physical and biological adaptations such as skin colour, disease resistance, and lactose tolerance, but also personality and cognitive adaptations that are starting to emerge from genetic research. These may include tendencies towards (for example) reduced physical endurance, enhanced long-term planning, or increased docility, all of which may have been counter-productive in hunter-gatherer societies, but become favoured adaptations in a world of agriculture and its resulting trade, governments and urbanization. These adaptations are even more important in the modern world, and have helped shape today's nation states. The authors speculate that the scientific and Industrial Revolutions came about in part due to genetic changes in Europe over the past millennium, the absence of which had limited the progress of science in Ancient Greece. The authors suggest we would expect to see fewer adaptive changes among the Amerindians and sub-Saharan Africans, who have farmed for the shortest times and were genetically isolated from older civilizations by geographical barriers. In groups that had remained foragers, such as the Australian Aborigines, there would presumably be no such adaptations at all. This may explain why Indigenous Australians and many native Americans have characteristic health problems when exposed to modern Western diets. Similarly, Amerindians, Aboriginals, and Polynesians, for example, had experienced very little infectious disease. They had not evolved immunities as did many Old World dwellers, and were decimated upon contact with the wider world
Friday, July 18, 2014
pnas | The D4 dopamine receptor (DRD4) locus may be a model system for understanding the relationship between genetic variation and human cultural diversity. It has been the subject of intense interest in psychiatry, because bearers of one variant are at increased risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (1). A survey of world frequencies of DRD4 alleles has shown striking differences among populations (2), with population differences greater than those of most neutral markers. In this issue of PNAS Ding et al. (3) provide a detailed molecular portrait of world diversity at the DRD4 locus. They show that the allele associated with ADHD has increased a lot in frequency within the last few thousands to tens of thousands of years, although it has probably been present in our ancestors for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
boredpanda | We are all aware of the global pollution problem, but hardly anyone realizes just how much trash we produce daily. Gregg Segal, a photographer from California, aims to show this problem through powerful imagery, photographing people lying in their weekly load of trash. His ongoing project cleverly called “7 Days of Garbage” tries to portray people from different social backgrounds to reach largest audience possible .
Segal decided to photograph the participants in front of naturalistic backgrounds to show that the garbage produced by us is effecting it directly. “Obviously, the series is guiding people toward a confrontation with the excess that’s part of their lives. I’m hoping they recognize a lot of the garbage they produce is unnecessary”, he said to Slate.
Some of the participants were too ashamed of how much garbage they produced weekly, so they edited their garbage bags. Others showed everything just the way it was resulting in nasty and very strong images, which you can see here. Fist tap Kurman.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
reformer | We are awash in capital and yet, around the world, the economic revival is floundering.
Clayton M. Christensen and Derek van Bever, writing for the Harvard Business Review, note the modern era is characterized by "capital superabundance" in which financial assets are today almost 10 times the value of the global output of all goods and services, and that the development of financial sectors in emerging economies will cause global capital to grow another 50 percent by 2020.
"Like an old machine emitting a new and troubling sound that even the best mechanics can't diagnose, the world economy continues its halting recovery from the 2008 recession," write Christensen and van Bever. "Look at what's happening in the United States: Even today, 60 months after the scorekeepers declared the recession to be over, its economy is still grinding along, producing low growth and disappointing job numbers."
Despite historically low interest rates, they write, corporations are sitting on massive amounts of cash and failing to invest in innovations that might foster growth.
The two acedemicians want to know what is causing this behavior.
"Are great opportunities in short supply, or are executives failing to recognize them? And how is this behavior pattern linked to overall economic sluggishness? What is holding growth back?"
The pair, with assistance from alumni, explored a wide range of reasons for the sputtering recovery, including political and economic uncertainty, the low rate of bank lending, a decline in publicly supported research in the United States, and the demise of innovation platforms like Bell Labs.
They believe that the crux of the problem is that investments in different types of innovation affect economies and companies in very different ways, but are evaluated using flawed metrics.
"Specifically, financial markets -- and companies themselves -- use assessment metrics that make innovations that eliminate jobs more attractive than those that create jobs. Efficiency innovations typically pay off within a year or two." Companies invest in efficiency, which eliminate jobs, because on an unexamined assumption, they write, "Which has risen almost to the level of a religion -- that corporate performance should be focused on, and measured by, how efficiently capital is used."
Would you like that in regular English? Short-term profits trump long-term profits in an era when the rule is get as much as you can, as fast as you can and get out.
The result, write Christensen and van Bever, is that the institutions, especially banks, that are meant to "lubricate" capitalism no longer do so.
Christensen and van Bever believe the system can be turned around by appealing to logic, fairplay and appropriate government policy that would liberate capital from short-term profits.
Fat chance, argue some political and economic observers.
"With all due respect ... these guys are thugs and looters," notes Arendt, writing for Daily Kos. "Your polite attempt to point out they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs will get no traction with conquistadors. They will continue to suck America dry while looking for the next target overseas."
Let's not forget that for more than 30 years, following reduced taxes on the wealthiest Americans and the rolling back of regulations to rein in financial malfeasance, we have been promised the wealth would "trickle down" or that "a rising tide raises all boats." But since Ronald Reagan's days as president, the rich and corporations have stashed more than $30 trillion in offshore tax havens.
"Our surplus has been channeled into the Wall Street gambling casino, the rise of a predatory class of financial capitalists, and a bloated military/intelligence/police budget," notes Arendt.
Michael Lind calls this a "plantation" mentality, "a cruel caste system in which the white, brown and black majority labor for inadequate rewards while a cultivated but callous oligarchy of rich white families and their hirelings in the professions dominate the economy, politics, and the rarefied air of academic and museum culture." Fist tap Dale.