Weekly Roundup 165: A Curated Linkfest For The Smartest People On The Web!
Handpicked to satisfy your intellectual curiosity!
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The Activist(s) Corner ( Issues to Get Your Blood Boiling):
The American Mobility Myth – via The New Republic -When Americans express indifference about the problem of unequal incomes, it’s usually because they see the United States as a land of boundless opportunity. Sure, you’ll hear it said, our country has pretty big income disparities compared with Western Europe. And sure, those disparities have been widening in recent decades. But stark economic inequality is the price we pay for living in a dynamic economy with avenues to advancement that the class-bound Old World can only dream about. We may have less equality of economic outcomes, but we have a lot more equality of economic opportunity. The problem is, this isn’t true. Most of Western Europe today is both more equal in incomes and more economically mobile than the United States. And it isn’t just Western Europe. Countries as varied as Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Pakistan all have higher degrees of income mobility than we do. A nation that prides itself on its lack of class rigidity has, in short, become significantly more economically rigid than many other developed countries. How did our perception of ourselves end up so far out of sync with reality?
Forbes Among 30 Clients Using Computer-Generated Stories Instead of Writers – via GalleyCat – Forbes has joined a group of 30 clients using Narrative Science software to write computer-generated stories.Here’s more about the program, used in one corner of Forbes‘ website: “Narrative Science has developed a technology solution that creates rich narrative content from data. Narratives are seamlessly created from structured data sources and can be fully customized to fit a customer’s voice, style and tone. Stories are created in multiple formats, including long form stories, headlines, Tweets and industry reports with graphical visualizations.”
How Companies Learn Your Secrets – via NYTimes.com – There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”
Best Reads of The Week:
Video: Everything is a Remix Part 4 – via Everything Is a Remix – Everything is a Remix Part 4
Video: David Brooks on the Dangerous Division Between Reason and Emotion, Animated – via Brain Pickings – Yesterday, we marveled at a fantastic short film that captured Michael Pollan’s classic Food Rules in animated stop-motion vegetables. Another wonderful motion graphics entry from the same RSA film competition by Tomas Flodr is based on an RSA talk The New York Times’ David Brooks gave about his newish book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which echoes an older RSA sketchnote animation about the divided brain and the dangers that lurk in modern society’s propensity for prioritizing the left brain over the right.
Amazing Collection of Free Graduate Council Lectures (includes Kahneman) – via UC Berkeley – Seven lectureships comprise the Graduate Council Lectures, each with a distinct endowment history. These unique lectureship programs have brought distinguished visitors to Berkeley since 1909 to speak on a wide range of topics, from philosophy to the sciences.
Free MITx course offers grade and certificate – via The Do It Yourself Scholar -You can get a piece of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brand for free if you sign up for Circuits and Electronics (website) a prototype online course which will run from March 5 to June 8.The course is the first offering of MITx, MIT’s new online initiative that will offer more free MIT content on the web in the fall of 2012. For this first course, students will take exams on the honor system and will not have to pay for a certificate of completion. In the future there will be identity checks and probably a fee.
Edge.org 2012 Annual Question – via Edge – “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” This is one of the most famous quotes from Albert Einstein. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Similarly, Eugene Wigner said that the unreasonable efficiency of mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Thus we have a problem that may seem too metaphysical to be addressed in a meaningful way: Why do we live in a comprehensible universe with certain rules, which can be efficiently used for predicting our future?
The Diet That Saves the Brain – via WSJ.com – We’ve long known that the Mediterranean diet is good for the heart. Now, it may be good for the brain as well.A study published in this month’s issue of the Archives of Neurology found that the diet might protect against blood-vessel damage in the brain, reducing the risks of stroke and memory loss.
The Boy Who Played With Fusion – via Popular Science – A rational society would know what to do with a kid like Taylor Wilson, especially now that America’s technical leadership is slipping and scientific talent increasingly has to be imported. But by the time Taylor was 12, both he and his brother, Joey, who is three years younger and gifted in mathematics, had moved far beyond their school’s (and parents’) ability to meaningfully teach them. Both boys were spending most of their school days on autopilot, their minds wandering away from course work they’d long outgrown.
Making Good Citizenship Fun – via NYTimes.com – An alternative to lotteries is a frequent-flyer-type reward program, where the points can be redeemed for something fun. A free goodie can be a better inducement than cash since it offers that rarest of commodities, a guilt-free pleasure. This sort of reward system has been successfully used in England to encourage recycling. In the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead outside of London, citizens could sign up for a rewards program in which they earned points depending on the weight of the material they recycled. The points were good for discounts at merchants in the area. Recycling increased by 35 percent.The moral here is simple. If governments want to encourage good citizenship, they should try making the desired behavior more fun.
The Disadvantages of an Elite Education – via William Deresiewicz – I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.” The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.
Against TED – The New Inquiry – via thenewinquiry.com – What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again. The whole TED vibe has come to resemble a sales pitch.
Inconspicuous Consumption – Magazine – via The Atlantic – About seven years ago, University of Chicago economists Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erik Hurst were researching the “wealth gap” between black and white Americans when they noticed something striking. African Americans not only had less wealth than whites with similar incomes, they also had significantly more of their assets tied up in cars. The statistic fit a stereotype reinforced by countless bling-filled hip-hop videos: that African Americans spend a lot on cars, clothes, and jewelry—highly visible goods that tell the world the owner has money.
Molecules to Medicine: Plan B: The Tradition of Politics at the FDA – via Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network – Before we delve into the specific discussion of Plan B, let’s look at the context of the politicization of the FDA, under the recent Bush administration in particular, which led to the characterization of the “broken FDA.” During that period access to healthcare information, health services, and medical research became limited by two growing trends: the infusion of increasingly restrictive religious doctrines and the implementation of ideology-driven—rather than scientific, evidence-based—public policies. Initially, access to science-based information was limited through censorship and even distortion in government sources (e.g., data regarding the efficacy of condoms in preventing HIV infections and STDs were removed from the CDC’s Web site). This neither helped reduce the teen birthrate nor STDs. They used the same misinformation tactic with the now discredited breast cancer-abortion link.
Creativity & The Road Not Taken – via pss.sagepub.com – To investigate individual differences in creativity as measured with a complex problem-solving task, we developed a computational model of the remote associates test (RAT). For 50 years, the RAT has been used to measure creativity. Each RAT question presents three cue words that are linked by a fourth word, which is the correct answer. We hypothesized that individuals perform poorly on the RAT when they are biased to consider high-frequency candidate answers. To assess this hypothesis, we tested individuals with 48 RAT questions and required speeded responding to encourage guessing. Results supported our hypothesis. We generated a norm-based model of the RAT using a high-dimensional semantic space, and this model accurately identified correct answers. A frequency-biased model that included different levels of bias for high-frequency candidate answers explained variance for both correct and incorrect responses. Providing new insight into the nature of creativity, the model explains why some RAT questions are more difficult than others, and why some people perform better than others on the RAT.
Teaching Rick Santorum about Climate Change – via Plugged In, Scientific American Blog Network – This is the root the climate change debate – scientific facts versus non-scientific observations. The majority of evidence presented by skeptics is anecdotal – evidence that is based on non-scientific observations or studies that may sound compelling in isolation. One example is “It is colder today than the average for this time of year; therefore global warming is not true.” Those who cite this clearly don’t understand the difference between weather and climate. You may have also heard someone say, “The climate is cyclical, and we are just on a warming trend.” Or “The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo has changed the climate more than we have.”
Behavioral Economics, Complexity Research, Decision Making, Psychology, & Risk:
The Physiology of Willpower: Where Does Discipline Come From? – via www.huffingtonpost.com – Willpower is the key to much that’s good in life. Willpower is what makes us save for the future rather than splurge now. It helps us to keep our heads down, studying and working when we really don’t feel like it, to earn that degree or promotion. Willpower allows us to say no to that tempting cigarette, extra dessert, or second glass of whiskey — and to hop on the treadmill. And, of course, failures of self-control can sabotage all those goals.
Cormac McCarthy on the Santa Fe Institute’s Brainy Halls – via The Daily Beast – One of the most impressive and eclectic intellectual groups in America gathers in a sprawling former mansion nestled in the foothills above Santa Fe. Once the private residence of a former U.S. Secretary of War, the space now houses the Santa Fe Institute. Lunchtime conversations range from game theory to historical linguistics to Sophocles. Pulitzer Prize–winning authors, Nobel Laureates and MacArthur geniuses wander the halls, scrawling equations on the window panes with erasable markers. The novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein calls it “everything I hoped academia would be as a graduate student.” She adds, “It was pure bliss.”
Think Fast! Take Risks! New Study Finds a Link Between Fast Thinking and Risk Taking – via Association for Psychological Science -New experiments show that the experience of thinking fast makes people more likely to take risks. This discovery suggests that some of the innovations of the modern world—fast-paced movies, social media sites with a constant flow of fresh updates—are pushing people toward riskier behavior.
What Conspiracy Theories Teach Us About Reason – via Why We Reason – This brings me back to Hitchen’s quote. Indeed, a byproduct of democracy is the tendency for some people to believe whatever they want, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. However, Pinker reminds us that democracy is helping to relieve our hardwired propensity to only look for what confirms our beliefs. That our confirmation biases are innate suggests that they will never disappear, but the capacity to reason facilitated by the exchange of information paints an optimistic future.
Is the Web Making You More Narrow-Minded? – via The Psych Files Podcast – You probably know that sites like Facebook are using the information they have about you – like your age, gender and interests – to serve up ads that are most likely to appeal to you. That’s a little bit harmless and perhaps even helpful. But how about the more subtle filtering that is going on that you may not be aware of? Search engines are using information they have about you to show you news that these search tools think will most likely appeal to you based on your previous search activities. The problem with that? You might find yourself living in a bubble – sheltered from ever hearing about things you might not agree with, but which might also open your mind a bit and make you what your parents always wanted for you – to be “well-rounded”.
The Neurocritic: That’s Impossible! How the Brain Processes Impossible Objects – via neurocritic.blogspot.com – The artwork of M.C. Escher is famous for its visual trickery. The human visual system tries to project the two dimensional image onto a three dimensional scene, but the perspective is contradictory: it cannot exist in the real world. These impossible constructions violate the laws of geometry and fascinate consumers of t-shirts, posters, and Apple products.
Think Think Tanks Are Nonpartisan? Think Again – Miller – via McCune – Once seen as non-ideological “universities without students,” the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse that devalues the sector’s scholarship.
How experts recall chess positions – via theinvisiblegorilla.com – What allows human experts to match wits with custom-designed computers equipped with tremendous processing power? Chess players have a limited ability to evaluate all of the possible moves, the responses to those moves, the responses to the responses, etc. Even if they could evaluate all of the possible alternatives several moves deep, they still would need to remember which moves they had evaluated, which ones led to the best outcomes, and so on. Computers expend no effort remembering possibilities that they had already rejected or revisiting options that proved unfruitful.
Capitalism, Business, Economics, Entrepreneurship, Finance:
Bill Gross Talks About Idealab – via www.thegatesnotes.com – True innovation is difficult to achieve consistently over time, but Idealab’s Bill Gross has been starting ground-breaking companies since he was a teenager. Take a look behind the scenes to see what it takes to bring a company to market.
A Proposal for Limiting Speculation on Derivatives: An FDA for Financial Innovation – via papers.ssrn.com – The financial crisis of 2008 was caused in part by speculative investment in sophisticated derivatives. In enacting the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress sought to address the problem of speculative investment, but merely transferred that authority to various agencies, which have not yet found a solution. Most discussions center on enhanced disclosure and the use of exchanges and clearinghouses. However, we argue that disclosure rules do not address the real problem, which is that financial firms invest enormous resources to develop financial products that facilitate gambling and regulatory arbitrage, both of which are socially wasteful activities. We propose that when investors invent new financial products, they be forbidden to market them until they receive approval from a government agency designed along the lines of the FDA, which screens pharmaceutical innovations. The agency would approve financial products if and only if they satisfy a test for social utility. The test centers around a simple market analysis: is the product likely to be used more often for hedging or speculation? Other factors may be addressed if the answer is ambiguous. This approach would revive and make quantitatively precise the common-law insurable interest doctrine, which helped control financial speculation before deregulation in the 1990s.
Is the U.S. tax system more progressive than those of most other rich countries? – via lanekenworthy.net – Yes. As best we can tell, America’s tax system is slightly progressive and the tax systems of most other affluent nations are slightly regressive.
The Story Behind the Olympus Scandal – via BusinessWeek -The constable behind the counter at the Belgravia Police Station in central London raised his eyebrows in bemusement at the well-spoken middle-aged Englishman, wearing a suit and tie and overcoat, standing before him on a mid-October afternoon. The gentleman had short, receding black hair, close-set eyes, and a generous round chin. He mumbled darkly about Japanese organized crime—the Yakuza—and a corporate scandal he had uncovered in Tokyo. He claimed he had been the president and chief executive officer of a global corporation, had discovered that a fortune had gone missing, and then had been fired. He now had reason to believe, based on what he’d heard from journalists and fellow businessmen, that he might be killed.
The Physics of Finance: How markets become efficient (answer: they don’t) – via physicsoffinance.blogspot.com – A staggering amount of effort has been spent — and wasted — exploring the idea of market efficiency. The notoriously malleable efficient markets hypothesis (EMH) claims (in its weakest form) that markets are “information efficient” — market movements are unpredictable because smart investors keep them that way. They should quickly — even, “instantaneously” in some statements — pounce on any predictable pattern in the market, and by profiting will act to wipe out that pattern.
The Eclectic Mix:
Can I Be Happy as an Investment Banker? The Difference Between Pursuing a Lifestyle and Following Your Passion – via calnewport.com – It might seem like “pursuing your definition of a remarkable life” is quite similar to “following your passion,” but for most people, it’s not. A vision for a life well-lived tends to be broad and ambiguous — touching on major distinctions in lifestyle not specific industries or types of work. These are statements of values not commitments to economic sectors.
Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities – via journalistsresource.org – “Our results strongly support the hypothesis that roads cause traffic,” the researchers conclude. Consequently, expansions in road capacity are an ineffective tool for combating traffic congestion. The authors suggest that congestion pricing — currently used in cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore — is the best approach.
Map of ‘terrorism hot spots’ in US – via ihrrblog.org – We found no significant relationship between the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the percentage of the population that is recently foreign-born or the racial composition of the population of the county. The substantive story remains virtually the same when controlling for the homicide rate and in the model with no ordinary crime controls. The main exception is the effect of concentrated disadvantage on the probability of a terrorist attack.
Mapping the Financial Impact of Population Movement in the U.S. – via information aesthetics – The interactive map Where Does the Money Go? [stamen.com] by Stamen Design reveals the financial impact of the movements by the U.S. during 2009, on a county-to-county level. More specifically, Stamen used an open dataset containing all changes of residential address as reported to the IRS to figure out where people were moving to (blue lines), and where they originally came from (red lines).