There are good reasons for any species to think darkly of its own extinction. […] Nuclear weapons were the first technology to threaten us with extinction, but they will not be the last, nor even the most dangerous. […] There are still tens of thousands of nukes, enough to incinerate all of Earth’s dense population centers, but not enough to target every human being. […] Humans have a long history of using biology’s deadlier innovations for ill ends; we have proved especially adept at the weaponisation of microbes. In antiquity, we sent plagues into cities by catapulting corpses over fortified walls. Now we have more cunning Trojan horses. We have even stashed smallpox in blankets, disguising disease as a gift of good will. Still, these are crude techniques, primitive attempts to loose lethal organisms on our fellow man. In 1993, the death cult that gassed Tokyo’s subways flew to the African rainforest in order to acquire the Ebola virus, a tool it hoped to use to usher in Armageddon. In the future, even small, unsophisticated groups will be able to enhance pathogens, or invent them wholesale. Even something like corporate sabotage, could generate catastrophes that unfold in unpredictable ways. Imagine an Australian logging company sending synthetic bacteria into Brazil’s forests to gain an edge in the global timber market. The bacteria might mutate into a dominant strain, a strain that could ruin Earth’s entire soil ecology in a single stroke, forcing 7 billion humans to the oceans for food. […] The average human brain can juggle seven discrete chunks of information simultaneously; geniuses can sometimes manage nine. Either figure is extraordinary relative to the rest of the animal kingdom, but completely arbitrary as a hard cap on the complexity of thought. If we could sift through 90 concepts at once, or recall trillions of bits of data on command, we could access a whole new order of mental landscapes. It doesn’t look like the brain can be made to handle that kind of cognitive workload, but it might be able to build a machine that could. […] To understand why an AI might be dangerous, you have to avoid anthropomorphising it. […] Bostrom told me that it’s best to think of an AI as a primordial force of nature, like a star system or a hurricane — something strong, but indifferent. If its goal is to win at chess, an AI is going to model chess moves, make predictions about their success, and select its actions accordingly. It’s going to be ruthless in achieving its goal, but within a limited domain: the chessboard. But if your AI is choosing its actions in a larger domain, like the physical world, you need to be very specific about the goals you give it. [Ross Andersen/Aeon]
The concept “superiority illusion” refers to the fact that people tend to judge themselves as being superior to the average person when it comes to positive traits such as intelligence, desirability or other personality traits. This is mathematically not possible, because in a normally distributed population, most people cannot be above average. The “superiority illusion” belongs to a family of positive illusions, such as the “optimism bias,” which is characterized by an unrealistic positive outlook regarding our future. It is thought that such positive illusions may help ward off depressive symptoms and promote mental health. […] [A recent study suggests] that the degree of superiority illusion correlates negatively with functional connectivity between two parts of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex and the striatum) and that the proposed mediator is the neurotransmitter dopamine. This would mean that increasing dopamine levels in the striatum could promote a person’s superiority illusion. One limitation of the study was that the findings were purely associative and did not prove an actual causal link between dopamine levels and the superiority illusion. [Fragments of Truth]
Government secrecy frequently fails. […] The effort to control government information requires human, bureaucratic, technological, and textual mechanisms that regularly founder or collapse in an administrative state, sometimes immediately and sometimes after an interval. Leaks, mistakes, open sources—each of these constitutes a path out of the government’s informational clutches. As a result, permanent, long-lasting secrecy of any sort and to any degree is costly and difficult to accomplish. This Article argues that information control is an implausible goal. [Mark Fenster /SSRN]
He has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people’s regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at. […] Politics, too, is falling to the new psychohistorians. Boleslaw Szymanski of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state studies how societies change their collective minds. By studying simulated networks of people he can predict the point at which a committed minority can convert almost everyone else to its way of thinking. [The Economist]
The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised, a set of techniques that make surveys and dinnertime robo-calls (“This will take only 10 minutes of your time”) seem superficial by comparison. ReD is one of just a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life—and everyday consumerism—as a subject worthy of the scrutiny normally reserved for academic social science. [The Atlantic | Thanks Tim]
In Proust’s novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu the narrator, Marcel, is overwhelmed by an unexpectedly vivid memory triggered by dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea. Such experiences are now being classified as involuntary autobiographical memories (IAMs), coming to mind without any deliberate attempt at retrieval. Ebbinghaus (1885/1964) was first to define them as a distinct type of memories. […] In this article we review the results of recent research programmes offering insights into IAMs in psychopathology, ageing, and their relevance to the real world, and other subjective experiences, such as déjà vu. [The Psychologist]
All kinds of things go into a woman’s vagina. Some are friendly (like sperm and vaginal microbes), and some are very bad (STDs). The immune system in the vagina has to be able to tell the difference and react appropriately. As you can imagine, the system isn’t perfect and sometimes things go terribly wrong. […] if a woman should become pregnant, her immune system has to know that it can’t attack the growing fetus, even though it’s technically a foreign object. […] When sperm enter the vagina, it sets off a rapid response in the cervix called the leukocyte reaction. A whole slew of immune cells rushes to attack and kill the invading cells, also known to the future baby as ‘dad.’ This might be partly why millions of sperm are needed in order for just one to fertilize an egg. [nitty gritty science]
I next proposed a triangular theory of love, which holds that love can be understood in terms of three components. […] These three components are intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships. Passion refers to the drives that lead to physical attraction and excitement. Decision/commitment refers, in the short-term, to the decision that one loves a certain other, and in the long-term, to one’s commitment to maintain that love. More of each component leads to different sizes of love triangles, and different balances of the three components give rise to different shapes of triangles. [The Psychologist]
“Married people are happier than unmarried people.” […] “A little money can buy you a lot of happiness, though a lot of money buys you only a little more happiness.” […] What’s the sweet spot where each dollar buys the most happiness? Gilbert cited a per capita income between $50,000 to $75,000. […] Time spent resting, for example, the dream of so many working people, simply doesn’t deliver happiness. […] “[Children] are not a source of happiness. […] Once people have kids, there’s a downturn in happiness.” [Harvard Gazette]
The researchers also found that men require a slightly longer wavelength to see the same hue as women; an object that women experience as orange will look slightly more yellowish to men, while green will look more blue-green to men. This last part doesn’t confer an advantage on either sex, but it does demonstrate, Abramov says, that “the nervous system that deals with color cannot be wired in the exact same way in males as in females.” He believes the answer lies in testosterone and other androgens. [Smithsonian]
A recent study showed that White British heterosexual men’s preferences for larger female breasts were significantly associated with a greater tendency to be benevolently sexist, to objectify women, and to be hostile towards women.
On 5 June 1995 an adult male mallard collided with the glass façade of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam and died. An other drake mallard raped the corpse almost continuously for 75 minutes. Then the author [of this paper] disturbed the scene and secured the dead duck. Dissection showed that the rape-victim indeed was of the male sex. It is concluded that the mallards were engaged in an ‘Attempted Rape Flight’ that resulted in the first described case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard. [C.W. Moeliker | PDF]
Worldwide, over US$100 billion is invested every year in supporting biomedical research, which results in an estimated 1 million research publications per year. […] An efficient system of research should address health problems of importance to populations and the interventions and outcomes considered important by patients and clinicians. However, public funding of research is correlated only modestly with disease burden, if at all. Within specific health problems there is little research on the extent to which questions addressed by researchers match questions of relevance to patients and clinicians. […] Although some waste in the production and reporting of research evidence is inevitable and bearable, we were surprised by the levels of waste suggested in the evidence we have pieced together. Since research must pass through all four stages shown in the figure, the waste is cumulative. If the losses estimated in the figure apply more generally, then the roughly 50% loss at stages 2, 3, and 4 would lead to a greater than 85% loss, which implies that the dividends from tens of billions of dollars of investment in research are lost every year because of correctable problems. [Iain Chalmers, Paul Glasziou | PDF | via OvercomingBias]
Many are only just getting their heads around the idea of 3D printing but scientists at MIT are already working on an upgrade: 4D printing. At the TED conference in Los Angeles, architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits showed how the process allows objects to self-assemble. It could be used to install objects in hard-to-reach places such as underground water pipes, he suggested. It might also herald an age of self-assembling furniture, said experts. [BBC]
Discerning one lipstick from the next can be tough for consumers but it’s even harder for scientists. Now forensics researchers have found a quick method to tell apart individual lipsticks, no matter the color or brand.
In effect, even the most secure computer systems in the most isolated locations have been penetrated over the last couple of years by a series of APTs and other advanced attacks. Cryptography is becoming less important.
There’s growing privacy concern over flying robots, or “drones.” Organizations […] have been raising the alarm over increased government surveillance of US citizens. Legislators haven’t been quick to respond to concerns of government spying on citizens. But Texas legislators are apparently quite concerned that private citizens operating hobby drones might spot environmental violations by businesses. [Robots]
Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president. Obama had granted 39 pardons; he had received petitions from 1,333 individuals. By contrast, former president George W. Bush received 2,498 petitions and granted 189 pardons, while former president Bill Clinton received 2,001 petitions and granted 396 pardons.
Fifteen years ago, two fraud cases sent shock waves through the world of photography, helping to trigger a revolution in photo conservation science. Long dismissed by the art establishment as a second-tier medium, “photography used to fight for space in galleries,” says James M. Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y. But by the 1990s the prestige—and price tags—of photographs began to approach those of paintings and sculpture. During that decade, collectors increasingly paid out hundreds of thousands and then the first million dollars for vintage and contemporary photographs. Yet, as in all coming-of-age stories, life’s dark side made an appearance, this time by means of back-to-back fraud cases. In 1998, researchers in Germany discovered that a collection of prints by the avant-garde American photographer Man Ray had not been made by the artist himself. A year later, a team in the U.S. began to scrutinize a collection of 20 prints by Lewis Hine, an early-20th-century American documentary photographer. They discovered that the iconic collection of photos of Empire State Building construction sites and child laborers, purported to have been printed by Hine himself, were made decades after his death. Both cases led to million-dollar settlements that helped stimulate the photo conservation research, transforming a niche field into a mature science. [Chemical & Engineering News]
Last August, a book titled “Leapfrogging” hit The Wall Street Journal’s list of best-selling business titles upon its debut. The following week, sales of the book, written by first-time author Soren Kaplan, plunged 99% and it fell off the list. Something similar happened when the hardcover edition of “Networking is Dead,” was published in mid-December. A week after selling enough copies to make it onto the Journal’s business best-seller list, more hardcover copies of the book were returned than sold, says book-sales tracker Nielsen BookScan. It isn’t uncommon for a business book to land on best-seller lists only to quickly drop off. But even a brief appearance adds permanent luster to an author’s reputation, greasing the skids for speaking and consulting engagements. Mr. Kaplan says the best-seller status of “Leapfrogging” has “become part of my position as a speaker and consultant.” But the short moment of glory doesn’t always occur by luck alone. In the cases mentioned above, the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed. [WSJ]
Unless you’re speaking with a real estate agent or a prostitute, chances are they’re not going to be excited that you’re American. It’s not some badge of honor we get to parade around. […] Outside of getting shit-housed drunk and screaming “I LOVE YOU, MAN!”, open displays of affection in American culture are tepid and rare. Latin and some European cultures describe us as “cold” and “passionless” and for good reason. In our social lives we don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say. […] As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us. They’re not. Sweden and South Korea have more advanced high speed internet networks. Japan has the most advanced trains and transportation systems. Norwegians make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world is flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai. Meanwhile, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. […] Unless you have cancer or something equally dire, the health care system in the US sucks. The World Health Organization ranked the US 37th in the world for health care, despite the fact that we spend the most per capita by a large margin. The hospitals are nicer in Asia (with European-educated doctors and nurses) and cost a tenth as much. Something as routine as a vaccination costs multiple hundreds of dollars in the US and less than $10 in Colombia. And before you make fun of Colombian hospitals, Colombia is 28th in the world on that WHO list, nine spots higher than us. A routine STD test that can run you over $200 in the US is free in many countries to anyone, citizen or not. […] Our food is killing us. [Mark Manson | Thanks Tim]