Edge 264 November 7, 2008
(16,450 words)

THE THIRD CULTURE

THE DOUBLE HELIX MEDAL FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
James D. Watson & J. Craig Venter

SWATTING ATTACKS ON FRUIT FLIES AND SCIENCE
By Jerry Coyne

REAL LIFE IS NOT A CASINO
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
A Talk By Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Sendhil Mullainathan
Class 6: A Short Course In Behavioral Economics

Sean Parker, Anne Treisman, Paul Romer, Danny Hillis, Jeff Bezos, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson, France LeClerc

IN THE NEWS

FINANCIAL TIMES
Obama’s technology czar: the betting begins
By Richard Waters

NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Science: The Coming Century
By Martin Rees

THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Conversatrion with Stuart L. Pimm
By Claudia Dreyfus

SCIENCE
THE GONZO SCIENTIST
Flunking Spore
John Bohannon

THE BOSTON GLOBE
U Tube
By Jeffrey MacIntyre

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

HUFFINGTON POST
Man Versus Machine
Thomas B. Edsall

WALL STREET JOURNAL
October Pain Was 'Black Swan' Gain
Scott Patterson

PROSPECT
The emerging moral psychology
Dan Jones

THE RECORD (WATERLOO)
This is the column that changed the world
Bill Bean

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
The Turkey Was Amazed

By Frank Schirrmacher

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Your Comments On The Economy Column
By Nicholas Kristof

ATLANTIC ONLINE
Too Soon To Tell
Ross Douthat

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth
By Simson L. Garfinkel

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Moving Freely between Virtual Worlds
By Erica Naone

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Immortalizing a Piece of Yourself
By Emily Singer

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki
The founders of startup 23andMe want to know your genome.
By Emily Singer



THE DOUBLE HELIX MEDAL FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH [11.6.08]


James D. Watson & J. Craig Venter

At the Cold Spring Harbor Board of Director's Dinner in New York City, James Watson and Craig Venter were co-recipients of the Double Helix Medal for Scientific Research.


In her usual faux-folksy style, Palin lit out after a congressional earmark involving these insects: "You've heard about some of these pet projects — they really don't make a whole lot of sense — and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." (Reading this diatribe is not sufficient; only video reveals the scorn and condescension dripping from her words.)

SWATTING ATTACKS ON FRUIT FLIES AND SCIENCE
By Jerry Coyne

Sarah Palin's criticism of the critters is just bad buzz. Research on them offers insights into learning, genes, diseases.

JERRY COYNE is a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, where he works on diverse areas of evolutionary genetics. He is the author (with H. Allen Orr) of Speciation, and Why Evolution Is True.

Jerry Coyne's Edge Bio Page

Further reading on Edge: "Don't Know Much Biology" By Jerry Coyne

PERMALINK


SWATTING ATTACKS ON FRUIT FLIES AND SCIENCE

Enough already. I bit my tongue when I heard that Sarah Palin believed that dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side and that she and John McCain wanted creationism taught in the public schools.

And I just shook my head when McCain derided proposed funding for a sophisticated planetarium projection machine as wasteful spending on an "overhead projector."

But the Republican ticket's war on science has finally gone too far. Last week, Sarah Palin dissed research on fruit flies.

In her usual faux-folksy style, Palin lit out after a congressional earmark involving these insects: "You've heard about some of these pet projects — they really don't make a whole lot of sense — and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." (Reading this diatribe is not sufficient; only video reveals the scorn and condescension dripping from her words.)

As a geneticist, I've worked on fruit flies in the laboratory for three decades. I know the fruit fly. The fruit fly is a friend of mine. And believe me, Sarah Palin doesn't know anything about fruit flies.

The research Palin attacked was a perfectly valid project designed to protect American growers from the olive fruit fly, a destructive pest. But fruit-fly research is good for far more than that.

The fruit fly is what we call a "model organism." Since all animals partake of a common evolutionary history, we share basic features of physiology, development and biochemistry. And because flies are easy to study, quick to breed in the lab, and cheaper than chimps and mice, we can often use them as models for things that go wrong (or right) in our own species.

For example, most of what we know about how genes are passed on in humans came from breeding studies of fruit flies — work for which T.H. Morgan won a Nobel Prize in 1933. (This included work on the effects of abnormal numbers of chromosomes, the cause of Down syndrome.) Since then, three other Nobel Prizes in medicine or physiology have gone for research on fruit flies. This work has given insights into how bodies are built and how learning might occur.

The flies are models for disease, too, producing possibilities for curing epilepsy, Alzheimer's and, yes, one of Palin's favorite causes, autism.

Why are the Republican candidates so contemptuous of science? I suppose it's part of their general attack on "elitism," which has been surprisingly effective. We white-coated nerds in our labs, fooling around with flies at taxpayer expense, are easy targets.

But America can't afford cheap shots at science, because a lot of basic research has immense implications for human welfare — even if ignorant politicians can make it sound silly. Work on fruit flies is just one example.

This year's Republican campaign has consistently attacked the values of reason and logic that undergird our democracy. If anything has led to America's high standard of living and world preeminence, it's the idea that we can advance only with the best science possible.

When Palin declares that we don't have to know what causes global warming in order to fix it, she's not only exposing herself as a scientific illiterate; she's going against two centuries of American progress in technology, medicine and science. Trying to bond with the American people by taking pride in your ignorance and making science the common enemy — now that's a bridge to nowhere.

[First published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 2008]


Once again, real life is not a casino with simple bets. This is the error that helps the banking system go bust with an astonishing regularity.

REAL LIFE IS NOT A CASINO
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Introduction

On New Years day I received a a prescient essay from Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, as his response to the 2008 Edge Question: "What Have You Change Your Mind About?" In "Real Life Is Not A Casino", he wrote:

I've shown that institutions that are exposed to negative black swans—such as banks and some classes of insurance ventures—have almost never been profitable over long periods. The problem of the illustrative current subprime mortgage mess is not so much that the "quants" and other pseudo-experts in bank risk-management were wrong about the probabilities (they were) but that they were severely wrong about the different layers of depth of potential negative outcomes.

Taleb had changed his mind about his belief "in the centrality of probability in life, and advocating that we should express everything in terms of degrees of credence, with unitary probabilities as a special case for total certainties and null for total implausibility".

Critical thinking, knowledge, beliefs—everything needed to be probabilized. Until I came to realize, twelve years ago, that I was wrong in this notion that the calculus of probability could be a guide to life and help society. Indeed, it is only in very rare circumstances that probability (by itself) is a guide to decision making. It is a clumsy academic construction, extremely artificial, and nonobservable. Probability is backed out of decisions; it is not a construct to be handled in a stand-alone way in real-life decision making. It has caused harm in many fields.

The essay is one of more than one hundred that have been edited for a new book What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (forthcoming, Harper Collins, January 9th). See below.

John Brockman

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB is an essayist and mathematical trader and the author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Edge Bio page

Further reading on Edge: The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics By
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
[9.15.08]

PERMALINK


REAL LIFE IS NOT A CASINO

I spent a long time believing in the centrality of probability in life and advocating that we should express everything in terms of degrees of credence, with unitary probabilities as a special case for total certainties and null for total implausibility. Critical thinking, knowledge, beliefs—everything needed to be probabilized. Until I came to realize, twelve years ago, that I was wrong in this notion that the calculus of probability could be a guide to life and help society. Indeed, it is only in very rare circumstances that probability (by itself) is a guide to decision making. It is a clumsy academic construction, extremely artificial, and nonobservable. Probability is backed out of decisions; it is not a construct to be handled in a stand-alone way in real-life decision making. It has caused harm in many fields.

Consider the following statement. "I think that this book is going to be a flop, but I would be very happy to publish it." Is the statement incoherent? Of course not: Even if the book is very likely to be a flop, it may make economic sense to publish it (for someone with deep pockets and the right appetite), since one cannot ignore the small possibility of a handsome windfall or the even smaller possibility of a huge windfall. We can easily see that when it comes to low odds, decision making no longer depends on the probability alone. It is the pair, probability times payoff (or a series of payoffs), the expectation, that matters. On occasion, the potential payoff can be so vast that it dwarfs the probability—and these are usually real-world situations in which probability is not computable.

Consequently, there is a difference between knowledge and action. You cannot naïvely rely on scientific statistical knowledge (as they define it) or what the epistemologists call justified true belief for non-textbook decisions. Statistically oriented modern science is typically based on Right/Wrong, with a set confidence level, stripped of consequences. Would you take a headache pill if it was deemed effective at a 95-percent confidence level? Most certainly. But would you take the pill if it is established that it is "not lethal" at a 95-percent confidence level? I hope not.

When I discuss the impact of the highly improbable ("black swans"), people make the automatic mistake of thinking that the message is that these "black swans" are necessarily more probable than assumed by conventional methods. They are mostly less probable. Consider that, in a winner-take-all environment, such as the arts, the odds of success are low, since there are fewer successful people, but the payoff is disproportionately high. So, in a fat-tailed environment (what I call Extremistan), rare events are less frequent (their probability is lower), but they are so effective that their contribution to the total pie is more substantial.

[Technical note: the distinction is, simply, between raw probability, P[x>K], i.e., the probability of exceeding K, and E[x|x>K], the expectation of x conditional on x>K. It is the difference between the zeroth moment and the first moment. The latter is what usually matters for decisions. And it is the (conditional) first moment that needs to be the core of decision making. What I saw in 1995 was that an out-of-the-money option value increases when the probability of the event decreases, making me feel that everything I thought until then was wrong.]

What causes severe mistakes is that outside the special cases of casinos and lotteries, you almost never face a single probability with a single (and known) payoff. You may face, say, a 5-percent probability of an earthquake of magnitude 3 or higher, a 2-percent probability of one of magnitude 4 or higher, and so forth. The same with wars: You have a risk of different levels of damage, each with a different probability. "What is the probability of war?" is a meaningless question for risk assessment.

So it is wrong to look just at a single probability of a single event in cases of richer possibilities (like focusing on such questions as "What is the probability of losing a million dollars?" while ignoring that, conditional on losing more than a million dollars, you may have an expected loss of $20 million, $100 million, or just $1 million). Once again, real life is not a casino with simple bets. This is the error that helps the banking system go bust with an astonishing regularity. I've shown that institutions that are exposed to negative black swans—such as banks and some classes of insurance ventures—have almost never been profitable over long periods. The problem of the illustrative current subprime mortgage mess is not so much that the "quants" and other pseudo-experts in bank risk-management were wrong about the probabilities (they were) but that they were severely wrong about the different layers of depth of potential negative outcomes. For instance, Morgan Stanley has lost about $10 billion (so far), while allegedly having foreseen a subprime crisis and executed hedges against it; they just did not realize how deep it would go and had open exposure to the big tail risks. This is routine. A friend who went bust during the crash of 1987 told me, "I was betting that it would happen, but I did not know it would go that far."

The point is mathematically simple, but does not register easily. I've enjoyed giving math students the following quiz (to be answered intuitively, on the spot). In a Gaussian world, the probability of exceeding one standard deviation is around 16 percent. What are the odds of exceeding it under a distribution of fatter tails (with same mean and variance)? The right answer: lower, not higher—the number of deviations drops, but the few that take place matter more. It was entertaining to see that most of the graduate students got it wrong. Those who are untrained in the calculus of probability have a far better intuition of these matters.

Another complication is that just as probability and payoff are inseparable, so one cannot extract another complicated component—utility—from the decision-making equation. Fortunately the ancients, with all their tricks and accumulated wisdom in decision making, knew a lot of that—at least, better than modern-day probability theorists. Let us stop systematically treating them as if they were idiots. Most texts blame the ancients for their ignorance of the calculus of probability: The Babylonians, Egyptians, and Romans in spite of their engineering sophistication, and the Arabs in spite of their taste for mathematics, were blamed for not having produced a calculus of probability (the latter being, incidentally, a myth, since Umayyad scholars used relative word frequencies to determine authorships of holy texts and decrypt messages). The reason was foolishly attributed to theology, lack of sophistication, lack of something people call the "scientific method," or belief in fate. The ancients just made decisions in a more ecologically sophisticated manner than modern epistemology-minded people. They integrated skeptical Pyrrhonian empiricism into decision making. As I said, consider that belief (i.e., epistemology) and action (i.e., decision making), the way they are practiced, are largely not consistent with each other.

Let us apply the point to the current debate on carbon emissions and climate change. Correspondents keep asking me if the climate worriers are basing their claims on shoddy science and whether, owing to nonlinearities, their forecasts are marred with such a possible error that we should ignore them. Now, even if I agreed that it was shoddy science; even if I agreed with the statement that the climate folks were most probably wrong, I would still opt for the most ecologically conservative stance. Leave Planet Earth the way we found it. Consider the consequences of the very remote possibility that they may be right—or, worse, the even more remote possibility that they may be extremely right.


PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman

RICHARD THALER: ehavioral economics and good psychology, there's a lot of art. There is science and there are well-crafted experiments, but thinking about what the right experiment to run, was art and, there are 80 gazillion experiments, which ones are relevant to getting people to plant the right seed. That's a problem that Sendhil and I have been talking about for, well, since he was born. You're now seeing the results of 15 years of conversations. And there wasn't a scientific way of answering that question.

SENDHIL MULLAINAITHAN: A lot of what makes behavioral economics interesting is psychology, it is about what happens inside the mind. These phenomena are taking things that are happening inside the mind and interfacing them with things happening in the world, the environment, and getting feedback or getting interesting responses from that.

We happen to call the word economics. But it's not economics. You could be talking about crime, you could be talking about many things, in the social domain, the entire spectrum of human behavior. Anyone who is interested in the broader world should be interested in something we currently call "behavioral economics".

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important.

Sean Parker, Anne Treisman, Paul Romer, Danny Hillis, Jeff Bezos, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson, France LeClerc

Class 6
A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Edge Master Class 2008
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman

Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008

AN EDGE SPECIAL PROJECT

PERMALINK


PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS

[As George Dyson noted in his Second Day Report: During the mid-morning break, Richard Thaler shows videos from a 40-year-old study (Walter Mischel, 1973) of children offered one cookie now or two if they wait. The observed behavior correlates strongly, by almost any measure, with both the economic success of the parents and the child's future success. Hypothesis: small behavioral shifts might produce (or "nudge") large economic results.]

RICHARD THALER: It is the case, as I said before, that the kids that were better, turned out to be much better adults.

KAHNEMAN: Right. They had a better future.

THALER: I don't think we know that much about how you teach those skills, do we?

KAHNEMAN: Well, again, you would look at cultures, because I'm convinced that is not going to be the same in China and here. Clearly some cultures know how to do this better than others, but what it is I don't know, and I'm not sure that you could teach it locally. It would have to be something broader.

MULLAINATHAN: One of the things that we talked about vis-a-vis working out is something I 'd love to know if there is evidence on, which is I find working out four times a week is much harder than seven times a week. It is not even a habit issue. There's no choice left. Its no longer even a temptation. It's not even in my choice set.

PARKER: Isn't one of the answers to this social scrutiny because it multiplies the pain, multiplies the consequences. Its like if it's a cultural thing, and doing something that is considered wrong the consequences are now massively multiplied and the consequences don't go away when you leave the immediate situation. I've heard that hypothesized as one of the primary differences between Chinese culture and American culture.

TREISMAN: Big brother is watching you.

THALER: I don't know how much evidence there is to it, but it seems intuitive that one of the things that good parenting involves is giving kids some practice in self control so they learn how to use that muscle.

KAHNEMAN: A lot of practice! There are things, there are rewards that you will gain from self-control now. That happens routinely.

THALER: But that will involve giving some freedom, right? There are two ways to err, I mean there are millions ways to err as a parent. But, you can think of two extremes. You could be so lax that the kids always get what they want right away. Or you could be so strict that they never have any discretion. The right answer is somewhere in the middle.

MULLAINATHAN: Like binge drinking in US colleges versus the lack of it in Europe. These guys have been told no alcohol, and then they get to college and boom! I get to do all of this stuff. There were these kids I knew whose parents didn't let them watch television. And then they get to college and they have absolutely no way to control themselves.

ROMER: The model that you create for people matters a lot as well. It's just role modeling, and then maybe influencing the people they hang around with.

MULLAINATHAN: But what's interesting about this is we're conjecturing. This is not a place where we have lots of evidence. Is it just that its hard to run these experiments when we're looking for long term changes?

KAHNEMAN: It's an experiment in character formation.

BEZOS: But wait a second, if you know it's stable in time from age four, because you did the big lollipop small lollipop experiment for 40 years. It seems like you should be able to study what happens in the first four or five years of life.

KAHNEMAN: It doesn't predict just the child's income it predicts the parents income.

THALER: Although the remarkable thing is that those videotapes I'm showing, which are ancient, were at the Stamford Daycare Center. These are the kids of Stamford graduate students and young faculty so it's a very truncated example. Walter then moved to Columbia and the local sample has become enriched. But even within that very truncated sample, it had predictive power.

MULLAINATHAN: There are all of these Headstart experiments that are going on which are done by a population that is very much focused on teaching, such as how do we teach math; why can't we take some of those and add modules, why can't we add self-control training modules to Headstart experiments? They're there. There's an entire field that does these things.

KAHNEMAN: You would see that, without social support, this thing would just go, it would just vanish.

TREISMAN: That's what teachers try and do, they try and teach them all kinds of things.

MULLAINATHAN: I'm not saying we're not doing it, I'm saying we're studying it more systematically. And it's possible one lesson we learn is that none of the things that we think work in school, can work. It's true for example, even in Headstart in the education domain. One thing they are finding is that the average effects are tiny and they are mediated by stuff at home. But then the next generation of stuff takes that into account. The next generation of stuff is not just teaching the child, but doing interventions as part of Headstart that brings in the mother and the father and involves them. Are there cheap and cost effective ways of involving them? All I am saying is that maybe there is a tool out there for studying this that's outside of the usual lab that we tend to operate in.

PARKER: If what you're trying to do is simulate some of the things that work in say China or other Asian nations then maybe what those nations are doing is not teaching self-control but institutionalizing punishment, or creating greater social scrutiny for doing things that are wrong, and maybe it has nothing to do with the kind of self control training you can get in a Headstart program.

MULLAINATHAN: Good point, but even that we might be able to do in a Headstart program where instead of teaching self control lets suppose we set up social norms amongst the children and it maybe that your sense of perceived punishment is set pretty early. It's like the eyes on the wall. Most punishments are relatively perceived punishment, what will our friends think about it.

HILLIS: Do you think there is a general skill of self-control or perhaps a particular skill of delayed gratification and a payoff? Perhaps you need to be taught each of these kinds of self-control.

THALER: In fact, we know the answer to that, and you're right, there is no general—and it's funny—it's the same guy. The great contribution to psychology by Walter Mischel, the guy who did those videotapes, is to show that there is no such thing as a stable personality trait.

KAHNEMAN: Stable yes, general no.

THALER: Right. One person is honest in some domains but not in others; they have great self-control regarding their money, but then they're fat.

KAHNEMAN: Lots of people are hard working and have very little control over their diet.

THALER Right. Sendhil works out every day and then spends all his time on websites. Right? Yes, we know the answer to that.

ROMER: For what it's worth, the comparable conversation in South Korea or in Singapore would not be how do we give our kids more self control, but how do we make kids that are as creative like American kids. There are several dimensions here that we've got to think about.

THALER: All right, so it's open discussion.

I want to make a quick comment. Jeff and I were talking earlier about what do we hear about Kindle prices. And Jeff made the comment that no one will pay more for the Kindle version than they would pay for the hardback, or the written version. Jeff, what I thought you might find interesting, it's related to but Sendhil was talking about yesterday. My impression is that when the paperback version comes out, the Kindle price goes down. Right? This is just like one of Sendhil's experiments yesterday. I've got my Kindle and let's say I would rather read it on my Kindle than as a book. And now we've changed some irrelevance rice but I can now buy a paperback. I would rather have them on my Kindle but this came from a reference point that is going to affect my willingness to pay for the Kindle version.

BEZOS: There is a shift in time. the paperback comes out after the hardback. And so it's another reason why the price should go down at about that time. The issuance of the paperback, it's basically an indicator that there's enough time has passed for the price to go down.  

MULLAINATHAN: But the flip side of this issue, when there's a book that's only available in paperback and selling at $9.95, it seems like it's to your advantage to introduce the hardback that no one's going to buy and put it on the site, because when the Kindle price is $11, well, it's more than the paperback, but it's less than the hardback.

BEZOS: Are you looking for a job? Let's talk after.

ROMER: But that one's subtle. That could be nothing to do with choice sets. It's a good that would compete, a new good that competes on price and it's partly its price discrimination. It could be that this has nothing to do with choice set effects.

KAMANGAR: An earlier premise that we've assumed in all these discussions is that there are a few anonymous, expert designers of your choice sets, who construct your choices for important decision areas like health care.  The Web has changed this model, I think.  Now you have information about the actions of your friends and other web identities, so you're able to see the decisions of a large number of choice architects, which may then affect the hundreds of decisions you may make over the course of a week about questions like what to buy, what to wear, what to do, and where to go.

THALER: Because of Twitter?

KAMANGAR: In the model we were discussing earlier, there's one person who more or less decides my Medicare choice set.  They are trying to put themselves into my shoes, but there are hundreds of other decisions I make in the course of my week that this person has no influence over.  Now, with the Web, I can see what article my friend read or what book my friend purchased.

BEZOS: You can choose your choice architect.

KAMANGAR: Exactly.

MULLAINATHAN: A concrete example of this is Chow Hound versus Zagat's. Used to be I go to Zagat's to tell me if a restaurant is good. There are these five guys at Chow Hound who I trust. What I want to know is what is their rating specifically.

It would be interesting if there were software you could create to facilitate that for things beyond restaurants. Imagine if there was something like a Facebook application for basic choices, financial choices, where there was some easy way to structure the problem of financial choices so that the information could be passed through much more effectively.

KAMANGAR: Another example of the potential that comes with this change is that today my investment decisions are somewhat based on what I know about whom else is investing in a company. But it's hard to get that information. It would be useful to have transparency about a company's investors. For example, if I knew Jeff had invested in a particular retail operation that would be enough information for me to want to invest. Of course, Jeff and others will in some cases want to protect the privacy of their choices, so this identity information today is obscured through legal entities. But for an increasing set of decisions, the Web will allow people to share their choices, and bring to life new choice architects.

MULLAINATHAN: It would also be interesting to see if there was a way to ask questions like what percentage stocks and bonds, to even facilitate more. The problem with what you just described is that it promotes emulation behavior, which has a downside in that maybe Jeff is investing in that retail company as a hedge but that doesn't make sense for you to do as a hedge. It would be interesting to provide not just data for people to emulate each other but information on why something is being done and some way to transmit specific advice.

THALER: I want to go to forms and they'll say other people like you ...

KAHNEMAN: These are people who have your tastes are now shopping for this.

THALER: The difference between the Amazon model and the NetFlix model is the NetFlix model they ask you a bunch of questions about movies you've seen. You guys don't do that. Yours is based on what you bought.

BEZOS: There are two different kinds of recommendations. There are personal ones based on your purchase history and your rating history. And then there are ones that are just people who bought this product.

THALER: Right. The two models are a bit different. One is finding people like you. This model is: people who bought this book also bought that book.

ROMER: We know that systems have a kind of indeterminacy in that if some perturbation gets one object to be purchased more often, then other people purchase it. You can run experiments, if you take a population of people and they'll all end up with one thing that everybody is recommending because everybody else is buying it. Or in a different population, you get a very different outcome.

THALER: Does everybody know this experiment? They created eight different worlds with young people downloading music. And they gave them a bunch of music, a list of songs, and you could listen to the clips of the songs or listen to the whole song and then download it if you wanted to. There was one world where you got no feedback about what other people were doing. And then there were several other worlds where you got feedback on what other people in your group were doing. What happened was that consensus formed strongly within each group, but the groups were wildly different. That's the small perturbation point.

ROMER: If all that music is equivalently good it doesn't matter, but you've got to worry about equilibrium where everybody converges on a mortgage or a financial institution. That's not operable.

MULLAINATHAN: The key is to transmit not just data to emulate but information. Just data on what's been done is what generates emulation. If you start to transmit what you liked then so a bunch of people tried A they liked it that's why we're pooling on it so that's why its important that we are clear about what we are transmitting Information on just my purchases, just that, is not nearly as useful as that's why I thought relative to what Amazon does now or what Netflix does now it seems like in Salar's comment you are emphasizing people.

KAMANGAR: You pick somebody who is not only an expert at that subject but someone who you want to emulate when it comes to that subject.

THALER: Somebody who can emulate you.

The other point that's related to what we've been talking about and its vaguely related to what we were talking about in the second session yesterday about machine-readable information, is the question of how the information age is going to change things. For example, Zagat's has changed things, for better or for worse. And we can start to think now pro-actively ...how we want to think about this stuff.

KAHNEMAN: There is a concrete way for Amazon to engage the user. At the moment, there is no incentive for me to rate the books. I get nothing for it. Some people just like to start off, if you don't. But suppose we're talking films and not books, suppose that as an incentive to rate the films that I had seen that I am going to see the ratings of people whose ratings are similar to mine. That would produce an incentive for me to rate some films, I hated this one, I like this AND you would get the recommendation.

THALER: Well, that is the Netflix model.

PARKER: There are studies on something very similar to what you're proposing and we were using the hypothesis that most people don't like rating things but just about everybody enjoys voting and there's a subtle differences between rating or reviewing and voting. And some of that has to do with immediate gratification.

The widget on content news sites that has the highest click-through of pretty much any widget that appears whether its clicking-through to see a full article or clicking to another page, is polls, because you don't get to see the results of the poll until you click, and there's a cost benefit there.

The cost of clicking and saying "yes, I agree", or "no I don't agree", is so low, even though the reward of getting to see what everyone thought is very low, even the most jaded web user who knows that this data is totally unscientific and not that meaningful still wants to know and the cost is so low that they do it. We found that across a variety of platforms, polls, where there is a hidden answer, do extremely well, but that rankings, for example you have to give five stars, do terribly, like less than 30 percent of the people will rank them, but more than 50 percent of people will vote.

LECLERC: Vote as in yes or no.

PARKER: Yes or no, in order to see concealed results.

THALER: It can be a yes or no, or it could be "who's the best quarterback of all time, pick one of these five."

KAHNEMAN: I have proposed that as a model to Gallup, that is, to set up panels of experts on particular problems where the reward would be exactly that. That is you express your opinion on a problem and what you get is what other experts in the same field are thinking about that problem. That would be very valuable.

PARKER: There's another dimension to this also, which is that reviews work slightly better than rankings. At first blush, this seems wrong, because it’s so easy to rank something—the cost is incredibly low. But the thing is, the benefit is even lower, since people know that ranking doesn't get you anything—there's almost no benefit at all.

The only people who do rankings are people who are dismissively derided as self-indulgent sociopathic types who want their ideas to be registered with this kind of collective decision-making process, so that maybe they can influence other people down the line. But the amount of influence that you have is difficult to measure because you don't know how many other people have ranked so its not clear to you that your five star ranking is going to influence anyone.

The review on the other hand is what you say on screen and you have the sense that you're weighing in and perhaps that's more meaningful but in both of those cases sort of normal people, the majority of people, won't do it because they don't, they're doing it for strangers, putting it out there like a blogger that doesn't have a significant readership, on a blog post, plus you have to have a lot of time on your hands to do it.

There's all these reasons why reviewing is slightly better than rating, both of them suffer from the same the problem which is you don't know your audience, you can't see them, it doesn't make you famous, maybe it influences somebody's buying decision who you'll never see.

MULLAINATHAN: There's another advantage of polls over ratings. I tried to use that Netflix feature of rating movies. Ratings are in that dead zone. Here is what I mean: is this a 2 or a 3 or a 3 1/2. I want to give it a 3 ½ but I don't know…It's painful. Good / bad is easy to do. And what else is easy to do is to give qualified responses, to say I like this but the ending was crappy, does that make it a 2 or a 3. I don't know. Rating systems have enough dimensionality that you have to choose but not enough that you can genuinely express.

PARKER: Right. No one knows what a scale of one to five is. Everybody's idea of a scale of one to five is different, of a one to ten is different. You don't even know what yours is, so you certainly don't know how other people will use the scale. There are two ways you increase the number of people reviewing.

One is to create a community of people who are all active ly reviewing things and who all get to know each other through that process. That's the Yelp solution. They created a community where their core users contribute a lot of valuable content that is consumed by a large passive audience. It started as a virtual community but evolved into one where people meet online and later hang out in person. The best reviewers are recognized by the community for the quantity and quality of their reviews.

Then there's the other way, the Flixster on Facebook approach, where you're writing reviews for your actual friends so you get social feedback in the form of comments or “thank yous” and you're seeing other people’s reviews and providing feedback to them too, so it seems like a meaningful and purposeful kind of interaction. It’s like writing email to your friends, only in some ways better because your friends provide the impetus to write, but there’s additional value to persistence; that is, putting your thoughts out there on the Internet for posterity and potentially influencing a group of people beyond your immediate friends.

DYSON: I am going to change the subject. We're trying to sum up and I am interested in the specific hard problems that we came up with. I am going to throw out the ones that I noticed.

1. How to insure that people take their pills.

2. The names for Paul's city-state project. It desperately needs one.

3. The question of getting disclosure data into machine-readable form.

4. A lot of important decisions are made in a state of stress when your decision making process is skewed. There probably should be some kind of drink that you take before making a decision.

ROMER: Decision drinks.

PARKER: I drink half a red bull before I make decision. First I think about it a little bit sober, and then I drink half a red bull and think about it a little bit differently.

THALER: One of my goals coming here was to get all of you techno-wizards to start thinking about the ways in which you could help alter society for the better and the machine-readable data idea is an idea that I am pushing but it's also like a metaphor for other ways in which technology can change things.

The government is bad about this. If you look at essentially any government website, its hopeless, and the question of well, can the private sector do something. And if so what? I think is an interesting question. Any private sector website beats any public sector website and that's not so surprising there is a reason why you pay more for Fed Ex than the Post Office.

MULLAINATHAN: My ulterior motive in coming was that it seems that philanthropic behavior doesn’t recognize yet the benefits of R&D. Those of you in this room and in technical fields have seen the enormous impact of focused R&D efforts that combine pure research with development, building concrete solutions to important problems.

The research and development cycle has been powerful in those fields. What I wanted to give, in some small way, was the sense that R&D in the poverty space has a similarly huge potential to have enormous impact. For some reason in the poverty space people get too focused on well, there's this NGO that has a potential answer.

Let’s search for the innovation in the world. A great complement to this is centralized R&D. Not just doing R ("Research") but doing R plus D ("Development") can have big returns, creating potentially very impactful programs as well as basic insights about human behavior and social phenomena such as poverty.

KAHNEMAN: What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important.

BROCKMAN: Psychology is considered a science. Can the same be said for behavioral economics? Is it scientific, or is it seat of the pants?

KAHNEMAN: Its clearly based on data. It's data rich.

BROCKMAN: Where's the intersection? When does psychology become economics?

KAHNEMAN: You saw the perfect example in Sendhil's work, He collaborates with the psychologists and they give similar talks and I am sure they share slides a lot. But a lot of the time you could not tell that Sendhil is not a psychologist, because he is thinking with both sets of tools.

THALER: Behavioral economics and good psychology, there's a lot of art. There is science and there are well-crafted experiments, but thinking about what the right experiment to run, was art and, there are 80 gazillion experiments, which ones are relevant to getting people to plant the right seed. That's a problem that Sendhil and I have been talking about for, well, since he was born. You're now seeing the results of 15 years of conversations. And there wasn't a scientific way of answering that question.

MULLAINATHAN: Part of the wedge is that the name, although it is descriptive from an academic point of view, is not descriptive from a product point of view for an outsider. A lot of what makes behavioral economics interesting is psychology, it is about what happens inside the mind. These phenomena are taking things that are happening inside the mind and interfacing them with things happening in the world, the environment, and getting feedback or getting interesting responses from that.

We happen to call the word economics. But it's not economics. You could be talking about crime, you could be talking about many things, in the social domain, the entire spectrum of human behavior. Anyone who is interested in the broader world should be interested in something we currently call "behavioral economics".





FINANCIAL TIMES
November 7, 2008

Obama’s technology czar: the betting begins
By Richard Waters

Barack Obama’s promise to appoint the first chief technology officer for the US has had Silicon Valley buzzing all year. Now the election is over, it’s time for the real horse race to begin.

John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins got things going this afternoon at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. Asked who should get the job, the always-outspoken Doerr didn’t hesitate.

His first pick was Sun co-founder, Kleiner partner and all-round brainiac Bill Joy (pictured above left.)

As an alternative he suggested Danny Hillis (above right), a supercomputer pioneer and leading exponent of artificial intelligence.

Both men would certainly be a good fit for Doerr’s personal job description for the first US CTO: someone to lead a new, much-needed focus on fundamental research, the sort of work that will bring new breakthroughs as significant as the birth of the internet (a product of DARPA.) ...



NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
November 20, 2008


Science: The Coming Century
By Martin Rees

...Science is the only truly global culture: protons, proteins, and Pythagoras' theorem are the same from China to Peru. Research is international, highly networked, and collaborative. And most science-linked policy issues are international, even global—that's certainly true of those I've addressed here.

It is worth mentioning that the United States and Britain have been until now the most successful in creating and sustaining world-class research universities. These institutions are magnets for talent—both faculty and students—from all over the world, and are in most cases embedded in a "cluster" of high-tech companies, to symbiotic benefit.

By 2050, China and India should at least gain parity with Europe and the US—they will surely become the "center of gravity" of the world's intellectual power. We will need to aim high if we are to sustain our competitive advantage in offering cutting-edge "value added." ...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
November 4, 2008

SCIENCE TIMES

A Conversatrion with Stuart L. Pimm
By Claudia Dreyfus

‘I realized that extinction was something that as a scientist, I could study. I could ask, Why do species go extinct?’

For a man whose scholarly specialty is one of the grimmest topics on earth — extinction — Stuart L. Pimm is remarkably chipper. On a recent morning, while visiting New York City, Dr. Pimm, a 59-year-old zoologist, was full of warm stories about the many places he travels: South Africa, Madagascar and even South Florida, which he visits as part of an effort to save the endangered Florida panther. Fewer than 100 survive in the wild. In 2006, Dr. Pimm, who holds the Doris Duke professorship of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, won the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, the Nobel of the ecology world. ...



SCIENCE
October 24, 2008

THE GONZO SCIENTIST
Flunking Spore
John Bohannon

...So over the past month, I've been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn't just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong--it's meant to be a game, after all--but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong. I also tracked down the scientists who appeared on television in what seemed like an endorsement of Spore's scientific content on the National Geographic channel. They said they had been led to believe that the interviews were for a straight documentary about "developmental evolutionary" science rather than a video promoting a computer game (see the news story in Science's 24 October issue). "I was used," says Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who worries that science has been "hijacked" to promote a product. How did things go so wrong for a game that seemed so good? ...


article

THE BOSTON GLOBE
November 2, 2008


U Tube
Want a free education? A brief guide to the burgeoning world of online video lectures.

By Jeffrey MacIntyre

Graduate Studies: Edge.org

For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures, brought together by the literary agent John Brockman.

Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. It is presently streaming excerpts from a private lecture, including a thoughtful question and answer session, by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to Edge colleagues on the importance of behavioral economics.

It won't run to everyone's tastes. Unvarnished speakers like Sendhil Mullainathan, a MacArthur recipient with intriguing insights on poverty, are filmed in casual lecture, his thoughts unspooling in the mode of someone not preoccupied with clarity or economy of expression. The text transcripts are helpful in this context.

Regardless, the decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter. ...

...


article

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
November 3, 2008

What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything
Edited by John Brockman. Harper Perennial, $14.95 paper (384p)

In this wide-ranging assortment of 150 brief essays, well-known figures from every conceivable field demonstrate why it's a prerogative of all thoughtful people to change their mind once in a while. Technologist Ray Kurzweil says he now shares Enrico Fermi's question: if other intelligent civilizations exist, then where are they? Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) reveals that he has lost faith in probability as a guiding light for making decisions. Oliver Morton (Mapping Mars) confesses that he has lost his childlike faith in the value of manned space flight to distant worlds. J. Craig Venter, celebrated for his work on the human genome, has ceased to believe that nature can absorb any abuses that we subject it to, and that world governments must move quickly to prevent global disaster. Alan Alda says, “So far, I've changed my mind twice about God,” going from believer to atheist to agnostic. Brockman, editor of Edge.org and numerous anthologies, has pulled together a thought-provoking collection of focused and tightly argued pieces demonstrating the courage to change strongly held convictions. (Jan.)


article

HUFFINGTON POST
November 2, 2008


Man Versus Machine
Thomas B. Edsall

...Jaron Lanier takes on the debate about the role and power of computers in shaping human finances, behavior and prospects from a radically different vantage point faulting -- in an article published on the Edge web site -- "cybernetic totalists" who, absolve from responsibility for "whatever happens" the individual people who do specific things. I think that treating technology as if it were autonomous is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no difference between machine autonomy and the abdication of human responsibility. . . .There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore's law fetishizing, and the rest of the package will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times.

[Also: Nathan Myhrvold, George Dyson, Ray Kurzweil]

...


article

WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 3, 2008


October Pain Was 'Black Swan' Gain
Scott Patterson

For most of October, it seemed nearly everything that could go wrong with the markets did. But the rout turned into a jackpot for author and investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Mr. Taleb last year published "The Black Swan," a best-selling book about the impact of extreme events on the world and the financial markets. He also helped start a hedge fund, Universa Investments L.P., which bases many of its strategies on themes in the book, including how to reap big rewards in a sharp market downturn. Like October's. ...

...


article

PROSPECT
April, 2008


The emerging moral psychology
Dan Jones

Long thought to be a topic of enquiry within the humanities, the nature of human morality is increasingly being scrutinised by the natural sciences. This shift is now beginning to provide impressive intellectual returns on investment. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality—a trend that University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described as the “new synthesis in moral psychology.” The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human “moral faculty."...

...


article

THE RECORD (WATERLOO)
November 1, 2008


This is the column that changed the world

Bill Bean

I was watching a PBS production the other day entitled Dogs That Changed the World, and wondered about our contemporary fascination with things "That Changed the World."

The Machine That Changed the World (a 1991 book about automotive mass production). Cod: A Biography of The Fish That Changed the World (a 1998 book about, well, cod). The Map That Changed The World (2002 book about geologist William Smith). 100 Photographs That Changed the World (Life, 2003). Bridges That Changed the World (book, 2005). The Harlem Globetrotters: The Team That Changed the World (book, 2005). How William Shatner Changed the World (documentary, 2006). Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World (book on brilliant people with autism, 2007). The Book That Changed the World (2008 article in the Guardian, about The Origin of Species).

This "Changed the World" stuff is getting to be a bit tedious, isn't it? Now that we have Dogs That Changed the World, can Cats That Changed the World be far behind? ...

...Bill Bean notes that there is already a place to read about People Who Changed the World and Then Changed Their Minds. Every year, the people at the Edge Foundation ask writers, thinkers, psychologists, historians and others what major ideas they have changed their minds about. Go to www.edge.org. It's good reading.

...


article

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
November 1, 2008

Chrisis Theory
THE TURKEY WAS AMAZED



Nassim Nicholas Taleb, professor of risk research, had already described the process of the financial crisis, when Ben Bernanke believed we were already in an "era of security". His new book could become to the standard work of a society, that is experiencing the destruction of its life security. ...

By Frank Schirrmacher

German Language Original

article

THE NEW YORK TIMES
October 18, 2008

ON THE GROUND

YOUR COMMENTS ON THE ECONOMY COLUMN
By Nicholas Kristof

...Yet I also think that it’s important to keep the economy in perspective. During the boom years, we tended to equate wealth with happiness, and if there’s some reordering of our national value system, that would be a good thing. Over the last year, I’ve become interested in the work of social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt who have conducted research on happiness. And the evidence is pretty strong that the things that we believe will make us happy, such as winning the lottery, won’t do that except in the short term. In the long term, the way to be happy is to have friends and spend time with them, and to connect to a cause larger than yourself that gives you a sense of meaning.

As my column suggested, I’m influenced by the work of Alan Krueger at Princeton. He believes that networks are truly important for happiness and fulfillment — and the cost of a lay-off or foreclosure is that it tears people out of their networks. So he thinks that falling incomes aren’t so bad as we may think, but that layoffs and evictions are worse, and that makes sense to me. ...

...


article

ATLANTIC ONLINE
October 31, 2008

TOO SOON TO TELL

I've written before about Jonathan Haidt's view that our moral impulses can be grouped into five categories, two "liberal" (harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity) and three "conservative" (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) - and I've argued before with Will Wilkinson about whether it's possible to envision a successful society in which the liberal impulses dominate completely, and the conservative impulses are stigmatized and/or essentially disappear. Haidt, for his part, thinks that it probably isn't; here's Will arguing with him:

Frankly, I find this extremely unconvincing, and I daresay even pernicious ... What Jon needs to show is that there is a threshold on the conservative channels of the moral equalizer below which social stability is threatened. In the talk, he barely gestures toward evidence to this effect ... Indeed, my sense is that the societies in which the space between high liberal settings and low conservative settings is the greatest-that is, the most imbalanced-are by and large the best places for human beings to live. ...

...


article

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
November/December 2008

Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth
Why the online encyclopedia's epistemology should worry those who care about traditional notions of accuracy.
By Simson L. Garfinkel

... In a May 2006 essay on the technology and culture website Edge.org, futurist Jaron Lanier called Wikipedia an example of "digital Maoism"--the closest humanity has come to a functioning mob rule. ...

.. Lanier's complaints when his Wikipedia page claimed that he was a film director couldn't be taken seriously by Wikipedia's "contributors" until Lanier persuaded the editors at Edge to print his article bemoaning the claim. This Edge article by Lanier was enough to convince the Wikipedians that the Wikipedia article about Lanier was incorrect--after all, there was a clickable link! Presumably the editors at Edge did their fact checking, so the wikiworld could now be corrected. ...

...


article

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
October 29, 2008

Moving Freely between Virtual Worlds
Players hope to connect their separate domains to form a 3-D Internet.
By Erica Naone

...But the issue goes deeper than virtual cars and shopping malls. Jaron Lanier, interdisciplinary scholar in residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a virtual-reality pioneer, says that the search for a 3-D Internet is important for humanity. "Human cognition was designed to function in 3-D, and our computation eventually has to have a 3-D interface to maximize the matchup with the human brain as it evolved," he says. People will need to find a way to combine a concrete, 3-D spatial understanding with the connective power of the 2-D Internet, Lanier says. ...

... Lanier, who notes that he has many professional connections to people involved with virtual worlds, says that while he very much wants the 3-D Internet to succeed, he is skeptical about whether it will be possible for developers to agree on a set of standards. "There's a virtual land rush of people who want to come in and grab the standard," he says, noting that the history of IBM and Microsoft provides some indication of the money that can be made by establishing a standard. But Lanier thinks a successful standard for the 3-D Internet is unlikely to develop the same way that HTML did--that is, as an abstract definition that people then adopted. He thinks it is more likely that a well-designed package will become a standard, similar to the way that Adobe Flash is becoming standard for rich Internet applications.

...

Further Reading on Edge: "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" By Jaron Lanier [5.30.06]


article

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
October 29, 2008

Immortalizing a Piece of Yourself
Stem cells derived from volunteers for the Personal Genome Project will be disseminated globally.
By Emily Singer

Scientists around the globe may soon be studying tiny bits of George Church. The Harvard Medical School professor of genetics will be one of the first people to have stem-cell lines created from his skin cells propagated and distributed worldwide--along with a record of the cells' donor's identity and genetic and medical quirks.

Church and his collaborators hope that the cells will add a new dimension to genetic studies of human disease. Most studies compare genomes of a group of people with a particular phenotype--say, diabetes or heart disease--with healthy volunteers. But adding stem-cell lines, which can be differentiated into the myriad tissue types affected by disease, should allow scientists to search for molecular changes that are the intermediary between genes and the manifestation of a disease. "For nearly every genetic trait variation, there is a change at the cellular level," says Church.

This new addition to genomics studies comes thanks to induced pluripotent cell reprogramming, a recent breakthrough in stem-cell research that allows scientists to create immortal cell lines from healthy human donors that, like embryonic stem cells, can both replicate themselves and differentiate into many types of tissue. While cultured cells are a ubiquitous part of biomedical research, used to test drugs, study disease, and engineer tissue, most cells cannot form different tissue types, and they come from anonymous donors--meaning that medical and other characteristics of the donor are unknown. In addition, many "immortal" cell lines, which can divide indefinitely, are derived from tumor cells and thus have abnormal chromosomes.

Church won't be alone in distributing his cells. The scientist aims to create hundreds or thousands of cell lines over the next few years as part of the Personal Genome Project, an effort that he launched two years ago to capitalize on advances in gene-sequencing technologies. So far, the project has enrolled 10 volunteers--and garnered headlines, mainly for its genomic-era exhibitionism. Volunteers, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and entrepreneur Ester Dyson, released their medical records and preliminary genetic analyses on the Web earlier this month. But media attention has mostly ignored that fact that they've also given something that may be even more personal. Each has undergone a skin biopsy, which will be used to generate stem-cell lines.

The lines will allow scientists to study cells with a known genetic and clinical profile. Those working with cells derived from Steven Pinker, for example, would know that he suffers from basal cell carcinoma, lichen planus (an inflammatory skin condition), and Reynaud's syndrome (a hypersensitivity of the fingers and toes to extreme temperatures).

...


article

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
October 29, 2008

Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki
The founders of startup 23andMe want to know your genome.
By Emily Singer

A customer of the Web-based service 23andMe sends in a sample of spit and, for about the cost of a Sony PlayStation 3, receives a genome-wide analysis of nearly 600,000 genetic variations. The results include an estimate of genetic risk for various diseases, along with other personal information, such as where the customer's ancient ancestors might have come from.

The service's $399 price tag and its analysis of some quirky genetic traits, such as type of earwax, epitomize Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki's populist approach to the genome. Avey, whose expertise is in business development for the biotechnology industry, and Wojcicki, who has a background in health-care investing, have also given the service a twist by harnessing the popularity of social networking; clients can compare their genomes with those of friends and family. TR senior editor Emily Singer recently visited Avey and Wojcicki at their offices in Mountain View, CA, to find out what it's like to delve into one's own genome.

Watch Video

...


PRE-ORDER NOW

WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

"An Intellectual Treasure Trove"

San Francisco Chronicle


[Forthcoming, January 9, 2009]

Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.

Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world’s best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake — bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online


WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?
Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT



[2007]

"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday


WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?
Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER
Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS


[2006]

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE?
Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


[2006]

"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer



[2008]



"Compelling"
"Stellar"

"Important"

[2006]

"Irresistible"
"Excellent"
"Fascinating"


[2006]

"incisive"
"deeply passionate"
"engaging"

[2004]

"Intriguing"
"Engrossing"
"Invigorating"



[1994]

"Rousing"
"Astonishing"
"Bloodthirsty"

[2000]

"Dazzling"
"Wondrous"
"Outstanding"


[2002]


"Provocative"
"Captivating"
"Mind-stretching"

Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.


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