Links 7/17/15

Butterfly cocoon that thinks it’s a snake.

The bouba/kiki effect: cross-cultural agreement in what certain shapes “sound” like.

US Military released bacteria they thought to be harmless onto an American city.  239 times.  Spoiler alert: was not harmless.  Other people have covered the whole “jesus christ the military proved America was vulnerable to biological warfare by committing biological warfare” part, so I’m going to focus on the harmless part.  The US government, and humans in general, have a nasty tendency to say “harmless” when they mean “you can take it.”  Most humans could shake off the bacteria they were using; it was only a problem in a small portion of the population that couldn’t fight it.  I’ve heard the same thing about the pesticides they used to kill mosquitoes to prevent West Nile: totally harmless because the human liver is amazing, hard on those without that super power.

Opportunistic bacteria aren’t all bad though.  Glow in the dark bacteria saved civil war soldiers from septicemia.

UK government spies on children for thought crime, ends up leaving them vulnerable to hackers.  And by hackers, I mean anyone who attempts the password “password.”

Sydney, my co-organizer for Seattle EA, talks about money, class, and effective altruists.  I was part of the problem here: when people talked about discomfort with the emphasis on money in EA, I assumed they meant donations.  The idea that the money spent during meetings would be an issue literally never occurred to me. Also, with God as my witness, I thought going around saying “la la la everyone’s a programmer la la la is anyone here not a programmer? because that would be notable” was helping.  I think I was trying to avoid the problem of claiming there’s more diversity than there is and overcorrected.  I also think this is a specific instance of the general difficult of owning your advantages without rubbing it in, which is made much more difficult by the fact that one of our goals  is giving people a place to brag about giving.

I find most meat gross, but bacon is an exception.  Unfortunately pigs are really smart, to the point I mostly avoid pork even though I eat other animals. Science is helping me out by investing kelpt that tastes like bacon with a better nutritional profile than kale.  I’m skeptical, because nutrition is part of what generates taste so having that many vitamins should make it taste different, and seaweed usually isn’t 50% fat.  But I’m hoping the collective wishing of everyone reading this will make it so.

80,000 hours says few effective altruists should earn to give as their permanent plan.  I’m a little annoyed that it’s framed as “your beliefs about us are inaccurate” when the truth is more like “we changed our minds”, but if you ignore that it’s good context.  My own take on it is that if the idea of EtG sounds like permission, you should do that.  If it sounds like an obligation keeping you from direct work, EtG is a strong default to occupy you until you have the skills and opportunity to do direct work.

This week’s beautiful gang of theory killed by an ugly gang of facts:  You know that woman who was committed for saying Obama followed her on twitter when he actually did follow her?  The truth is more complicated.  I’m embarrassed to admit this didn’t occur to me.

Life Imitates Coloring Books

Apparently real life is not like Trauma Center and tumors don’t come with fun perforated lines showing you where to cut.

I was shocked too
I was shocked too

Real cancer looks almost identical to the tissue that spawned it, which makes it easy to cut too much or too little.  Luckily, science is on it.  Here is a TED talk by Tal Danino about releasing bacteria that can only live in tumors, and fluoresce when they reach a certain density:

This is meant as a diagnostic tool.  But once you know cancer is there, separating it from the tissue is still an issue.  For that I direct you to Quyen Nguyen’s work with florescent stains.  Her lab produces a variety of stains in different colors which stain different tissues (she demos on cancer and nerves) to show surgeons what to and not to cut


Hey everyone- I’m travelling a lot this week and while I have produced an impressive number of half posts, nothing is quite ready to go.  But! If you are in the SF/Berkeley area, I will be near you for the next few days and we should hang out.  You can email me at elizabeth@ this domain name.

PS. Please don’t rob my house, it would make things weird with my house sitter.

Status Through Disbelief

Reading The Remedy, or really anything about the time after formalized western medicine but before the germ theory of disease, is an exercise in terror or frustration.  How could anyone think attending a childbirth with autopsy gunk on your hands was a good idea?  Or leaches.  Who looked at those and said “I’ll bet those will make people healthier”?

My first reaction reading The Colony, about a Hawaiian leper colony founded shortly after the germ theory became entrenched, was “oh no doctors, you overapplied the lesson.”  Leprosy has an epidemiology a lot like tuberuclosis: long periods between infection and symptoms, and an ease of spreading that means everyone is constantly exposed to it.  This makes it look like an inborn condition, not a contagion.  Leprosy and TB are actually pretty closely related too.  I assumed that doctors looked at their failure with TB and overcorrected.  It didn’t work because only a small fraction of people are suspectible, and (it’s implied although never stated outright) they will be exposed to it whether symptomatic patients are quarantined or not.

Then I remembered that shunning lepers* predates germ theory by a couple of thousand years.   Ancient and medieval people were completely capable of identifying disease as contagious and instituting a separation.  So why didn’t industrial-age doctors?

Then I remembered that while the peasantry considered it obvious that disease was contagious and should be shunned, they considered it equally obvious that leprosy was punishment from God for sin and the black plague could be avoided by killing Satan’s minions, the cats.  Nobody talks about all the things everyone knew that doctors correctly disbelieved in.

Without a lot of proof, I strongly suspect that doctors signaled intellectual rigor and membership in the medical class by disbelieving things the peasantry believed.  Believing things the peasantry does believe doesn’t signal either of those things even if the belief is correct.  No one gets credit for believing eating food is good and eating Belladonna is bad.  If you’re not very careful in that environment, it’s easy for peasants’ belief in something to become evidence against it.

This is similar to the process of the toxoplasma of rage, in which people signal membership in an ingroup by loudly believing its most dubious claims.  I also highly suspect it’s what’s going on with dietary constraint and toxins.  It is obviously true that what you eat matters, some things you put in your body will damage your cells, getting rid of them is good, and there are things you can take to get rid of them.  It’s called heavy metal poisoning and chelation.  Or if you’re Huey the dopamine dog, chocolate and activated charcoal.  But dietary constraints and belief that specific things were bad for you got associated with special snowflakenes, so you can signal intellectual rigor by dismissing them.  This despite the fact that nutrition obviously makes a difference in your health, that humans vary across many dimensions and there’s no reason to assume they wouldn’t vary across digestion and nutritional needs.  Likewise things we put in our mouth obvious have the capacity to hurt us and there’s no reason to assume we have an exhaustive list of those, or that they’re identical across all humans.

In D&D terms: people are advertising their will save bonus by how credible an idea they can disbelieve.  No one wants to be this guy:

[Thor rushes Loki, only to run through the illusion and trap himself in the cage]

Disbelieving everything is an easy way to be right most the vast majority of the time.  For every correct idea that’s an almost infinite number of wrong ones, and even those that are true are incomplete (see: physics, Newtonian).  But if everyone disbelieves everything, we will never discover anything new.

I’m not in a position to criticize anyone for being frustrated at people for being wrong.  I lived that life for a long time.   But I try to counter it now by remembering that humans aren’t really capable of distinguishing “laughably wrong” from “correct, and world changing” without investing a lot of energy.  If there aren’t negative externalities and they’re not asking anything from me, their investment  in their crackpot idea is something like an insurance policy for me, or a lottery ticket.  Most won’t pay off, but when they do I’ll be glad they were there.

“Minimal negative externalities” and “at no cost to me” are important caveats.  Children need vaccinations, and I don’t want the government paying for medicinal prayer.  But if a functional, taxpaying citizen wants to spend their own money to get their chakras realigned every six months?  Yelling at them seems like a waste of energy.  Hell, they may have a genetic variation that enhances the placebo effect to the point it is medically significant.  The human brain is weird and we don’t even know what all the pieces are, much less how they work.  If someone investigates something that’s a positive for me, even if all they do is conclusively prove it doesn’t work.


You can believe people are wrong, you don’t have to accept all ideas as equally valid.  But what I would suggest, and what I’m attempting to do myself, is to make the amount of energy you put into your disbelief proportional to the harm the idea causes, not its wrongness.  To have wrong ideas drop out of sight, resurfacing only if they cause problems or turn out to be a winning lottery ticket.   I think that on net this leads to a better world, and in the meantime I’m calmer and less annoyed.

*Which really means shunning anyone with skin discoloration, ancient people not being entirely up on their bacteriology.

Links 7/3/15

Non-incentive ways to reduce fraud in science.  Appears to boil down to not accepting “I’m good for it” as an explanation for data.

So you’re saying yelling at myself for an unwanted emotion is…not…helpful?  But then how will my brain know it was wrong?

Speaking of which: they discovered a new organ in the brain.  It’s always been there, we just didn’t notice till now.  Like the biological equivalent of  the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home.  The new organ is lymph tubes that drain lymph fluid from the brain to your lymph nodes, which means the brain is more connected to the immune system than we thought.

Science also discovered a tiny lobster that eats bacteria and  lives on deep sea thermal vents.

4500 words on energy work and neurology.  I love this because it’s so respectful of people’s experiences and the long tail of what the work can accomplish, while being really rigorous with the explanation.  Caveat: does not actually cite any science for explanation.  But I still found it useful and interesting.  Also it taught me the word psychoneuroimmunology, which is even better than neuroendodontics.

Nintendo used to model Super Mario levels on graph paper.

One argument against earning to give is that people won’t follow through: the culture will corrupt them and they won’t give.  Will Macaskill points out that people dedicating their lives to charity don’t have a 100% follow through rate either.  The miserable conditions we expect people to tolerate because “it’s for a good cause” (read: you’re selfish for asking for more) are a recipe for burnout.  Half of all teachers quit in their first five years, and high poverty schools have a turnover rate of 20%.  That’s not actually that much higher than other professions- but 40% of people who pursue an undergrad teaching degree never teach at all (source for all).  The best number I can find for nonprofits as a whole is that 45% of young workers expect their next job will be at a for-profit.    Would love to see comparable numbers on earning to give.