Science and Technology links (April 14th, 2017)

I announced last week that Tesla, the electric car company run by Elon Musk, had surpassed Ford in value. This week, we learned that Tesla has surpassed General Motors. Tesla is the most valuable American car maker.

Suppose I told you that you were about to die, right now. But I could offer you an extra 15 years of life if you just paid for it. How much would you pay? Probably a lot. Yet richer Americans live 15 years older than poorer Americans. If you care at all about inequality, you probably ought to be very concerned with health. Poor’s people health degrades significantly faster than that of richer people as they grow older. It is not just that rich people have access to better anti-aging creams… it is that they have fewer cancers, fewer strokes, and so forth. The solution, of course, is not to make Bill Gates sick and frail, but rather to find affordable technologies that can keep poorer people free from cancer and strokes.

On this note, the first major anti-aging trial on companion dogs has published its first results. There are too few dogs over too short a timescale, but results are promising. The drug being used, and believed to have anti-aging properties, is rapamycin:

Our results showed no clinical side effects in the rapamycin-treated group compared to dogs receiving the placebo. Echocardiography suggested improvement in both diastolic and systolic age-related measures of heart function (E/A ratio, fractional shortening, and ejection fraction) in the rapamycin-treated dogs (…)

Rapamycin is already used in human patients, so it is relatively safe. As a dog lover, I can’t want to have the means to slow down the aging of my 4-legged companions.

Octopuses are weird:

Octopuses have three hearts, parrot-like beaks, venomous bites, and eight semi-autonomous arms that can taste the world. They squirt ink, contort through the tiniest of spaces, and melt into the world by changing both color and texture. They are (…) capable of wielding tools, solving problems, and sabotaging equipment. (…) They (…) fine-tune the information encoded by their genes without altering the genes themselves.

Really weird:

Within months of mating with a female, the male will actually die. Consequently, males do not live as long in the wild as females do. Females will carry the fertilized eggs with her until they grow enough to be released, usually in strings hanging around her den. She can lay up to 100,000 eggs. For the next several months, the female protects her eggs from predators and ensures they receive sufficient oxygen. During these times, which can last 2 to 10 months depending on the octopus species, the female does not eat and slowly wastes away. She usually lives long enough to blow the eggs free from her den so the paralarvae can break free and join the plankton cloud.

Philip Greenspun asks:

If learning maritime history is mostly reading books that are available in libraries or are no longer within copyright, why couldn’t a degree in the subject be earned by downloading a reading list and writing some papers? If the mission of a public university is to educate the public at a reasonable cost, why didn’t they offer this kind of degree online starting in the 1980s when personal computers became popular or the 1990s with the rise of the Web?

The answer is obvious: public universities are not in the business of educating at a reasonable cost. Higher education is a luxury good, albeit a subsidized one.

We still don’t know what aging is, but we know that we can date the age of a cell using “epigenetic”, the set of conditions that determine which genes are expressed. As cells age, harmful genes that are normally inactive get activated while useful genes become silenced. We don’t know whether it is the cause or consequence of aging, or both, or neither. Some people suffer from a rare syndrome called Werner syndrome which is characterized by accelerated aging. So what happens to the cells of people suffering from Werner syndrome? It turns out that, unsurprisingly, the epigenetic of their cell is “old”. That’s interesting because if people suffered from accelerated aging without corresponding epigenetic changes, we might think that the relevance of epigenetic changes was quite secondary. However, this new observation tells us that epigenetic changes are most likely central to the paradigm of aging. In turn, this means that any therapy that reverses epigenetic changes is likely useful.

Fabian Giesen reminds us about how memory bandwidth has evolved over the years: “the available memory bandwidth per instruction has gone down substantially (…) It gets even worse if we look at GPUs.” This is the sort of non-trivial architectural issue that makes the difference between an algorithm that looks good on paper (and in a textbook) and code that runs fast. In my opinion, it also explains why stressing computational models, without accompanying empirical evidence, is a terrible way to teach programming. Or, to put it another way, mathematicians make really bad programmers. Some might argue that the evolution Giesen alludes to is an artifact of our current hardware designs. It might be, but there is also something fundamental at play: it gets more and more difficult to be efficient if the data is not close to where the computer occurs.

Gray hair seems to be a powerful predictor of bad health. Basically, the more gray hair you have, the more likely you are to have a stroke or a heart attack. This should come at no surprise: gray hair is a symptom that your body is not doing what it should. Dyeing your hair is a quick fix, but it is unlikely to affect your risk of death. Though there are a few anecdotal cases of gray-hair reversal (linked with cancer therapies), there is simply no known way right now (except for dye) to reverse gray hair. This is somewhat intriguing and suggests that we do not know enough about gray hair.

There is a widespread belief among people who do not regularly program software that if you coded something, then you somehow understand it. That’s often not even true to a first approximation. There is a growing realization that nobody understands the advanced artificial intelligence software we are building and deploying. Of course, we do not. And we won’t. So how do we make sure that the software does what we want it to do? Short answer: we run tests. This is in sharp contrast with much of computer science which is fascinated by the possibility of proving things mathematically. Sadly, the power of mathematics can be severely limited in its ability to handle complex real-world systems.

If you have a critical heart attack, doctors might install an artificial pump to keep you alive. Amazingly, many patients go on to fully recover and can live without the artificial pump or any further surgery:

For the first time, what we have shown is that heart function is restored in some patients – to the extent that they are just like someone healthy who has never had heart disease.

Price of virtual-reality headsets are declining. The Oculus Rift can be had for $500. The superior HTC Vive is now $700. Alas the software, though abundant, is still not sufficient to push everybody into wanting a headset.

Scientists believe that they have developed a more efficient kind of wheat that could improve yields by 20% thanks to more efficient photosynthesis. This could be either used to grow more wheat, or to grow the same about of wheat while leaving more land to wildlife.

Currently, developing new drugs is prohibitively expensive. In fact, the costs are rising exponentially, according to Eroom’s law. Any technology that can speed up tests has the potential to reduce costs. It seems that the American FDA is interested in supporting “organ on a chip” technologies. Basically, in this approach, we use synthetic miniature organs to test new drugs for safety.

Burger King ran an ad that triggered Google devices and got them to talk about Burger King’s products. So we live in a world where enough people have speech-enabled computers that such an advertisement campaign can be effective. That’s not amazing. What is amazing is that nobody seems to realize that it would have been hard science-fiction only five years ago.

Parkinson’s is a terrible disease, with no hint of a cure in sight. The main problem is that affected people lose neurons in charge of producing dopamine. Clearly, a cure would involve putting back these neurons. In recent work, scientists have managed to tweak other cells that are otherwise abundant, astrocytes, into producing dopamine. That’s an intriguing hack.

Which jobs can be automated? According to some list on the Internet, we can’t automate astronomers and models… but we can entirely automate aircraft cargo handling supervisors and logging equipment operators. That’s using the current technology. Well. I think that astronomy has been largely automated, and models… well, ever heard of Photoshop? It does automate a lot of the modeling work, doesn’t it?

Aleksey Shipilёv has a long article on the Java memory model. It is interesting whether you care about Java or not. The lesson is that the software code written by the programmer is not what the machine does. Rather, the machine has to emulate an abstract machine that would run the code. It has a few concrete consequences:

  • The machine does not have to execute the code in the order specified by the programmer.
  • The machine does not have to execute all of the code (or even any of the code) specified by the programmer.

These nuances will haunt you when you try to dive deep into software. It is a bit like Physics… for the most part, the world around us is intuitive… until you look too far and then things start to act strangely.
Here is a nice quote:

In the same way, the limit on the speed of communication in Special Relativity gives rise to the relativity of simultaneity, the propagation delays on real hardware deconstruct the intuitive notion of simultaneity and global time.

Toyota demonstrated a “leg brace” to help paralyzed people walk. Of course, it is nothing else but a partial exoskeleton. Such technology would be useful not only to paralyzed people but to many of us if it were cheap enough.

The US government wants to use drone equipped with facial recognition to patrol the borders. I am not sure we have the technology yet to pull this off. Keeping thousands of drones in the air at all time is hard. Battery lives are short. Recharging batteries is a slow process. Drones fail, get hacked… But in time, maybe in 5 years or so, I could imagine drones patrolling borders in a cost-efficient manner. Not just borders, of course… For example, I’d love to have a drone patrolling the surroundings of my house. It could be activated whenever something suspicious is happening. Last year, people set fire to garbages in front of my house, and it damaged the pavement. We never found out who did it… What if I had had a drone to protect my house by getting close enough to get clear images? And I’m not even the top market for such technology. What about single women living alone or with young children?

12 thoughts on “Science and Technology links (April 14th, 2017)”

  1. I don’t think there is a technological fix to the income gap in life expectancy.
    There are plenty of non-technological changes, ranging from air pollution controls to lead remediation that would help with the gap.

    1. @Robert

      I don’t think there is a technological fix to the income gap in life expectancy. There are plenty of non-technological changes, ranging from air pollution controls to lead remediation that would help with the gap.

      I don’t think we understand the gap, and that’s a scientific issue right there. If people care at all about inequality, then they should be anxious to find out why poorer people live shorter and sicker lives. You can have all sorts of theories, of course, like air pollution and lead contamination… but short of having hard science, these are not actionable facts.

      It may very well be that you do not need new devices or pills to bridge the gap. But that you can bridge the gap is, I think, undeniable.

    1. Security cameras by the roadside, far from your house, are inconvenient to setup. I’d probably have to put up a pole of some kind, draw power… And I’d have to have several poles if I am to cover everything.

      Plus the drone that wakes up and goes out to see who is there could actually act as a deterrent.

  2. Quoting Greenspan: If learning maritime history is mostly reading books that are available in libraries or are no longer within copyright, why couldn’t a degree in the subject be earned by downloading a reading list and writing some papers?

    I agree with you that “public universities are not in the business of educating at a reasonable cost”. However, while that answers the question, I disagree with the premise. Reading a list of old books and writing papers is not what it means to learn maritime history, any more than programming is learning to type on a keyboard.

    To start, there are many ways to think about history. A practitioner in a field might be interested in the history of ideas in the field, the town’s amateur historian society might be interested in preserving artifacts or identifying people in old photographs, a social historian might be interested in the role of organizational structures, and so on. A popular theme these days is the history of maintainers rather than inventors (eg, http://themaintainers.org/ ).

    Some of these topics are appropriate for a BA in history. Others are not. For example, a historical maritime project might be to collate a list of all of the ships and cargo that went through a town’s harbor in the 1800s. This is a lot of work and may take years to do. However, on its own it isn’t the type of history that will earn someone a B.A. because it doesn’t really consider any ‘patterns of cause and effect’, to quote Wikipedia, which is part of the academic discipline of history. How then does the student determine what sort of paper to write?

    There are also problems with the proposed method of giving a reading list and ask someone to write some papers. Part of writing about a topic is to address what others have written about the same topic. Those books or papers won’t be on the list, and may not be out of copyright.

    As an extreme example, to illustrate my point, suppose the reading list is of books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the student decides to write about the influence of sea power on history. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic book on the topic won’t be on the list because it was written nearly 100 years later. But no one should get a B.A. in history for writing a paper on that topic without citing Alfred Thayer Mahan.

    While a few students can do all of these on their own, most get some guidance from their professors and classmates, and find the interactive feedback cycle of face-to-face discussions, including overhearing other discussions, more helpful than self-guided research on a computer. (I can attest to that as someone trying to learn some of the academic disciple of history on my own.) Professors might also help identify methodological weaknesses in the student’s approach, like a bias towards Whiggish history.

    My other objection is that Greenspun’s question really has little to do with computers. Essentially he’s asking why correspondence courses aren’t more popular, except he used ‘computer’ when previous generations would have used ‘VHS tapes’, ‘phonographs’, and ‘letters’.

    BTW, it’s possible to get a M.A. in naval history through a distance course http://www.port.ac.uk/courses/history-politics-and-social-studies/ma-naval-history/ . I haven’t found one at the B.A. level, but I didn’t look that hard.

    1. While a few students can do all of these on their own, most get some guidance from their professors and classmates, and find the interactive feedback cycle of face-to-face discussions, including overhearing other discussions, more helpful than self-guided research on a computer.

      This is slightly optimistic. I have been on campus, in one way or another, all my life, and interactions between professors and students are typically scarce, beyond the administrative stuff (“is this on the test?”, “why did I only get a B?”, “where do I hand in assignment 2?”). And let us set aside the one-sided lectures which could be prerecorded event. As an undergraduate, I learned to either figure things out on my own or to work with other students. Very rarely did an interaction with a professor provide anything like an important insight. I am not denying that these things happen, but I think that they certainly do not always happen.

      1. I wrote “professors *and classmates*”. I could have written “classmates and professors” to be less optimistic, but I don’t think it would have been right to exclude professors altogether. (I should also have included “teaching assistants” and “other staff”; I worked at the math help center for a couple of years while an undergraduate, and not everyone there was a student or professor.)

        I certainly did learn from being able to ask questions during class, and from other students asking questions. That’s part of the face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, yes? A prerecorded event of course assumes there will be no questions, but I don’t remember any courses where students weren’t permitted to ask questions during class.

        My experience is not universal. When I taught in South Africa, my students told me that many of their teachers there regard questions as a sign that the student is dumb. The students learned to not ask questions.

        1. I certainly did learn from being able to ask questions during class, and from other students asking questions. That’s part of the face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, yes?

          It is great if you can follow a 3-hour quantum mechanics, computational complexity or real analytics lecture and be able to ask interesting and relevant questions in real time. I did not see much of that happening. And as a professor myself, I rarely get questions on the material itself. The bulk of the questions are of an administrative nature.

          It is not entirely a matter of subjective experience today. We can actually watch pre-recorded lectures online for free. Watch them not for the content but for what is happening in the classroom. See how much interaction there is on the material itself.

          1. I think you are exaggerating? My quantum mechanics courses never had lectures more than 90 minutes long, much less 3 hours. The same for my two semesters of real analysis. In both courses the students did ask questions in real time. I didn’t realize that was unusual.

            At this point I don’t understand your objection. You think that students *never* interact with the teachers outside of administrative questions? I don’t deny that some courses are more participatory than others. But my own experience, and yes, that includes listening to recorded lectures, is that students do ask questions.

            This is not true of all recorded lectures. It seems like most of the lectures which make the “best” lists, like the TVO Best Lecturer series, seem to have few to no questions.

            On the other hand, some of my lectures were even structured around teacher-guided in-class discussion, like the computer ethics course I took, and a seminar course in creativity in the arts and sciences. I also took physics lab courses, where the lab instructor was there to help out and answer questions.

            Here’s another example of possible cultural differences in your experience than mine, from Richard Feynman. Quoting from http://v.cx/2010/04/feynman-brazil-education: “One other thing I could never get [my Brazilian students] to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: “If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, ‘What are you wasting our time for in the class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking a question’.””

            At the very least it shows that that my experience in expecting students to ask questions is not unique. Perhaps your experience is also due to different cultural expectations than mine?

            1. I should qualify my statements. I do not think, in the least, that professors are useless. My point, rather, is that most students, when they do learn through active social interactions, mostly learn through interactions with their peers.

              So when you go to a concert… how much interaction do you have with the lead singer on stage? Probably close to none. Is the lead singer useless? Can it be replaced with a MP3? Clearly not.

              I would have loved to attend a lecture by Feynman. Being who I am, I am sure I would have asked him at least one question. But I don’t think that my question would have made a significant difference in my learning or that of my peers. And I am quite sure that most of my peers would not have prepared a meaningful question for Feynman.

              You think that students *never* interact with the teachers outside of administrative questions?

              Take any random student in a class of say 40 students. How many questions will the random student ask during the 15 weeks or so that last the course? Please remove all administrative questions about what is on the test and so forth. Then take into account the fact that attendance rates are often below 50%. Take into account that the distribution of meaningful questions is almost certainly a power law.

              I submit to you that the median number of material-related question per student is 0.

              Note: I did not write that attending classes was useless, or that instructors were useless.

              At the very least it shows that that my experience in expecting students to ask questions is not unique. Perhaps your experience is also due to different cultural expectations than mine?

              A school nearby, I won’t name it, tried to introduce compulsory class attendance. To get it to work, they had to have students sign in and to penalize students who do not show up to 90% of their class. The scheme was ultimately unworkable, but I know that attendance never exceeded 80%, despite all the effort invested. (80% is very high in my experience.)

              It is an anonymous anecdote that you can easily dismiss, but I think that if you look into the research, you will have a hard time showing that it is atypical.

              If the overwhelming majority of students won’t show up to all their classes, what fraction of them actually ask relevant, on-topic, material-related questions?

              Let turns this around. If the goal is to spur interactions between the professors and the students, then I submit to you that the ubiquitous lecture is clearly the wrong tool. I think you will find ample evidence to this effect but you don’t need a fancy study… common sense should tell you that a lecture is not designed to spur discussions. Even the layout of the rooms is bad for this purpose.

              1. “If the goal is to spur interactions between the professors and the students, then I submit to you that the ubiquitous lecture is clearly the wrong tool.”

                I fully agree. For that matter, if the goal were “to educate the public at a reasonable cost”, then why aren’t college lecturers required to have some education background or training in pedagogy, like what Software/Data Carpentry teaches?

                This thread branch started with my statement “most get some guidance from their professors and classmates, and find the interactive feedback cycle of face-to-face discussions, including overhearing other discussions, more helpful than self-guided research on a computer.” I wasn’t trying to make the argument that ‘the ubiquitous lecture’ was the right tool, nor that direct personal interaction with professors was the primary source of that feedback cycle, but rather was one possible sources.

                I meant by that text to include study groups, where different people might contribute pieces which lead to a more complete understanding. I meant to include less structured learning where, say, I learn a bit about the Russian folklore from my roommate taking a class in it. And yes, I meant to include comments by the T.A. or professor on my homework assignments, even if I didn’t talk to them. These in addition to the Q&A which might be part of a lecture.

                The only way I could interpret your response was as an objection to the idea that professors could be part of that cycle. I remain confused about why you highlighted that quote.

                1. I fully agree. For that matter, if the goal were “to educate the public at a reasonable cost”, then why aren’t college lecturers required to have some education background or training in pedagogy, like what Software/Data Carpentry teaches?

                  Some schools have this requirement. It creates jobs for education professors.

                  The only way I could interpret your response was as an objection to the idea that professors could be part of that cycle. I remain confused about why you highlighted that quote.

                  If you had to design a way to make higher education affordable, what would be the role of the professors?

                  My friend Stephen Downes has answered this question somewhat by inventing MOOCs.

                  It comes down to affordability. The theater, as practiced in the last few centuries, will never be as affordable as Netflix. There is simply no way to square this circle.

                  The same is true with higher education.

                  That does not mean you have to fire all professors.

                  But if affordability is your goal, you don’t give everyone access to Richard Feynman live. It is really that simple.

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