Nov 08

Status signaling and cruelty to betas

I find myself in the embarrassing position of having generated a theoretical insight for a movement I don’t respect very much.

My feelings about the “Red Pill” movement are a lot like my feelings about feminism. Both started out asking important questions about why men and women treat each other badly. Early on, both began to develop some answers that made sense. Later, both movements degenerated – hijacked by whiny, broken, hating people who first edged into outright craziness and then increasingly crossed that line.

But the basic question that motivated the earliest Red-Pill/PUA analysis remains: why do so many women say they want nice guys and then sexually reward arrogant jerks? And the answer has a lot of staying power. Women are instinctive hypergamists who home in on dominance signaling the way men home in on physical pulchritude. And: they’re self-deceivers – their optimal mating strategy is to sincerely promise fidelity to hook a good-provider type while actually being willing to (a) covertly screw any sexy beast who wanders by in order to capture genetic diversity for their offspring, and (b) overtly trade up to a more dominant male when possible.

(This is really complicated compared to the optimal male strategy, which is basically to both find a fertile hottie you think you can keep faithful and screw every other female you can tap without getting killed in hopes of having offspring at the expense of other men.)

What I’ve figured out recently is that there’s another turn of the vise. Sorry, nice-guy betas; you’re even more doomed than the basic theory predicts.

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Sep 08

On open-source pharma

(This copies a comment I left on Derek Lowe’s blog at Science Magazine.)

I was the foundational theorist of open-source software development back in the 1990s, and have received a request to respond to your post on open-source pharma.

Is there misplaced idealism and a certain amount of wishful thinking in the open-source pharma movement? Probably. Something I often find myself pointing out to my more eager followers is that atoms are not bits; atoms are heavy, which means there are significant limiting factors of production other than human attention, and a corresponding problem of capital costs that is difficult to make go away. And I do find people who get all enthusiastic and ignore economics rather embarrassing.

On the other hand, even when that idealism is irrational it is often a useful corrective against equally irrational territoriality. I have observed that corporations have a strong, systemic hunker-down tendency to overprotect their IP, overestimating the amount of secrecy rent they can collect and underestimating the cost savings and additional options generated by going open.

I doubt pharma companies are any exception to this; when you say “the people who are actually spending their own cash to do it have somehow failed to realize any of these savings, because Proprietary” as if it’s credulous nonsense, my answer is “Yes. Yes, in fact, this actually happens everywhere”.

Thus, when I have influence I try to moderate the zeal but not suppress it, hoping that the naive idealists and the reflexive hunker-downers will more or less neutralize each other. It would be better if everybody just did sound praxeology, but human beings are not in general very good at that. Semi-tribalized meme wars fueled by emotional idealism seem to be how we roll as a species. People who want to change the world have to learn to work with human beings as they are, not as we’d like them to be.

If you’re not inclined to sign up with either side, I suggest pragmatically keeping your eye on the things the open-source culture does well and asking if those technologies and habits of thought can be useful in drug discovery. Myself, I think the long-term impact of open data interchange formats and public, cooperatively-maintained registries of pre-competitive data could be huge and is certainly worth serious investment and exploration even in the most selfish ROI terms of every party involved.

The idealists may sound a little woolly at times, but at least they understand this possibility and have the cultural capital to realize it – that part really is software.

Then…we see what we can learn. Once that part of the process has been de-territorialized, options to do analogous things at other places in the pipeline may become more obvious,

P.S: I’ve been a huge fan of your “Things I Won’t Work With” posts. More, please?

Jan 15

Love is the simplest thing

There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.

I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.

I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.

Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.

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Dec 27

Pave the rainforests!

For decades – and I do mean decades – I’ve been saying that any environmentalist who is really serious about reducing fossil-fuel use and CO2 emission should be agitating to switch the power infrastructure to using nuclear plants for the baseload as fast as possible.

But when the facts change, I change my mind. I was wrong. There is new, direct, observational evidence that the most effective thing we could do to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere is pave over the tropical rainforests.

Don’t believe me? Look at this map of CO2 emissions by region. It’s brand-new data from NASA’s just-lofted Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

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Sep 03

Reality is viciously sexist

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

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Aug 15

Alien cat is alien

One of the reasons I like cats is because I find it enjoyable to try to model their thought processes by observing their behavior. They’re like furry aliens, just enough like us that a limited degree of communication (mostly emotional) is possible.

Just now I’m contemplating a recent change in the behavior of our new cat, Zola. Recent as in the last couple of days. Some kind of switch has flipped.

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Jun 23

How to train a cat for companionship

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

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Jun 06

Hoping for the crazy

The biggest non-story that should be in the news right now, but isn’t, is the collapse of anthropogenic-global-warming “science” into rubble. Global average temperature has been flat for between 15 and 17 years, depending on how you interpret the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Recently GAT, perking along its merry level way, has fallen out of the bottom of the range of predictions made by the climate modelers at the IPCC. By the normal 95%-confidence standards of scientific confirmation, the IPCC’s disaster scenarios – the basis for, among other things, carbon taxes and the EPA’s coming shutdown-by-impossible-regulation of U.S. coal power – are now busted.

AGW alarmists have responded by actually hoping in public view that a strong El Niño event later this year will shove GAT back up into consistency with the IPCC models, rescuing their narrative.

This…this is hoping for the crazy. Let me count the ways:

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May 15

Evaporative cooling and AGW

Earlier this evening an Instapundit reference reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s insightful essay Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, in which he uses a clever physics analogy to explain why cult-like groups often respond to strong evidence against their core beliefs by becoming more fanatical.

Glen Reynolds used the reference to take a swipe at what political feminism has become, but a more interesting example occurred to me. I think AGW (anthropogenic global warming) alarmism is beginning to undergo some serious evaporative cooling. Let’s examine the evidence, how it might fit Yudkowsky’s model, and what predictions it implies.

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Mar 08

Which way is north on your new planet?

So, here you are in your starship, happily settling into orbit around an Earthlike world you intend to survey for colonization. You start mapping, and are immediately presented with a small but vexing question: which rotational pole should you designate as ‘North’?

There are a surprisingly large number of ways one could answer this question. I shall wander through them in this essay, which is really about the linguistic and emotive significance of compass-direction words as humans use them. Then I shall suggest a pragmatic resolution.

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Mar 06

Causes and implications of the pause

That is the title of a paper attempting to explain (away) the 17-year nothing that happened while CAGW models were predicting warming driven by increasing CO2. CO2 increased. Measured GAT did not.

Here’s the money quote: “The most recent climate model simulations used in the AR5 indicate that the warming stagnation since 1998 is no longer consistent with model projections even at the 2% confidence level.”

That is an establishment climatologist’s cautious scientist-speak for “The IPCC’s anthropogenic-global-warming models are fatally broken. Kaput. Busted.”

I told you so. I told you so. I told you so!

I even predicted it would happen this year, yesterday on my Ask Me Anything on Slashdot. This wasn’t actually brave of me: the Economist noticed that the GAT trend was about to fall to worse than 5% fit to the IPCC models six months ago.

Here is my next prediction – and remember, I have been consistently right about these. The next phase of the comedy will feature increasingly frantic attempts to bolt epicycles onto the models. These epicycles will have names like “ENSO”, “standing wave” and “Atlantic Oscillation”.

All these attempts will fail, both predictively and retrodictively. It’s junk science all the way down.

Feb 13

Generative science

I’m thinking about writing another book. I won’t disclose the title or topic yet, but there’s a bit of research for it I think can be usefully crowdsourced, and may also give a clue about the book for those of you interested.

I’ve written before about the difference between descriptive and generative theories. To recap and simplify, a descriptive theory accounts for what is; a generative theory finds causal regularities beneath a descriptive account and predicts consequences not yet observed.

Now I want to zero in on a parallel difference among entire sciences. Some scientific fields – like, say, evolutionary biology – are tremendously productive of models and insights that can be applied elsewhere. On the other hand, some other sciences – like, say, astronomy – seldom export ideas or models.

Note that while it is appropriate to think of sciences that export lots of ideas as ‘generative’, the class of sciences that don’t are not merely descriptive. Astronomy, for example, has lots of generative theory inside it; astrophysics, for example makes predictions about stellar spectra and elemental abundances. But astronomy as a whole is not generative because none of its theory really informs anything outside astronomy.

So I’m going to start with a (non-exhaustive) list of scientific fields, indicating roughly how generative I think they are and what if anything they export. I invite additions and corrections from my readers.

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Jan 29

Junk science double fail

Two bits of science news appeared on my radar today with not much in common except that they’re both exceedingly bad news for the political class. That more or less guarantees that they’ll get poor or nonexistent coverage in the mainstream media and is a good enough reason for me to write about them.

First, the British Meteorological Service and the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia are now admitting that global warming stopped in 1997 – there’s been no net rise in the Earth’s temperature in 15 years. And no, this isn’t an illusion produced by the 1997 El Nino peak – if you look at the chart accompanying the article you’ll see that GAT has dropped to pre-el-Nino levels.

The source makes this a particularly difficult pill for AGW alarmists to swallow – for of course, the CRU is the home of the infamous “team” whose work has been at the center of the panic. If they’re wrong now, what warrant do we have that they weren’t equally wrong then?

And, actually, it gets worse. Solar observations suggest we may be headed for an insolation minimum ever deeper than the one in 2008 that wiped out the entire 20th-century GAT rise – in fact, some NASA meteorologists are muttering darkly about a near-term recap of the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age!

This of course, is bad news for the political class because AGW panic was so useful for raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. The general public has been increasingly skeptical of late, but popular reaction so far has been nothing compared to what will be unleashed if it turns out the real climate problem of the next two decades is how to keep our crops from freezing.

Our other news today is of a study apparently showing that the heritability of IQ increases with age.

IQ, and its heritability, has been a major irritant to would-be social engineers. Because – no matter how much propaganda they sponsor to the effect that IQ is meaningless, or multifactoral, or the tests are culturally biased – IQ assessments done in the traditional way aimed at approximating Spearman’s g keep turning out to be about the single most valuable statistical measure for predicting not just academic performance but all kinds of other interesting things like lifetime earnings and propensity to criminality.

This new result is another turn of the screw. Because now it turns out that while you can raise childrens’ measured IQ with all the usual nostrums (better family circumstances, intensive schooling, etc) the effects of such interventions vanish in the adults that the children become. A particularly strong finding is that while adoptive children tend towards the IQ distribution of their foster families, the adults they become revert to the IQ distribution of their biological families.

This matters because poverty is correlated with and often caused by low intelligence. This is even more true today than it used to be, because we have a whole meritocratic apparatus aimed at scooping up poor-but-bright kids and tracking them into good schools and good jobs so they don’t stay poor. (And, as cynical as I sound in the rest of this post, be in no doubt that I think this meritocratic apparatus is a good thing and among the proudest achievements of our civilization.)

But: Our political class is heavily invested in the ideology that all the factors driving poverty are environmental. Because that means we can social-engineer our way to an egalitarian utopia by methods which – surprise! justify raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. It’s bad news for them that adult IQ is genetically heritable and intractable to the sorts of interventions that employ thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats and busybodies.

To be fair, neither the prospect of a cooling earth nor the intractability of IQ are good news for the rest of us either. It would be nicer, in many ways, if we really lived in the political class’s fantasy world – the place where all our troubles are self-created, there’s always someone to blame, and always a political fix.

But at least, since we don’t live in that fantasy world, we can tell the political class to stuff its coercive utopianism up its own ass and demand our liberty back.

Nov 27

Seven Eight Warning Signs of Junk Science

I’ve written before about scientific error cascades and the pernicious things that happen when junk science becomes the focus or rationale of a political crusade.

The worst example of this sort of thing in my lifetime, and arguably in the entire history of science, has been the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) panic. Now that the wheels are falling off that juggernaut, I’m starting to hear ordinary people around me wonder how I knew it was bullshit and hot air so much in advance…

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Sep 08

Ecoforming and 1493

I enjoy creating useful neologisms. I’ve floated several on this blog: kafkatrapping, collabortage, politicism, chomskyism, and prospiracy. One could argue that my take on the term “error cascade” is neologistic.

Today, another one: “ecoforming”. By analogy with “terraforming”, this is what humans do when they deliberately modify an ecology to suit their purposes. The term is intended to include the introduction of non-native species, the deliberate use of fire as a technique for ground-clearing, and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing because I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This is a history of what he calls the “Columbian exchange” (borrowing the term from pioneering biohistorian Alfred W. Crosby), the transplantation of New World species to the Old World and vice-versa after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Mann makes a persuasive case that the shock of that contact has been reverberating through the Earth’s biosphere ever since, reshaping human societies and much else in its wake. He tells well-known stories such as the way that the introduction of the potato to Europe enabled the rise in population that led to the Industrial Revolution. Also, many more (previously) obscure ones, such as the way that the introduction of American food plants produced ecological catastrophe in China, leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

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May 18

Maybe science is my religion, after all

In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.

This realization made me quite uncomfortable. I’m a hard-shell rationalist; what I have in my life that corresponds to religion I carefully chose to not involve me in faith-holding or the other kinds of emotional attachments that religious people form as a matter of course. I regard religion, in the sense the term is normally used, as a dangerous form of collective insanity – and I want above all to be sane.

Because I felt uncomfortable, I decided that I needed to perform the exercise I have elsewhere described as killing the Buddha – in this case, killing the premise that I am not like a religious person by examining and embracing all the ways that my relationship to science makes me like one.

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Aug 24

Three kinds of teleology

Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.

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Jun 19

A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

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Apr 12

Adventures in feline ethology, part three

A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.

And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.

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