Those of you who are interested in regenerative medicine probably already know the SENS Foundation. As always, their annual report (pdf) gives a good overview of the progress made during the past year. If you are new to these ideas, the book Ending Aging by Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a good place to start. This speech also gives a good overview, though it doesn’t go into as much detail as the book.
Technology Review has a good interview with the Harvard Geneticist.
Dr. Church also has a new book that just came out: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.
By the way, sorry for posting mostly quick links here lately. I originally told myself that I would try to avoid doing that on this blog and instead focus on longer ruminations, but I’ve been working on too many other projects to do that. I suppose that quick links are better than nothing as long as they are good ones, so I hope you enjoy the ones I’ve shared. I’m sure at some point I’ll find the energy to work on more original content. In any case, thanks for reading!
Update (August 2nd, 2012): Here’s another interview with Elon Musk, this time by the LA Times, about his goals for SpaceX.
Update (August 8, 2012): Short video feature about Musk, SpaceX, and sending humans to Mars.
Update (September 8, 2012): Here’s a great interview with Elon Musk from Autoblog.
Update (September 10, 2012): Interview with Elon Musk by Kevin Rose (now at Google Ventures).
Update (November 22, 2012): Elon Musk speech and Q&A at the University of Oxford.
Great piece recommended by Eliezer Yudkowsky:
This technology for grid-scale batteries made with liquid metals and molten salts is making me more excited than anything in a while. Very promising. Check out the video by following the link below.
TED Talk: Donald Sadoway on Liquid Metal Batteries
The officia website of Sadoway’s spinoff company can be found here: LMBC Corporation.
Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the founder and chief science officer of the SENS Foundation, recently gave a talk at the MIT Club of Northern California.
I find his research on the diseases of aging fascinating, and his foundation is the main charity that I support because it has the best risk/reward ratio that I could find (in other words, each dollar spent there has a higher chance of making the world a much better place than a dollar spent elsewhere).
Here’s the video of the presentation:
Yesterday, Mélanie and I spent a few hours at Ottawa’s Museum of Nature. We saw exhibitions on mammals, fresh water animals (check out this video of a blue whale skeleton being put together), and dinosaurs.
While standing next to a huge fossilized dinosaur skeleton, I was struck by a realization that somehow had escaped me thus far. I know a fair bit about dinosaurs, having been fascinated by them as a young boy like many others of my generation, but all that knowledge has always been very abstract. “X million years ago, Y tons, Z meters high, etc.” I can’t even blame it on not having seen the fossils in person, because I had been at that very museum at least 2-3 times before.
But yesterday, I stood there and took the time to think about what this mountain of bones represented: “These fossilized bones were part of a living creature a 100 million years ago, they were part of a unique individual, and it moved around, reacted to its environment, did its best to stay alive. There were many like it, but this one made it to this museum somehow and I’m looking at it.” It all seemed a lot more real, what could be a called a “gut level” understanding that I didn’t quite have before. (“feeling these old bones in my bones”)
What I’m trying to keep from this experience is not so much about dinosaurs per se but rather about taking the time to get that visceral understanding of things that I know in the abstract. I already try to do it, but I think I could do better, so I’m going to try to develop the habit of taking the time to reflect more on things that I can only know indirectly (via old bones, war stories in a newspaper, photos from a space telescope, etc).
Photo: Durocher1766, Flickr, Creative Commons.
Here’s a physics riddle that I just thought up. The only problem is that I’m not sure what the answer is. But I like the question, so here we go:
Let’s say you have a very long piece of string, and it has absolutely no elasticity, it’s perfectly straight, and it’s totally frictionless. The string is floating out in the void of space and it takes light 1 year to travel from one end of the string to the other.
What if you and I are at each end of this string, and I pull on it (or I have an incredibly powerful machine do it for me). How fast would you feel the pull?
Intuitively, it seems like it would be instantaneous, but that can’t be right because it would be traveling faster than light. The answer is probably that it would depend on the mass of the string and the amount of energy in the pull, but that whatever those variables are, it would take at least 1 year, and that while that isn’t intuitive, our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively think about this kind of situation. But what if the string is massless? But then, if I add this premise, is it even a real question for physics anymore? Anyway, I thought it was a fun thought experiment.
By definition, all but the last doomsday prediction is false. Yet it does not follow, as many seem to think, that all doomsday predictions must be false; what follow is only that all such predictions but one are false.
-Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, p. 13.
For more on existential risks, check out Nick Bostrom’s paper explaining what they are.
A cubic meter of the average crust of the Earth has about 12 grams of Thorium in it, and that would be enough to power your life for about 10 to 15 years. At Western standards of living.
Very intriguing stuff. I highly recommend watching the whole presentation (1 hour and 22 minutes long, so make sure you have the time or save it for later):
Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.
–Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline (2009), p. 216
Switching Costs and Incentives
Google makes most of its money from ads (over 95% of revenue), and a very large portion of these appear on search results.
If Google wants to keep making money, it must encourage people to keep using its site for search. But the switching costs for search engines are very low (change a browser setting and/or a bookmark and that’s it). Right now, the average internet user probably doesn’t know how to do that, but that’s mostly because there hasn’t been a need for it so far; if Google was to significantly fall behind the competition or anger its users (and then turn a deaf ear to the complaints), how to switch to a different search engine would become common knowledge in the same way that people figured out how to switch from Altavista and Lycos a few years ago.
So Google’s incentives are aligned in such a way that it has to keep making products that are liked and very functional, and it must avoid at all cost giving its users reasons to switch. They also benefit from a vibrant web ecosystem with users constantly going from one site to the another (not staying on Facebook all day) and looking for new things.
Things are different at Microsoft. It makes most of its money from the Windows operating systems and the Office suite of applications. With these, switching costs are significantly higher than with search for the average user. We’re not talking about a few simple clicks anymore. This is scary enough that most people will endure a lot of pain and put up with a lot of inconveniences before they’ll consider dropping Office or Windows (especially the latter).
Another good real-world example of cognitive biases was present in the January 16th edition of The Economist. This time, it’s two similar biases, the “endowment effect” and “loss aversion”:
A man may say he would not pay more than $5 for a coffee mug. But if he is told that the mug is his, and asked immediately afterwards how much he would be willing to sell it for, he typically holds out for more. Possession, it appears, lends things an added allure. [...]
At the beginning of the week, some groups of workers were told that they would receive a bonus of 80 yuan ($12) at the end of the week if they met a given production target. Other groups were told that they had “provisionally” been awarded the same bonus, also due at the end of the week, but that they would “lose” it if their productivity fell short of the same threshold.
Objectively these are two ways of describing the same scheme. But under a theory of loss aversion, the second way of presenting the bonus should work better. Workers would think of the provisional bonus as theirs, and work harder to prevent it from being taken away.
This is just what the economists found. The fear of loss was a better motivator than the prospect of gain (which worked too, but less well). And the difference persisted over time: the results were not simply a consequence of workers’ misunderstanding of the system. (source)
The fact that it kept working over time, even if the workers understood what was being done, shows how powerful these biases are. The reason for that is almost certainly because they helped our ancestors survive and reproduce; in a very dangerous environment, it is better to be risk-averse and live to see another day than to take a chance and die, and over-valuing what you already have probably made sense in an environment where acquiring desirable things was much harder than it is now.
For more on these biases, see:
- Endowment effect at Wikipedia
- Loss aversion at Wikipedia
- Experiencing The Endowment Effect at Overcoming Bias
See also: Rationality Resources
While in the waiting room at a clinic, I read the following in the January 16th issue of The Economist:
Simon Anholt, an analyst, heroically estimates the value of the “Obama effect” on America’s global brand at $2.1 trillion. Each year, Mr Anholt commissions a poll of 20,000-40,000 people to find out how much they admire various countries’ people, culture, exports, governance, human-rights record and so on. He finds that admiration in one area often translates (illogically) into admiration in others. When George Bush was president, foreigners expressed less positive views of American goods, services and even the landscape. Under Mr Obama, he finds, America is once again the most admired country in the world (having slipped to seventh place in 2008). Using the same tools that consultants use to value brands such as Coca-Cola or Sony, he guesses that the value of “Brand America” has risen from $9.7 trillion to $11.8 trillion. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Mr Anholt calls this “a pretty good first year”. (source)
This is a good example of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. It can apply to individuals, groups, things, and even abstract concepts like brands or ideologies.
For more on the Halo Effect, see:
See also: Rationality Resources