Unrelated to all that, 7/11 edition

The Human Brain Project: malcontents and sadness

See also my first post here. Revisiting both of these links because they were updated several times and some of you may have missed the new content. The drama, the gossip, the sadness.

“However, the HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals…”

Nature’s most perfect killing machine

It’s quite another to contemplate your own body liquefying inside you, spilling through all of your available holes as you cling to life—to consider that something so deadly could have such stealth, present only in the bodily destruction it leaves in its wake…In the almost four decades since, Ebola has done little to reveal its secrets. There is no predictable pattern to when outbreaks occur, no standard treatment, and no vaccine. We aren’t even certain where it hides between outbreaks, though some clues suggest fruit bats may be the reservoir. What we do know is that of the six known ebolaviruses, five can cause disease in humans. We know that the disease is transmitted by con- tact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected animal. We know that the semen from a survivor can stay infectious for nearly two months. Oh, and my favourite fact: we know that you can kill it with soap.

Found: forgotten vials of smallpox

Headline-making news today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Workers clearing out an old storage room on the Bethesda, Md. campus of the National Institutes of Health have found a forgotten box of vials that contain smallpox.

The publishing of Principia Mathematica

Today I have been mildly irritated by numerous tweets announcing the 5th July 1687, as the day on which Isaac Newton’s Principia was published, why? Partially because the claim is not strictly true and partially because it evokes a false set of images generated by the expression, published on, in the current age…

In earlier times books, particularly ones of a scientific nature, tended to dribble out into public awareness over a vague period of time rather than to be published on a specific date. There were no organised launches, no publisher’s parties populated by the glitterati of the age and no official publication date. Such books were indeed published in the sense of being made available to the reading public but the process was much more of a slapdash affair than that which the term evokes today.

The first conscious machines will be on Wall Street

We must consider the possibility that intelligence, creativity and even consciousness are purely functions of the material world, with human beings as a peculiar kind of computer. In a world operating under this assumption, machines can theoretically have directed cognition, decision-making and consciousness. Even today we see supercomputers owned by financial institutions making trading decisions on behalf of the companies that own them. These are specialized machines that do something that produces similar results to cognition. The fact that they are specialized thinking machines might lead one to believe that this precludes them from consciousness. I think the opposite is true; human beings are not generalized computing organisms. The machines in question, just like humans, are not general purpose beings, but highly selective imitation devices with an innate dedicated language system.

[Note: not a new idea, but one worth revisiting; I like Ian McDonald’s idea that the first conscious machines will be AIs for artificial soap opera actors.]

The contest between Macro and Growth

Knowing this, I let Krugman’s gibe pass unchallenged, even though it seemed flat-out wrong. These things were best left to the Swedes in private, I reasoned; let the elaborate theater of the prize remain intact.

Then came October, and a surprise of a slightly different sort.  Rather than rousing one or more of the growth theorists, the early morning phone calls went to three economists to recognize their work on trend-spotting among asset prices and the difficulty thereof – Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen.  Fama’s work had been done fifty years before; Shiller’s, thirty-five. Two big new financial industries, index funds and hedge funds, had grown up to demonstrate that the claims of both were broadly right, in differing degrees. Hansen had illuminated their differences. So old and safe and well-prepared was the award that its merit couldn’t possibly be questioned.

What happened?  It’s well known that, in addition to preparing each year’s prize,  prize committees work ahead on a nomination or two or even three, assembling slates of nominees for future years in order to mull them over. Scraps of evidence have emerged since last fall that a campaign was mounted last summer within the Economic Sciences Section of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, sufficient to stall the growth award and bring forward the asset-pricing prize – resistance to which Krugman may have been a party.


At Bob Graybeard’s Knee

Since I started tweeting, the clamor for BGB wisdom has unsurprisingly grown to a fever pitch. Now I will admit that between my rigorous schedule of blue ribbon panels, prize acceptances, plenary lectures and rocking out, and also maintaining a chokehold on my lab members and junior collaborators, I don’t have a lot of time. But, I believe I must make time to give back. It is the noblesse oblige of scientific success, and God only knows you all need it. I lose a considerable amount of sleep at night wondering who will carry on my legacy when I’m gone, which gives me only about 20 to 30 years before I retire to impart my accumulated wisdom to scientists under 50 whose careers are in their infancy. Please pay attention. [Ed: a skewering of out-of-touch, powerful professors.]

How to make a hit pop song

Seven Reasons Not to Write Novels and Only One Reason to Write Them [also applies to blogs]

First: There are too many novels and too many people writing them. Not only do those already written continue to exist and demand to be eternally read, but thousands more entirely new novels keep appearing in publishers’ catalogs and in bookshops around the world; then there are the many thousands rejected by publishers that never reach the bookshops, but which nonetheless exist. It is, then, a commonplace activity, one that is, in theory, within the grasp of anyone who learned to write at school, and for which no higher education or special training is required.

Who are you?

A slick service by followerwonk lets you see interesting statistics about your twitter followers. Here’s where mine come from:

twitter followers geography

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