Unrelated to all that, 11/30 edition

The Superiority of Economists

We begin by documenting the relative insularity of economics, using bibliometric data. Next we analyze the tight management of the field from the top down, which gives economics its characteristic hierarchical structure. Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists through their much better material situation (many teach in business schools, have external consulting ac- tivities), their more individualist worldviews, and in the confidence they have in their discipline’s ability to fix the world’s problems. Taken together, these traits constitute what we call the superiority of economists, where economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement…

Economists command some of the highest levels of compensation in American arts and science faculties, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In fact, they even “earn more and have better career prospects” than physicists and mathematicians (Freeman, ibid.); only computer scientists and engineers do better. Unlike many academics in the theoretical sciences and humanities, many prominent economists have the opportunity to obtain income from consulting fees, private investment and partnerships, or from membership on corporate boards…In this essay, we explore the shifting relations between economics and the other social sciences in four specific dimensions. First, we document the relative insularity of economics and its dominant position within the network of the social sciences in the United States…

Economists, by contrast, tend to see institutionalized hierarchies as emergent, truthful indicators of some underlying worth, and consequently are obsessed with them. It is worth noting that in no other social sciences can one find the extraordinary volume of data and research about rankings (of journals, departments, and individuals) that economists produce, not to mention RePEc (a research archive) and the continued existence of a substantial, if marginalized, subfield focused on the history of economics.

Hilarious. Also reinforces my “even if economics are a science, they are not one of ‘the sciences'” view; it is too insular and lacks participation in the broader intellectual trajectory of Science. via Claudia Sahm

Continue reading


How words make color

Go check out this great interactive explanation of how words represent colors in English versus in Chinese.

Color words in Mandarin Color words in English

Interestingly, the most common color words in Chinese are for red, green, and blue while in English they are blue, green and pink!

[via FlowingData]

The brain-in-itself: Kant, Schopenhauer, cybernetics and neuroscience

Artem Kaznatcheev pointed me to this article on Kant, Schopenhauer, and cybernetics (emphasis added):

Kant introduced the concept of the thing-in-itself for that which will be left of a thing if we take away everything that we can learn about it through our sensations. Thus the thing-in- itself has only one property: to exist independently of the cognizant subject. This concept is essentially negative; Kant did not relate it to any kind or any part of human experience. This was done by Schopenhauer. To the question `what is the thing-in- itself?’ he gave a clear and precise answer: it is will. The more you think about this answer, the more it looks like a revelation. My will is something I know from within. It is part of my experience. Yet it is absolutely inaccessible to anybody except myself. Any external observer will know about myself whatever he can know through his sense organs. Even if he can read my thoughts and intentions — literally, by deciphering brain signals — he will not perceive my will. He can conclude about the existence of my will by analogy with his own. He can bend and crush my will through my body, he can kill it by killing me, but he cannot in any way perceive my will. And still my will exists. It is a thing-in- itself.

Let us examine the way in which we come to know anything about the world. It starts with sensations. Sensations are not things. They do not have reality as things. Their reality is that of an event, an action. Sensation is an interaction between the subject and the object, a physical phenomenon. Then the signals resulting from that interaction start their long path through the nervous system and the brain. The brain is tremendously complex system, created for a very narrow goal: to survive, to sustain the life of the individual creature, and to reproduce the species. It is for this purpose and from this angle that the brain processes information from sense organs and forms its representation of the world.

In neuroscience, what is the thing-in-itself when it comes to the brain? What is ‘the will’? Perhaps this is straining the analogy, but What do you have when you take away the sensory input and look at what directs movement and action? The rumbling, churning activity of the brain: the dynamics which are scaffolded by transcription of genes and experience with the environment. That which makes organisms more than a simple f(sensation) = action.

Then as neuroscience advances and we learn more about how the dynamics evolve, how genetic variation reacts to the environment – does the brain-in-itself become more constrained, more knowable? In a certain sense, ‘will’ is qualia; but in another it is that which feels uncaused but is in reality a consequence of our physical life. Will is not diminished by its predictability.

Just some thoughts from a snowy day before Thanksgiving. But Kant and Schopenhauer are worth thinking about…

Fun facts about Pavlov

I think this should go under “things I never knew about Pavlov”:

Pavlov is perhaps best known for introducing the idea of the conditioned reflex, although Todes notes that he never used that term. It was a bad translation of the Russian uslovnyi, or “conditional,” reflex.

At the university, Pavlov’s freshman class in inorganic chemistry was taught by Dmitri Mendeleev, who, a year earlier, had created the periodic table of the elements as a teaching tool.

In Russia, and even to some degree in the West, physiology was still considered a “theoretical science,” and the connection between basic research and medical treatments seemed tenuous. Todes argues that Pavlov’s devotion to repeated experimentation was bolstered by the model of the factory, which had special significance in a belatedly industrializing Russia. Pavlov’s lab was essentially a physiology factory, and the dogs were his machines.

At first, Pavlov, his wife, and their four children were treated like any other Soviet citizens. Their Nobel Prize money was confiscated as property of the state. From 1917 to 1920, like most residents of Petrograd, which would soon be called Leningrad, the Pavlovs struggled to feed themselves and to keep from freezing. It was nearly a full-time occupation; at least a third of Pavlov’s colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences died in those first post-revolutionary years. “Some starved to death in apartments just above or below his own in the Academy’s residence,” Todes writes. Pavlov grew potatoes and other vegetables right outside his lab, and when he was sick a colleague provided small amounts of firewood to burn at home.

The Soviets came to regard Pavlov as a scientific version of Marx. The comparison could not entirely have pleased Pavlov, who rebelled at the “divine” authority accorded Marx (“that fool”) and denied that his own “approach represents pure materialism.”

He also never even used a bell, but preferred more precise tools like metronomes. He also had ‘angry’ days when his staff knew not to bother him.

The article is chock full of interesting stuff, and I feel bad about excerpting this much; there is much much more in the original article.

Weekly facts and quotes, 11/17 – 11/23


saprophagous (səˈpräfəɡəs), adjective – (of an organism) feeding on or obtaining nourishment from decaying organic matter.


A mass depopulation of cockroaches has been observed since the beginning of the 21st century in Russia and other countries of the former USSR. Observers note quick disappearance of various types of cockroaches from cities and towns in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus.

No one knows why.


Male tilapia sing to each other.

To establish social status and to obtain a territory, males have frequent agonistic interactions with other males to assess the competitive abilities of conspecifics and maintain dominance hierarchies. Territorial males frequently court other males that adopt a female-like behaviour and colouration. Only territorial males, i.e. males that actively dug and defended their nest, showing black colouration, were heard to produce sounds. Sneaking males that entered the nest of a dominant male during a spawning episode exhibiting quivering behaviour, did not emit sounds.


The sculptor Luis Jiménez who created Blue Mustang (aka, ‘Blucifer’) for the Denver International Airport was killed when his creation fell on him.


The Sverris saga from 12th century Sweden contains a passage that says “the Baglers looted the castle, then burnt down all houses. They threw a dead man in the well, and then carried stone and filled it.” Archeologists believe they have found the skeleton of that man in a well.


The Nazis worked on developing hallucinogenic guns.


Friedrich August Kekule came up with the structure of benzene in a dream (the ‘ouroboros dream’).

Unrelated to all that, 11/22 edition

Scabs, Scantrons, and Strikes at the University of Oregon

At the heart of the dispute is a demand by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTTF) for two weeks of paid leave for illness or childbirth. The city of Eugene, which is where the University is located, mandates that all workers in the city get sick leave benefits. But university employees are exempted from the policy, so the GTTF has to bargain for the benefits.

Late last month senior administrators circulated a secret memorandum to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. You’ve got to read the whole thing to believe it, but here are some of my favorite parts. First, the administration moots different possibilities for conscripting scab labor from the unionized faculty ranks…

The article speaks for itself…

Deciphering the syntax of Nature article titles

We all want to publish in Nature. Papers in Nature are (supposed to be) the complete package: reliable results that show something novel; cool techniques; a famous corresponding author. And if you want to get one, you need a title that shows you are a refined gentleperson who belongs in the Nature club.

So to help you, dear blog reader, I have scoured the archives of Nature* to decipher the ideal form of Nature titles:

[research-y verb-ing] a neural circuit for [behaviour]

The 24 hour science challenge

The basic premise is to develop, perform analysis, and write up a scientific project within a 24-hour period. The results should be posted on a public repository for the world to see.

Check out the rules here.

Who’s with me?

The Poop Map of San Francisco


Why More Diversity on Wall Street Might Fight Bubbles

The results were striking. In the markets with ethnic diversity, prices became 21 percent more accurate, relative to the fundamentals of the stocks, as trading proceeded. But in the homogenous markets, pricing accuracy declined by 33 percent over the course of the simulation.

In other words, when a bunch of white guys are trading among themselves, they are more likely to drive prices to irrational levels than when there is more diversity among their trading partners.

“Traders in homogenous markets are more likely to accept offers that are farther from true value,” the authors write. “This supports the notion that traders in homogenous markets place undue trust in the decisions of others — they are more likely to spread others’ errors by accepting inflated offers, paying prices that are far from true values.”

In a way, these results are really obvious: if you add individuals to a market with a larger variety of beliefs, you’ll capture more information.

Global Fishing Patterns


Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’

In an astonishing run in the late 1960s and early 70s, Le Guin produced not just Earthsea but several of the great novels of science fiction’s postwar new wave. The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness fulfilled the genre’s promise, using speculation to address social, political, ethical and metaphysical questions. Since then she has continued to publish novels and short stories informed by the mystical philosophy of the Tao Te Ching and the west coast tradition of political radicalism, written in a clear, clean prose that is never tainted by inkhorn medievalism or technological jargon. A two-volume collection of stories, The Unreal and the Real, was published this summer, giving an overview of her entire career.

Because of her subject matter, Le Guin isn’t always recognised for what she is, one of the great writers of the American west, a product of a coastal tradition that looks forward at the Pacific with a wilderness at its back and the great cities of Europe very far to the rear.

Le Guin claims to “get very uppity” about the “parochialism and snobbishness” of the East Coast literary establishment. “The idea that everybody lives in a large city in the east, it’s such a strange thing for an American to think.”

The Story That Tore Through the Trees

Outdoorspeople are as varied as any other kind, except that they share one psychological stratum, a layer hard and fine laid down as in geology by the pressure of the Earth. Tim is affable and talkative and has smashed open two of the knuckles on his left hand recently enough to show fresh blood and flecks of white, and not once in an hour does he glance down at them. He was born in Helena, moved away as an adult to Arizona, wondered why, and came back. Now he manages a company that has taken people down this river since 1886, three years before Montana became a state. Some of his clients come to retrace the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who, on July 19, 1805, “entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen.” Others come for the remarkable clifts themselves, others to fish the waters beneath them. But some come, as I have, to visit the site of the most famous wildfire in American history.

Just beautiful writing


#sfn2014 by the numbers


SfN is really just a lot of words. I downloaded the PDFs of the abstract booklets, textified, tokenized, and counted them. Here is what I found.

The most common word is ‘the’. The most common non-common word is ‘neurons’.

Here are the most enriched and most…deficient? words for each session (so that you know what to go to, and what to skip out on)*

Saturday PM

  1. ↑ grid, ↓ parkinson
  2. ↑ walking, ↓ injury
  3. ↑ biology,↓ stroke
  4. ↑ reinstatement,↓ PD
  5. ↑ adolescent, ↓ cord
  6. ↑ D2, ↓ auditory
  7. ↑ older, ↓ recovery
  8. ↑ adaptation, ↓ behavioral
  9. ↑ movements, ↓ spinal
  10. ↑ schizophrenia, ↓ neurogenesis

Sunday AM

  1. ↑ Abeta, ↓ cocaine
  2. ↑ WM, ↓ olfactory
  3. ↑ sensory,↓ cues
  4. ↑ withdrawal,↓ conditioning
  5. ↑ ASD, ↓ extinction
  6. ↑ BDNF, ↓ sleep
  7. ↑ GABAA, ↓ cognitive
  8. ↑ song, ↓ injury
  9. ↑ voluntary, ↓ amygdala
  10. ↑ accuracy, ↓ depression

Sunday PM

  1. ↑ pain, ↓ AD
  2. ↑ sleep, ↓ disease
  3. ↑ neuropathic,↓ fear
  4. ↑ DRG,↓ context
  5. ↑ deprivation, ↓ astrocytes
  6. ↑ MS, ↓ cognitive
  7. ↑ nicotine, ↓ alzheimer
  8. ↑ migration, ↓ amygdala
  9. ↑ mechanical, ↓ posterior
  10. ↑ PV, ↓ tau

Monday AM

  1. ↑ morphine, ↓ tau
  2. ↑ song, ↓ KO
  3. ↑ seizures,↓ stroke
  4. ↑ maternal,↓ olfactory
  5. ↑ offspring, ↓ PFC
  6. ↑ epilepsy, ↓ feedback
  7. ↑ stress, ↓ extinction
  8. ↑ antidepressant, ↓ stock
  9. ↑ ion, ↓ mutant
  10. ↑ TMS, ↓ options

Monday PM

  1. ↑ DBS, ↓ EEG
  2. ↑ neurogenesis, ↓ pain
  3. ↑ circadian,↓ currents
  4. ↑ APP,↓ sleep
  5. ↑ fear, ↓ inflammatory
  6. ↑ extinction, ↓ channels
  7. ↑ alcohol, ↓ GABA
  8. ↑ ethanol, ↓ attention
  9. ↑ neurogenesis, ↓ working
  10. ↑ parkinson’s, ↓ older

Tuesday AM

  1. ↑ developmental, ↓ ARd
  2. ↑ astrocyte, ↓ AD
  3. ↑ microglia,↓ cocaine
  4. ↑ cord,↓ alzheimer
  5. ↑ sleep, ↓ stroke
  6. ↑ transporter, ↓ ethanol
  7. ↑ respiratory, ↓ disease
  8. ↑ 5-HT, ↓ motion
  9. ↑ SCI, ↓ direction
  10. ↑ proliferation, ↓ olfactory

Tuesday PM

  1. ↑ speech, ↓ disease
  2. ↑ cord, ↓ AD
  3. ↑ autism,↓ ARd
  4. ↑ TBI,↓ models
  5. ↑ spinal, ↓ animal
  6. ↑ axon, ↓ PD
  7. ↑ ASD, ↓ disorders
  8. ↑ trauma, ↓ sleep
  9. ↑ injury, ↓ layer
  10. ↑ saccade, ↓ alcohol

Wednesday AM

  1. ↑ odor, ↓ movements
  2. ↑ olfactory, ↓ ARd
  3. ↑ stroke,↓ muscle
  4. ↑ emotional,↓ feedback
  5. ↑ fear, ↓ neural
  6. ↑ ACC, ↓ learning
  7. ↑ theta, ↓ ms
  8. ↑ extinction, ↓ mechanisms
  9. ↑ antidepressant, ↓ cerebellar
  10. ↑ cognitive, ↓ cocaine

Wednesday PM

  1. ↑ tau, ↓ alcohol
  2. ↑ faces, ↓ fear
  3. ↑ ischemia,↓ hand
  4. ↑ grid,↓ sleep
  5. ↑ vision, ↓ ethanol
  6. ↑ sensory, ↓ nicotine
  7. ↑ visual, ↓ conditioning
  8. ↑ walking, ↓ nerve
  9. ↑ function, ↓ cerebellar
  10. ↑ V1, ↓ excitability


  1. ↑ LRRK2, ↓ DA
  2. ↑ face, ↓ mg/kg
  3. ↑ tau,↓ movements
  4. ↑ TBI,↓ muscle
  5. ↑ dementias, ↓ antagonist
  6. ↑ pathogenesis, ↓ animal
  7. ↑ glucose, ↓ firing
  8. ↑ AD, ↓ hand
  9. ↑ oxygen, ↓ agonist
  10. ↑ APP, ↓ ca2+

Symposiums and minisympiums

  1. ↑ neuroscience, ↓ time
  2. ↑ metabolism, ↓ task
  3. ↑ health,↓ observed
  4. ↑ circuits,↓ levels
  5. ↑ regeneration, ↓ inhibition
  6. ↑ insight, ↓ mice
  7. ↑ drug, ↓ rat
  8. ↑ RNA, ↓ associated
  9. ↑ ion, ↓ higher
  10. ↑ dynamics, ↓ changes

Satellite meetings

  1. ↑ neuroscience, ↓ compared
  2. ↑ link, ↓ task
  3. ↑ focus,↓ receptor
  4. ↑ approaches,↓ rat
  5. ↑ ALS, ↓ cortex
  6. ↑ facilitate, ↓ significant
  7. ↑ variety, ↓ increase
  8. ↑ tools, ↓ responses
  9. ↑ future, ↓ mouse
  10. ↑ quality, ↓ animals


*I modified this list a bit. For instance, the most enriched word in the nanosymposium is ‘nanosymposium’. The most enriched words for the symposiums were place names. Those types of words were ignored for the sake of an interesting list.

How to use Twitter (for scientists!)

People try to use Twitter all the time and often give up with a shrug: it seems useless to get anything from that noise, with their voice getting lost in the roar. It’s a shame, because Twitter is one of the most useful ways to keep up-to-date on science. Remember how you used to have to wait for a physical magazine to be delivered to you to get up-to-date scientific research? And how unbearably slow that now feels? That’s how scientific life feels without Twitter, once you’ve used it.

In that sprit, here is my advice on how to use Twitter.

1. Find some interesting people to follow.

Here are a few lists of scientists on Twitter. When following, note how often they tweet. Also note how often they retweet other people or respond to other people’s questions.

2. Next, if you see a conversation that you think is interesting, see who else participated in the conversation.

Are they interesting? Perhaps try to participate in the conversation if you can. But be warned, jokes often fall flat.

3. Interact with people.

Twitter is useful because of the people and their interactions, not the content per se.

4. Have something worthwhile to say. Say it.

Whether it is content that hasn’t made the rounds yet, or new content of your own, if you have something useful to say let other people know! Again, this is why twitter is useful.

5. Know your niche.

It helps if you have something unique to say. What do you know about that a lot of other people don’t? Often this is a hobby or what you are passionate about. Cheese-making? Gustatory cortex? Anatomy? Be broad, and be specific.

6. Try for a while. It takes time.

Twitter kind of sucks at the beginning. It’s like being the new kid at school: everyone already knows each other and is having a great time talking. You try to say something – and kind of get ignored in favor of a friend. But if you keep at it – and keep interacting with people – you’ll grow your network and find out how useful twitter can be. Remember that every voice is important and interesting!

Optimal hipster theory

I think people are trying to send me a message. For the last few days, I’ve been getting a steady stream of emails letting me know about a new paper posted on the arXiv – The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same (for the record, I have never had an ironic mustache.) It’s definitely because of the math involved. Yeah, that’s it.

Just as I started to write this up, though, I see that someone else has already done a fantastic job at a lay introduction to the paper:

Touboul begins by envisioning a world where people choose between just two styles: Call them punk or normcore. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like to go with the flow, and those who do the opposite — hipsters, in other words. Over time, people perceive what the mainstream trend is, and either align themselves with it or oppose it.

Here are some examples with a population of three conformists and one hipster. How the world evolves over time depends on who starts off in the majority and who starts off in the minority. Take white to be normcore, and black to be punk (obviously).

What if this world contained equal numbers of conformists and hipsters? No matter how the population starts out, it will end up in some kind of cycle, as the conformists try to catch up to the hipsters, and the hipsters try to differentiate themselves from the conformists.

Essentially, the model assumes that individuals have two states (styles) and they flip between them. The switching rate is determined by the mean-field trend such that mainstream individuals will flip to the mainstream (mean-field) style at a high rate; hipsters will flip at a much lower rate. This can be modeled as a spin-glass system where many analytical results are already known.

Now, spin-glass systems are known from magnetism: they help describe how whole systems can suddenly switch from one macro state to another. For instance, from disorder to sudden order. In the hipster system, near the critical point you get sudden transient alignments of hipsters before switching randomly:

hipster critical point

A lot of flop flop flopping from the nonconformists (hipsters).

A more interesting result is that a time-delay induces a Hopf bifurcation in the system causing systematic hipster alignment:

hipster hopf bifurcations

This immediately suggests that decreased time delays should reduce the coherence of anticonformist trends. Luckily we have a natural experiment – the Internet. I’m not aware enough of fashion to comment on that but I am a pretty big music junky. Thanks to the internet, music genres have split into subgenres which split into microgenres and oh god it’s so hard to even keep track of what is what any more.

Similarly, the paper shows that if you there is a spatial extent to the model, then at low delays you only get hipster synchronization when the spatial extent is not too large or too small (in the figure below, the x-axis a is spatial extent, y-axis tau_0 is temporal delay).

hipster time and area delays

Despite the simplifications in the model – fashion is one-dimensional and everyone exists at unit distance etc – there is insight to be gained.

Additionally, while hipster-hunting is an Internet past-time, distinctiveness is a serious matter in ecology and sociology. This is useful!


Jonathan Touboul (2014). The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same arXiv arXiv: 1410.8001v1

Behavior is as much about environment as it is about cognition

Over at TalkingBrains, Greg Hickok points to a review on embodied cognition that has several neat examples of how distinct behavior arises just by placing an agent in the correct environment:

Robots with two sensors situated at 45 degree angles on the robot’s “head” and a simple program to avoid obstacles detected by the sensors will after a while tidy a room full of randomly distributed cubes into neat piles:


Female crickets need to find male crickets to breed with. Females prefer to breed with males who produce the loudest songs… Female crickets have a pair of eardrums, one on each front leg, which are connected to each other via a tube. It so happens that the eardrums connect to a small number of interneurons that control turning; female crickets always turn in the direction specified by the more active interneuron. Within a species of cricket, these interneurons have a typical activation decay rate. This means that their pattern of activation is maximized by sounds with a particular frequency. Male cricket songs are tuned to this frequency, and the net result is that, with no explicit computation or comparison required, the female cricket can orient toward the male of her own species producing the loudest song. The analysis of task resources indicates that the cricket solves the problem by having a particular body (eardrum configuration and interneuron connections) and by living in a particular environment (where male crickets have songs of particular frequencies).

(Emphasis added.)

This, of course, is a perfect example of why we need ethology in order to understand the nervous system – behaviors only make sense in the context of the ecology that they operate in!