Open Thread, 12/27/2015

On_Food_And_Cooking_UScoverI mentioned On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen a few days ago. The section on irradiated meat was interesting to me as it exposes the reality that there are many things we can do to improve human existence, but that we don’t for cognitive reasons. The authors notes that meat irradiated with E. coli is edible for three months after being sterilized, but that since it is adulterated consumers wouldn’t want to consume it. Adulterated in that the E. coli is often present in feces which contaminate the meat. Myself, I would gag attempting to eat sterilized feces. This is certainly a very adaptive evolutionary reflex; a substantial proportion (more than 50% in some sources) of the solid material in human feces are bacteria. But I suppose the question is how much feces we are already consuming. In a “perfect world” food inspection regimes would make irradiation irrelevant. Because people fear radiation, and think that irradiated meat is radioactive, this method isn’t used much. And food safety in the United States is such that the public health risk is low. But a substantial proportion of illnesses in the United States today are due to contaminated food. Most estimates are probably a lower bound because many illnesses we may assume are airborne or due to contact with a physical surface may have been mediated by food handlers (which obviously irradiating meat wouldn’t do anything about!) There are major problems as a society we don’t address or can’t, but it seems that in areas like food distribution we actually have the technology in many cases, but our surfeit of supply means we have the luxury of not making recourse to it. Yet.

By the way, gut flora is going to be a big thing. But we really don’t know much about it. I’d hazard to guess it might be bigger thing in the short/medium term (say up until 2025) than CRISPR.

Please use the “open thread” for making off topic comments. Usually I check the open threads and reply in batch, but if it’s an off topic comment I’m way less likely to respond.

New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Baring an Ethnic Divide in The New York Times. The ethnic divide is one familiar to many people who live in Silicon Valley. E.g., The Tiger Parents of Silicon Valley: White and Asian students in California schools self-segregate. That’s a pity—and a problem. Though in general I sympathize more with the “white” parents (the racial aspect is salient, but the factis that most of the Asian American parents are first generation and grew up abroad in these scenarios, so there’s a major confound), this reality from the first piece rings true:

“They don’t have the same chances to get their children internships or jobs at law firms,” Professor Lee said. “So what they believe is that their children must excel beyond their white peers in academic settings so they have the same chances to excel later.”

41n4FabPOWL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Everyone knows that the Ivy League and other elite colleges seem to have standards where students of Asian ethnic background need to have stronger academic scores and preparation to get the same consideration in “holistic” admissions. So it is natural that the parents of these students would emphasize this aspect of schooling. Additionally, first generation immigrants by and large don’t have the same accumulated social capital in this country in terms of connections, though I’m skeptical that this remains true for very long (see Greg Clark’s The Son Also Rises). But a final issue may be that by focusing so monomaniacally on proximate hurdles and metrics these students do not cultivate other, perhaps softer, skills, necessary in the professional world.

The testing culture which dominates East Asia today has its culturally contingent roots in the ideal of a meritocracy which arose in the wake of the Confucian-Legalist synthesis of the early Han, finally maturing in the Song dynasty. But the testing itself was only a means toward an ends, which was rule by benevolent and broad-minded scholar officials, rooted in a deep traditional humanism. In other words, the goal was to produce a cadre of liberally educated gentleman who would act not just in their own self-interest, but toward human betterment more broadly. In other words, arguments against the cram school culture which prizes individual excellence and success at all costs exist within societies from which these systems emerge, but these arguments are difficult to make in the context of a perception of a winner-take-all stakes in the game of life (though perhaps more thought should be given to all the Asian American kids who are not perfectly academic and don’t live up to expectations, and suffer a lot of emotional distress, and often hate, and frankly detest, their parents as adults).

More concretely, being a “bro” who can kick back with some beers is obviously a benefit in many professional contexts. Back when I worked as a programmer a lot of lunch discussions revolved around gaming. Since I haven’t played since I was 16 I was naturally excluded. Not that I’m complaining, but it goes to show how much everyday interaction revolves around tacitly shared norms and interests. And of course, at higher reaches of industry there are gains to traits like height and voice quality which can’t be overcome by a higher GMAT score.

tnapb4As a parent myself I’m thinking a bit more concretely about these sorts of issues. A few of my friends are major proponents of Unschooling. I probably won’t go that far myself, but as a major fan of The Nurture Assumption I think the key is not to engage in one-size-fits-all thinking. Individual differences matter. The variation in competencies and interests of my children are already evident, and it strikes me that these are important to consider in any system of pedagogy. An acquaintance of mine once expressed frustration that one of his two children didn’t seem academic at all, despite the fact that both his parents and older sister were. I tried to suggest that things like this just happen, that social inputs and incentives have limits, and non-zero heritability means you can’t just predict offspring from parents. Rather than being frustrated a more fruitful path would be to understand what would have best optimized the child’s skills, rather than trying to force him into becoming a National Merit Scholar like his sister (which was going to be unlikely in any case).

There should be some awesome papers in human population genomics coming out this year. Also in population genomics more broadly. Speaking of which, the next Bay Area Population Genomics Meeting (XIII) is going to be at Berkeley on February 13th.

k10543Right after finishing Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (I’m 2/3 of the way through) I’m going to read The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. This entails a touch of rearrangement of my stack, but not too much. Since I have stated in the public record that I believe humans are domesticating ourselves I’m probably a good candidate to receive the thesis that Joe Henrich is presenting favorably. Speaking of which, he now has an appointment at Harvard, a good indication that his research program is now ready to go into “prime time.” God knows when I’m going to have time to read fiction, but probably it will be Seveneves, though I’ve been putting off reading The Wise Man’s Fear for a while. Good book recommendations are always welcome.

Here are some books I’ll prioritize for the New Year which have been sitting in my Kindle for a while:

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. I’ve heard great things about this book for years.

The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Invaders. I referenced and skimmed parts of this book, but I’ll finally read it (it should be fast, I know the topic a bit).

Nexus. My friend Ramez Naam wrote a science fiction trilogy a few years back. An admirer of his nonfiction work, which I’ve read, so I’ve been meaning to check this out.

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. I’m often dispositionally skeptical of Michael Lind’s arguments, but often come around to seeing value in them.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. Shadi Hamid tends to avoid cant in his pronouncements.

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. There is more to science than genetics. Trying to tell myself that….

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. An important book that I’ve been putting off reading. My friend Carl Schulman contributed a fair amount to this book as a research assistant.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I hope the author is well versed enough to characterize Neo-Darwinism correctly! The glaring problem with Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution is that the author’s mastery of the material under critique was too superficial to be persuasive (i.e., often he was criticizing an argument that didn’t exist in the science).

Learning Python. This is the year I’m going to grow up and move beyond Perl I think….

A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth. I’m a big behind the times when it comes to natural history. This was the door into evolution for me, but the past decade or so I’ve been focused on microevolutionary processes.

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