Author Archives: rdmyers75@hotmail.com

What are the trends in ecology and evolution for 2018?

The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution does an annual “Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity”. I can only see the abstract so here is the one sentence describing the trends:

The issues highlighted span a wide range of fields and include thiamine deficiency in wild animals, the geographic expansion of chronic wasting disease, genetic control of invasive mammal populations and the effect of culturomics on conservation science, policy and action.

I was new to the term culturomics, and thought it might have something to do with synthesizing new compounds in giant vats of yogurt. But no, according to Wikipedia it is not that kind of culture, but relates to search and synthesis algorithms for scientific articles, which does indeed seem to be a recurring theme on this blog lately.

Culturomics is a form of computational lexicology that studies human behavior and cultural trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts.[1][2] Researchers data mine large digital archives to investigate cultural phenomena reflected in language and word usage.[3] The term is an American neologism first described in a 2010 Science article called Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, co-authored by Harvard researchers Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden.[4]

At that point, I just needed to figure out what a neologism was, so I looked it up in Webster’s 1913 which some people say is the most artfully written dictionary:

Ne*ol”o*gism (?), n. [Cf. F. néologisme.]

1. The introduction of new words, or the use of old words in a new sense. Mrs. Browning.

2. A new word, phrase, or expression.

3. A new doctrine; specifically, rationalism.

Mrs. Browning? Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a long poem called Aurora Leigh which contains the word. And no, I wouldn’t have learned that if I had looked up neologism in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

I learnt my complement of classic French
(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism,)
And German also, since she liked a range
Of liberal education,–tongues, not books.
I learnt a little algebra, a little
Of the mathematics,–brushed with extreme flounce
The circle of the sciences, because
She misliked women who are frivolous.

It goes on like that. Forever.

Oh okay, one more, here is the definition of flounce in Webster’s 1913:

Flounce, v. t. To deck with a flounce or flounces; as, to flounce a petticoat or a frock.

Flounce, n. [Cf. G. flausflausch, a tuft of wool or hair; akin to vliess, E.fleece; or perh. corrupted fr. rounce.] An ornamental appendage to the skirt of a woman’s dress, consisting of a strip gathered and sewed on by its upper edge around the skirt, and left hanging.

Flounce (?), v. i. [imp. & p. p.Flounced (flounst); p. pr. & vb. n.Flouncing(?).] [Cf. OSw. flunsa to immerge.] To throw the limbs and body one way and the other; to spring, turn, or twist with sudden effort or violence; to struggle, as a horse in mire; to flounder; to throw one’s self with a jerk or spasm, often as in displeasure.

To flutter and flounce will do nothing but batter and bruise us.

Barrow.

With his broad fins and forky tail he laves
The rising sirge, and flounces in the waves.

Addison.

“Sirge” I think is an old-timey spelling of “surge”. And if you look up “surge” in this dictionary, its usage is quite interesting and you want to go on. But that’s it for me.

 

bond ratings and climate change

Even if the U.S. federal government officially doesn’t believe in climate change, the municipal bond industry officially does believe in climate change.

In a report to its clients Tuesday, Moody’s Investors Service Inc. explained how it incorporates climate change into its credit ratings for state and local bonds. If cities and states don’t deal with risks from surging seas or intense storms, they are at greater risk of default…

In its report, Moody’s lists six indicators it uses “to assess the exposure and overall susceptibility of U.S. states to the physical effects of climate change.” They include the share of economic activity that comes from coastal areas, hurricane and extreme-weather damage as a share of the economy, and the share of homes in a flood plain…

Bloomberg News reported in May that towns and counties were able to secure AAA ratings despite their risks of flooding and other destruction from storms, which are likely to be more frequent and intense because of climate change. If repeated storms and floods are likely to send property values — and tax revenue — sinking while spending on sea walls, storm drains or flood-resistant buildings goes up, investors say bond buyers should be warned.

the CFPB

Simon Johnson says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has actually been doing a good job up until now of, well, protecting consumer finances.

The CFPB was established by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation to do exactly what its name implies: protect consumers in their various financial transactions. A new agency was needed because existing regulators, including the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, had manifestly and repeatedly failed to protect consumers from abuses, such as deceptive and fraudulent mortgage-lending practices, some of which were at the heart of what went wrong in 2007-08.

As Elizabeth Warren (then a consumer advocate, now a US senator from Massachusetts) powerfully pointed out, there was a lot more protection for people buying toasters than for someone taking out a 25-year mortgage. Finance is complex, and a lot of devils could be, and were, hidden in the details. The CFPB was designed, above all, to bring greater transparency to consumers’ financial transactions – actually a very pro-market contribution.

And the CFPB has done exactly what Congress designed it to do. So far, the Bureau has arranged for the return of almost $12 billion to 29 million consumers. At the same time, banks are reporting record profits – on the order of $171 billion, according to the latest data. The CFPB is good for business, or at least for the straightforward, transparent business of traditional lending.

Unfortunately, all this seems likely to end as Trump has appointed someone to head the agency who is actually against the agency’s existence, not unlike his approach to the environment, housing, and education. Johnson seems to think the public will catch on to this and punish the Republicans politically when the little guy starts to get hurt by it. I don’t know, it probably depends on the timing. Nobody wants to see another financial blow-up, but if it has to happen mid-2020 seems as good a time as any.

Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic, and open science

Wired talks about how Google Scholar is changing the academic publishing industry as open science starts to take hold, and how Microsoft Academic might be an even better search engine. There are also a lot of other emerging search engines out there, which the article goes into.

I use Google Scholar quite a bit, even though Google sort of stopped advertising it and makes you go through a couple extra clicks to get to it. I didn’t know Microsoft Academic or most of these other tools existed.

macroeconomic models and tax cuts

The Economist has a piece on macroeconomic models used to evaluate tax policy.

Lurk near PhD economists online or at conferences, and you will hear them talk about “crisis in macro”. They mean that the models and assumptions most dominant among macroeconomists have failed repeatedly since 2007 to predict or even describe what’s happening. A defence, popular among academics, goes like this: we did get it wrong, but as responsible social scientists, we’re busy and fascinated right now, trying to figure out what was broken and how to fix it. It is a fair defence. In particular young macroeconomists have been using bigger datasets and faster computers to more accurately predict human behaviour. Economists are more likely to accept now, for example, that people with and without access to credit or wealth react differently to the same policy, an idea that is slowly working its way into models at central banks and even at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

This progress is unfortunate for Republicans. In the 1990s social science was on their side. Because data and computing power were harder to come by, macroeconomic models relied on thought experiments. The seminal model showing the ideal capital-gains tax rate as zero, for example, dates to 1986. It assumes that the economy consists of only one person. Also, she is immortal. The Wonder Woman economy, if you will. That model is now interesting only for a lecture on the history of economic thought. We’ve moved on, macroeconomists protest. But economists have. And Republicans haven’t…

But if you are going to insist on modeling the future and then planning around it, you have to do it right. The economists at the Joint Committee on Taxation are thoughtful. They read the most recent research. They examine their own models and, when they can, update them—conservatively. If, as Republicans have been insisting for 20 years, we have to assess our tax policies with dynamic scoring, there is no better way to do it than through the JCT. Unfortunately, as modeling has improved, it has not improved in the direction Republicans prefer, which leaves them where they are now. They wanted social science in policy-making, and they got it, in the form of a $1trn tax bill.

I don’t know how any ethical person can support the Republican party right now. They don’t care about facts, logic, or evidence, and certainly not economic growth or raising the living standards of their constituents. They are blantantly and shamelessly committed to lining the pockets of their big-business funders. It’s corrupt, undemocratic and shameful.

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.

 

more on space bacteria

Russian cosmonauts are claiming they have found bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station that have to have come from space. At least, they didn’t get on the ISS until the ISS was in space, meaning they already had to be there. Reading between the lines, that doesn’t mean the bacteria didn’t make their way from Earth to space at some point in the past, before the ISS was launched.

I wonder if harmless bacteria could go into space, mutate into something dangerous, then make their way back to Earth on a returning spacecraft. Has that story ever been done?

But The Andromeda Strain had a lame ending, as I recall.

we’re #1…in road deaths in the industrialized world

It’s not just health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. As more evidence the U.S. is gradually slipping behind the rest of the developed world in many areas, here is a New York Times article on how road deaths are worse here than our peer countries in terms of wealth. And not just western Europe, but again our close cultural and historical cousins like Canada and Australia.

It didn’t used to be this way. A generation ago, driving in the United States was relatively safe. Fatality rates here in 1990 were roughly 10 percent lower than in Canada and Australia, two other affluent nations with a lot of open road.

Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. The fatality rate has still fallen here, thanks partly to safer vehicles, but it’s fallen far less than anywhere else.

As a result, this country has turned into a disturbing outlier. Our vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s. The comparison with Slovenia is embarrassing. In 1990, its death rate was more than five times as high as ours. Today, the Slovenians have safer roads.

Let’s not set our sights too high – could we start by just making America average again? Let’s try to catch up to our peers with similar levels of wealth and technology, instead of continuing to slip further behind. Or we could just bury our heads in the sand, not learn about the world, let our politicians tell us how great we are, and never find out that there could have been a better way.

should we intentionally seed life on other planets?

Some bacteria have been found surviving on the outside of the International Space Station. Tardigrades are an even hardier form of microbe that can supposedly survive even close to absolute zero. They can essentially go dormant in a state very, very near death, then bounce back if and when they find themselves in suitable conditions later on. There is even speculation that life on Earth could have arrived from space in a form like this, and/or life forms originating on Earth could be living on other planets right now.

Space dust collisions as a planetary escape mechanism (In press Astrobiology, 2017)

Hypervelocity space dust is a unique entity in planetary systems like our Solar System, which is able to go past and enter the atmosphere of planets, collect samples of those planets and deposit samples of other planets. The entire system of fast space dust in a planetary system thus contains the atoms, molecules and possibly even microbial life, from all the planets and provides a means to mix them up amongst the different planets. For collecting atoms and molecules that form atmospheres, the mechanism proposed in this paper is fairly straightforward. For collecting life and life related molecules this mechanism has interesting features, but many detailed issues would still need to be studied. The violent collisions involved in this mechanism could make it difficult for life to remain intact. There are several possible collision scenarios that would all need to be explored to get a definitive answer to this problem. But even if life itself does not remain intact, it could still permit the complex molecules associated with life to get propelled into space, and that is also interesting for the panspermia process. Since space dust is ubiquitous all over the Solar System and is believed to exist in interstellar and probably intergalactic space, the mechanism proposed in this paper for propelling small particles into space could provide a universal mechanism both for the exchange of the atomic and molecular constituents between distant planetary atmospheres and for initiating the first step of the panspermia process.

According to Wikipedia, panspermia is “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroidsasteroidscomets,[1] planetoids,[2] and also by spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms.”

Of course there is still the Fermi Paradox – if life is so common, why haven’t we been able to find any evidence of it, anywhere, even once? There are ethical implications of all this. We would like to perpetuate our human species and current form of civilization, of course, and that means getting into space eventually. But if we don’t manage to pull that off, and all life on Earth is wiped out for one reason or another, panspermia means that life exists elsewhere, and somewhere, sometime, intelligent life will evolve again if it hasn’t already. But if there is absolutely no life anywhere else in the universe, the loss of it on Earth would mean the end of all life forever. That would be too heavy a burden to bear, and would mean we have a strong ethical obligation to get some self-sustaining human colonies out into space as an insurance policy. But there could be a cheaper form of insurance policy – intentionally contaminate space and nearby planets with hardy germs from Earth, and in a few billion years something will survive and evolve, somewhere, into something. Do this enough and again, eventually you will have intelligent life somewhere. But finally, if it turns out there is life on other nearby planets, even very primitive life, then intentionally contaminating them with our germs would not seem like such an ethical thing to do after all.