May 27, 2012

Doing something about stupidity

Anders Sandberg on Singularity 1 on 1: We Are All Amazingly Stupid, But We Can Get Better - I was interviewed for the excellent Singularity Weblog about enhancement, transhumanism and the singularity.

Posted by Anders3 at 09:02 AM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2012

Should we enhance foodball referees?

Skytteholm sculptureThe dignity of the referee - I blog on Practical Ethics about the suggestion that referees should be tested for doping.

My conclusion is that it is likely just pointless expansion of the anti-doping crusade, and that it might be possible to enhance the referee job (for example by improving cognition). But given the peculiarities of sport psychology, maybe it doesn't matter: it is more about the ritual and idea of sport than the actual performance. Which would be fine except for how anti-doping regulations get exported to the rest of society where the same ideas do not apply.

In a way, sport is all about forgetting that it is just a game: to temporarily take something arbitrary bloody seriously. Breaking that illusion is annoying. But extending the illusion across reality leads to moral mistakes.

Posted by Anders3 at 04:39 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2012

Make editorial status fast!

A clone of clonesSome scientific journals have low standards.

Usually this means low standards for their submissions: just send things in, get something good-looking for your publication list, the publisher gets another journal to add to their already bloated bundle they are forcing upon university libraries.

But who are the editors of these journals? I just realised that this might be the same thing: people wanting to pad their CVs, giving an ounce of credibility to the journal and hence to the publisher.

The reason I noticed this is that I have been spammed by SciTechnol: International Publisher of Science, Technology and Medicine about becoming an editor for Journal of Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination. I have repeatedly been emailed at my Oxford address with invitations that among other things say:

We are aware of your reputation for quality of research and trustworthiness in the field of “Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination”.

We cordially invite you to be the prestigious Editorial Board Member of our Journal “Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination".

Tempting, isn't it? The cut-and-paste template, the capitalisation... and the fact that they are sending this to a person in the philosophy department who has never ever written anything inside the field (I have a bit on bioethics, but that is hardly the focus of the journal). Clearly they bought some address list from some conference at some point - this is why I also get spam for lab equipment, antibodies and transgenic mice (a nice reminder that we are living in the future).

The funny thing is that this is likely not a scam in any legal or moral sense. Everybody gets something they want: editorial board members get something nice for their CV, researchers get somewhere to publish, the publisher gets another journal. The problem is of course that it contributes to the spread of low-quality science publications, as elucidated by Travis Saunders.

Of course I could be wrong and MCGR is really a high quality journal. Or the editorial board will decide to shape it up to one. But I suspect the incentives are not promoting more than adequate quality.

That is of course the main problem we are facing today: aligning the incentives so that academics are motivated to produce the best research possible (and publish the best explanations of it) rather than producing a lot of research. Saunders' suggestion of the journal that publishes everything, but then evaluates quality sounds like a good start. Now we just need to 1) find a system of detecting/rewarding reviewers that do quality assessment in a high quality manner (perhaps a reviewer quality and trustworthiness ranking system? tip jars?), 2) making the grants bodies (and other institutions academics are motivated to impress) reward for high quality publications and high quality reviewing, 3) giving these bodies incentives for maximizing good research.

These are tall orders. But there are a lot of smart people out there, new technologies that could be used to circumvent stale institutions, and a general awareness that the current system is not good enough. The fact that Nature can publish a feature slamming the bad epistemic system of entire fields (OK, fields it does not publish much in) is a good sign: at least we are aware that we have a problem.

I'd rather work on that than play at being an editor at an ever so interesting cloning journal. So, thank you SciTechnol, but I don't think I would be a suitable editor.

Posted by Anders3 at 06:03 PM | Comments (0)

Skew fitness and genetic screening

ThistledownBad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: prolific sperm donation and screening | Practical Ethics

I blog about the issue of kids being born from sperm donations sometimes coming down with genetic conditions: some of the screening is clearly unsatisfactory. But another contributing factor is correlation: some donors have a disproportionate number of offspring, so if they are unlucky they risk the health of a large group.

Hmm, the excessive donation issue sounds a lot like one of my standard arguments against government interventions. Stupid individual actions have local bad consequences, while stupid government actions scale up the consequences across society. Yet in this case it seems that thanks to the Matthew effect free choice might lead to "clumpy" reproduction where a few favoured donors get a disproportionally large brood.

Posted by Anders3 at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2012

Cute sums

Sky farmHere are two cute sums:

(e+1)/2(e-1) = Σn=-∞ 1/(1 + 4 π2 n2)

π/(1-exp(-π)) - π/2 = Σn=-∞ 1/(1+4 n2)

The way to prove it is to use the Poisson summation formula, which states that for appropriate functions:

Σn=-∞ f(n) = Σn=-∞ F(n)

where F is the Fourier transform of f. The "appropriate" part is of course where tricky things may happen, since one or both sums might not converge.

Now, f(x) = exp(-a|x|) has the transform F(ξ) = 2a/(a2 + 4 π2 ξ2) for a>0.

So we get this possible equality:

Σn=-∞ exp(-a|x|) = Σn=-∞ 2a/(a2 + 4 π2 n2)

These sums are both well behaved, since both can easily be bounded by nicely convergent integrals, so convergence is assured.

The left hand side can be rewritten as [2 Σ_n=0 exp(-ax)] - 1 since exp(-a|x|) is an even function (imagine "folding" the number line around n=0; the -1 term corrects the double counting of the n=0 term with value 1). And the sum inside the brackets is a nice geometric series summing to 1/(1-exp(-a)). So the original sum is

2/(1-exp(-a)) - 1 = Σn=-∞ 2a/(a2 + 4 π2 \n2)

Some rearrangement produces

1/a(1-exp(-a)) - 1/2a = Σn=-∞ 1/(a2+4π2 n2)

Now, we can set a=1 and get

1/(1-e^-1) - 1/2 = Σ_n=-infty 1/(1 + 4 π2 n2)

a=π gives

π/(1-exp(-π)) - π/2 = Σn=-∞ 1/(1+4 n2)

Maybe not terribly useful, but beautiful. I remember how delightful it was to learn how to calculate integrals using residues or exploit Fourier series to get cool sums and integrals in closed form. After all, the coolest fact about

π/3 = Σn=1 sin(nπ/3)/n

is that it is so easy to derive - once you have the powerful machinery behind it.

Addendum 15/5/12:

Just found another nice identity the same way, this time using the transform pair f(x)=x H(x) exp(-αx), F(ξ)=1/(α+2πξi)2 where H(x) is the Heaviside step function. In the same way as above this leads to:

2Σn=0 n exp(-2πn) = Σn=-∞ (1-n2)/(1+n2)2

A neat thing about it is that the sum on the left is all positive, while the sum on the right has just one positive term.

Posted by Anders3 at 05:28 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2012

The King's Trough and the sunken mosque

I recently came across King's Trough, a deep valley or trough on the eastern side of the mid-atlantic ridge. Since there was nothing on it I made a Wikipedia entry for it.

In looking for information I came across this page: Kings Trough, Under Sea Features Prayer Times . The site calculates prayer times for Muslims, and apparently the location database includes underwater locations too. I assume Muslim divers and submarine crews do not have quite the same complications as astronauts in defining the direction to Mecca or proper prayer times.

A hilarious detail: apparently there is a mosque on the California Seamount. Or maybe a data entry error. But I find the vision of a grand mosque built on top of a seamount in the middle of the Pacific lovely. Deep sea corals grow along the walls. Fish swim in the faint blue beams of light crossing the central dome. The minaret proudly rises towards the sun far away, occasionally confusing a passing shark.

Posted by Anders3 at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)

May 01, 2012

Blasts from the past

Underground angelThis weeks seem to be a re-run week on the Internet.

First I noticed Io9: Could a single pill save your marriage? - it is my old love enhancement paper reappearing. Of course, the title falls afoul of the rule that you shouldn't title something with a question that can be answered with "no". (With some luck an updated popular version of our paper will appear in New Scientist. (here it is))

Then Neatorama brought up Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem - my old paper in Annals of Improbable Research on angles dancing on pins.

Unlike the angel paper (and my green dwarf paper) the love paper is entirely serious.

Posted by Anders3 at 08:00 PM | Comments (0)