4.22.2008

Quote: Blog comments

Lawrence Lessig has been getting some trolls over at his blog and asked his readers for advice on a comment policy (basically, what the threshold should be for deleting inappropriate comments). Here's what I took to be the most insightful suggestion:
Anon:

You should delete all comments, including those which attack you and your work, which are expressed in a fashion which a civil adult would not use when speaking face-to-face with another adult. Off-topic comments also get launched. That is, being on-topic is necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain. Being civil is also necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain.

Larry, there's an adage which applies to hiring, that says: A-quality people hire A-quality people. B-quality people hire C-quality people. So you need to only make A hires, or your business is headed downhill.

In commenting, I've observed that A-quality comments attract A-quality comments. B-quality comments attract C-quality comments.

I'm an *old hand* at the internet discussion forum game, though I don't care to list my name here. Your blog is already headed downhill as far as comments are concerned. If you want to maintain comment quality, you must prune rather ruthlessly. Now, nothing terrible will happen if you don't. Your comment section won't be any good, but then most comment sections aren't, so yours won't stand out. I don't know that you actually want the hassle of maintaining a good comment section, it's certainly harder than maintaining a bad one. But I'm telling you how, if you want to: if you want to maintain an actual GOOD comment section, one that literally *attracts* A-level commenters, you need to prune ruthlessly.

I suspect the same notion holds true for most internet communities, wikis inclusive, once they reach a certain popularity threshold.

(Luckily, Modern Dragons does not yet suffer from such pitfalls of runaway popularity!)

4.20.2008

John Wheeler

John A. Wheeler, the great physicist who coined the term 'black hole,' a primary architect of modern physics, and the scientist for whom the fictional "Wheeler Laboratory is named in 'A Beautiful Mind', died last week. Many are calling this an end of an era; as Max Tegmark of MIT says, "For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing." There's a great write-up in the Times about his life and career.

I'm no authority on this stuff, but as an enthusiast reading about the history of physics, I was always impressed with Wheeler's propensity toward clever speculation. Here's an excerpt from Richard Feynman's 1965 Nobel Lecture where he talks about one of his mentor's crazy ideas- the idea remains unproven, but it provided the inspiration for modern Quantum Electrodynamics:
As a by-product of this same view, I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!" And, then he explained on the telephone, "suppose that the world lines which we were ordinarily considering before in time and space - instead of only going up in time were a tremendous knot, and then, when we cut through the knot, by the plane corresponding to a fixed time, we would see many, many world lines and that would represent many electrons, except for one thing. If in one section this is an ordinary electron world line, in the section in which it reversed itself and is coming back from the future we have the wrong sign to the proper time - to the proper four velocities - and that's equivalent to changing the sign of the charge, and, therefore, that part of a path would act like a positron." "But, Professor", I said, "there aren't as many positrons as electrons." "Well, maybe they are hidden in the protons or something", he said. I did not take the idea that all the electrons were the same one from him as seriously as I took the observation that positrons could simply be represented as electrons going from the future to the past in a back section of their world lines. That, I stole!
And thus the Feynman Electron Diagram was born.

Still, I have to think it'd be a neat application of Occam's Razor if Wheeler is eventually proven right that the fabric of reality is woven by just one particle, getting knocked forward and backward in time by its past and future selves.

4.12.2008

The dark and murky effects of HFCS

I like America a lot. But lately I've been wondering, "what's going on here?"

The latest poll numbers are in, and I'm clearly not alone. The AP is now reporting that 81% of Americans think we're on the wrong track. One need not look far for proximate reasons: a strange and fragile economy, huge credit card debts, the behavior of our elected officials, our election of said officials, the sad, hollow state of our public discourse, voter apathy, the general state of our media, and so forth. There are still plenty of things going right in America, but compared to our particularly exemplary history of competence, principles, and vibrant public life, something has clearly changed.

As Bob Herbert of the Times opines in today's column, Losing Our Will,
This is the pathetic state of affairs in the U.S. as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Whatever happened to the dynamic country that flexed its muscles after World War II and gave us the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations (in a quest for peace, not war), the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the finest higher education system the world has known, and a standard of living that was the envy of all?

This dysfunction is clearly a matter of willpower, not capacity. So what's happening and what can we do about it?

Many (such as Herbert) simply blame President Bush. He's certainly made a dog's breakfast out of anything he's touched, but I tend to see him as more of a latecoming figurehead to this national dysfunction that's been building for quite some time.

Many would say this is a question without an answer: that when you talk about a culture getting screwed up, the dysfunction is so complex and emergent that it defies words. Similarly, a group of researchers have recently asserted that "once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile" and devotes more and more of its output to merely supporting its complexity, and as time goes on will tend to either implode or crumble in result to outside threats (they describe Rome's downfall as such[1]). I think this is worth noting, but the 'it just happens' explanation rings rather hollow and unsatisfying.

Many blame the media; secular atheists; religious fundamentalists; monied interests; particular cultural quirks of the baby boomers; the winner's curse; various academic fads and corrosive memes; various liberal movements; various conservative movements; corporations; Canadians. There's likely some truth in some of these, but our culture has dealt with worse in the past and not become dysfunctional.

Near to my heart, we have the Change Congress movement and its description of Washington as having developed an economy of influence systematically biased toward monied interests. I think this is accurate, that it contributes to the problem I describe, and that CC has some elegant solutions.

But I would suggest there's an embarrassingly simple yet profoundly corrosive factor underlying a non-trivial amount of America's dysfunction: we eat too much high-fructose corn syrup.

This connection is obscure but important. To back up a bit:

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become the sweetener of choice for processed foods and sweetened drinks. It's cheap, sweet, and flexible (i.e., easily chemically modified for more or less sweetness and has a longer shelf-life than sugar). In the past 40 years America has had the unmatched distinction of going from eating 0 to ~70lbs of the stuff per capita annually. Lately it's appearing this has been a big mistake: the majority of the science coming in is implicating HFCS in the drastic jumps in obesity and type II diabetes of the past 40 years[2]. A common theory (though not the only one available) suggests that because HFCS can't be broken down in the way other sugars are, it taxes these alternate pathways, puts stress on the body's ability to pump out insulin, and most importantly and verifiably, tends to cause insulin resistance and general problems in regulating glucose levels[3][4]. It's likely that this looms larger for younger people with still-developing physiologies, and like many health risks, the effects of HFCS are statistical and are often felt more at the aggregate level than the personal.

This is probably old news to many readers.

What I think is not obvious and is worth pointing out is how tightly coupled glucose and cognition are, and specifically, how tightly coupled glucose regulation and willpower/self-control are.

We know that glucose is the fuel of thought: our brains use up the glucose in our bloodstream as it functions. But recent results from Gailliot and Baumeister[5] highlight several things about the brain's 'glucose economy'- among them are:
  • Thinking through complex problems, keeping focused, and resisting temptation consume a relatively large amount of brain glucose. Subconscious, 'easy', and habitual actions consume a relatively small amount.
  • We are less able to resist temptation when we have recently resisted temptation (e.g., faced with multiple temptations, our brain runs low on glucose and has a harder time going against the grain). All tasks involving self-control seem to follow the same pattern and draw from the same reservoir, be they resisting temptation, suppressing emotion, keeping focused, and so on.
  • Once depleted, drinking Kool-aid sweetened with sugar replenishes this reservoir of willpower, bringing experimental metrics of self-control up to their original levels, while drinking Kool-aid sweetened with Splenda (a sweetener that does not contain or metabolize into glucose) does not[6].
  • People vary significantly in their glucose tolerance (a measure of how accurately and quickly their bodies can normalize blood sugar), and scoring low on this test is highly predictive of tendencies toward impulsive and aggressive behavior, attention deficits, moodiness, addiction, and a general lack of self-control. In effect, their bodies' clumsiness at regulating blood glucose levels lead to having smaller reservoirs of willpower.

More commentary (with pretty graphs) at Cognitive Daily. It's a neat experiment and a fascinating finding.

In essence, willpower is a finite quantity and it's centrally (though not exclusively) linked to the presence of and ability to regulate glucose.


So on one hand, it's established that HFCS tends to corrode our bodies' ability to regulate our glucose levels. On the other, it's becoming clear that the single most important factor in willpower is having a well-functioning glucose regulation system. It's a minimal jump to put these hands together and assert that by consuming high-fructose corn syrup, we're not just making ourselves fat and diabetic, but we're also actively corroding our physiological basis for willpower and self-control.

I'm not saying this is the root cause of everything that's wrong in America, but I am saying that, aggregated over 300 million people, it'd be odd if it hasn't been a contributing factor to this weirdly lazy, short-sighted, apathetic, debt-ridden state parts of the country are in. Speaking from both a humanistic and a cost-benefit perspective, I think it makes a truly excruciating amount of sense to prioritize more direct study of this hypothesized connection, to stop subsidizing HFCS through corn subsidies and sugar import duties, and to figure out how to prevent such situations from happening in the future.


Footnotes:

[1] Another theory on Rome's downfall is that the common and semi-indiscriminate usage of lead for plumbing, utensils, medicine, cooking ingredients, and so on caused mild brain damage to enough youngsters that Rome could no longer support itself.

[2] Bray, George A; Samara Joy Nielsen and Barry M Popkin (April 2004). "Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79(4):537-543.

[3] Faeh, David; Kaori Minehira, Jean-Marc Schwarz, Raj Periasamy, Seongsoo Park and Luc Tappy (July 2005). "Effect of fructose overfeeding and fish oil administration on hepatic de novo lipogenesis and insulin sensitivity in healthy men." Diabetes. 54(7):1907-13.

[4] Elliott, Sharon S; Nancy L Keim, Judith S Stern, Karen Teff and Peter J Havel (November 2002). "Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 76(5):911-922.

[5] Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F. (2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 303-327. DOI: 10.1177/1088868307303030

(If you like science, go read it-- it's genuinely interesting. http://psr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/11/4/303 )

[6] Though this particular experiment shows a link between glucose intake and willpower, the bigger picture is that it's more precisely a link between the body's ability to regulate the amount of glucose in the brain and willpower. Presumably too much sugar would disrupt this regulation just as much as too little. As the authors state,
This does not entail a linear relationship between glucose and self-control, such that a person who downs a large bag of candy will become a paragon of self-discipline for the next few hours.
Indeed.


Notes:

It's unclear how much of HFCS's reported contribution to insulin resistance is specific to HFCS and to fructose, and how much of it is a result of overingestion of sugar in general. Still, one of the criticisms of HFCS is that, because it doesn't trip the body's normal satiation response, people tend to eat or drink more of something if it's sweetened with HFCS vs. a more conventional sweetener. Fructose also has a unique metabolic footprint in that it's broken down by the liver, not absorbed through the intestine. And it's also possible that some of HFCS's observed health risks are associated less with its fructose content and more with the biochemistry of how it's commonly manufactured. The correlation between ingesting HFCS and developing a malfunction in regulating blood glucose is getting clearer and clearer, but the causal mechanism is still guesswork.

If I had to identify a smoking gun, however, it would be the unbalancing influence a high-HFCS diet likely has on the ecology of our gut flora, which is in turn tightly linked to our health. There's every reason from microbiology to believe high vs. low fructose diets would lead to different gut ecologies, and that even modest differences in gut flora could have huge physiological effects, but like most phenomena involving gut flora the science is still out.
ResearchBlogging.org

Update, 3/08/09: Of note, the journal Environmental Health has published an (industry-disputed) study on the prevelence of mercury in high-fructose corn syrup. The takeaway seems to be twofold: one, that a significant amount of HFCS may contain mercury due to particulars in the manufacturing process. And two, that HFCS is not 'pure' by any means: it takes a cocktail of reagents, enzymes, and chemicals to refine corn syrup into HFCS, and at least some of this cocktail is carried over into the final product.
Washington Post synopsis.

Update, 3/14/10: A reader points me toward a NYT article entitled Blood Sugar Control Linked to Memory Decline, Study Says.

Update, 8/18/10: Results from forensic anthropology indicate that "people in the samurai class of Edo period Japan were poisoning their children with lead" via their lead-based makeup (specifically empaku). Hawks notes that
I think it's interesting to find these cases where technology, adopted first by the elites, ends up biting them with unanticipated side effects. Usually they don't even know what hit them.
Update, 4/14/11: There's a longform piece in the NYT, "Is Sugar Toxic?", that explores the concept that sugar isn't just empty calories, but is actively toxic to the body. It implicates sugar in many common ills but doesn't single out HFCS as worse than e.g., table sugar. The choice quote:
Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories — and biochemists have made the same case previously, though not so publicly. It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.
The phrase Lustig uses when he describes this concept is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.” This means we can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different.
The fructose component of sugar and H.F.C.S. is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form — soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them, say, in an apple (or several apples, to get what researchers would call the equivalent dose of sugar). The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.
In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.
If what happens in laboratory rodents also happens in humans, and if we are eating enough sugar to make it happen, then we are in trouble.

4.09.2008

New York: 2108

The New York Times recently published a set of speculations on what the lives of New Yorkers will be like in the year 2108. Among those asked were professors and Nobel Laureates, and discussion topics ranged from biotechnology to global warming. All very interesting, but here's my favorite:

KATE KAPLAN

Seventh grader, School of the Future, a New York City public school near Gramercy Park

The city will be all skyscrapers, no more town houses and brownstones. Buildings will connect to each other through an aboveground tunnel system. You’ll no longer have to worry about finding a bathroom; you’ll just carry a small chip with you that can expand into a private portable toilet.

Central Park will be preserved in a bubble to protect it from the adverse effects of global warming. Everything will be shiny and nice and big. The subway cars and stations will have TVs in them. The Empire State Building will no longer be New York’s largest building; it will probably be replaced by a giant Starbucks. Madame Tussaud’s wax figures will have robotic capabilities.

Finally, instead of antidepressants, doctors will make people happy by implanting chips in their heads with comedy routines and programs, like my favorite, "The Colbert Report."

Well played, Miss Kaplan.

4.02.2008

Transhumanism essay: part two

Part 1: The Transhumanism Movement.
Part 2: Society is more delicate than transhumanists think.

This short essay doesn't delve into my personal ethics as applied to enhancement-- which, I must admit, I don't have figured out yet. And I'm assuming, for the sake of this essay, that a technological 'Singularity' is a feasible outcome of our current technological trajectory, or at least that significant augmentative technologies will become available in the not-too-distant future. This is a purely practical critique of full-speed-head-and-damn-the-torpedoes Transhumanism.


Transhumanism is about using technology to transcend one's humanity and becoming qualitatively more[1] than what one was born. There are, of course, social downsides to allowing people to do this.

The Equality Objection to Transhumanism
: breaking the bonds of common humanity is a serious thing.



First, let's talk about equality. In the Western public sphere, we tend to treat everyone (save children and mental patients) as exactly identical. Now, the sharp-eyed among you will notice this often doesn't make a lot of sense-- but the current excesses and irrationality involved in treating everyone as exactly identical in the public sphere are much less harmful than the excesses and necessary oversimplifications involved in treating everyone differently with respect to the the perceived value of their capabilities and potentials. More than just as a matter of efficiency or polite fiction, there’s real, generative value in the philosophy of equality, even if it doesn't completely fit reality at the seams[2]. And I think this broad-sense every-human-is-equal liberalism we’ve built into our culture is really the only buffer we have against really nasty, heartless states of affairs that could arise from the misuse of cognitive enhancement. But I suspect that the very presence of cognitive enhancement may very well erode its own mitigating buffer.

If we look inward, it’s not a large stretch to say we’re a culture worth saving and amplifying in large part because of the liberalism and philosophy of equal worth we’ve deliberately nurtured and woven into our collective self-identity. Insofar as cognitive enhancement increases the cognitive divides within society[3], people will notice and it’ll put an unavoidable culture-wide strain on this philosophical outlook. We’ve spent hundreds- perhaps thousands- of years building, affirming, and lauding our bonds of common humanity and equality, and it’s now Western society’s nominal organizing principle and the glue that holds us together. Technology that threatens to rip this integral part of our social fabric apart is not progress. Or if it is, it must pay (preferably in advance) for the damage it will cause.

Transhumanists see themselves as the “good guys” (and gals… though mostly guys). Given all the good things these technologies can do, I understand why. But I’m not quite ready to grant unconditional “good guy” status as I think there are several stands of naivety that often surface in transhumanist culture, and true 'good guys' can't be naive. In this context, I think transhumanists need to acknowledge 1. the value of our carefully and painstakingly created framework of equality, 2. that transhumanism does indeed violate it, and 3. that this violation of our current social contract is an extremely serious, dangerous thing. And it’s asking a lot, but if transhumanists are going to be at the forefront of dismantling the basis for this social philosophy, I'd prefer that they offer an alternative that people can buy into that has a more nuanced understanding of human identity and human worth in this upcoming age of increasing divides. Ideally something that provides on average as much social cohesion, philosophical coherence, and spiritual nourishment as this philosophy of equality.[4] Because if we mortgage the social bonds of the present in service of the future, that future is likely to fall apart.

I think transhumanists (and people in general) tend to think of society as a somewhat dysfunctional but intrinsically resilient entity. That, for all its warts, modern society has a solid foundation we can depend on while bootstrapping ourselves into a better mode of existence. But I think when transhumanists start to tinker with human nature, we can no longer take this for granted. After all, if you’re undermining society’s organizing principle, even with the best intentions you may break important things and deeply anger many, many people. And can you blame them? For all you’re offering, you’re also dismantling the basis for their belief and identity systems, and at least apparently pushing a system that runs counter to many of our crusading social heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

I understand the promise of transhumanism: literally, to eliminate all suffering. This is not to be minimized. But I think it’s an open question whether moving to a transhuman society will break society in the process.

Of course, it's unfair to put all of this on the shoulders of transhumanism. The debate of whether we should allow these technologies into society is a probably hollow one: they have so many physical and philosophical beachheads already, and we are such an open, self-directed society that lives and breathes the ideas of potential and progress, that of course they’ll become part of society. Similarly transhumanism, in its better and more public corners, is a movement that very sincerely means well, and it's less causing the development of these transformative technologies so much as being a cheerleader for their positive uses. And asking the more realistic question of, given that this will happen, how do we make this happen in the best possible way?

But my advice to transhumanists is, do understand that society is a much more fragile thing than you probably realize, and that large parts of society may not greet you as saviors.

[1] Arguable, of course. Francis Fukuyama has suggested that enhancement technologies would cause us to "no longer have the characteristics that give us human dignity."

[2] This normative force for equality within society does have its ugly side, e.g., slowing the bright kids down for "No Child Left Behind".

[3] I think it's fairly clear that transhumanist technologies will increase the divides within society and corrode our culture of equality: not only will there likely be uneven access to these technologies, and uneven knowledge about them, but there's a strong status quo bias in the human psyche. These technologies will be new, different, and sometimes very strange. A divide is a divide- and causes problems- regardless of whether it happens by chance or by choice.

[4] The philosophy of transhumanism, though relatively developed and fleshed out, is not the presumptive solution here because it simply hasn't proven acceptable to the general public. Maybe version 2.0, 3.0, or 4.0 will be the one that finally gains traction and appeals to more than a small subset of the population. But- no offense meant to transhumanists- it's clearly not there yet.