2013 September 30 Monday
Testosterone Increases Female Generosity

Testosterone can cause behavior that strengthens relationships in some circumstances.

Boosting testosterone can promote generosity, but only when there is no threat of competition, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings show that testosterone is implicated in behaviors that help to foster and maintain social relationships, indicating that its effects are more nuanced than previously thought.

Given that male leaders need to inspire trust and cooperation in those who follow them I do not find this result surprising. The result cuts against the conventional wisdom that maleness is the root of all evil. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

In a laboratory game testosterone decreased trust in women investors but increased generosity of female financial trustees.

As investors, participants who received testosterone were, on average, stingier — they placed less trust in the trustee and kept more of their initial money. Participants who received the placebo, on the other hand, were more trusting investors, choosing to invest about €3.20 more than those who received testosterone.

Just as the researchers predicted, testosterone seemed to promote antisocial behavior in response to a potential threat — in this case, a threat to financial resources.

But the opposite effect emerged when participants played the role of trustee. In this case, participants given testosterone chose to give more money back to the investor than participants who had been given a placebo. The results suggest that the trustees felt a responsibility to repay the trust that the investor ostensibly placed in them.

“While we expected the decrease in trust found in the first scenario, the increase in reciprocity was surprisingly strong and robust,” Boksem notes. “Testosterone had a more pronounced effect on prosocial behavior than on antisocial behavior.”

It would be interesting to measure behavior of both men and women in such games without added testosterone but blood testosterone measured and also various measures of masculinity measured. For example, does a lower 2D:4D hand digit ratio correlate with less investor trust and greater trustee generosity?

By Randall Parker 2013 September 30 09:23 PM 
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2013 September 29 Sunday
Oxytocin Makes Other Faces Look More Pleasant

Oxytocin speeds up facial recognition and makes us more prone to like a new face.

"Social bonding, mutual support, mate preference and parental investment," says Dr. Colonnello, "are all mediated by the oxytocinergic system, which is heavily reliant on a person's ability to appreciate that self and others are both different and valuable."

Participants in the study were shown videos of their own face morphing into an unfamiliar face and vice versa, and were instructed to press a button as soon as they felt that they saw more features belonging to the incoming face. Of the 44 participants, those given oxytocin before the task were significantly faster at identifying the new face, regardless of whether it was their own or that of a stranger.

The placebo-treated participants were also more likely to rate their own face as being more pleasant to look at than an unfamiliar face. The oxytocin-treated participants, on the other hand, rated both their own face and others faces as similarly pleasant.

Picture a future where everyone has been genetically engineered to like everyone else. Even older genetic designs could be fixed with gene therapy to the brain.

Other traits that the world AI (assuming it does not decide to wipe us out) will instruct its medical centers around the world to deliver as gene therapies whenever anyone needs medical treatment: greater conscientiousness, greater willingness to accept direction in work environments.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 29 09:55 PM 
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2013 September 28 Saturday
Tyler Cowen: Average Is Over

Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation, a book about the cause of slow economic growth and stagnant wages, has published his sequel: Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. The title refers to how the average wage earner is disappearing as society increasingly fractures into two separate major classes, neither of which is centered in the middle. I hear Yeats: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold".

For years I've been telling anyone one who'll listen that they better get higher level skills or else. So the theme of this book strikes a strong chord with me. Think you are firmly and safely planted in the middle of the middle class? Don't be complacent. You've got to move up or you most likely will move down (or perhaps you have already). Says Tyler:

This imbalance in technological growth will have some surprising implications. For instance, workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more peopl are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That's why average is over.

Don't feel too self assured just because you are getting paid to use a computer today. Lots of computer users who aren't doing intellectual heavy lifting are at risk of having their job eliminated. Look at people who work as cashiers. They essentially enter data into a computer. But increasingly people do their own store check-outs or they order online. Ditto bank tellers who compete with ATMs and online banking. Ask a software developer how hard it would be to automate your job out of existence. Then make career plans accordingly.

While Tyler envisions North American countries banding together to use robots in manufacturing I am skeptical of a major role in robotics for large political units that have large populations. It would make much more sense for capitalists and the most skilled computer workers to basically decamp to escape the taxing desires of the less skilled masses. The machine learning Ph.D.s and capital owners could set up shop in smaller countries such as Iceland where energy is cheap and the number of people that will want to lives as parasites of robotic factory output is much lower.

Outside of work I am struck by how much fewer people I interact with in order to carry out buying and getting services. I spend several times more money online than in person. Plus, I do not even use my own labor to make the computers do some of my bill paying and buying. My bills are mostly auto-paid. I even have standing orders for some dried fruits at a few month intervals. The grocery store is my biggest remaining contact with humans who work in retail. I look forward to the day when I can instruct my car to take itself in for service when it starts running rough or needs regular service.

One factor that slows down automation: lots of human environments are irregularly and complexly shaped. Consider homes for example. A plumber has to do some detective work to figure where a pipe might run and where it might be leaking or clogged. But imagine future humans built to a computer spec, their construction done by robots, and with lots of embedded sensors. These homes will be designed for easier automated repair and upgrade service.

Or look at food preparation. I expect we will see the spread of automated restaurants that serve foods whose prep is easiest to automate. Is pizza easier to automate than hamburgers or salads? Then we'll see pizza shops that serve more variations and other foods that are easiest to automate. People who need to save money will out of necessity choose services that require the least human involvement.

I am still reading Tyler's book and will do more posts about it as I progress.

Update: To anyone willing to state their current occupation in the comments I'll give you my guess on how long your job will last.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 28 11:23 PM 
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Use Genetic Engineering To Save Endangered Species?

Carl Zimmer takes a look at a discussion among conservation biologists about whether to transfer adaptive genes into endangered species.

The scientists call wildlife genetic engineering “facilitated adaptation.” While they’re ready to give it a name, they don’t want to launch into it without a lot of consideration, however. They want to make sure facilitated adaptation doesn’t cause harm to species that are already on the brink of extinction. Genes often carry out more than one function, and so even if an imported gene has one beneficial effect, it might have others that are dangerous.

This isn't some futuristic idea. The American chestnut is getting saved from an invasive blight by transfering a protective gene from another species. A similar effort is being made to save orange trees in Florida. Also, as Carl points out, the panthers in Florida became so few in number and inbred that Texas panthers were brought in to increase their genetic diversity.

Idaho State University prof Michael Thomas and co-authors think we should start seriously discussing genetic engineering of endangered species because the techniques used will become more powerful.

Thomas, in the ISU Department of Biological Sciences, and coauthors note that 15 to 40 percent of animal species are predicted to become extinct by 2050. In a Comment piece "Gene Tweaking for Conservation" appearing in Nature, those authors say that it is just a matter of time before conservationists apply the genetic engineering approach to safeguard biodiversity because the techniques used to transfer genetic material are becoming more sophisticated.

Thomas worries that less effort will be put into other measures aimed at saving species if genetic engineering is used. But I think the forces wrecking habitats (e.g. population growth, industrialization) are unstoppable and even with genetic engineering we will only be able to make small impacts on species extinctions. When whole habitats are wiped out a species can end up with no place left to live.

"Facilitated adaptation might be less logistically challenging than moving entire populations, and less fraught with ecological and socio-economic complications — relocation could introduce harmful invasive species, for example, or unleash outbreaks of disease.”

Population movement can only work if a suitable destination exists. For most endangered species that is not the case.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 28 12:06 PM 
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2013 September 21 Saturday
1.75 Billion Years Left For Life On Earth?

Some scientists at the University of East Anglia think the expanding Sun will make Earth unlivable within 1.75 billion years or maybe 3.25 billion years.

Andrew Rushby, one of those scientists, suggests a move to Mars. But there''s a better idea: Make Earth's orbit gradually get bigger. Don Korycansky, Gregory Laughlin, and Fred Adams proposed using 1 million passes of an asteroid Near Earth to tug on its orbit and by the planet another 5 billion years. It just so happens Earth's orbit around the sun is already increasing.

A few billion years ought to be enough time to turn Mars into an interplanetary ship that can hold a large civilization inside of it. Can we move Mars to a new solar system? How about Earth?

By Randall Parker 2013 September 21 06:46 PM 
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Suppose Sea Levels Rise Substantially

Cities could be threatened by rising sea levels if lots of ice melts.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Make like the Netherlands. Did you know that 26% of the Netherlands lies below sea level? The Dutch know how to hold back water.

Another idea: a wealthy city could build a very thick dike out of long-lasting materials out into a bay. Then it could dump all its compostable trash into the walled off area. As the trash turned into soil the city would build up a new section that could even be higher than the existing city. Some of its soil could be removed and spread in city park areas to raise their altitude. The soil could also be used as surface material before putting to down new road surfaces as a way to raise up the surface of the city.

Does it make sense for really expensive cities (think Manhattan or Tokyo or Hong Kong) to expand their surface areas into adjacent bays?

If you are an upper class person living in an upper class city with very high real estate prices you shouldn't have to worry. The cost of raising up the ground a few feet or meters ought to be affordable. Whether some area is worth saving depends on the price of real estate and the cost of protecting the real estate.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 21 05:54 PM 
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2013 September 12 Thursday
Home Solar Installations Rising Sharply

In states with high electric power costs many homebuilders now offer solar options on new construction and sales are booming.

At least six of 10 largest U.S. homebuilders led by KB Home are including the photovoltaic devices in new construction, according to supplier SunPower Corp. (SPWR) Two California towns are mandating installations, and demand for the systems that generate electricity at home will jump 56 percent nationwide this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Costs for solar are about 20% lower when part of original housing construction. Plunging costs for solar cells have helped create the conditions for the new home solar power boom.

Prices tumbled because of excess supply. The cost of a solar cell is about 41 U.S. cents a watt today, down from $1.46 in 2010 and about $3 in 2004 when Germany started offering its incentives, according to BNEF data.

Utilities have to raise prices their other customers to pay for the infrastructural costs that solar home owners cease to pay for in their electric bills. Utilities are going to face much larger fluctuations in demand. The utilities need dynamic pricing to adjust to these changing market conditions.

Large scale adoption of electric cars would make the task of managing changes in solar panel output much easier. Cars could get charged mostly when the sun is shining. But we still several years away from EV batteries cheap enough to enable a large fraction of the populace to travel on electric power.

One problem with the rising wave of solar power on homes and commercial buildings: Firefighters think the electric power on solar panels makes firefighting too dangerous on roofs during the daytime. What's needed: A way to quickly and easily drape dark covers over solar panels.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 12 09:10 PM 
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2013 September 09 Monday
Chocolate Causes Weight Gain?

Not looking good for chocolate.

Habitual chocolate intake was recently found to be associated with lower body weight in three cross-sectional epidemiological studies. Our objective was to assess whether these cross-sectional results hold up in a more rigorous prospective analysis.


Our prospective analysis found that a chocolate habit was associated with long-term weight gain, in a dose-response manner. Our cross-sectional finding that chocolate intake was associated with lower body weight did not apply to participants without preexisting serious illness.

The more chocolate the larger the long term weight gain.

Our main finding is that in the ARIC cohort more frequent consumption of chocolate was significantly associated with long-term greater weight gain. This association followed a dose-response-like pattern, with the greatest weight gain seen in participants with the highest frequency of chocolate intake. For instance, compared to participants who ate a chocolate serving less often than monthly, those who ate it 1–4 times a month and at least weekly experienced an increase in BMI (kg/m2) of 0.26 (95% CI: 0.08, 0.44) and 0.39 (0.23, 0.55), respectively, during the six-year study period. For participants of average height (1.68 m) these BMI increases are equivalent to a body weight gain (kg) of 0.73 (95% CI: 0.23, 1.24) and 1.10 (0.65, 1.58), respectively.

Chocolate might decrease the feeling of satiety.

Our finding of a direct association between chocolate intake and weight gain is consonant with the results of a recent randomized-trial that a higher dose of chocolate led to a larger weight gain over a period of three months [16]. In addition to the high caloric density of chocolate, our results could also be partly due to decreased satiety induced by the regular intake of chocolate, as observed in a recent randomized controlled trial [17].

I find that cheese seems to increase my feeling of satiety. What about you?

By Randall Parker 2013 September 09 08:50 PM 
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2013 September 06 Friday
Stung: Jellyfish Taking Over Many Ocean Regions

The New York Review of Books has a great review of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Jellyfish are getting moved around the world by ship ballast and causing huge damage to fisheries. We are also doing damage to their competitors. Read the whole thing.

From the Arctic to the equator and on to the Antarctic, jellyfish plagues (or blooms, as they’re technically known) are on the increase. Even sober scientists are now talking of the jellification of the oceans. And the term is more than a mere turn of phrase. Off southern Africa, jellyfish have become so abundant that they have formed a sort of curtain of death, “a stingy-slimy killing field,” as Gershwin puts it, that covers over 30,000 square miles. The curtain is formed of jelly extruded by the creatures, and it includes stinging cells. The region once supported a fabulously rich fishery yielding a million tons annually of fish, mainly anchovies. In 2006 the total fish biomass was estimated at just 3.9 million tons, while the jellyfish biomass was 13 million tons.

Humans are to blame in a variety of other ways as well. Overfishing of jellyfish competitors such as anchovies is helping the jellyfish wipe out other kinds of fish. We also cause oxygen depletion of water via fertilizer run-off. Jellyfish can out-compete other fish in low oxygen areas. The review outlines additional ways that humans are accidentally giving advantages to jellyfish.

Gershwin believes jellyfish are going to do catastrophic damage to the other species in the oceans. Scary.

Paul Dayton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography on Stung:

“Read this book! You know that the oceans are in trouble, but this is the most comprehensive and clear explanation of why. Stung! is more than just a book about jellyfish; it is undoubtedly one of the best books detailing the stresses on our ocean ecosystems. It is a much needed and spectacular achievement.”

Dead zones are growing in number and size.

there are now 405 identified dead zones worldwide, up from 49 in the 1960s

Here is one I hadn't thought about before: the corn ethanol mandate (a subsidy for farmers masquerading as an environmental benefit) makes the very large Gulf of Mexico dead zone even bigger.

We need fish and healthy oceans. We should cut way back on allowed fertilizer run-off by shifting to different techniques to deliver fertilizer. We should also build marshes and other buffer zones between the farms and rivers.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 06 10:00 PM 
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Brief Episodes Of Intense Exercise Beneficial

You do not need to commit to long work-out periods to get a health benefit.

To win the war against weight gain, it turns out that every skirmish matters – as long as the physical activity puts your heart and lungs to work.

In a new study published today in the American Journal of Health Promotion, University of Utah researchers found that even brief episodes of physical activity that exceed a certain level of intensity can have as positive an effect on weight as does the current recommendation of 10 or more minutes at a time.

"What we learned is that for preventing weight gain, the intensity of the activity matters more than duration," says Jessie X. Fan, professor of family and consumer studies at the U. "This new understanding is important because fewer than 5 percent of American adults today achieve the recommended level of physical activity in a week according to the current physical activity guidelines. Knowing that even short bouts of 'brisk' activity can add up to a positive effect is an encouraging message for promoting better health."

What would help: put heavy duty work-out machines in small rooms in work places. Someone could go for just 2 or 3 minutes and do something highly aerobic and also intense for the muscles.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 06 11:41 AM 
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Higgs Boson To Destroy Universe Before Boltzmann Brains Invade

One less thing to worry about: We will avoid a future where Boltzmann brains pop into existence all over the universe. Though the evidence is not yet definitive. So do not relax just yet.

How many of you were aware of Boltzmann brain threat?

A Boltzmann brain is a hypothesized self-aware entity which arises due to random fluctuations out of a state of chaos.

Maybe we are all Boltzmann brains who just think we are the product of natural selection.

By Randall Parker 2013 September 06 10:54 AM 
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