Saturday, August 27, 2016

This limitation in oxytocin's radius of trust was discovered only recently

From A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade. Page 51.
In the brain, oxytocin has a range of subtle effects that are only beginning to be explored. In general, it seems that oxytocin has been co-opted in the course of evolution to play a central role in social cohesion. It's a hormone of affiliation. It dampens down the distrust usually felt toward strangers and promotes feelings of solidarity. "It increases men's trust, generosity, and willingness to cooperate," say the authors of a recent review. (The same is doubtless true of women too but most such experiments are performed only in men because of the risk that oxytocin might make a woman miscarry if she were unknowingly pregnant.)

The trust promoted by oxytocin is not of the brotherhood of man variety - it's strictly local. Oxytocin engenders trust towards members of the in-group, together with feelings of defensiveness toward outsiders. This limitation in oxytocin's radius of trust was discovered only recently by Carsten De Dreu, a Dutch psychologist who doubted the conventional wisdom that oxytocin simply promoted general feelings of trust. Any individual who blindly trusts everyone is not going to prosper in the struggle for survival, De Dreu supposed, and his genes would be rapidly eliminated; hence it seemed much more likely that oxytocin promoted trust only in certain contexts.

De Dreu showed in several ingenious experiments that this is indeed the case. In one, the young Dutch men who were his subjects were presented with standard moral dilemmas, such as whether to save five people in the path of a train for the loss of one life, that of a bystander who could be thrown onto the tracks to stop the train. The people to be saved were all Dutch but the person to be killed was sometimes given a Dutch first name, like Pieter, and sometimes a German or Muslim name, like Helmut or Muhammad (opinion polls show that neither is a favorite nationality among the Dutch.)

When the subjects had taken a sniff of oxytocin, they were much more inclined to sacrifice the Helmuts and the Muhammads, De Dreu found, showing the dark side of oxytocin in making people more willing to punish outsiders. Oxytocin does not seem to promote positive aggression toward outsiders, he finds, but rather it heightens the willingness to defend the in-group.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Social intelligence develops in children before their general cognitive skills

From A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade. Page 48.
Human children, on the other hand, are inherently cooperative. From the earliest ages, they desire to help others, to share information and to participate in pursuing common goals. The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has studied this cooperativeness in a series of experiments with very young children. He finds that if infants aged 18 months see an unrelated adult with hands full trying to open a door, almost all will immediately try to help. If the adult pretends to have lost an object, children from as young as 12 months will helpfully point out where it is.

There are several reasons to believe that the urges to help, inform and share are "naturally emerging" in young children, Tomasello writes, meaning that they are innate, not taught. One is that these instincts appear at a very young age before most parents have started to train their children to behave socially. Another is that the helping behaviors are not enhanced if the children are rewarded.

A third reason is that social intelligence develops in children before their general cognitive skills, at least when compared with apes. Tomasello gave human and chimp children a battery of tests related to understanding the physical and social worlds. The human children, aged 2.5 years, did no better than the chimps on the physical world tests but were considerably better at understanding the social world.

The essence of what children's minds have and chimps' don't is what Tomasello calls shared intentionality. Part of this ability is that they can infer what others know or are thinking, a skill called theory of mind. But beyond that, even very young children want to be part of a shared purpose. They actively seek to be part of a "we" a group that has pooled its talents and intends to work toward a shared goal.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Only 135 vocabulary items are needed to account for half the Brown Corpus

From Wikipedia:
Zipf's law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.: the rank-frequency distribution is an inverse relation. For example, in the Brown Corpus of American English text, the word "the" is the most frequently occurring word, and by itself accounts for nearly 7% of all word occurrences (69,971 out of slightly over 1 million). True to Zipf's Law, the second-place word "of" accounts for slightly over 3.5% of words (36,411 occurrences), followed by "and" (28,852). Only 135 vocabulary items are needed to account for half the Brown Corpus.[4]

The same relationship occurs in many other rankings unrelated to language, such as the population ranks of cities in various countries, corporation sizes, income rankings, ranks of number of people watching the same TV channel,[5] and so on. The appearance of the distribution in rankings of cities by population was first noticed by Felix Auerbach in 1913.

It bruises a host of academic shibboleths

From A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade. In the preface to the paperback edition, Wade makes a fairly forceful argument against his opponents who cast their criticisms in terms of ideology.
A book should speak for itself. But because A Troublesome Inheritance has provoked an unusual deluge of assaults since its publication in May 2014, it may help readers who wonder what all the commotion is about to restate the book's aim and address some of the criticisms.

The occasion for the book is the voluminous new information about recent human evolution that is emerging from the genome. An ever more detailed portrait is developing of the differentiation of the modern human population since it dispersed from its ancestral Africa homeland some 50,000 years ago. This would be a purely scientific story, except that race, which is the results of this differentiation, is a subject of much political controversy.

History occurs within the framework of human evolution. The two subjects are always treated separately, as if human evolution had sputtered to a halt some decent interval before history began. But evolution cannot stop. There is no evidence that this convenient hiatus ever occurred. The new findings from the genome make ever clearer that evolution and history are intertwined, perhaps not intimately but enough to allow genetics at least some small role in the shaping of today's world.

The purpose of A Troublesome Inheritance is to explore this novel territory and, incidentally to show how evolutionary differences between human populations can be described without providing the slightest support for racism, the view that there is a hierarchy of races with some superior to others. Differences between populations undoubtedly exist but they are quite subtle. Far from being distinct, races differ merely in the quality known to geneticists as relative allele frequency. These differences exist because, once spread across the globe, the various human populations have necessarily taken different evolutionary paths.

This might seem an unexceptional view, but it bruises a host of academic shibboleths. Many people, including social scientists and much of the academic left, have long made what seems to me an unfortunate choice, that of basing their opposition to racism not on principle but on the claim that race is a social construct, not a biological reality. They are thus furiously opposed, on political grounds, to any discussion of the biological basis of race. Their ideals are honorable, their tactics less so.

By referring to anyone who explores the biological basis of race as a "scientific racist," and thus in essence demonizing them as racists, the academic left has managed to suppress almost all discussion of human differentiation. Most researchers shy away from the subject rather than risk being smeared with insinuations of racism and putting their careers and funding in jeopardy.

Critics of this book have in general ignored its central arguments and tried instead to discredit it indirectly. One tactic has been to imply that the book is racist by attributing to it assertions it does not make. In fact, far from being racist, the book is an attempt to explore how human variation can be understood from an explicitly non-racist perspective. With increasing floods of data from the genome, this is a task that has to be tackled sooner or later. How well I have succeeded in addressing it is for the reader to assess.

Another tactic has been to assert, without evidence, that the book is full of errors and misrepresentations. Such attacks, which have included a letter signed by a large number of academic geneticists, do not cite specific instances of either fault; the reader is expected to accept the critics' mere say-so as sufficient evidence. Such criticisms are politically motivated and, in my view, without merit. To the best of my belief, the book has no major errors and is as accurate as is possible for any description of a fast moving scientific field.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Plausible but not probable

I recently finished reading A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade which was published in 2014. Nicholas Wade was a longtime science journalist who authored numerous books as well as reporting on science for the New York Times.

A Troublesome Inheritance was well received in many circles (Scientific American, the Wall Street Journal, and E.O. Wilson for example) but was reviled by the chattering classes for broaching and discussing Race, IQ, and Evolution.

Wade has effectively disappeared from the scene for the time being and it occurred to me that I ought to order his book as SJWs seemed to be effective at keeping it out of bookstores. In part, I wanted to see whether there was substance to the critics.

By-and-large, no. His speculation is undoubtedly controversial. His concluding paragraph is probably as waspish as he gets.
Knowledge is usually considered a better basis for policy than ignorance. This book has been an attempt, undoubtedly imperfect, to dispel the fear of racism that overhangs discussion of human group differences and to begin to explore the far-reaching implications of the discovery that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional.
The core of his argument are those last eight words: "human evolution has been recent, copious and regional." Based on our ever deepening understanding of genetics, DNA and evolution, much that was speculated has been refuted and other speculations affirmed. Evolution did not stop when we came out of Africa and there have been some fairly recent (within the past seven thousand years) changes in different groups (blue eyes among Europeans as well as lactose tolerance for example). We now know that some behaviors have at least a partial basis in genetics. We know that some societal structures are highly correlated with some behaviors.

From these reasonably well-established facts, Wade speculates that some stable cultures might have a greater basis in genetics than we have appreciated in the past. This seems to be the basis for the cries of racism which appear to me to be unfounded. He makes a plausible argument and further knowledge might tip the argument in his direction. In the meantime, however, I think his argument might be plausible and even possible but is, to my mind, improbable. There seem too many potentially confounding factors between evolutionary pressure on behavioral attributes and the resulting cultural attributes.

That said, the book is chock-a-block full of interesting information which I will excerpt over the next few days.

. . . but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

Walden, and On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.

Eternal summer gilds them yet

The Isles of Greece
by George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron

THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero's harp, the lover's lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse:
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires' 'Islands of the Blest.

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set, where were they?

And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?

'Tis something in the dearth of fame,
Though link'd among a fetter'd race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear.

Must we but weep o'er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylæ!

What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no;—the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent's fall,
And answer, 'Let one living head,
But one, arise,—we come, we come!'
'Tis but the living who are dumb.

In vain—in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio's vine:
Hark! rising to the ignoble call—
How answers each bold Bacchanal!

You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet;
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon's song divine:
He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom's best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
O that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli's rock, and Parga's shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.

Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords and native ranks
The only hope of courage dwells:
But Turkish force and Latin fraud
Would break your shield, however broad.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne'er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of the vultures? Blood has been spilled!

A friend directed me to the Los Altos Friends of the Library Book Sale this past weekend. A pleasant discovery. Nearly fifty books found a home.

One of the many is The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I have a number of books of this ilk but this one is, so far, the most engaging and compelling.

The book was first published in 1984, 32 years before the current events of the Middle East. None-the-less, the prologue of events in August 1099 sound as if they could be describing Syria in 2016. In keeping with the Arab centric perspective, the Franj below are who we would know as the Franks out of France and Germany.
Baghdad, August 1099.

Wearing no turban, his head shaved as a sign of mourning, the venerable qadi Abu Sa'ad al-Harawi burst with a loud cry into the spacious diwan of the caliph al-Mustazhir Billah, a throng of companions, young and old, trailing in his wake. Noisily assenting to his every word, they, like him, offered the chilling spectacle of long beards and shaven heads. A few of the court dignitaries tried to calm him, but al-Hawari swept them aside with disdain, strode resolutely to the center of the hall, and then, with the searing eloquence of a seasoned preacher, al-Hawari proceeded to lecture to all those present, without regard to rank.

“How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety, leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of the vultures? Blood has been spilled! Beautiful young girls have been shamed, and must now hide their sweet faces in their hands! Shall the valorous Arabs resign themselves to insult, and the valiant Persians accept dishonor?”

“It was a speech that brought tears to many an eye and moved men’s hearts,” the Arab chroniclers later wrote. The entire audience broke out in wails and lamentations, but al-Harawi had not come to elicit sobs.

“Men’s meanest weapon,” he shouted,”is to shed tears when rapiers stir the coals of war.”

If he had made this difficult trip from Damascus to Baghdad, through three long summer weeks under the merciless sun of the Syrian desert, it was not to plead for pity but to alert Islam’s highest authority about the calamity that had just befallen the faithful, and to urge them to intervene without delay and halt the bloodshed. “Never have the Muslims been so humiliated,” al-Hawari repeated, “never have their lands been so savagely devastated.” All the people traveling with him had fled from towns sacked by the invaders, amongthe people were a few survivors of Jerusalem. He had brought them along so that they could relate, in their own words, the tragedy they had suffered just one month earlier.

The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of Cha'ban, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city: they stared into space as though they could still see the fair-haired and heavily armoured warriors spilling through the streets, swords in hand, slaughtering men, women, and children, plundering houses, sacking mosques.

Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques. Among them were many imams, ulama and Sufi ascetics who had forsaken their countries of origin for a life of pious retreat in these holy places. The last survivors were forced to perform the wort tasks: to heave the bodies of their own relatives, to dump them in vacant, unmarked lots, and then to set them alight, before being themselves massacred or sold into slavery.

The fate of the Jews of Jerusalem was no less atrocious. During the first hours of battle, some participated in the defense of their quarter, situated on the northern edge of the city. But when, in that part of the city, the walls overhanging their homes collapsed and the blond knights began to pour through the streets, the Jews panicked. Re-enacting an immemorial rite, the entire community gathered in the main synagogue to pray. The Franj barricaded all the exits and stacked bundles of wood in a ring around the building. The temple was then put to the torch. Those who managed to escape were massacred in the neighboring alleyways. The rest were burned alive.”
I am both fascinated and repulsed by the history of the Middle East and the Crusades in particular. You want to find some redeeming aspect to the great conflict but all there is is the ebb and flow of bloodshed and cruelty from the conquest of Greco-Christian Middle East by barbarous Islamic Arabs out of the desert in the 700s to the attempted reconquest by the similarly barbaric Franj in the 1000s.

Maalouf does a great job of laying out the constant, bitter, titanic struggles between and among four great cultures (Greek, Persian, Arab, and Turk) along with the more minor players (Kurds, Armenians, Jews, etc.). A region in constant strife for more than a thousand years.

Monday, August 22, 2016

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by W. B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

High risk discount factors

This is interesting throughout. Insider Trading Isn’t What You See in the Movies by Tyler Cowen. Insider trading:
Kenneth R. Ahern, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, examined hundreds of Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission cases from 2009 to 2013, with an associated 5,423 pages of documentation. What emerged was some fascinating detail on the crime and its practitioners (both alleged and convicted).
Looks robust.

Stereotypes are confirmed.
Some aspects come pretty close to what we see in the movies. The average insider trader is 43 years old, and nine out of 10 are male.
Particularly personality stereotypes:
The practice also seems correlated with some features of recklessness: Insider traders are younger than their associates, less likely to own real estate, and have fewer family members on average. More than half have criminal records, with almost all charges stemming from traffic violations.
Insider trading is ultimately a trust-based social activity.
Of the known pairs of people who provide and act upon private information ("tipper and tippee"), 64 percent met before college, and 16 percent met in college or graduate school. Another 23 percent are family relations -- more siblings and parents than aunts and uncles, despite the added capital that the latter might have provided. Tips are also commonly shared among people with ethnically similar surnames: Of 24 tips coming from people with Celtic surnames, for example, 14 went to individuals who also had Celtic surnames.
Next set of findings mirrors what I have noticed over the years about commercial and governmental corruption - it is often over small stakes. I don't intend to diminish the magnitude of a $10,000 bribe but when it is in the context of a lifetime's earnings and even in the context of annual salary which is often on the order of $75,000 - $150,000, that is chump change. Why would you put an income of $150,000 at risk over what might be a family week at the beach in Hawaii say?

I see it all the time in the local paper, and $10,000 tends to be on the high end. School principals sacked for dipping into an account for $2,000 over the years, a city councilman indicted for a $6,500 payoff to sway a contract decision, etc.

The insider trading study reveals a similar dynamic, people already greatly compensated in the national scheme of things but undertaking criminal activity to achieve just that little bit more.
The tight circle of trust -- and the associated lack of capital -- appears to limit perpetrators' ability to take full advantage of a highly profitable activity. Returns averaged about 35 percent, realized over an average holding period of 21 days. Yet despite the nearly certain gains available, the median insider trader invested only about $200,000 per tip and received $136,000 in profit. That's hardly enough to retire on. Granted, the much higher average profit of $2.3 million indicates that some investors hit it big -- and maybe the smartest, wealthiest and best-connected insider traders aren’t included in the data because they don’t get caught.

The insider traders in the sample are hardly rich. The median value of their homes is $656,300, not a lot given that they tend to live in relatively expensive metropolitan areas. Arguably many of them are upwardly mobile enough to have seen real wealth, without quite yet having it themselves.

The average source waits about 12 days between receiving valuable information and providing a tip. This could reflect either indecision about breaking the law or the difficulty of finding a trustworthy tippee. Nearly half, though, pass on the information the same day they receive it, suggesting that a significant group has greater experience and preparation. Repeat offending is also common: The average source gives 2.36 tips, and those who both give and receive tips do even more.
Part of the explanation is likely that only the smaller fry get caught and prosecuted. The bigger fish work out deals which keep their numbers out of the court system. Still, the same dynamic of huge risks to secure relatively small improvements.

Is it simply just a symptom of insiderdom such as we currently see in politics where individuals with long standing in the public eye still pursue grubby increments of money for favorable trade decisions, speeches, exemptions from the rules that apply to everyone else?

I don't know but I wish we knew enough to stamp out the criminal behavior.