Percentages are close to meaningless

I’ve mentioned in the past my great frustrations with the use of percentages in news stories. An article will say “X Caused a 50% drop in robberies” but give no indication of the actual amount. Were there four less robberies? 400? Who knows?

This following Vox article is frustrating on many levels.

Australia confiscated 650,000 guns. Murders and suicides plummeted.

The article makes clear that without a doubt deaths went down after Australia initiated a buyback program to confiscate certain types of firearms. But the exact number is distressingly vague. I’ve read through it and I have no idea what the actual number is as everything is discussed in percentages. Then there’s this.

One study concluded that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides. But as Dylan Matthews points out, the results were not statistically significant because Australia has a pretty low number of murders already.

Bottom line: Australia’s gun buyback saved lives, probably by reducing homicides and almost certainly by reducing suicides.

So in the headline we’re told that murders “plummeted.” In the article we’re told that the amount wasn’t statistically significant and that the amount of homicides “probably” reduced. Not quite the same thing.

Defending Saturated Fats

I mentioned a while back that I was reading the book “The Big Fat Surprise” which argues that—contrary to conventional wisdom—a diet high in saturated fats (e.g. meat, dairy etc) is good for you. This should not be understood to say that a diet high in trans-fats (e.g. Cheetos, crackers, etc.) is good for you. Because it is not.

The book also states that a diet high in carbs is bad for you, leading to obesity and diabetes.

These are controversial assertions, certainly, and they basically imply that the U.S Government has been recommending an awful diet (high carbs, low fats) for years.

Nonetheless, I’ve noticed several pieces popping up recently on a science blog I frequent called Science Daily that seem to support the arguments made by “The Big fat Surprise.” Consider…

Trans fats, but not saturated fats like butter, linked to greater risk of early death and heart disease

A study led by researchers at McMaster University has found that that trans fats are associated with greater risk of death and coronary heart disease, but saturated fats are not associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease, stroke, or Type 2 diabetes.

The team found no clear association between higher intake of saturated fats and death for any reason, coronary heart disease (CHD), cardiovascular disease (CVD), ischemic stroke or type 2 diabetes.

However, consumption of industrial trans fats was associated with a 34 per cent increase in death for any reason, a 28 per cent increased risk of CHD mortality, and a 21 per cent increase in the risk of CHD.

Or…
Low saturated fat diets don’t curb heart disease risk or help you live longer

Diets low in saturated fat don’t curb heart disease risk or help you live longer, says a leading US cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy in an editorial in the open access journal Open Heart.

Now I’m the first to admit that one should tread carefully here as none of these statements has really been “proven.” (Studies need to be replicated about a billion times to really have merit.) But “The Big Fat Surprise” did make some interesting anecdotal points that stuck with me. Consider Eskimos. For years they basically ate a diet of fatty fish and game—and had rates of cardiovascular disease much lower than non-Native Americans* (e.g. white people.) Then they shifted over to the high carb diets of the white man and they were assaulted with such disease. The Masai in Africa are a similar case study.

* Here’s an interesting Discover magazine article about this called “The Inuit Paradox.”

So it seems fair to ask questions.

Artificial Intelligence writing fiction!

One topic I tackle occasionally is the idea of artificial intelligence programs writing content. They are already writing non-fiction news stories, but the big event will come when (not if) AI writes fiction stories. As reported here, a computer science institute is offering a prize for algorithms (the guts of AI) that can generate short stories.

The article’s author touches on something I’ve mentioned in the past: the idea that AI won’t exclusively write the stories, but rather partner with human authors. Imagine a program that spits out a basic story outline which is then massaged by a human author. I expect we’ll see this sort of thing as well as comparable efforts in the realm of music and perhaps some visual arts.

I should note, I’m jot exactly happy with this state of affairs, but I have some wearied acceptance and could see myself playing with this kind of technology.

Is Amazon reinventing the world?

There seems to be a number of articles and op-eds coming out, like this one, implying that working for the internet company Amazon.com is a miserable experience. It entails long hours, ego-shattering criticism and the like. Employees are, according to a few pieces I’ve read, often seen crying at their desks.

I have a hard time getting too concerned. Generally I think that if you don’t like where you work, then quit.

Having said that, I’m rather bemused at some of the defenses of Amazon. They argue that the hyper-competive employee environment is necessary to for Amazon to do great things. As one high ranking employee quoted in the piece linked above says, “We’ve got our hands full reinventing the world.”

I’m sorry, what? How the fuck has Amazon reinvented the world? Because we can now order lots of shit from what is essentially a digital sales catalog? Cool, but not mind blowing. Books are now available on a mini computer (the Kindle?) This might qualify as “neato.” The company may soon be be delivering packages via drones which is interesting but will probably quickly become commonplace. But none of this stuff is really awesome. Curing cancer, that would be awesome. Determining whether string theory is correct, that would be awesome. Figuring out how to maximize everyone’s satisfaction would be awesome.

Delivering Kindles via drones… not so much.

Omega-6 fatty acids and violence?

I’ve been reading the book “The Big Fat Surprise” which strongly makes the argument that foods high in saturated fat have been unfairly chastised for being unhealthy. I think the author is probably on to something though there’s so many variables at play in these discussions it’s hard to keep it all straight in your head.

The book does bring up an interesting point that I have seen made before (specifically in a book I discussed here called “The Anatomy of Violence.”) There seems to be a real correlation between consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids (which are found in the vegetable oils that became popular as alternatives to oils high in saturated fats) and suicide and violence. The following Psychology Today article looks specifically at the violence part of the equation.

Violence: Are There Dietary Causes?

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/perfect-health-diet/201212/violence-are-there-dietary-causes

One major dietary change that may have contributed to rising rates of violence has been the shift toward omega-6 rich seed oils, such as soybean oil and corn oil, in foodstuffs.

Joseph Hibbeln and collaborators had the idea of comparing omega-6 consumption to rates of violence. They found, across countries and over a period of decades, that omega-6 consumption was correlated to homicide rates…

It seems pretty absurd that diet could cause violence (we all jokingly recall the Twinkie defense) but I think we do have some sense that our mood is affected by what we eat. Certainly I’m less likely to go out and kill after having a satisfying meal.

I’m not sure what to make of it all but it’s an interesting observation.

I like Donald Trump

I really make an effort not to get too drawn into the gamesmanship of politics, but it’s hard not be entertained by the rise of Donald Trump as a Republican contender. He seems to be such an unending source of contridictions and oddball statements that I hope he stays in the race a while.

And I have to say, even though I’m almost certain a Trump presidency would bring about the destruction of humanity (and probably the earth, possibly the galaxy) I kind of respect him. In particular I like his utter refusal to apologize for obnoxious but fundamentally meaningless statements. I think the best response to his Megan Kelly directed comment that she has “blood coming out of her whatever…” is an eye roll. But of course everyone is huffing and puffing and declaring his words totally beyond the bounds of decency or what have you. In response to this, the Donald simple tells his detractors to fuck off; this is quite refreshing in an era where people are constantly emitting mealy-mouthed mea culpas. I’m not sure why I admire that, but I do.

Can AI be programmed to be moral?

There’s a blog called “Wait But Why” that does a good job of taking dense, philosophical topics and presenting them in an amusing but thought-provoking way. The author recently did a very long post on the kind of artificial intelligence technology that many think is around the corner (possibly only a few decades away.) He concedes that AI could radically reshape the course of history, possibly by bringing about a Utopia or possibly by causing humanity’s destruction.

In part II of the post the author gets into the more negative secenerios. A point he makes well is that AI wouldn’t end humanity because the AI is “evil” or out to get us, but rather that humanity’s extinction might just be a logical output of of badly coded commands. A simplistic example would be someone tells an AI to solve world hunger and the computer “thinks”, “Well, only living humans are hungry so if I kill them all, they can’t be hungry.” Again, a very simplistic example, but a much more convoluted one could occur and wipe us out.

So the challenge is that we have to program our morality into the AI. It needs to follow our moral rules. But this is interesting because, as I’ve pointed out before, we really don’t have a clear and concise ruleset. We think we do, the Golden Rule being a good example, but
the Golden Rule is really quite flawed
. It’s more true to say we have a general set of moral intuitions that we kind of follow sometimes. Hardly the sort of thing that can be fed to a computer program.

So maybe the great challenge for humanity right now is to create a purely logocal, objective set of moral rules. I personally suspect that is impossible,

What’s up with cholesterol?

I’m often talking about the foibles of the medical establishment, though usually as related to pain management and such. But I’ve been reading a bit about cholesterol and it seems like conventional wisdom about several aspects of the topic has been turned on its head.

For example, the decades old advice about avoiding foods with high cholesterol (like eggs) doesn’t seem to hold up. Avoiding these foods doesn’t have much correlation with the cholesterol levels of your body. (Cholesterol is actually produced by your body.) In this case, you aren’t what you eat. Don’t take my word for it.

In February, however, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) rocked the nutrition and medical worlds by changing their tune.

In its report, the committee states: “Previously, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg/day. The 2015 DGAC will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum (blood) cholesterol. … Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

Perhaps more interesting is the news on saturated fats which we’ve been advised to avoid for years because it raises cholesterol levels. You probably know that there are two types of cholesterol: Good HDL cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol. But is LDL really bad? It turns out there are different subtypes of LDL

LDL comes in four basic forms: a big, fluffy form known as large LDL, and three increasingly dense forms known as medium, small, and very small LDL. A diet high in saturated fat mainly boosts the numbers of large-LDL particles, while a low-fat diet high in carbohydrates propagates the smaller forms. The big, fluffy particles are largely benign, while the small, dense versions keep lipid-science researchers awake at night.

So, by advising people to avoid saturated fats and eats more carbs, health advisors may have been inadvertently raising people’s levels of really bad, small LDL cholesterol.

Oops.

More thoughts on jazz

Lately I’ve been working on playing jazz on guitar. This means learning a lot of jazz tunes and really getting comfortable improvising over the classic jazz changes.

I’m starting to understand a key difference between jazz and pop. Pop music is, I believe, really focused on crafting the best, most immersive song experience. A chord progression will be tweaked to perfection, engineers will spend hours hunting for the right organ sound, and a solo will be played over and over until perfect. The idea is to create 3 minutes of bliss. A jazz song takes a more different approach. Jazz is dedicated to the concept of improvisation and is willing to let things suffer a bit to take risks. If you record a tune and the sax solo isn’t all that great, nobody will demand redoing it. (Often jazz is recorded live with various instruments bleeding into each other’s mics so redoing it isn’t even possible.) A certain amount of Imperfection is the price of doing business in jazz.

To put it another way, I think if you are listening to a pop song and your mind is wandering, in some sense the song has failed. It hasn’t totally captured you. With a jazz tune, particularly a long one, it’s ok for the mind to wander. Not every moment has to be great.

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.