Quotulatiousness

August 18, 2016

QotD: The environmental and economic idiocy of the ethanol mandate

Ever since the beginning of the ethanol mandate it was obvious to anybody with eyes to see that the whole thing was a boondoggle and a huge waste for everybody except ADM. What the Greens failed to understand is that if you prop up corn prices by buying, distilling and burning massive amounts of corn whisky in cars, two things are going to happen. One the price is going to go up, making things like cow feed and other uses of corn more expensive and 2. farmers are going to, without restraint, plant ever larger amounts of corn, which will 1. push out other crops like wheat and 2. require more land use to plant even more corn. Which is why you can now go from Eastern Colorado to Western NY and essentially see nothing but corn. Millions of acres of corn, across the country, grown to burn. Somehow this was supposed to be environmentally friendly?

J.C. Carlton, “The Law Of Unintended Consequences Hits Biofuels”, The Arts Mechanical, 2016-08-07.

August 15, 2016

Evolved sexual differences

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Amy Alkon on the reason men and women value different attributes in one another:

Why Does Feminism Mean “You Can’t Say That About Women!”?
Feminism, too often these days, means treating women like eggshells, not equals.

If you talk about a woman’s looks — and maybe criticize how much she cares about her looks — you are stomping on hallowed ground, and you’re in for a media reaming (if you make your criticism at all publicly).

By the way, we care about women’s looks — and women care about caring for and showing off their looks — because of our evolved sex differences. Women prioritize status and power in a man and men prioritize physical attractiveness.

This isn’t all we care about in a partner, and it isn’t all we use to judge another person, but these preferences evolved to promote our mating and survival, not out of nowhere. We are living in a modern world with pretty antique psychology — perfect for life in an ancestral environment — so these sex differences in our psychology remain.

I write about these differences in our preferences in my science-based book, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck:

    Many women think men are pretty rude to care so much about a woman’s looks. In a just world, men would have the hots for women simply for the beautiful people they are on the inside. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is just not how male sexuality works. (The penis is not a philanthropic organization and will not get hard because a woman bought a homeless guy a sandwich.)

    Because male sexuality is all about the visuals, men’s magazines are filled with pictures of naked women with freakishly large breasts and women’s magazines are filled with pictures of beauty products and ass-cantilevering $2,000 stilettos. Men evolved to go for signs of reproductively hot prospects — an hourglass figure, youth, clear skin, symmetrical faces and bodies, and long shiny hair: all indicators that a woman is a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man’s genes. Women co-evolved to try to make themselves look reproductively hot, though that’s not how we think of it.

August 14, 2016

QotD: Women in graduate math programs

Filed under: Quotations, Science, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Academic programs presumably want people with high ability. The GRE bills itself as an ability test, and under our expanded definition of ability this is a reasonable claim. So let’s talk about what would happen if programs selected based solely on ability as measured by GREs.

This is, of course, not the whole story. Programs also use a lot of other things like grades, interviews, and publications. But these are all correlated with GRE scores, and anyway it’s nice to have a single number to work with. So for now let’s suppose colleges accept applicants based entirely on GRE scores and see what happens. The STEM subjects we’re looking at here are presumably most interested in GRE Quantitative, so once again we’ll focus on that.

Mathematics unsurprisingly has the highest required GRE Quantitative score. Suppose that the GRE score of the average Mathematics student – 162.0 – represents the average level that Mathematics departments are aiming for – ie you must be this smart to enter.

The average man gets 154.3 ± 8.6 on GRE Quantitative. The average woman gets 149.4 ± 8.1. So the threshold for Mathematics admission is 7.7 points ahead of the average male test-taker, or 0.9 male standard deviation units. This same threshold is 12.6 points ahead of the average female test-taker, or 1.55 female standard deviation units.

GRE scores are designed to follow a normal distribution, so we can plug all of this into our handy-dandy normal distribution calculator and find that 19% of men and 6% of women taking the GRE meet the score threshold to get into graduate level Mathematics. 191,394 men and 244,712 women took the GRE last year, so there will be about 36,400 men and 14,700 women who pass the score bar and qualify for graduate level mathematics. That means the pool of people who can do graduate Mathematics is 29% female. And when we look at the actual gender balance in graduate Mathematics, it’s also 29% female.

Vast rivers of ink have been spilled upon the question of why so few women are in graduate Mathematics programs. Are interviewers misogynist? Are graduate students denied work-life balance? Do stereotypes cause professors to “punish” women who don’t live up to their sexist expectations? Is there a culture of sexual harassment among mathematicians?

But if you assume that Mathematics departments are selecting applicants based on the thing they double-dog swear they are selecting applicants based on, there is literally nothing left to be explained.

I am sort of cheating here. The exact perfect prediction in Mathematics is a coincidence. And I can’t extend this methodology rigorously to any other subject because I would need a much more complicated model where people of a given score level are taken out of the pool as they choose the highest-score-requiring discipline, leaving fewer high-score people available for the low-score-requiring ones. Without this more complicated task, at best I can set a maximum expected gender imbalance, then eyeball whether the observed deviation from that maximum is more or less than expected. Doing such eyeballing, there are slightly fewer women in graduate Physics and Computer Science than expected and slightly more women in graduate Economics than expected.

But on the whole, the prediction is very good. That it is not perfect means there is still some room to talk about differences in stereotypes and work-life balance and so on creating moderate deviations from the predicted ratio in a few areas like computer science. But this is arguing over the scraps of variance left over, after differences in mathematical ability have devoured their share.

Scott Alexander, “Perceptions of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-24.

August 12, 2016

Good news! Electricity in Ontario is cheaper to produce than ever before!

The bad news? It’s more expensive to consume than ever before, thanks to the way the Ontario government has manipulated the market:

You may be surprised to learn that electricity is now cheaper to generate in Ontario than it has been for decades. The wholesale price, called the Hourly Ontario Electricity Price or HOEP, used to bounce around between five and eight cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), but over the last decade, thanks in large part to the shale gas revolution, it has trended down to below three cents, and on a typical day is now as low as two cents per kWh. Good news, right?

It would be, except that this is Ontario. A hidden tax on Ontario’s electricity has pushed the actual purchase price in the opposite direction, to the highest it’s ever been. The tax, called the Global Adjustment (GA), is levied on electricity purchases to cover a massive provincial slush fund for green energy, conservation programs, nuclear plant repairs and other central planning boondoggles. As these spending commitments soar, so does the GA.

In the latter part of the last decade when the HOEP was around five cents per kWh and the government had not yet begun tinkering, the GA was negligible, so it hardly affected the price. In 2009, when the Green Energy Act kicked in with massive revenue guarantees for wind and solar generators, the GA jumped to about 3.5 cents per kWh, and has been trending up since — now it is regularly above 9.5 cents. In April it even topped 11 cents, triple the average HOEP.

The only people doing well out of this are the lucky cronies of the government who signed up for provincial subsidies on alternative energy (primarily wind and solar), who reap rents of well over 100% thanks to guaranteed minimum prices for electricity from non-traditional sources.

July 26, 2016

QotD: Natural born killers? Not so much…

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?

Eric S. Raymond, “The Myth of Man the Killer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-07-15.

July 22, 2016

QotD: The dating pool

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Yes, you can have it all — a high-powered education, a high-powered career, and the perfect high-powered man to go with. Of course, it helps if you’re willing to relax your standards a little, like by widening your pool of acceptable male partners to include the recently deceased.

[…]

Some feminist academics claim that women only want big bucks/high status men because they lack those things themselves. But, a number of studies by evolutionary psychologists have found that women with big bucks and big jobs want men with bigger bucks and bigger jobs. Even women who are feminists. Dr. Bruce J. Ellis writes in The Adapted Mind that when 15 feminist leaders described their ideal man, they repeatedly used words like “very rich,” “brilliant,” and “genius” (and they didn’t mean “genius with a baby wipe!”).

So, if you’ve become the man you would’ve married in the ’50s, don’t be surprised if your mating pool starts to seem about the size of the one that comes with Barbie’s Dream House. Biology is neither fair nor kind. What those pushing feel-good sociology don’t want to believe or tell you is that you increase your options by being hot — or hotting yourself up the best you can. Obviously, looks aren’t all that matter, but while your female genes are urging you to blow past the hot pool boy to get to the moderately attractive captain of industry, men evolved to prioritize looks in women, so powerful men will date powerfully beautiful waitresses and baristas. As evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Buss writes, “Women’s physical attractiveness is the best known predictor of the occupational status of the man she marries and the best known predictor of hypergamy.”

Amy Alkon, “The Spinster Cycle”, The Advice Goddess, 2012-04-03.

July 12, 2016

QotD: Did our distant ancestors select for intelligence?

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a special case of one of my favorite Damned Ideas, originally developed by John W. Campbell in the 1960s from some speculations by a forgotten French anthropologist. Campbell proposed that the manhood initiation rituals found in many primitive tribes are a selective machine designed to permit adulthood and reproduction only to those who can demonstrate verbal fluency and the ability to override instinctive fears on verbal command.

Campbell suggests that all living humans are descended from groups of hominids that, having evolved full-human mental capability in some of their members, found the overhead of supporting the dullards too high. So they began selecting for traits correlated with intelligence through initiation rituals timed for just as their offspring were achieving reproductive capacity; losers got driven out, or possibly killed and eaten.

Campbell pointed out that the common elements of tribal initiations are (a) scarring or cicatricing of the skin, opening the way for lethal infections, (b) alteration or mutilation of the genitals, threatening the ability to reproduce, and (c) alteration of the mouth and teeth, threatening the ability to eat. These seem particularly well optimized for inducing maximum instinctive fear in the subject while actually being relatively safe under controlled and relatively hygenic conditions. The core test of initiation is this: can the subject conquer fear and submit to the initiation on the basis of learned (verbal, in preliterate societies) command?

Campbell noticed the first order effect was to shift the mean of the IQ bell curve upwards over generations. The second-order effect, which if he noticed he didn’t talk about, was to start an arms race in initiation rituals; competing bands experimented with different selective filters (not consciously but through random variation). Setting the bar too low or too high would create a bad tradeoff between IQ selectivity and maintaining raw reproductive capacity. So we’re descended from the hominids who found the right tradeoff to push their mean IQ up as rapidly as possible and outcompeted the groups that chose less well.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell or his sources, but this theory explains why initiation rituals for girls are a rare and usually post-literate phenomenon. Male reproductive capacity is cheap; a healthy young man can impregnate several young women a day, and healthy young men are instinct-wired to do exactly that whenever they can get away with it. Female reproductive capacity, on the other hand, is scarce and precious. So it makes sense to select the boys ruthlessly and give the girls a pass. Of course if you push this too far you don’t get enough hunters and fighters, but the right tradeoff pretty clearly is not 1-to-1.

Eric S. Raymond, “Selecting for intelligence”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-11-14.

July 10, 2016

QotD: Science isn’t something you “believe in”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The arguments about global warming too often sound more like theology than science. Oh, the word “science” gets thrown around a great deal, but it’s cited as a sacred authority, not a fallible process that staggers only awkwardly and unevenly toward the truth, with frequent lurches in the wrong direction. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me that they believe in “the science,” as if that were the name of some omniscient god who had delivered us final answers written in stone. For those people, there can be only two categories in the debate: believers and unbelievers. Apostles and heretics.

This is, of course, not how science works, and people who treat it this way are not showing their scientific bona fides; they are violating the very thing in which they profess such deep belief. One does not believe in “science” as an answer; science is a way of asking questions. At any given time, that method produces a lot of ideas, some of which are correct, and many of which are false, in part or in whole.

Megan McArdle, “Global-Warming Alarmists, You’re Doing It Wrong”, Bloomberg View, 2016-06-01.

July 9, 2016

QotD: Bear-ing a grudge

Filed under: Environment, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 2003, Disney brought us its latest animated feature, Brother Bear, the usual New Age mumbo-jumbo with a generic Native American gloss. It told the tale of Kenai, a young fellow in a bucolic Pacific Northwest at the end of the Ice Age. To avenge his brother’s death, Kenai kills the brown bear responsible. But trouble’s a-bruin: his late brother is wise enough to know that killing is not the answer and so gets the Great Spirit to teach Kenai a lesson by transforming him into a bear. He thereby learns that bears are not violent beasts but sensitive beings living in harmony with nature who understand the world they live in far more than man does. I would certainly agree that bears are wiser and more sensitive than man, if only because I’ve yet to meet a bear who’s produced an animated feature as mawkishly deluded as this.

Among the technical advisers on the film, hired to ensure the accurate depiction of our furry friends, was Timothy Treadwell, the self-described eco-warrior from Malibu who became famous for his campaign “to promote getting close to bears to show they were not dangerous”. He did this by sidling up to them and singing “I love you” in a high-pitched voice. Brother Bear is certainly true to the Treadwell view of the brown bears, and he would surely have appreciated the picture had he ever gotten to see it. But, just as Kenai found himself trapped inside a bear, so did Mr Treadwell — although in his case he was just passing through. In September, a pilot arrived at the ursine expert’s camp near Kaflia Bay in Alaska to fly him out and instead found the bits of him and his girlfriend that hadn’t yet been eaten buried in a bear’s food cache.

Treadwell had always said he wanted to end up in “bear scat”, so his fellow activists were inclined to look on the bright side. “He would say it’s the culmination of his life’s work,” said his colleague Jewel Palovak. “He died doing what he lived for.”

I wonder if he was revising his view in the final moments. And if his girlfriend was quite so happy to find she had a bit part in “the culmination of his life’s work”.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter at the fate of the eco-warrior, but it does make Brother Bear somewhat harder to swallow than its technical adviser manifestly was. There are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but sadly no Animals for the Ethical Treatment of People. And, just as bugs are becoming resistant to antibiotics, so the big beasts are changing, too. Wild animals are not merely the creatures of their appetites; they’re also astute calculators of risk. Not so long ago, your average bear knew that if he happened upon a two-legged type, the chap would pull a rifle on him and he’d be spending eternity as a fireside rug. But these days it’s just as likely that any human being he comes across is some pantywaist Bambi Boomer enviro-sentimentalist trying to get in touch with his inner self. And, if the guy wants to get in touch with his inner self so badly, why not just rip it out of his chest for him?

North American wildlife seems to have figured that out. Why be surprised if other predators do..?

Mark Steyn, After America, 2011.

July 6, 2016

Public Goods and Asteroid Defense

Filed under: Economics, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 26 Jun 2015

While the probability of an asteroid hitting the planet is very low, its effect would be disastrous for all of us. So, who should pay for asteroid protection? A good like asteroid defense — a public good, meaning it’s nonexcludable and nonrival — has some unusual properties that challenge markets. We explore the curious case of public goods in this video and others in this section.

June 28, 2016

QotD: The real locavore’s dilemma

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Today’s typical environmentalist and locavore fancies that he or she possesses more and better knowledge than is contained in market prices. He or she is mistaken in his or her arrogance. The environmentalist who moralizes in favor of recycling cardboard containers and the locavore who boasts that he helps the environment by paying a few cents more for locally grown cabbages and cantaloupes focus on a small handful of visible aspects of production and distribution – such as the wood-pulp contents of the cardboard container or the fuel used to transport agricultural produces over long distances – and leaps without warrant to the conclusion that sticking that used cardboard containers into recycling bins, or reducing the amount of fuel burned to transport produce, generates net benefits for the environment. But there is simply no way that the recycling champion or the locavore can really know what he thinks he knows.

How much energy is used to recycle cardboard containers compared to the amount of energy used to produce new cardboard containers? What is the environmental impact of the chemicals used to cleanse used cardboard of the residue from its earlier uses so that that cardboard can be recycled for another use? How much fertilizer and energy – and what sorts – does your local small-scale farmer use to grow kale and cucumbers compared to the amounts and sorts used by the more-distant, larger-scale farmer? What is the full environmental impact of using land in suburbs such as Fairfax, VA, and Dobbs Ferry, NY, to grow vegetables for sale a local farmers’ markets compared to the impact of using that land differently?

The above are only a tiny fraction of all the relevant questions that must be asked and answered with reasonable accuracy before anyone can possess enough knowledge to be confident that recycling or ‘buying local’ are in fact good for the environment.

Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-16.

June 22, 2016

QotD: “Weird nerds are made, not born”

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Of all the sound, fury, and quiet voices of reason in the storm of controversy about tech culture and what is to become of it, quiet voice of reason Zeynep Tufekci’s “No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it” moves the discussion farther forward than any other contribution I’ve seen to date. Sadly, though, it still falls short of truly bridging the conceptual gap between nerds and “weird nerds.” Speaking as a lifelong member of the weird-nerd contingent, it’s truly surreal that this distinction exists at all. I’m slightly older than Nate Silver and about a decade younger than Paul Graham, so it wouldn’t surprise me if either or both find it just as puzzling. There was no cultural concept of cool nerds, or even not-cool-but-not-that-weird nerds, when we were growing up, or even when we were entering the workforce.

That’s no longer true. My younger colleague @puellavulnerata observes that for a long time, there were only weird nerds, but when our traditional pursuits (programming, electrical engineering, computer games, &c) became a route to career stability, nerdiness and its surface-level signifiers got culturally co-opted by trend-chasers who jumped on the style but never picked up on the underlying substance that differentiates weird nerds from the culture that still shuns them. That doesn’t make them “fake geeks,” boy, girl, or otherwise — you can adopt geek interests without taking on the entire weird-nerd package — but it’s still an important distinction. Indeed, the notion of “cool nerds” serves to erase the very existence of weird nerds, to the extent that many people who aren’t weird nerds themselves only seem to remember we exist when we commit some faux pas by their standards.

Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.

This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.

Meredith Patterson, “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit”, Medium.com, 2014-04-23.

June 14, 2016

QotD: Romantic love … what is it for?

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It’s all about the encephalization, really. Millions of years ago our hominid ancestors stumbled onto a novel adaptive strategy: be smart, adaptable, and capable of learning rather than purely instinct-driven. Make tools; use fire; invent language.

This strategy required much, much more of our nervous systems. Because intelligence was in fact a winning strategy, we were selected for growing more complex brains capable of doing more information processing. But increasing the logic density of brains is hard; there probably isn’t a path to it through the design space that is rapidly exploitable by small point mutations. So selective pressure made our brains larger, instead.

The fossil record shows that the hominid line encephalized at a breakneck speed compared to the usual leisurely pace of evolutionary change. This had huge consequences; much of human biology is a series of hacks and kluges to support that encephalization, often in stupidly suboptimal ways.

The one that’s relevant here starts from the limited width of the birth canal. Limited, that is, by the pelvic girdle surrounding it. A skull that’s too large won’t fit through. Therefore, the genetic lines that survived were those in which babies are born with small skulls but the ability to grow them much larger by maturity. (And even so, the size of a baby’s skull pushes that limit pretty hard; this is why birth is so much more difficult and dangerous for human females than it is for other primates).

That design (be born with a small skull and upgrade it outside the womb) implied a long juvenile period between birth and physical maturity. In fact the human brain doesn’t completely finish configuring and rewiring itself until around age 25. And the long juvenile period probably also explains the exceptionally long human lifespan; whatever had to be altered in the development clock to defer stabilization into the final adult configuration probably also delayed the inset of senescence. (Direct evidence for this theory is the rare disease “progeria”).

And the dominoes kept falling. The long juvenile period implied offspring that would be incapable of fending for themselves for an unprecedently long time – on the order of decades rather than the few months to a year typical for other mammals. Consequently the selective value of extended cooperation between the parents went way, way up relative to even our nearest animal kin.

Romantic love works as an an evolved mechanism for keeping mated pairs cooperating long enough to raise multiple children. Here again, selection favors those who love more because they get to launch more offspring. We are, in fact, made to fall in love – and it would only be surprising if the mechanism for establishing it were not simple, robust, and easily triggered.

Eric S. Raymond, “Love is the simplest thing”, Armed and Dangerous, 2015-01-15.

June 12, 2016

Discovering the “Pompeii of Peterborough”

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The New Yorker, Charlotte Higgins describes the Bronze Age archaeological dig near Peterborough in the fens:

… from time to time, the soil pushes up clues, particularly in the fens, where the waterlogged earth creates anaerobic conditions that slow decay. One summer day in 1999, a local archeologist was walking at Must Farm, along the edge of a disused clay pit; at one time it was filled with water, but the water level had dropped enough to reveal some wooden stakes poking out. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which operates out of the university, an hour’s drive away, did some exploratory work and found, through radiocarbon dating, that the material dated from about 900 B.C. The site was monitored for several years, until Historic England, a government agency devoted to preserving the country’s heritage, began to press for it to be properly excavated. Last September, with funding from Historic England and the brick-making company Forterra, a team of about a dozen archeologists went to work.

Each day, they are making discoveries that are radically expanding the knowledge of Bronze Age Britain. The site is unparalleled in the U.K. for its wealth of artifacts and the pristine state of their preservation. Three thousand years ago, it was a settlement of wooden roundhouses, but life there ended abruptly: a fire tore through it, and the buildings collapsed, sank into the marshland, and were quickly entombed by silt and mud. “In archeology, very occasionally, there is the feeling that you have turned up just a week too late, that the people who were here have just moved on,” Mark Knight, the archeologist in charge of excavation at Must Farm, told me when I visited for a day in April. “This site has that feeling to it. Normally in Britain, when you dig, three thousand years of history seems manifest in the remains, because the most you tend to find is a few postholes and a potsherd. Here, somehow, the time span feels short. It’s so intact, so three-dimensional.” Inevitably, perhaps, the site has been nicknamed the Pompeii of Peterborough.

[…]

We stood on a low rise, and in the dip below us was a white tent about a quarter the size of a football field, erected to cover the archeological site and keep it from drying out in the harsh East Anglian wind. Knight led me down a path toward it. At the top of the slope, marking the present day, were fragments of bricks, rejects from the nearby factory. Farther down, he indicated a dark layer of earth. “This is Iron Age peat,” he said. And a few steps later: “This is where the sea came in, in the early Roman period, the first century A.D.” As we approached the tent, he said, “Now we’re down into the period where we’re excavating, around 900 B.C.—river channels. Can you see the shells of freshwater mussels?” Inside the tent, the excavation was being conducted two metres below the surface; had we been able to continue down another eighteen metres, to the level of the base of the quarry, we would have arrived at the Jurassic, a hundred and forty-five million years earlier.

From a viewing platform, we could look down on the whole excavation: a large, muddy, roughly rectangular area from which a number of wooden stakes poked up. Gradually, some of the stakes resolved themselves into the shape of a palisade that had once encircled the whole settlement. Inside this enclosure, I could make out individual objects—a human skull, the spine of a horse, something that looked like a woven-willow fence, the lips of pots, all half-buried. “There are some bowls,” Knight said. “There’s a wooden platter. There’s a big wooden trough. Over there, a storage vessel.”

Also within the perimeter of the palisade were three large shapes, each comprising a number of wooden rafters radiating unevenly outward from a central point, like the spokes of a broken umbrella. These were the collapsed roofs of the roundhouses. Several archeologists were working on excavating a fourth. They had already lifted and removed its roof timbers and were uncovering the dwelling’s contents, now compressed by three millennia of mud. They scraped with their trowels methodically, emptying the dirt into buckets that would later be sifted for small finds. One researcher, who looked to be in his twenties, wore a sweatshirt with the words “MY FUTURE LIES IN RUINS.”

June 10, 2016

A breakthrough in our understanding of the causes of depression

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Scott Alexander takes a quick look at a recent discovery in medication for depression:

A few weeks ago, Nature published a bombshell study showing that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were actually caused by a metabolite, 2S,6S;2R,6R-hydroxynorketamine (don’t worry about the name; within ten years it’ll be called JOYVIVA™®© and you’ll catch yourself humming advertising jingles about it in the shower). Unlike ketamine, which is addictive and produces scary dissociative experiences, the metabolite is pretty safe. This is a big deal clinically, because it makes it easier and safer to prescribe to depressed people.

It’s also a big deal scientifically. Ketamine is a strong NMDA receptor antagonist; the metabolite is an AMPA agonist – they have different mechanisms of action. Knowing the real story behind why ketamine works will hopefully speed efforts to understand the nature of depression.

But I’m also interested in it from another angle. For the last ten years, everyone has been excited about ketamine. In a field that gets mocked for not having any really useful clinical discoveries in the last thirty years, ketamine was proof that progress was possible. It was the Exciting New Thing that everybody wanted to do research about.

Given the whole replication crisis thing, I wondered. You’ve got a community of people who think that NMDA antagonism and dissociation are somehow related to depression. If the latest study is true, all that was false. This is good; science is supposed to be self-correcting. But what about before it self-corrected? Did researchers virtuously say “I know the paradigm says NMDA is essential to depression, and nobody’s come up with a better idea yet, but there are some troubling inconsistencies in that picture”? Or did they tinker with their studies until they got the results they expected, then triumphantly declare that they had confirmed the dominant paradigm was right about everything all along?

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