(Reverse Chronological Order)
Preview: The task of reading a full human genome—with all its 3 billion base pairs—was first accomplished back at the turn of the century, through the monumental enterprise known as the Human Genome Project (HGP). In terms of the brass tacks, the HGP itself took over a decade, and cost nearly $3 billion dollars. Since that time, advances in technology have made gene sequencing vastly cheaper and less time consuming (reading a genome now takes less than a day, and costs less than $1,000). As a result, gene sequencing has become very commonplace, and thus the amount of data we have regarding our genome has grown enormously. Still, while the HGP was an incredible accomplishment, and the advances we have made since then are nothing short of remarkable, the secrets behind DNA have not been unlocked nearly as quickly as we might have hoped, or expected.
The main reason for this is that the more we discover about DNA, the more we discover just how complicated this molecule truly is. For one thing, as many of us now know, it is not the case that single genes code neatly for individual traits. Most traits are influenced by multiple genes (if not hundreds), and figuring out just what genes are involved, and in what ways, is often extremely difficult.
As if this were not already enough, scientists have also found that genes are capable of being turned on and off—and also up and down. In terms of the mechanics involved, some of these switches are flipped by other genes, in the normal course of development, while others are flipped by environmental triggers, and can change from moment to moment. What this means is that figuring out how genetics works does not just depend on knowing what genes are present, but how these genes express themselves (or fail to express themselves) at different times. The study of how and why genes express themselves differently at different times is known as epigenetics, and it adds a whole other layer of complexity to an already very complex affair.
That’s not all, though. Geneticists have also found that some of the genetic switches that are flipped by environmental triggers are capable of persisting for years—and even being passed down from one generation to the next. Thus genetic inheritance is not a simple matter of the genes themselves—as was once thought—but how these genes are tuned by the environment.
Still, unraveling all this complexity is not entirely without hope. Scientists have a number of tools at their disposal, and progress has been made in at least some areas. Read more…
Preview: Over the past 20 years, and particularly in the past decade, the stock market has undergone some significant changes. The most visible change is that much of the action has now become computerized. For example, whereas stock markets used to consist of trading floors, where floor traders swapped stocks back and forth, we now have computer servers where sellers and buyers are connected automatically. Now, on the one hand, this automation has led to some substantial efficiencies, as once necessary financial intermediaries have now largely become obsolete (this has led to savings not only because the old intermediaries earned an honest commission for their dealings, but because their privileged position sometimes led to corruption).
It is not that the new stock market has done away with intermediaries entirely. Take brokers, for example. Brokers are still used by large investors to help them move large chunks of stock where the market may not be able to fill the order immediately. The brokers take some risk in this action, and provide liquidity in doing so—since they help move capital to its most useful location—and thus brokers still provide a very useful service.
While brokers have always existed, the new stock market has also added a new breed of intermediary. This new breed of intermediary is known as the high-frequency trader (HFT). The high-frequency trader operates on speed, relying on location and advanced communications technology to learn about the movement of the market before others, and uses this knowledge to make winning trades.
To give you an indication of how important high-frequency trading has become, consider that at least half of the trades now being made in the United States are coming from high frequency traders.
Those who defend high-frequency trading argue that these quick trades actually help move money through the stock market, and thus add liquidity to the system (the way brokers do); and that, therefore, high-frequency traders provide a valuable service.
However, just how high-frequency trading works has largely remained a mystery to anyone outside of the industry itself; and many have become concerned that at least some forms of high-frequency trading are not so much liquidity-contributors as a way of scalping money off of trades that would have happened anyway.
In Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis follows one man who made it his mission to find out what was going on at the heart of HFT. That man is one Brad Katsuyama, a broker from the sleepy Canadian bank RBC. Ream more…
Preview: The unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world has become a significant issue in recent years. Indeed, the data indicate that in the past 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have surged into the stratosphere (and the higher up in the income hierarchy one is, the greater the increase has been), while the incomes of the large majority have stagnated. This has led to a level of inequality in wealth in the developed world not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. This much is without dispute.
Where there is dispute is in trying to explain just why the rise in inequality has taken place (and whether, and to what degree, it will continue in the future); and, even more importantly, whether it is justified. These questions are not merely academic, for the way in which we answer them informs public debate as well as policy measures—and also influences more violent reactions. Indeed, we need look no further than the recent Occupy Movement to see that the issue of increasing inequality is not only pressing, but potentially incendiary.
Given the import and the polarizing nature of the issue of inequality, it is all the more crucial that we begin by way of shedding as much light on the situation as possible. This is the impetus behind Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Read more…
Preview: Up until 15 to 20 years ago the instruments and methods used to study the brain were still somewhat primitive. Since this time, however, advances in brain-imaging and brain-probing technology have gone into overdrive—as have the computers needed to make sense of the data coming out of these technologies. The deluge began in the early to mid 1990’s with the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and it’s more powerful cousin the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it hasn’t stopped there. In addition to the MRI and fMRI, we now have a host of advanced imaging and probing technologies from the positron emission topography (PET) scan, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to optogenetics, to the Clarity technique, to the transcranial electromagnetic scanner (TES), to deep brain stimulation (DBS) and more. In addition to these new imaging and probing technologies we have also advanced greatly in understanding how genes are expressed in the brain.
The result of these new advances is that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 15 years than in all of history put together. And we are beginning to see real-world applications of this new understanding. For example, in the past decade scientists have learned to read the brain’s functioning to the point where they can now read (and recreate) thoughts and even dreams and imaginings directly from the brain; use the brain to directly control computers, and anything computers can control—including prosthetics (and even have these prosthetics send sensations back to the brain); implant and remove simple memories in the brain; create primitive versions of artificial brain structures; and also unravel at least some of the mysteries of mental illness and disease. Read more…
The sciences that focus on human behavior, meaning the social sciences, have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations. While valuable to a degree, these sources of evidence do have their shortcomings. Most significantly, surveys offer but indirect evidence of human behavior (and can also be compromised by deception and self-deception); while lab experiments tend to be somewhat artificial, and fail to capture the complexities of real life.
Recently, however, new digital technology has opened up a whole new way to study human behavior. This proves to be the case since mobile devices and sensors of all kinds are now able to record a dizzying array of human activity—everything from where we go, to what we buy, to whom we interact with and for how long, to our body language, and even our moods etc. When placed in the hands of social scientists these new sources of information can prove very valuable (and are far preferable than either surveys or lab experiments); for they allow scientists to study us in our natural environments—out in the real world—and they also allow scientists to study what we actually do, rather than what we say (which are sometimes quite different).
The method of investigating human behavior in our natural environments using digital technology has come to be called reality mining, and it is revolutionizing the social sciences.
One of the pioneers and leaders in the field of reality mining is Alex Pentland, a researcher out of MIT. Pentland’s main field of interest is using reality mining to explore the properties and patterns of interactions between people—what he calls social physics. Specifically, Pentland uses reality mining to investigate the social physics in a wide range of groups and situations, from social and peer groups; to social media platforms; to institutional settings such as schools and businesses; to even whole cities. And in his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science Pentland takes time out to catch us up on his findings. Read more…
Preview: That the earth’s climate is warming, and we are the main cause of this phenomenon (through the emission of greenhouse gases, including especially carbon), is now beyond dispute to anyone with an objective mind and an appreciation of science.
The clearest and most obvious effects of global warming are the melting of glacial ice and the corresponding rise in sea levels. But the effects of a warming world do not end here, we now know. The models tell us that warming also means less rain and even drought and desertification in some areas; more rain in others, often in deluges; stronger storms, such as hurricanes and cyclones; and an acidifying ocean.
On a human scale, this means salinated and eroding coast lines; desiccated farmland and more wild fires in drier areas; increased flooding and soil erosion in suddenly wetter areas; more destructive and deadly storms; and threatened sea life.
With all these negative effects, you would think that the people, companies and governments of the world would be eager to step in and do everything we can to stem the rising tide of climate change (including especially cutting emissions). Instead, however, what we have seen is much talk and little action.
There are several reasons for this complacency. Read more…
Preview: In the first machine age—otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution—we humans managed to build technologies that allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power like never before. The result, which has reverberated these past 200 years, has been an increase in economic productivity unprecedented in human history. And the corollary of this increase in productive power has been an increase in material standard of living and social development equally as unprecedented.
In the past 30 years, with the rise of computers and other digital technologies, we have moved from overcoming our physical limitations, to overcoming our mental ones. This is the second machine age. Though we are still at the dawn of the second machine age, it already shows at least as much promise in boosting productivity (and quality of life) as the first. Indeed, by various measures—including the standard ones of GDP and corporate profits—we can see that the past 30 years has witnessed an impressive steepening in productivity.
And this is just the beginning. For digital technology continues to advance at an exponential pace; more digital information is being produced (and kept) all the time (all of which has enormous economic potential); and new ways of combining existing (and new) ideas into newer and better ones are ever being found.
Still, what is equally apparent is that the benefits of this steepening in productivity have gone to the few, rather than the many. Indeed, while the top 20% of earners have seen their pay increase since the early 1980s (and the closer you are to the top the more dramatically your pay has increased), the bottom 80% has actually seen their wealth decrease. And the spread is widening ever more as we go. Read more…
Preview: The idea that we can boost our brain power through interventions of various kinds has been around a long time. Over the years, numerous drugs, diets and other practices (including everything from physical exercise to learning a new language or musical instrument to meditation to even zapping the brain with electrodes) have been purported to pump up our mental strength. And lately, a new practice has been added to this list: brain-training games and exercises. Indeed, in the past decade a whole new industry has emerged around brain-training programs. Built on the premise that specific types of mental activities can strengthen our cognitive skills and add to general intelligence, companies such as Lumosity and LearningRx have convinced millions of paying customers that their product will give them an edge in the brains department.
The more skeptical among us, however, may find ourselves wondering just what is the scientific basis behind all these brain games and other interventions. It was just this thought that occurred to science writer Dan Hurley; and so, following his skeptical sense, Hurley decided to investigate the matter for himself. What Hurley found was a scientific field that, though young, is bustling with activity (and controversy). Read more…