Growing Grandmasters

Three sisters were raised by their parents as a eugenics experiment and given intensive training in their first interest, chess. They are three of the best female chess players ever. Is it nature plus nurture or nurture alone? Here’s their story, with plenty of detail but easy to read: The Grandmaster Experiment.

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Data-mining for terrorists doesn’t work

From Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, 2009: Data-mining for terrorists would be lovely if it worked.

If you have 10 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, and you assess them all with this test, then you will correctly get your one true positive and – on average – 1 false positive. If you have 100 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, you will get your one true positive and, on average, 10 false positives. If you’re looking for one suspect among 1000 people, you will get your suspect, and 100 false positives. Once your false positives begin to dwarf your true positives, a positive result from the test becomes pretty unhelpful.

Remember this is a screening tool, for assessing dodgy behaviour, spotting dodgy patterns, in a general population. We are invited to accept that everybody’s data will be surveyed and processed, because MI5 have clever algorithms to identify people who were never previously suspected. There are 60 million people in the UK, with, let’s say, 10,000 true suspects. Using your unrealistically accurate imaginary screening test, you get 6 million false positives. At the same time, of your 10,000 true suspects, you miss 2,000.

This is simply unworkable. But that probably won’t stop governments from spending billions and invading the privacy of all of us trying to do the impossible.

Reason Rally scenes with audio from Dawkins

March 23, 2012

This video shows typical scenes from the Reason Rally in Washington DC on March 24. The audio track is excerpts from Richard Dawkins’ speech to the rally.

This March was the warmest on record for much of the U.S.

Temperature anomalies for March 2012 compared to average since 1981

The map above shows anomalies compared to the average from 1981-2010, which in itself is a shifted baseline since temperatures started to warm up noticeably in 1986.

Over 16,000 high-temperature records were broken in the U.S. during March 2012, and by large margins of around 4.5° Centigrade or 9.8° Fahrenheit. The U.S. Northeast was particularly warm, which enabled tornadoes to form. The Pacific Northwest coast was cooler than usual right along the ocean. All regions except the Pacific Northwest had unusual temperatures, with either above-average temperatures or an unusual number of warm days: “NOAA confirms unprecedented warmth in March.” Maps are available at NOAA.

The map below shows state temperature records for March. The red is warmest in 118 years. The orange is warmest in 113 – 117 years, and so on.

Temperature records: warmest/coldest in this many years

Autism from genetic damage

Large-scale genetic analysis allows scientists to find abnormal DNA in congenital diseases such as autism. Better diagnosis is helping doctors to detect the signs of autism in babies as young as six months. The current evidence shows that new mutations, mostly in the sperm of fathers 35 and over, are associated with autism. Unfortunately, it’s not just one mutation or genetic marker but almost a different one in every family: “Gene studies begin to unravel autism puzzle” (2012)

Also, it seems to be a genetic weakness or predisposition: autism is almost unknown in Africa but Africans who move to England start to see it. It has been associated with a lack of Vitamin D, which perhaps protects against the brain anomalies that cause autism: “What if Vitamin D deficiency is a cause of autism?” (2009). That children in the developed world are spending more time indoors could contribute to the problem.

Quoting Adam Savage

Doesn’t he sound like an action hero or intrepid explorer?

At the end of his Reason Rally speech, Adam Savage of Mythbusters provided one of the best ‘sound bites’ of the day:

I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me; and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score —is me!

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