Most experts were surprised at the news that human DNA seems to contain less than 25000 genes.
Since then signs have emerged that the rest of the DNA (often called junk DNA is quite active, with about 80% of the DNA being transcribed into RNA even though only 1-2% constitutes protein-coding genes.
There’s a lot of mystery about what, if anything, most of that RNA does, but it’s not all junk. One such RNA molecule, HOTAIR, appears to control expression of some genes. RNA has an ability to fold into shapes that may rival proteins in their diversity, so there’s no good reason to think that creating proteins comes close to describing the set of functions that RNA performs.

Book review: Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams by Paul Martin.
This book makes convincing claims that most people give too little thought to an activity that occupies a large fraction of our life.
It has lots of little pieces of information which can be read as independent essays. Here are some claims I found interesting:

  • “sleepiness is responsible for far more deaths on the roads than alcohol or drugs”.
  • Tired people rate their abilities higher than people who slept well do.
  • Poor sleep contributes to poor health a good deal more than medical diagnoses suggest, but hospitals are designed in ways that hinder patients’ sleep.
  • Idle time was apparently a status symbol up to a century ago, now being busy is a status symbol. This should have economic implications that someone ought to explore in depth.
  • People in a vegetative state have REM sleep. This sounds like cause to re-evaluate the label we apply to that state.

While the book has many references, it doesn’t connect specific claims to references, and I’m sometimes left wondering why I should believe a claim. How can boredom be a modern concept? When he says “no person has ever gone completely without sleep for more than a few days”, how does he know he can dismiss people who claim to have not slept for years?

Book review: How Is Quantum Field Theory Possible? by Sunny Y. Auyang
This book contains some good ideas, but large parts of it are too hard for me to get anything out of, both due to an assumption that the reader knows a good deal about quantum mechanics and due to a style which probably requires rereading most parts multiple times in order to decipher even those parts which don’t require an understanding of quantum mechanics.
I was impressed by her explanation of how we should understand the uncertainty of position and momentum measurements. She says the quantum entities have genuine deterministic properties, but we shouldn’t try to think of position and momentum as properties of any persistent entities. They are properties associated with specific measurements. The properties of persistent entities such as atoms are mostly stranger than what we can measure, and measurements only give us indirect evidence of those properties.
Her descriptions of coordinate systems used in quantum physics seem inconsistent with the impressions I got from Smolin’s Trouble with Physics. Smolin implies (but doesn’t clearly state) that quantum theory retains Newtonian background dependent coordinates. Auyang’s descriptions of quantum coordinate systems seem very different. It’s clear that I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s needed to understand these issues.

Book Review: One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal by Alice Domurat Dreger
This book raises questions about peoples’ reactions to conjoined twins that may have important implications for many other unusual traits. It eloquently questions common assumptions about the desire to seem normal. It has led me to wonder about the extent to which healthcare is used to make people more normal at the cost of making them less healthy.
The book presents strong evidence that conjoined twins who remain conjoined are at least as well off as those who are separated, and some evidence that separations reduce the twins’ life expectancy, possibly by a significant amount.
Remarkably, of the twins who remained conjoined to adulthood, only one pair requested separation (they didn’t survive it), and among those whose refused separation are a number whose twin had just died (which meant that separation appeared to offer the only chance for the remaining twin to survive).
This doesn’t mean conjoined twins are better off that way (those who have been separated seem equally satisfied with their status), but it strongly suggests that decisions to perform separations are motivated by something other than concern over the twins wellbeing. And it suggests that people who claim things like “The proposed operation would give these children’s bodies the integrity that nature denied them” are imposing their values on others in ways which would be considered unacceptable if the victims had a little political power.
The book reports a fair number of statements by doctors (and occasionally parents) which suggest they consider a normal appearance worth risking health to achieve. The book also theorizes that having a normal child is an important enough part of parents’ identity to override their interest in their children’s’ wellbeing. The book also reports some indications that surgeons are biased toward surgery for unusual problems by the fame if can bring them.
Unfortunately, there isn’t as much evidence as there ought to be about the health effects of separations. The book claims (plausibly, but without supporting references), that “most medicine is not yet evidence-based”, with most surgical decisions being based on storytelling rather than careful studies.
The book raises some important questions about cases where doctors think the only way to save one twin is to kill the other. The author points out some strong similarities between the medical killing that is done in some of these cases and a hypothetical case where a heart is taken from a live singleton (i.e. not conjoined) donor to save another (which all would agree is wrong). One difference that she fails to consider is that if you consider the heart property, it looks like jointly owned property in one case and individually owned property in the other, and we should expect some differences to result from that (although doctors may still be more willing to kill one twin than that perspective would justify).
One interesting example that the book provides of medicalizing a difference is the attempt to get doctors to recognize Drapetomania, a “disease” which causes slaves to run away.
How widespread is the practice of impairing health to make people more normal? Surgeries on intersex children probably create modest health risks. Commonly used medicines to deal with ordinary colds suppress annoying symptoms that are tools the body uses to fight the disease, and tend to make the disease last longer (see the book Why We Get Sick : The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph Nesse). A child with 3 arms makes doctors want to chop it off, presumably at some risk.
Are these part of a wider pattern that would help explain why increased healthcare spending doesn’t seem to make us healthier?
On a loosely related note, I just ran across an unsettling complaint that Prozac seems to help too many people:

“There’s nobody nonsyndromal. You can give Prozac to anyone you want.”

Which is anathema to what medical science is supposed to be about. “We try to convince people there’s some specificity to what we do,” says Millman. “But this is embarrassing.”

Is this an indication that people don’t want drugs to do anything other than treat abnormal conditions (i.e. that they consider it wrong to improve on normal conditions)? Or does it reflect concern that there will be less demand for doctors’ skills if no diagnosis is relevant to the decision to use it? (This seems less likely given that they can still play a role in monitoring side effects).

I was inspired to read this book by a brief comment from Robin Zebrowski at the recent Human Enhancement Conference.

The conference on Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights this past weekend had many boring parts and a few interesting tidbits.
Many of the speakers were left-wing ideologues who seemed to be directing their speeches only to others from the same small set of left-wing academics. There were fewer libertarians at the conference than I expected, but still enough that it was strange how much of a disconnect there was between the ideology shown in the speeches and the ideology I knew from elsewhere that many people held but were being quiet about.
There was plenty of concern about whether increased control over one’s body would decrease diversity, but I heard little that enlightened me on that subject. There have clearly been many technologies that increased diversity, such as tattoos. There are some that have decreased diversity because there is a substantial consensus about what’s best (e.g. eyesight – it’s unclear why we should be concerned about a shortage of people who can’t see well enough to drive). Then there are a few traits such as degree of autism where there’s some uncertainty whether reduced diversity would be good. There are some pontificators (I didn’t hear anyone this focused at the conference) who think they know better than the masses what the right amount of diversity is, and that their opinions should be imposed on the masses. But the evidence for the pontificators’ expertise and the masses propensity to make mistakes is generally underwhelming, so I can’t find much reason to be as concerned about the effects of enhancement technology as I am about the desire to impose expert opinion on those who don’t want it.
Hank Greely pointed out that the letter of the law authorizes the FDA to regulate anything that could be considered a body enhancement, including clothing. So only the FDA’s interest in obeying the spirit of the law will deter them from regulating external enhancements.
One amusing report of unwanted side effects of an enhancement technology is the increase in sexually transmitted diseases in seniors following the introduction of Viagra.
Aubrey de Grey made an interesting argument that the most effective approach to convincing people to support a cure for aging is to persuade them that they are being logically inconsistent when they fail to do so. He has a point, but it’s weaker than he thinks. He gave several examples of problems that were allegedly solved by persuading society to be more logically consistent, but I generally doubt that’s what happened. One example was tolerance of homosexuality. I see few signs that logical arguments had much effect on that. I think the biggest change came from peer pressure, which became increasingly popular as gays became able to migrate to places where there were enough gays to safely start exerting peer pressure. Another factor was the shift away from the belief that the main purpose of sex should be reproduction. That initially happened due to changing circumstances (reduced reliance on children to support elderly parents). I’d say that has generally produced beliefs that are more inconsistent as people abandon the least convenient symptoms of the belief (e.g. contraception) but are much slower to abandon symptoms that are remote from their experience. I think similar theories could be made about some other examples he gave (slavery becoming more expensive to enforce when railroads made it easier for slaves to escape to a non-slave state).

A recent report says that switching from a meat-heavy diet to a vegetarian diet is as valuable for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions as switching to driving the right car. And that if you eat fish, switching from large fish to things like sardines and anchovies makes a big difference.
I’m unsure whether to believe the magnitudes of the differences, but the general idea appears right.

I went to an interesting talk Wednesday by the CTO of D-Wave. He indicated that their quantum computing hardware is working well enough that their biggest problems are understanding how to use them and explaining that to potential customers.
This implies that they are much further advanced than the impressions I’ve gotten from sources unconnected with D-Wave suggest is plausible. D-Wave is being sufficiently secretive that I can’t put too much confidence in what they imply, but the degree of secrecy doesn’t seem unusual, and I don’t see any major reasons to doubt them other than the fact that they’re way ahead of what I gather many experts in the field think is possible. Steve Jurvetson’s investment in D-Wave several years ago is grounds for taking them fairly seriously.
The implications if this is real are concentrated in a few special applications (quantum computing sounds even more special purpose than I had previously realized), but for molecular modelling (and fields that depend on it such as drug discovery) it means some really important changes. Modelling that previously required enormous amounts of cpu power and expertise to produce imperfect approximations will apparently now require little more than the time and expertise needed to program a quantum computer (plus whatever exorbitant fees D-Wave charges).


After wading through many online dating web sites, and being depressed at having to choose between searches on superficial features which return thousands of uninteresting results, or keyword searches which rarely return any results, I found OkCupid! (thanks to Wayne Radinsky). I have some hope that it will do for online dating what Google did for searches.
It encourages people to provide it with lots of information that can be used to compare people, mainly by asking lots of yes/no or multiple choice questions (many submitted by users). A few examples (selected more for their amusement value than importance):

Eventually, a computer will write the best novel ever written.

I should be able to sell my vote for cash if I feel like it.

Would you rather get caught masturbating by your mother or father?

Could you date a giant carnivorous reptile?

Would you ever date or mess around with a good friend’s ex?

Ethnicity restrictions? You racist. Please note that unless you leave these blank (which we recommend), you’ll only match with people who’ve submitted their ethnicities.

They have some way of deducing from user responses how valuable each question is.
They’ve written and open sourced their own web server.
It’s free and plans to stay that way, and is supported by ads.
I’m a bit disappointed that they claim the site shows “a disregard for profit”. I doubt they’re any less interested in profit than Google is, although they’ve clearly avoided the cover-your-ass culture of large bureaucracies. The site doesn’t yet have enough people to be terribly valuable, but it appears to be growing quickly enough that it will succeed.
So for I’ve got one message from a person who is a good deal more interesting than anyone I’ve met on the usual dating sites in quite a while, except that he’s in Pennsylvania (OkCupid doesn’t seem very good at handling geographic preferences).
I’m annoyed that their menu for languages in which I’m fluent offers Khmer, C++, LISP, and some languages I don’t recognize, but not Python.
It has a Friendster-like provision for lists of friends. If I know you and you become an OkCupid member, please let me know.

This book provides a moderately strong argument that the production of cheap oil is peaking, although it isn’t as conclusive an argument as I’d hoped for, and is only a little bit better than the brief summaries of Hubbert’s ideas that I’d previously seen on the net.
Much of the book consists of marginally relevant stories of his career as a geologist. He occasionally slips in some valuable tidbits, such as that Texas once had an oil cartel.
He does a mediocre job of analyzing the consequences of scarcer oil. He provides a few hints of how natural gas could replace oil, but says much less about the costs of switching than I’d hoped for. His comments on how to protect yourself are misleading:

In the past, a useful way of insuring major producers and consumers against the effect of a price changes was purchasing futures contracts. However, the ordinary futures contracts extend for a year or two. The oil problem extends for 10 years or more. The oil problem extends for 10 years or more. Anyone who agrees to supply oil 10 years from now, for a price agreed on today, very likely will disappear into bankruptcy before the contract matures.

At the time the book was first published (2001), crude oil futures contracts extended about 7 years out. They weren’t liquid enough to hedge a large fraction of consumption, but if a desire to hedge had caused them to say in 2001 that crude would be at $60/barrel in 2008 rather than saying it would be in the low twenties, that would both have signaled a need to react and reduced the risks of doing so. The idea that bankruptcy would threaten such futures reflects his ignorance of the futures markets. An oil producer who sold futures as a hedge will almost certainly not sell more futures than it has oil to deliver on. Speculators might lose their shirts, but futures brokers have the experience needed to ensure that the defaults are small enough for the brokers to absorb (see, for example, what happened in the gold mania of the late 70s).

Patri Friedman asks why websites often require users to deal with annoying pulldown menus such as those listing 50 states. I expect that the main reason is that users who are allowed to type in text will enter it in nonstandard forms. For example, Massachusetts will be entered as Mass or MA, or if limited to 2 characters the user might not remember the correct 2-letter code. Sites that need to calculate sales taxes differently for different state, or who think (not necessarily with good reason) that they need to analyze customers by location for marketing reasons, need either standardized input or a good deal of imagination to predict all variants they will get. Imagination isn’t cheap.
I suspect there’s also a desire by some designers to show their status over users by preventing users from entering unexpected input.
I doubt these factors are enough to explain all examples of annoying pulldown menus, but I’d guess they explain at least half.