Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

Big Brother is watching you and you’re telling him everything he needs to know (if you’re on Facebook)

Big Brother is watching you and you’re telling him everything he needs to know (if you’re on Facebook). Here’s why. A computer analysis of your ‘likes’ predicts the results of your completing a 100 item personality questionnaire, better than those whom you’ve friended on Facebook. [ Proc.Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 112 pp. 1036 – 1040 ’15 ] Has the gory details.

We do know that people lie when completing such things and the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory) has a scale for lying. Apparently everyone steals from mommy’s purse at some point, and your lie score on the MMPI goes up if you say you never did.

The study used a mere 86,220 volunteers who completed the 100-item International Personality Item Pool (IPIP) Five-Factor Model of personality questionnaire, measuring traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The sample used in this study was obtained from the myPersonality project. myPersonality was a popular Facebook application that offered to its users psychometric tests and feedback on their scores. The data was anonymized and is in the public domain. How normal such an individual can be I leave up to you.

Human personality judgments were obtained from the participants’ Facebook friends, who were asked to describe a given participant using 10 of the 100 items of the IPIP personality measure. E.g. the friends were filling out the 10 items as they thought the subject would (or as they saw the subject).

So it’s the same questionnaire. The paper pitted a computer algorithm based on your Likes to predict your IPIP responses against those of your so-called Facebook friends who presumably know much more about you than just your Facebook Likes. The algorithm won. It didn’t win by much. Computer-based judgments (r = 0.56) correlate more strongly with participants’ self-ratings than average human judgements did (r = 0.49). Surprisingly, neither did terribly well, but then we all know that our judgement of ourselves is usually rather different than others. It’s why city people often tell you what they’re ‘really like’, while Montanans don’t. They know that there are so few people around that they’ll see you again. Your long term behavior will tell them everything they need to know.

Update 31 Jan ’15 — I told the people I play piano trios with about the paper. The cellist (a retired Actuary) had an excellent explanation of why the algorithm was more accurate than the friends individually. See if you can think of the reason.

She notes that the 3 of us interact with each other individually, e.g. we act differently for each of our friends, exposing just the parts of our personalities we choose. They aren’t the same for everyone. Obvious, now that she’s thought of it (did you?)

As usual the Poets have said it better

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:

Robert Burns (1786)

What a difference a change of administration makes

This is not a scientific post. Having a son who majored in journalism educated me to the various and sundry ways news is slanted. Here in Massachusetts, the administration changed from 8 years of Democratic governance to Republican. Liberals shouldn’t fret as the legislature remains 90% Democratic.

For the past 8 years the local press has been carrying water for increased spending and taxes. We have been regaled with headlines decrying “Draconian cuts” and budget gaps. Such was the case with the outgoing administration, where stories began appearing last December about budget gaps on the order of 700 million. I wrote the reporter asking what this represented in terms of the total budget and never got anything back, ditto for the response from one of the few Republican senators still standing. Throughout the decade I could never get a straight answer as to the actual amount of the budget and the year to year changes in same.

Now we have the following, and from the same reporter who never responded last month. Here’s what the reporter was forced to report.

“tax revenues are coming in on target, with an approximately 4.5 percent increase over last year. However, state spending is on target to increase by 7.3 percent“. It will be amusing to see if ‘Draconian cut” stories appear as they have in the past. Mr. Micawber always had a budget gap and so do we.

Along the same lines here’s a heartwarming headline, to disguise an appeal for higher taxes.

Derek Lowe always regrets posting anything remotely political on his blog “In the Pipeline”. Hopefully I won’t. If you must respond, please be civil.

The New York Times and NOAA flunk Chem 101

As soon as budding freshman chemists get into their first lab they are taught about significant figures. Thus 3/7 = .4 (not .428571 which is true numerically but not experimentally) Data should never be numerically reported with more significant figures than given by the actual measurement.

This brings us to yesterday’s front page story (with the map colored in red) “2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics“. Well it did if you believe that a .02 degree centigrade difference in global mean temperature is significant. The inconvenient fact that the change was this small was not mentioned until the 10th paragraph. It was also noted there that .02 C is within experimental error. Do you have a thermometer that measures temperatures that exactly? Most don’t, and I doubt that NOAA does either. Amusingly, the eastern USA was the one area which didn’t show the rise. Do you think that measurements here are less accurate than in Africa, South America Eurasia? Could it be the other way around?

It is far more correct to say that Global warming has essentially stopped for the past 14 years, as mean global temperature has been basically the same during that time. This is not to say that we aren’t in a warm spell. Global warming skeptics (myself included) are not saying that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas, and they are not denying that it has been warm. However, I am extremely skeptical of models predicting a steady rise in temperature that have failed to predict the current decade and a half stasis in global mean temperature. Why should such models be trusted to predict the future when they haven’t successfully predicted the present.

It reminds me of the central dogma of molecular biology years ago “DNA makes RNA makes Protein”, and the statements that man and chimpanzee would be regarded as the same species given the similarity of their proteins. We were far from knowing all the players in the cell and the organism back then, and we may be equally far from knowing all the climate players and how they interact now.

The Battle for the Soul of Smith College

The following letter to the Smith college newspaper “The Sophian” appeared in the current issue. Disclaimer: our neice went there, I’ve played chamber music with one of the Physics profs there, I’m currently studying a math book with an emeritus Smith prof who wrote it, I’ve audited a course there, I may take piano lessons from a retired music prof there. It’s a great institution with plenty of intelligent articulate undergraduates. Wendy Kaminer is a Smith Alumna. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

Chris Pyle

Mount Holyoke Professor

Thanks to The Sophian for publishing a transcript of what Wendy Kaminer actually said in New York. Now it is perfectly clear she is not a racist, but used the “n-word,” unexpurgated, to make a point about those caring souls who, in their effort to protect the sensibilities of students, violate free speech. The hyperventilating that followed Kaminer’s uncensored prose proves her point conclusively.

Imagine that Mark Twain had been invited to read some of his writings on campus, but that Kaminer’s critics discovered that he had used the “n-word” liberally in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” What should the college do? Disinvite him? Ask him to tone down his remarks because they might traumatize someone? Post “trigger warnings” all over campus?

The Sophian would publish Twain’s speech, but post warnings, like those that preceded the Kaminer transcript, declaring that “This author is guilty of ‘racism/racial slurs, sexist/misogynist slurs,’ and writes about ‘race-based violence.’” Twain’s admirers might be offended by such prissiness, but that’s too bad. The Sophian has a moral duty to give its adult readers early warning of impending isms on it pages. Otherwise they might be shocked, like little children confronted by age-inappropriate messages.

Unnoticed in last month’s kerfuffle was Kaminer’s provocative suggestion: “colleges and universities should . . . fire almost all of the student life administrators.” Why? Because they are the primary source of the patronizing idea that college students, especially women, are psychologically delicate souls, easily wounded by unvarnished prose. It is the duty of student life deans to create “safe spaces” for all students, free from words and ideas that might traumatize them (or anyone else).

These deans are direct descendants of Harriet Bowdler, the Victorian lady who persuaded her brother John, a publisher, to sanitize the great books so that they would be suitable for the fragile sensibilities of women and servants. As a result, it wasn’t until the 1950s that professors could find an unexpurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays to assign to their students.

Kaminer is not the only critic of these well-meaning deans. The American Association of University Professors rejects the “presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged” is both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” The American Library Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose content warnings for much the same reason that Smith professors once opposed Joe McCarthy’s censors who, when they weren’t removing books from libraries, stamped them with warning labels.

“When labeling is an attempt to prejudice attitudes,” the AAUP warns, it is a censor’s tool…If ‘The House of Mirth’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ carried a warning about suicide, students might overlook the other questions about wealth, love, deception and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about.” The AAUP additionally says, “Trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g. dismay, distress, disapproval) and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.”

When President McCartney’s committee meets, it will struggle over nothing less than the soul of the college. Will Smith continue to be a liberal arts college for strong women, or will it become a therapeutic shelter for the easily offended?

Professor Chris Pyle


Newer isn’t better in web page display

Something bad has happened to the displays of the journals I read online (Nature, Science, Cell, Nature and PNAS). It’s also happened to this WordPress as it displays the blog. Suddenly it is no longer possible to expand what is shown horizontally. This is important (to me) as I’m slightly visually impaired, which requires enlarging text size for readability. Limiting horizontal expansion, while increasing text size means that there is less on each line. This makes reading more irritating than it needs to be.

For an example of where this still is not happening, see In the Pipeline by Derek Lowe.

Does anyone out there know of a workaround? I see the same problem in FireFox and Safari.

I’m going to write WordPress to see if they have any suggestions. Their help service is remarkable, friendly, fast and even more amazing — free

The peculiar blindness of the highly intelligent

This is not a scientific post. While at Graduate Alumni day last April at Harvard, I listened to the main speaker go on and on about how irrational (translation: stupid) people were when it came to risk, particularly that of flying after 9/11. In terms of miles traversed, flying is far safer than driving. The speaker was Louise Richardson
PhD ’89, government, presently Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Her topic was “Terrorism: what have we learned?”

Here’s who she is and what she’s done. In the years after 9/11, in addition to her teaching and management roles, Professor Richardson gave over 300 talks and lectures on terrorism and counter-terrorism to educational and private groups as well as policy makers, the military, intelligence, and business communities. She has testified before the United States Senate and has appeared on CNN, NBC, the BBC, PBS, NPR, Fox and a host of other broadcast outlets. Her work has been featured in numerous international periodicals.

Clearly, she’s listened to. As I sat there I wondered how her advice for society could be any good, given her contempt for the way most of its members think. I’m sure in the several hundred of so listeners there were some adamantly opposed nuclear power. Two years previously we heard professor Daniel Schrag talk on a geologist’s perspective on global warming, saying there was no such thing as ‘clean coal’ and how slowly carbon dioxide is cleared from the atmosphere. Clearly, nuclear power is cleanest mode of energy production, with the lowest risk etc. etc. Why are some highly educated (and presumably intelligent) people against it?

Which brings us to the mind set of Professor Gruber. Amazingly, Howard Dean (a man of the left) had the following to say about Professor Gruber and Obamacare on MSNBC

First Gruber: “The problem is not that Gruber said it– the problem is that he thinks it”

Then ObamaCare “The core problem under the damn law is that it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is”

How could free health care be so unpopular.

The common delusion of the highly intelligent is that since they think so well, everyone should think like them, and if they don’t their behavior and institutions should be directed by their intellectual betters. Nothing much has changed in Cambridge in 54 years. This mindset was just as common then as it is now. You can see how well it’s working.

Well, probably most readers of this blog are highly educated (technically at least), and years away from dealing with the mass of humanity. Most doctors in practice see the full spectrum of the populace, because everyone gets sick.

Here’s what’s out there. Part of the neurologic examination is the mental status examination. One assesses a variety of things — orientation, speech, affect, calculation, memory etc. etc. One part often used to assess higher cognitive function is the ability to abstract. People are asked things like, what’s similar about an apple and an orange, a table and a chair. What’s different about a river and a lake. They can be asked for the meaning of familial proverbs “a stitch in time saves nine, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The point of the mental status is to separate the normal from the abnormal.

I pretty much had to abandon similarities and differences because so many normally functioning people thought extremely concretely. For the apple/orange similarity I’d get back they’re both round, or (worse) one is red the other is orange (not a similarity), or the proverb would be repeated back verbatim. I’d guess that 1/3 of people think this concretely.That table and chair were both furniture or that apples and oranges were both fruit was only the response about 60% of the time. You can either call the 1/3 abnormal (which means you need to redefine normal) or decide that the test is useless for picking up pathology. I chose the latter.

This is why I’ll only interview high school students for my Ivy league alma mater (Princeton). Princeton needs them as much as they need Princeton. They bring a dose of reality to a very cloistered environment.

Maybe it is the system after all

This is a totally NONscientific post.

My late father and his brother had the classic liberal conservative argument for the 60 years or so I was intellectually conscious enough to register it (and probably longer). His brother would say ‘it’s the system’ – all we have to do is change it and things would be better. My father would say people will corrupt any system.

Our family was full of people of the left, and my mother recalls someone arguing in all seriousness that Finland had attacked Russia in WWII. I can well recall the gloom pervading a family gathering after Eisenhower beat Stevenson, and the imprecations of disaster to follow.

Based on decades of medical practice, I tended to agree with my father. Now I’m not so sure.

But first 3 examples:

The Veteran’s Administration system: The original impetus for a system was to care for injured soldiers in peacetime. Who could possibly object to that. Yet as a resident in the 70’s our acute ward was so filled with very chronic patients (20 year paraplegics) that we had to turn away the truly acutely ill. We also had one paraplegic young man shot while robbing a convenience store (he was on active duty at the time, so this was considered service connected). I’m not even mentioning the current scandal about falsified wait times, while those in charge gave themselves performance awards.

Workman’s compensation: Who could argue with compensating an honest workman for a disabling injury suffered on the job? Read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair about life in the Chicago Stockyards a century ago if you don’t agree. Then there was the Rerat law firm (no kidding) specializing in suing the Burlington Northern Railway for injuries. This leads into example #3

Disability: Disabled people should be supported by the society at large. Who would disagree. I got an early taste in the service from ’68 – ’70 doing medical boards. No problem for the war injured to get disability. But then there were the general officers about to retire, whom the system somehow found barely able to function. Then look at the scandal at the Long Island Railroad, where for a time, a corrupt group of union officials and docs made sure nearly 100% of retirees were 100% disabled. See

The real problem is with Social Security Disability payments. Here the frauds and grafters were basically stealing from my disabled MS, muscular dystrophy, stroke patients. These are people who truly need the money. I thought the system would bankrupt from them. But apparently it hasn’t.

There are 3 excellent systemic ideas which have been significantly corrupted by the people using it.

So my dad was right and my uncle, a man of the Left was wrong.

They’re both gone now, my dad at 100, my uncle at 94. Uncle Irv wouldn’t like why I’m now coming around to his position — it is the system (at least in some cases).

What changed my mind? Venezuela. This is a country sitting on the largest proven reserves of oil, which has begun to import oil. It should be fabulously rich, now that the leader is ruling by decree for the poor and downtrodden. It is one of 3 countries in the world rationing food. There is no excuse for this — no US embargo (Cuba), no war fought on its soil in the past 100 years (North Korea).

It must be the system there. Sorry uncle Irv, it’s your system not dad’s.

Conservatives sometimes bash the left for being unpatriotic. Not uncle Irv — he was at the battle of Kasserine pass in North Africa, and the battle of the Bulge in Europe, and is at rest in a military cemetery.

Another financial piety bites the dust

If only businesses looked past the next quarterly earnings report all would be well. Productivity and profits would increase if CEOs would think long term. Investors hunger for such thinking.

Well, a large firm with earnings that beat analysts estimate by over 5% did that exactly yesterday and the stock dropped 6% today, Revenue rose 59%, but costs rose 41%.

The head, a brash youngster spoke saying that the ‘company’s long-term goals stretch more than a decade into the future and require “investing aggressively”.

Yes, this happened to Facebook. So much for the long term view

Who said this?

“You have to take care of all the sectors in —- as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in —– who earn less than $1,800 a month.”

The present system serves to “insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies.”

Clue: It is not a Republican dinosaur or the Koch brothers.

No it’s the Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying as reported 2 days ago in the New York Times —

Amazing isn’t it? Well, perhaps not. In March 2013 my wife and I saw Bentley dealerships in Beijing. In the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong, there appeared to be one high end jewelry store (Cartier, etc. etc.) per block.

What’s a fellow-traveller to do?

An experiment of nature

Yesterday’s post concerned the fact that 2 nurses taking care of a patient in Texas had been infected (presumably even after taking all the recommended precautions). Given that, I was concerned about the possibility of airborne spread.

Bryan wrote in to say the following:

“It seems doubtful airborne spread was involved. Remember, the Texas patient was initially sent home after showing symptoms, yet none of his family members were infected. Only those health workers directly involved in his care (and thus exposed to infected bodily fluids) have been infected, consistent with the idea that the disease can be transmitted only though contact with infected bodily fluids.”

I certainly hope he is right.

In something right out a novel, the possibility of airborne spread is now going to be empirically tested, as one of the two infected nurses flew to Cleveland, and then back to Texas in the 24 hours prior to her diagnosis. She apparently had a slight fever on boarding. So 100+ people were in a confined space with her for a few hours.

It’s why I don’t read fiction — reality is far more fantastic than anything writers can produce.

One more bizarre development. Here in Massachusetts, legislators today are scheduled to hear about the readiness of the state’s hospitals to handle Ebola. Amazingly, they will only get input from hospital CEOs. No nurses, thank you. Naturally the nurses are pissed as they should be (and so should you if you live in the state). If there were ever a time to hear from boots on the ground about Ebola readiness, it is now.

Addendum 17 Oct ’14

The Obama administration has just appointed a former chief of staff for former vice-president Gore and present vice-president Biden as the “Ebola czar”. Presumably, not for his medical expertise but for his ability to coordinate various governmental agencies, which was hardly the problem in the CDC’s response to the Texas cases. Hopefully, this will not be another case of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but I’m not optimistic —

Now for some molecular biology. The genome of Ebola is RNA which mutates much more rapidly than DNA genomes. It does this so quickly that at death from AIDS (another RNA virus), there are so many viral variants present that the infecting ensemble is called a quasiSpecies. With a large population infected in Africa there is more Ebola virus extant than at any time in the past. There is some reason to hope that natural selection for a more transmissible form of Ebola in the large infected human population will not occur (the AIDS virus hasn’t become more infectious over the years). This is only a hope.


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