Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hindsight Is 2010

The NYTM's Year in Ideas is consistently good. My favorites for this edition were D.I.Y. Macro, Performance Enhancing Shoes, Relaxation Drinks, and The 2000's Were a Great Decade. Inspired by their ideas, my retrospective for the year will consist of twelve articles / blog posts, one for each month, that seem especially representative of the year in ideas.

January: "Lessons from a pandemic," Nature editorial, 685 words. The H1N1 virus ended up not being that lethal, but it could have been, and this article highlights the lessons. Among them is that six months is too long of a time for vaccine production, given that viruses now easily spread around the world in "a matter of weeks."

February: "The biomechanics of barefoot running," editor's summary, 283 words. Running on one's toes is healthier than running on one's heels, even though most running shoes promote the latter. This finding is largely academic for me personally, as over the years I have come to loathe jogging. Nevertheless, it is emblematic of the larger "back to nature" craze that has taken over in 2010. This includes the paleo diet, probiotics, and restroom posture designed to prevent hemorrhoids.

March: "Snake oil? The scientific evidence for health supplements," by David McCandless and Andy Perkins, infographic. Aside from being fascinating, this is a good example of an effort to harness the academic lit for the benefits of the masses. Also, it is representative of the open data movement, as the authors transparently aggregate their data set in a google doc, which anyone can view.

April: "The data-driven life," by Gary Wolf, 5808 words. Discusses the growing trend of self-experimentation. More generally, he discusses how many more people are using tech and data to inform decisions, trumping their raw intuition.

May: "The moral life of babies," by Paul Bloom, 6026 words. He discusses how our preference towards actors who "do the right thing" emerges very early. That is, it presumably emerges far earlier than the babies would be cogent enough to consciously reason about morality. This is part of a movement in psychology that is emphasizing the arbitrariness of our beliefs and decisions.

June: "Smarter than you think: IBM's supercomputer to challenge 'Jeopardy!' champions," by Clive Thompson, 6609 words. At any given point, the AI iteratively calculates the probability that an answer is correct, and then checks whether that probability passes a certain threshold. This probabilistic thinking seems to be invading fields beyond just machine learning, so it's important to understand.

July: "New developments in AI," by Steve Steinberg, 5496 words. An innocuous and perhaps unfortunate title, but a tour de force of a blog post. He discusses trends in smart cars and massive knowledge-bases, and speculates on how they will affect society. One sentence that's particularly near and dear to my heart is when he writes, "consider that 'what is the best burrito in SF' (an opinion), and 'what do most people consider the best burrito in SF' (a fact) are normally considered equivalent."

August: "A world without mosquitoes" by Janet Fang, 1929 words. She discusses whether we should try to eliminate all of these nasty, virulent insects. The downside is that it would mess with biodiversity in ways difficult to predict, while the upside is that it could save millions of lives. We will face plenty of these type of trade-offs in the coming years, specifically with respect to climate change and geoengineering, and more generally in changing aspects of our natural world that we disapprove of.

September: "Jumping to joy," by Robin Hanson, 212 words. He wonders whether we should experiment more with different lifestyles, and what our failure to do so implies about our precarious sense of self. Questioning which of our selves is the "real" one is trendy these days, boosted in part by things like the implicit association test. Experimentation is also enjoying a resurgence, championed by Dan Ariely.

October: "Lies, damned lies, and medical science", by David Freedman, 6022 words. Explains the problems with current scientific publication and data dissemination systems. Many scientists broadly agree with these critiques of their infrastructure, but lack personal incentives to change them. 

Movember: "Hangover theory and morality plays," by Steve Waldman, 1986 words. He discusses the need to frame causes of the recession in moral terms that anyone can understand, synthesizes relevant economic theories, and holds no punches. It'd be hard to describe the ideas of 2010 without including reactions to the recession.

December: "The hazards of nerd supremacy: The case of Wikileaks," by Jaron Lanier, 4704 words. Wikileaks is one of the defining stories of the year. He explains that we might support the hackers in our hearts, because we perceive them to be the underdogs, but that in our heads we should be much more skeptical.

It's been a fun year of blogging and thanks as always for reading.