Peg has a PhD in neuroscience and has a mind like a cocker spaniel. New scientific questions are like squeaky toys. She makes her living consulting with university faculty members on the fine art of grantsmanship, writes fiction for fun, and considers herself a wetware hacker.

“A false sense of precision”

“Whenever you hear the term ‘Darwinian’ from anyone other than historians of science, assume the crash position; it’s going to get real ugly.”

The quote is from a blogger known as Mike the Mad Biologist. The title of the post is When Economists Misunderstand Biology, an entry he wrote in response to economist Russ Roberts’ piece called What is economics good for?. In Roberts’ opening paragraph, he refers to his previous argument that macroeconomics is “deeply flawed and not a science”. He goes on to describe that economist Friedrich Hayek (the original anti-Keynesian) felt that to label economics a science gave “a false sense of precision and understanding.”
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The brain, the computer, and the economy

“The brain, the computer, and the economy: all three are devices whose purpose is to solve fundamental information problems in coordinating the activities of individual units – the neurons, the transistors, or individual people.” Robert J. Schiller

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of neuroeconomics. The materialist neuroscience side of my brain likes the idea that behavior – even behavior resulting from emergent properties of complex networks – is quantifiable and predictable. It’s only predictable if you know all the input parameters (and you can’t know that Subject X has an aversion to green for reasons that have something to do with a lollipop at Coney Island when he was six). But the central fallacy of economics has been the “rational actor” paradigm, which is based on the assumption that individuals make rational choices when it comes to money and will always behave to maximize their own economic interests. They don’t. Economist with a clue understand this. Really smart economists are trying to understand the underlying why and how. Let’s start with the experimental result from psychology showing that humans are more likely to make a bad economic decision out of fear of loss than they are like to make that decision out of hope of gain. Does information have any effect?
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DIY biotechnology

A recent news item in Nature‘s web site goes into a fairly long description of the biohackers, and the the title of the article tells it all: Garage biotech: Life hackers. So what is life hacking? Do it yourself molecular biology, viewing biological systems as equivalent to electronic or software systems. It looks to me right now that it’s at the DNA equivalent of phone hacking. That’s not an exact metaphor, but garage labs are created by those just as hacking-oriented as the early phone phreakers. Biopunk – more than John’s novels. Continue reading

The human genome sequence’s 10th anniversary collided with the invalidation of a major DNA patent

The US patent office has made it very clear that purified DNA is not the same, in their view, as the DNA in each of our cells. Myriad Genetics used this ruling to put a choke hold on medical tests for BRCA1, which was first identified not as a gene, but as a region of Chromosome 7 associated with susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer (review, 1993). The gene was later cloned, a patent issued, and the patent rights ended up licensed from, near as I can tell without going into it deeply, the University of Utah to Myriad Genetics. Knowing whether a patient has BRCA1 has strong implications in deciding the right course of patient care for breast cancer, both in treatment of the disease and in screening. It’s one small example of the potential for personalized medicine, and it was in the hands of one company.

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DNA, it's not just for genetics any more

Technology Review has an article about a paper in Public Library of Science Biology titled Solid-State, Dye-Labeled DNA Detects Volatile Compounds in the Vapor Phase. In other words, DNA is being used as just a polymer, not the Stuff of Life. Why is this cool?

No self-respecting molecular biologist would have thought of this. Instead, a systems neuroscientist working on creating an electronic nose was thinking on the problem of sensor development. The nose worked on biological principles, identifying odors not by specific sensors (as with a CO2 sensor), but rather by the patterns of activity on an array of sensors. They were working with sensors made of polymers doped with compounds with fluorescent properties that would change in the presence of specific, target odorant molecules. Developing new sensors has been a completely empirical process for anyone in the electronic nose business. How to speed it up? DNA.


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Creating reality

I’ve always been interested in the “fake it to make it” credo, which is pretending that you are something until you become that thing.

Fiction writers contiually create realities that exist on paper until someone later makes it real (like Heinlein’s waldos). When governments create realities, then what? Cyberpunk author William Gibson has begun to blog again. In a post Sun, Oct. 17, he quotes an article from the New York Times Magazine by Ron Suskind.

In the quoted section, Suskind recounts a conversation with an unnamed senior advisor to Bush.

‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’

That level of arrogance, of certainty, scares the heck out of me.

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quantum theory and relativity finally wed

“Is causality an inherent and necessary characteristic of the Universe, or just an illusion produced by the way our brains interpret the world?”

That’s the opening line of an article in Nature news titled How to Build the Universe

After a long estrangment, quantum views of small-scale interactions and relativistic views of large-scale interaction have been married to reveal how quantum mechanics brings about the fuzzy, four-dimentional universe in which we live.

Nature's take on Bush V. Kerry

By Nature, of course, I mean the the magazine. In a (mostly) free area the position of the candidates on various scientific issues is discussed, from stem cells to climate change to nuclear waste and weapons. Also, they rehearse the Bush administration’s apparent manipulation of science for its own ends.

Those needing additional grist for the mill can find it in the specials – us election page.

Qbits get bigger.

Quantum teleportation so far has involved photons, but two different groups from Austria and Colorado have succeeded in teleporting atoms, so to speak. The quantum states of atoms were transfered In Colorado ( 9Be+) ions) and in Austria (40Ca+ ions).

They report 78% and 75% fidelity so far, and they’re setting it up so that the Qbits are addressable within the system. It isn’t time yet for “Beam me up, Scotty,” but it’s getting closer every day.