Saturday Links 30-Jun-2018: Next gen Apple maps, WEIRD Cousin Marriage, Fermi Paradox, Dunbar limits on places

1. Next gen Apple Maps coming in iOS12. In his story, Matthew Panzarino unsurprisingly hits the Apple PR privacy talking point (Apple is not bad bad bad like Google) rather hard. But that’s expected since he’s getting an exclusive from Apple. Main points: Apple built their next gen mapping data up from scratch (no external partners) by driving their own custom vans everywhere to collect street level GPS, LIDAR, imagery data. The new maps come out for the San Francisco Bay Area in iOS12 beta this week, then Northern California this fall. They didn’t give a timeline beyond that, but say they’ve been collecting data globally for four years, including “cities like Berlin, Paris, Singapore, Beijing, Malmö, Hyderabad.” iPhone data is also being collected, though anonymized. The speculation is Apple’s dataset won’t just support driving directions, but is laying the groundwork for Augmented Reality (AR), autonomous cars, and drones. The deeper product issue is whether Apple is culturally capable of doing services like maps or Siri well, since they require a different kind of organization than one optimized for hardware. See Ben Thompson here, or my older post (still valid) here. I suspect a slow rollout, since it will also be hard to for Apple to scale up their map data collection, especially in places like China. This is an important strategic tech story for 2018. Panzarino’s original post. Plus his Q&A follow up, which I found more concise.

2. The Origins of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) Psychology. New preprint. The core argument is the Catholic Church dissolved many of the earlier kin-based institutions in Europe, contributing to the noticeably different psychology and institutions for WEIRD societies. This wasn’t necessarily the goal of the Catholic Church, but by outlawing cousin marriage, it made parts of Europe a global outlier in being far less tribal/kin focused. Tyler Cowen said “Object all you want, but there is some chance that this is one of the half dozen most important social science and/or history papers ever written. So maybe a few of you should read it.” I agree. Both on it’s importance, as well as the “some chance” qualifier.

Sample paragraph:

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions, and that people from societies characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual (1–6). Often at the extremes of global distributions, people from WEIRD populations tend to be more individualistic, independent, analytically-minded and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting strangers) while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty and nepotism (3, 5–13). While these patterns are now well documented, efforts to explain this variation from a cultural evolutionary and historical perspective have just begun (13–20). Here, we develop and test a cultural evolutionary theory that aims to explain a substantial portion of this psychological variation, both within and across nations. Not only does our approach contribute to explaining global variation and address why WEIRD societies so often occupy the tail ends of global distributions, but it also helps explain the psychological variation within Europe—among countries, across regions within countries and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds within the same country and region.

As a side note, in terms of the origin of this idea, Cowen notes “I don’t think there is any citation to Steve Sailer, who has been pushing a version of this idea for many years.” When I checked, Steve Sailer in turn cites HBD Chick saying “Some guys in human evolutionary biology and economics write-up HBD Chick’s main theory.” HBD Chick herself asked for a paper citation on twitter, correctly noting that some of the co-authors on the paper had cited her previously. Joseph Henrich, who wrote one of my favorite recent books The Secret of Our Success, is a co-author on the new paper. Henrich replied “Non-sense” and “No credit for no contribution.” I think Henrich is outstanding. This is a great paper. But believe he’s incorrect on this particular point. Given how sensitive the topic can be, the odds of attribution being given to an anonymous blogger named HBD Chick, or someone like Steve Sailer, are of course zero. It is what it is. So as I said, a side note.

3. Dissolving the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations, and their high estimated probability. A new paper argues the Fermi Paradox is a mistake based on incorrectly calculating the odds for aliens. As an example, calculate the odds of aliens = (odds of earthlike planets forming) x (odds of life forming on earthlike planets) x (odds of that life becoming intelligent) etc. Just multiply constants. But the paper points out that you should use probability distributions for each of these odds, not constants. Then mathematically combine the distributions. When you do this, due to the massive orders-of-magnitude in uncertainty ranges, the final odds (also a distribution) go way down. I’ve seen this idea before in preprints, and talks by the authors Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, Toby Ord. Seems exactly right. Though the underlying problem remains. We don’t know these odds, or more correctly their distributions. What’s the probability distribution for life developing on an earthlike planet? Ummm. But it’s still an advance. At least when these unknown distributions (whatever you choose them to be) are correctly combined, the answer popping out is not aliens aliens aliens everywhere. I found the best presentation of the argument are these slides Sandberg et al presented a couple of years ago. Sandberg has an explainer post here. And finally the paper itself is here.

4. More links. I’m already running long, so let me do the rest of my links (this was a pretty good week!) in bullet form. Click through if you find something of interest.

  • Another cold case solved using public DNA databases. Public DNA databases hold relatives of yours, even if distant ones. And that’s good enough. Leave your DNA somewhere and the police can find you, if they’re willing to look hard enough. link
  • Facebook referrals to news sites are way down from the January 2017 peak. Has a few good charts. link
  • John Hawks on increasing likelihood of finding more hobbits (Homo floresiensis), especially in the Philippines. link
  • Speculative. But interesting. One quote: “in my view, the long arc of the moral universe bends towards endless grinding culture war without clear winners or resolution.” Argues that liberals win most arguments, but in the long long term lose on demographics. Here’s the last bit: “The culture war is perhaps most centrally about who is born and who is not, about who becomes parents and who does not. Freedom from parenthood is in some ways a source of cultural strength these days- there’s a reason pretty much all the heads of state running Western Europe right now don’t have any kids- but the future as is often said belongs to those who show up.” link
  • Similar to the Dunbar effect on a natural cognitive limit of ~150 for number of friends, there appears to be a limit of number of places to which people regularly go. So if you add a new place you often return to (like adding a new acquaintance), an old one drops off the list. Perhaps that’s true of blogs like this one as well. link

Thanks for reading!


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