Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.

With Vaccines, Bill Gates Changes The World Again

Sitting with Gates, overlooking the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s gleaming new $500 million campus, full of glimmering reflecting pools and glass edifices, it’s possible to see a future with exponentially less pain and suffering. It’s also a remarkably incisive exercise in getting inside the brain of one of history’s greatest business visionaries. By dissecting with him and his wife, Melinda, how he tackles this grand human problem, you can also learn intuitively how he built Microsoft. How a mechanical genius methodically tackles an abstract problem. And perhaps most of all, how power and capital—both literal and political—can be spent to maximize positive impact on the world.

Inside the Mind of the Octopus

Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.

Resistance Is Futile

In January of 1950, an artery burst in his lungs, and at the age of 46, George Orwell drowned in his own blood. It seems a medieval end for a very modern man. But we are not as far from TB as we like to think. It remains endemic in the developing world and is coming back in richer countries, thanks to travel and immigration, but also to a phenomenon that Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, warned of in the 1940s: antibiotic resistance.

The Architect Has No Clothes

Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right.

What You Don't Know Can Kill You

We like to think that humans are supremely logical, making decisions on the basis of hard data and not on whim. For a good part of the 19th and 20th centuries, economists and social scientists assumed this was true too. The public, they believed, would make rational decisions if only it had the right pie chart or statistical table. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that vision of homo economicus—a person who acts in his or her best interest when given accurate information—was knee­capped by researchers investigating the emerging field of risk perception. What they found, and what they have continued teasing out since the early 1970s, is that humans have a hell of a time accurately gauging risk. Not only do we have two different systems—logic and instinct, or the head and the gut—that sometimes give us conflicting advice, but we are also at the mercy of deep-seated emotional associations and mental shortcuts. People are likely to react with little fear to certain types of objectively dangerous risk that evolution has not prepared them for, such as guns, hamburgers, automobiles, smoking, and unsafe sex, even when they recognize the threat at a cognitive level.

Even if a risk has an objectively measurable probability—like the chances of dying in a fire, which are 1 in 1,177—people will assess the risk subjectively, mentally calibrating the risk based on dozens of subconscious calculations. If you have been watching news coverage of wildfires in Texas nonstop, chances are you will assess the risk of dying in a fire higher than will someone who has been floating in a pool all day. If the day is cold and snowy, you are less likely to think global warming is a threat.

How Doctors Could Rescue Health Care

The US is facing a major crisis in the cost of health care. Corrected for inflation, health expenditures in the public sector are nearly doubling each decade, and those in the private sector are increasing even more rapidly. According to virtually all economists, this financial burden, which is now consuming about 17 percent of our entire economic output (far more than in any other country), cannot be sustained much longer. The federal share, including payments for Medicare and Medicaid, was 23 percent of the national budget in 2009 and is a prime cause of the deficit.

There is no current prospect of raising taxes. If the federal long-term debt is to be reduced, government health expenditures on Medicare and Medicaid must be controlled. However, there is no agreement in Washington on how that can or should be done. Both parties claim to have the answer but, as I will make clear, no initiatives proposed by either party have much chance of significantly slowing the rise in federal health costs without reducing access to needed services. Major reform will be required, but that is not even under consideration. In any case, health legislation is currently stalled by a bitter political deadlock. No initiatives to improve health care will come out of Congress until after the 2012 elections and, unless the results are unexpectedly decisive, probably not even then. Still, as I will explain here, there is a chance that new developments in the way physicians are organizing themselves to deliver care might improve the currently dismal prospects for action on major reform and cost control.

Charles Darwin, Economist

In contrast to the Darwinian narrative, which emphasizes the link between individual success and relative performance, Adam Smith’s invisible hand narrative assumes that individual success depends primarily on absolute income, not relative income. Available evidence should lead any reasonable person to question that assumption.

As Darwin saw clearly, life is graded on the curve. For a genetic mutation to be favored, it is not sufficient that it enable the individual to generate large numbers of offspring. It must enable him to produce more offspring than rivals who don’t carry the mutation. Reproductive fitness is thus a quintessentially relative concept. To survive and prosper, an individual need not be the strongest, fastest or smartest animal in the universe. He may be weak, slow and stupid. What matters is that he be able to compete successfully against members of his own species vying for the same resources.

The Search for a More Perfect Kilogram

The kilogram is the only fundamental metric unit based on a physical artifact, but it’s losing weight and scientists are looking for a natural constant.

The American prototype is one of some four dozen such national standards around the world, and each of those, in turn, is accountable to an even higher authority: a regal artifact called the international prototype kilogram. Familiarly known as Le Grand K and held in a vault just outside of Paris under three bell jars, it dates back to the 1880s, when it was forged by the British metallurgist George Matthey from an alloy of nine-tenths platinum and one-tenth iridium. As a metric unit, the kilogram is “equal to the mass of the international prototype,” according to the official definition. In other words, as metrologists like to point out, it has the remarkable property of never gaining or losing mass. By definition, any physical change to it alters the mass of everything in the cosmos.

Aside from a yearly ceremonial peek inside its vault, which can be unlocked only with three keys held by three different officials, the prototype goes unmolested for decades. Yet every 40 years or so, protocol requires that it be washed with alcohol, dried with a chamois cloth, given a steam bath, allowed to air dry, and then weighed against the freshly scrubbed national standards, all transported to France. It is also compared to six témoins (witnesses), nominally identical cylinders that are stored in the vault alongside the prototype. The instruments used to make these comparisons are phenomenally precise, capable of measuring differences of 0.0000001 percent, or one part in 1 billion. But comparisons since the 1940s have revealed a troublesome drift. Relative to the témoins and to the national standards, Le Grand K has been losing weight—or, by the definition of mass under the metric system, the rest of the universe has been getting fatter. The most recent comparison, in 1988, found a discrepancy as large as five-hundredths of a milligram, a bit less than the weight of a dust speck, between Le Grand K and its official underlings.

Women's Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science

“This is a logical fallacy,” says Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University, who reviewed the study at our request. “Consider this analogy: Imagine that 100 people were shown pictures of various automobiles and asked to identify the make, and that 38 percent of the time people misidentified Fords as Chevrolets. Using the Schapiro logic, this would mean that 38 percent of Fords on the street actually are Chevys.”

But the Georgia sponsors were happy with the results—after all, the scary-sounding study agreed with what they were saying all along. So the Women’s Funding Network paid Schapiro to dramatically expand the study to include Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. (Georgia’s Kayrita Anderson sits on the board of the Women’s Funding Network)

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