Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gut feel

Recent research from UCSF argues that the bacteria in the human gut could be strategically altering our eating habits. The study published in BioEssays (1) go as far as arguing that bacteria rule our minds.It even suggests a mechanism, the vagus nerve – apparently controlled by the bacteria to alter our eating habits.

This is a case of analyzing the roots of the trees in the Amazon forest and not recognizing one is in the forest. Scientific specialization has led to deep analysis, often disconnected from overall understanding of complex systems. Is one eating broccoli, really because the gut bacteria ask her to? Is one avoiding sugar, really because the gut bacteria have diabetes? In that context, would a human consume anything without the command from the bacteria – and perhaps the chief bacterium – from the gut?

Observing complex system behavior and then equating that to one of the underlying factors is not just a curse of biology and medicine, but every other scientific discipline. Stronger hurricanes are caused by global warming, market crashes are caused by stupid bankers and the stability of the universe is credited to “dark matter.” Sure, gut bacteria are powerful – but are they truly strategic as to cause weakness to the hand lifting a pint of beer, when they are in no mood to get intoxicated? Are they really reprogramming the vagus nerve with 100 million nerve cells to dial up what they want – sort of an Amazon ordering system? A system, overrun by 10:1 in favor of bacteria to human cells, is bound to have some effect from the lowly single cell organism.

Are bacteria really controlling the human mind or humans with free-will flushing them down the toilet every night? Do bacteria reincarnate? Would bacteria make humans regress to organisms that simply feed them – or have they already done that?

(1) Do gut bacteria rule our minds? Published: Saturday, August 16, 2014 - 05:12 in Biology & Nature

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fooled by observations

Two recent theories – one that hypothesizes that the universe is a floating 3D brane at the edge of the event horizon created by the collapse of a 4D star into a black hole and the other speculating that the expansion of the universe is an illusion created by changing mass – are both instructive. Observations in the presence of faulty foundational theories could diminish the understanding of non-linear systems over time. In astrophysics and in economics, this has been happening for long. In the former, heavy instruments that bring large amounts of data – that almost agree with the hypothesized theory creates a feeding frenzy to create even more refined instruments, bringing more observational data “close enough” to prove the established theory. In the latter, uncertainty has afforded enough flexibility for back fitting data – essentially allowing anything to be proved or disproved and to stick to belief systems that do not need any further proof.

Humans have been experimentalists who like observations as the primary path to proof. Even their most famous invention, religion – a highly sophisticated and abstract notion, makes use of tactical observations to prove the underlying complex theory. Physics has been no different – and lately, it appears that the need for experimentalism has been expanding at an accelerated rate – perhaps in frustration - as many felt a few decades ago that the field is coming to an end, after having revealed everything there is to know. Experimentalism has a dark side - when combined with theories that cannot be proven, observations can only lead down the path of either asserting the original wrong or incrementally modifying it to make it worse. Additionally, the human mind, designed with a simple objective function containing two factors - food and sex, has been in awe of the puzzles presented to it and predictably prefer unknown complexity as the only answer.

There have been rare excursions all through history, outside her limitations, in which she simply imagined the next state – with no instruments in hand and no data to analyze. In a world replete with engineering and economics, such a process is becoming even more rare.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Carbon conundrum

Global warming has been a hot topic – in science, popular press and politics. On this topic, it is difficult to separate the three cohorts, which on most issues give themselves up by showing dogma, entertainment value and ignorance, respectively. The topic does present significant optionality for everybody involved to prove and disprove, to believe and disbelieve, to embrace strategy and tactics, to divulge compassion and ignorance, to showcase intellect and political affiliations and to make a living. Such is the state of affairs on the warming Earth, that even scientists of repute disagree on observations and projections, it is unbelievable that a reality show has not taken root.

Carbon, the building block of all known life, could never have imagined such negative press. As the owners of fossil fuels encourage more burning and those who have been burning for ages show signs of restraint, the black smoke rises with unpredictable long term impacts. Those who are convinced of the impending doom pose rational arguments, couched in risk management. Wouldn’t one, they ask, cut back on fossil fuels, even if the risk of catastrophic outcomes is very small - for the worst outcome is nothing less than possible eradication of humans? Even such small probabilities of really bad outcomes are reason enough to take action, they argue. The same argument should make air travel the most dangerous to undertake - that a small probability of a catastrophic failure would be sufficient to avoid taking part in such an adventure. On the other hand, the talking heads on TV, mistake weather for climate, and ponder if “global warming is dead,” when the arctic air blows in from the North in the winter. Surely, there is a reality show in here somewhere.

Some of the brightest scientists, in an attempt to get the public to see the problem, have made arguments that make their own positions untenable. The gradual downward trend in surface temperatures in the last decade is an anomaly, they argue, but the upward trend 30 years prior is a certain sign that temperatures will rise exponentially. The less scholarly, in an attempt to show affiliation to the money-makers want every drop of hydrocarbon out of mother Earth and as fast as possible, to feed the economy and themselves. The collision of statistics, science and ignorance has cooked up a potent soup of confusion, attempting to decipher and predict the behavior of a highly non-linear system, driven by many different cyclic effects, some with a periodicity of millions of years. Meanwhile, sure signs of magnetic pole switches on the Earth and the Sun, the tactical impacts of which are unclear, have been swept under the rug.

Dogmatic science, entertainment based press and ignorant politics boil up the debate as the drama continues – those who can see the lighter side of it, could be the eventual winners

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Inefficient accounting

Recent research that shows conflicting and confusing but significant impact on stock prices during policy discussions around a suggested change in the “Fair Value Accounting,” rule, is puzzling at the very least. Common sense should indicate that the value of a firm and thus the prices of securities that subdivide that value do not change by accountants moving money around or changing reports. Hence, the change in prices of certain securities due to an anticipated accounting rule change could only happen if the policy forced a transfer of value from one set of stakeholders to another. Regulatory bodies, apparently in an attempt to “fix the economy,” through creative accounting, were overactive in policy-making during the financial meltdown. A deeper dive into basic economics may be the least one could do before heading out to Washington to engage in such activities.

Value is never generated by moving money around or by reporting financial statements differently. Value is only created by innovation and that happens only in real markets. Accounting, a necessary evil, should be as simple as possible, so that policy makers do not have to burn the midnight oil in the next crisis trying to “relax” and “tighten” accounting rules to save the economy. Simple accounting, however, could substantially increase the unemployment rate as it will flush out the value destroying activities in the financial sector, that is growing like cancer on real productive parts of the economy.

The prescription to grow the economy is simple – let entrepreneurship thrive in a regime of simple and consistent reporting of financials.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Autoimmune games

Recent news from Johns Hopkins that game theory could have applications in cancer treatment is in a profitable direction. Windows of predictable regime switching by cancer cells appear to be the optimal time to attack them – by disrupting the lactate transport mechanism, slowing down cooperation. It is further proof that there are common foundational aspects to the behavior of complex systems. Those able to step out of the dogma of disciplines are more likely to invent in any field.

Biological systems, a complex dance among symbiotes, parasites and own cells, are not well understood by modern medicine. Although it has been easy to kill the invaders that are mutating slowly, other valiant attempts at controlling system behavior seem to have failed. This is because medicine has been a closed science that perpetuate ideas from ancient times. Humans have been humble enough to accept that they are unable to understand the work of God fully and thus set out to mend the components of their bodies by selectively intervening on organs and other components. Such intervention, however, is fundamentally symptomatic with no implications for long term welfare, happiness or utility.

Medicine could benefit significantly if it can shed dogmatic views and look outside their opaque walls for new ideas.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Data neutrality

As the “net neutrality” debate kicks in – effectively forced by a handful of monopolistic companies who almost already control the internet in an attempt to make it even less accessible, it is encouraging to see that the city of San Francisco (SF) is heading in the other (and correct) direction. The recently appointed Chief Data Officer (CDO) of SF is initiating a strategic plan for making data open. Data, the only remaining valuable raw materials in the world, are largely locked up by a handful of companies, generating monopoly profits for them.

It is high time that data are democratized. As the economy shifts into making every decision data driven, delegating the meaning of the phrase “gut feel,” to the pain one gets after a heavy and unpleasant meal, existing and antiquated monopoly laws need to be rewritten. The industrial revolution is over and today’s economy is not driven by the manufacturing of nuts, bolts and automobiles – it is driven by information and intellectual property (IP). Real monopolies of today are those who are hoarding data and those who have unfair advantages in the use of the central nervous system of the economy, the internet, to create and lock up IP. The fact that the regulators are even considering the argument that the internet needs to be subdivided, providing more skewed advantages to those who already operate as monopolies indicate that they are completely out of touch. A congress, filled with octogenarians and a bureaucracy, only slightly younger, are in no position to make laws in the information age.

Net neutrality and democratized data are necessary conditions for unbridled innovation and economic growth. Anything less will be a step back – something regulators are well advised to stay as far away as possible.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Don’t cry for me

It was an enjoyable spectacle – something that lifted the spirit of at least half the world. Sport, perhaps the only human invention, that may provide a safe outlet for the clan like behavior that is integral to the human psyche. It is much less expensive – even a dozen billion $ invested in the recently concluded famous ball game, is a mere drop in the bucket, if it can keep the testosterone laden humans under control and perhaps avoid other more expensive endeavors, grown men and women engage in around the world. Some sport, however, still suffer from hooliganism, an expression of the same ideas that have kept humanity under check from advancing further.

Real champions are sportsmen – they play the sport seriously and accept victories and defeats as part of the game. They do not attempt to win at any cost and they lift mere humans from despair and afford them abundant joy. They move whole countries, something their mediocre leaders simply cannot do and they unite them – not to war against others but to see how unity could add value to entire societies, countries and humanity itself. They script beautiful stories on the field – some tragedies, some even comedies but always engaging.

It is important to nourish truly global sport – something that could engage large swaths of the world population. If we do, perhaps, we can alleviate the pain and tribulations served every day by ego and ignorance around the world.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Engineers discover uncertainty

A recent paper in Science describes simulations and systematic analyses of uncertainty as a way to simplify predictions of material properties such as density, hardness and reactivity for so called “designer materials.” Conventional engineering – in education and in practice – focus too much on deterministic methods of evaluation and design, an artifact of the use of traditional materials that are well understood. But such designs are of little use in the modern world, already replete with ugly structures and weak materials. Additionally, most of the traditional engineering designs could be fully handled by computers.

The next frontier for engineering has been designer materials that could substantially change industry, electronics, energy and drug design. The use of deterministic and antiquated tools of yesteryear have been successful in slowing down innovation for the past several decades. Precision has to be abandoned and faster experiments with approximations have to be embraced. Trends need to be evaluated, hypotheses need to be formed, tested and proved and errors are to be expected. Once variations are accepted, then it is easier to predict, test, refine and retest. These techniques have been in use in many areas and it is time that such ideas entered engineering and materials science.

Materials scientists and engineers, laggards of the technology cornucopia, need to come to the party soon.