Thursday, April 24, 2014

Data rich, analysis poor

A recent research (1) that shows studying the effects of drugs on yeast could inform drug interaction effects on humans, is revealing. Life sciences companies have lagged in the use of rich data they have collected from past studies. Although the yeast studies are potentially revealing, there is significantly more information hiding in the data from past experiments on humans.

Drug interactions are important from multiple perspectives – some indicating a reduction in efficacy and others showing enhanced toxicity. The yeast studies show interactions between drugs at very high levels, albeit in a different biological entity. The tendency of life science companies to collect “hard data,” holds them back. Every other industry is using data better to predict, act and optimize. It is ironic that the industry that thrives on data is bringing up the rear of analytics.

More importantly, we are fast approaching a regime in which personal efficacy and toxicity could be reliably predicted by individual. One could slow down innovation but it is unlikely that big pharma can escape the coming revolution in data analytics.

(1) Large-scale identification and analysis of suppressive drug interactions, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The sky distraction

Many have been worried about light pollution that obscures the sky and some have gone as far as speculating that the inability of city folks to view the stars overhead is eating into the human psyche. Those who have burned the midnight oil in North America to view the total lunar eclipse recently may be comforted by the fact that there are three more to follow soon. The sky is indeed interesting, but there are more interesting ideas to think about. Watching the sky is not going to change anything – thinking about what could be out there, may.

Conventional education methods have stressed such mediocre attempts to understand science – a trip to the planetarium and a stroll down to the backyard pond – on the premise that seeing, touching and feeling stuff will enhance understanding. In a world of accelerating abstract knowledge, such practicality comes with a huge cost. Real astrophysicists do not “look up” and real biologists are not enamored by the Petri dish. Knowledge comes from imagination and not by verifiable experiments. Mechanics and experimentalism can only sustain the status-quo and not advance it.

So, next time somebody implores you “to look up” to the heavens to learn, think about how much more could be learned by just looking down.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Optimized tactical death

A recent article in the Journal of Sociology speculates that as much as 1 billion people around the world could be living in poverty – on as little as $1 per day. The brain of humans, still by far the most important and scarce resource on Earth, has been sub optimized on every dimension. Lifting humanity from the abyss of ignorance could be the most strategic of actions any individual, organization or country could take. However, most are engaged in the tactical optimization of segmented wealth and presumed utility, they are unlikely to ever see the big picture.

Humans have been enigmatic. They seem to carry an organ of depth on their shoulders but most seem unaware of it. Most do not know that there are seven billion clones of themselves spread across the blue planet. They carry virtually the same genes – a quirk of a bottleneck that humanity encountered nearly hundred thousand years ago. But they spend most of their time reinforcing their boundaries and raising impenetrable walls across countries, religions, color, education and wealth. It appears rational if the objective function is dominated by material wealth but utterly incomprehensible if it extends into utility, happiness and knowledge.

One cannot underestimate humans – they fought their entire existence for things of no value. They are unlikely to move beyond the shackles of their own experiences and ignorance. They will optimize tactically and then perish.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Parallel handicap

Recent research from Microsoft “Research” and “MIT” apparently demonstrates more efficient ways to utilize multi-core computers through parallel processing. As the world turns over craving for more processing power, demanded by “data scientists” and “rules machines,” it is time that the “computer scientists” found ways to produce machines that crunch more efficiently.

They don’t. Media labs and AI labs aside, on both coasts and the Melon in between, there has been more hype than what could be doled out by a used car saleswoman. Personal computers arrived 35 years ago – a life time in the historical timescale of humans – and it has not changed the world. Engineers have never been creative and hyped engineers are worse as they portray incremental failures as advancement and self-driving cars as a game changer. What they don’t seem to understand and likely never will, is that even if cars drive themselves and drones fly at will overhead, they do not make much of a difference to the 7 billion humans across the world.

Massively parallel processed machines – envisioned by those with creative minds decades ago, held hostage by the constraints of “chip design,” may be unwinding. It is certainly not comforting to imagine that the mediocrity, more interested in publishing papers than inventing, will never make it happen.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Policy reversal

As somebody who attempted to study classical economics, I never supported raising the minimum wages. Although the prince of Princeton and his grandfather from Cambridge proclaim that all the world’s ills could be cured by simply borrowing money and burying it in the ground, intuition should tell any normal thinking human that it sounds just a bit too easy. After all, those who experience a hang over know well that only time and headaches could cure. And, basic economics instructs that profit motive in an efficient market system has the best chance of optimizing societal utility. Raising the minimum wages, almost fully concocted by the liberal economists, stand in stark contrast to the ideas of the champion of wealth redistribution.

However, I am now ready to reverse this belief – not because that the “other side” had it right but rather, I missed something much more subtle. As the airwaves are filled with the moans and groans to save the middle class, one has to wonder what the middle class actually do. For example, in the middle of a large company, one finds the “middle-managers,” who follow the constructs handed over to them from the industrial revolution. They watch over the “workers” as they build automobiles and industrial food as if such “watching” actually improves the productivity of the system. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. They drain shareholder value and give those who actually produce value, a bad name.

In spite of the popular belief that the “top 1 %” actually work very hard, paying most of the taxes and many hardly make “minimum wages,” if you actually count the effort that goes into building companies and new ideas. And, the bottom 50% also work extremely hard and if they are given the right incentives to live and work could substantially improve the productivity of the nation. In the middle, we have incompetence – just as in large companies. They go to work adorned in suites and ties but contributes much less to society. In this context, raising the minimum wages will shock the system and ferret out the middle layer in companies and societies – fat, happy and incompetent. It will drive the owners of firms to question their organizational structures and it may substantially increase labor participation and thus lift the GDP.

Those who argue for a hike of minimum wages may have had it right but for the wrong reasons.