Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The goal

What is the goal of an individual? With 7 billion people around the world with little genetic diversity but with a wide variation in perspectives, that include sex, country, language, religion, physique and science, the question is what one should attempt to optimize. In a zero order society such as ours where optimization is always local, it is a good thought experiment.

The problem presented, then, is related to the probability that humanity will pull itself to the next stage. It seems unlikely – diseases have to be cured, the environment has to be mended, happiness has to be restored, art and philosophy have to triumph over prescriptive engineering and science, money has to be abandoned, knowledge has to become the primary currency of transaction and meritocracy has to prevail. Yes, it seems unlikely, but many attempted to achieve much less in the past.

What is the goal for an individual in the precious amount of time she is afforded? Could she try to change the system, society and the culture that envelopes her – or should she simply drift away to obscurity, complying? Should she look around, see what others do not see, make others cannot make and progress thoughts, others cannot have?  Should she redefine who she is and in the process change humanity bottoms up? Should she challenge the status-quo or accept the preprogrammed outcomes? Should she become successful and then change the world or fail attempting early? Should she broker thoughts across time and space to connect and then disconnect?

What is the goal of an individual? Is it comprehensible?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Inflexible homes

A recent study from the University of Warwick statistically demonstrates what could be intuitively clear – policies that result in high home ownership reduces labor and location flexibility, leading to higher unemployment rates. This is an important observation. However, what the study may be ignoring is that the “job market” has changed and any analysis of historical data on jobs and location flexibility may not be valid.

Many are unwilling to own up to the fact that there are no more “jobs” in the conventional sense of the word. With advancements in 3D printing and communications technology, both manufacturing and services industries are being revolutionized. What matters most now are skills and not presence, creativity not political savvy, imagination not optimization and execution not meetings.Those seeking jobs and those who are attempting to hire, should seriously reconsider what they are tying to do. If having a home, ties somebody down to a location and that reduces her employability, then, she may be seeking the wrong job. Equally importantly, if the hiring manager, however yahoo great she might think she is, insist on the presence of the employee on location, may be simply missing the whole point.

Studying historical data is good – but doing so without the context of the changing world, may not be.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


As humans find ways to live longer – first comprehensively beating out the bugs and then tackling some autoimmune diseases – it appears that the brain is taxed more and more. It has been the workhorse, ever ready to monitor, maintain and occasionally think, but it was never designed to last this long. A quantum computer, no less, but constrained by its biological origins and lack of flexibility, the brain has been a puzzle to those who attempt to use it. It stores information but retrieves it less efficiently, allowing humans to be ordinary animals, inaccurately recollecting the past and happily speculating about the future.

Memories of the brain, then, are what sustain humanity and the loss of them is simply disastrous. As the sane departs into the folds of history, they take those precious memories with them as there is no cloud, with sufficient capacity, to store it all. What a tragedy that humans have not found a way to preserve their own memories as the loss of information from those leaving and those who left but yet alive, is infinitely costly. Housed in small spaces, the brain has been front and center to the tribulations of generations in the past and more yet to come, yet it shows flashes of brilliance and compassion with failed attempts at integration and introspection. What could be done to preserve its creative intentions, its ability to seek the truth, its actions to make things right, its attempts to resolve the past and its valiant attempts to forecast the future?

The brain, the final frontier, will likely elude humanity forever as they travel in deep space, accumulate wealth and fame, explain particles and energy, kill and mutilate in the name of religion and politics and assert superiority over the known universe.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Better, older..

Recent observations (1) from a binary star system that includes a neutron star dancing with a white dwarf, indicate that Einstein's general theory of relativity, nearly a 100 years old now explain the seen gravity waves, the best. This is further affirmation that the dark ages of science is prolonged, with no foreseeable end. Fancy theories and heavy steel never measured up to sheer intellect and imagination.

The real question for physicists is where they go from here. Now that the Higgs Boson is proven to be “true”, what is next? Perhaps, a more exotic version of the Boson or maybe another trip to the particle zoo to pick an unproven fantasy, that may require a bigger and more powerful atom smasher. In either case, the expected progress in knowledge is close to zero. Both status-quo education systems and the process of awarding research grants have to change substantially to make any difference here. Awards and prizes, mere nods to mediocrity, who strive to discover and publish, peer reviewed or otherwise, simply make the situation worse. Further, engineers clamoring for “bigger” and more interesting projects simply aid and abet useless experimentation.

It is time to return to paper and pencil, the forgotten art of thinking, instead of measuring.


Einstein's gravity theory passes toughest test yet. Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 14:10 in Astronomy & Space

Friday, May 10, 2013


A recent article (1) proposes that the mere existence of markets substantially erodes moral value, subjectively defined as the willingness to save the life of a mouse (used in animal experiments) instead of receiving money by trading them. Further, the authors argue that multilateral markets adversely affect morality more than bilateral markets.

These are interesting observations. If one were to accept the definition of morality as the ability to reject money to save a life (of a mouse), then, lack of markets will certainly enhance it. For, without markets, one cannot transact and hence an individual with no access to markets will be unambiguously, the most moral. At the other extreme, with large multilateral markets – and at the limit, with instantaneous and unrestricted access to infinite markets, the proclivity of an individual to transact (for money or other such benefits) will be the highest. Such large markets will always reduce transaction costs and participants in these markets will always be less moral (according to the definition) than those with no or restricted access to markets.

The real question is how one should define morality. Is morality a property of the individual or does it depend on the environment presented to her? Does morality change with the context, space and time of the issue at hand? Is morality demonstrable and measurable? Is morality binary or continuous? Does morality differ across ethnic and geographical regions? Are moral people better and if so how? Is morality valuable to society, or is it costly?

It is always important to define what is being measured before setting out to measure it. Also, passive assertion of societal benefits from subjective constructs such as morality can lead to the wrong conclusions.

(1) Morals and Markets Armin Falk 1,*, Nora Szech 2,
1 Center for Economics and Neuroscience, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
2 Department of Economics, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Analyze this!

A recent research demonstrates that application of machine learning techniques applied to brain activity in a dream state do well against activity found in waking responses to visual stimuli (1). In general, visual contents of dreams seem to correlate well with those observed when the brain is awake.

The brain, albeit being a non-linear quantum computer, harbors characteristics that could be understood by traditional techniques. Machine learning techniques have been improving although most are extensions of deterministic statistical methods, engineers have been using for many decades. The observation that even such a crude technology is able to correlate brain states is encouraging and it may imply that the practice, if not the theory, of the brain is understandable. Research into biological and artificial intelligence progressed along opposite directions with little in common. The ability to build robust models from brain patterns that do well in predictions in different brain states could open a path toward collaboration among experts in these different areas.

Convergence in technologies and ideas is the most powerful concept yet. Segmented research is increasingly less productive.

(1) Neural Decoding of Visual Imagery During Sleep
T. Horikawa1,2, M. Tamaki1,*, Y. Miyawaki3,1,†, Y. Kamitani1,2,‡

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Shutting down the brain

Recent research from UCLA demonstrates that rats require less brain power in a virtual reality than in real world. This is an interesting observation. Although the UCLA experiment defines virtual reality in a narrow sense, one could broaden the concept. Conceptually, humans with routine lives are in a sort of virtual reality that requires less brain power to live in and thrive. Such a programmatic life is the norm for most, following traditional careers.

The larger question is whether such an effect has evolutionary implications. If the probability of success is higher when you find yourself in a virtual reality – a repeating game with less volatility – then they are more likely to be selected. Most large companies of today fit the bill. This means that the skills to adhere and optimally shut down parts of the brain that are not useful are the most valuable. If so, it is possible that humans may slide down the brain power curve as they evolve. The brain, already a highly expensive organ consuming 20% of available energy, can only be justified if it is fully deployed. Why buy a super computer if all one needs is a PC running a spreadsheet?

We may be precariously positioned in the evolutionary process, that never led to optimal outcomes in the past. The most likely outcome appears to be more brawn and less brain – a return to the origins for humans.