Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, December 26, 2014


A recent paper in Nature and Communications that demonstrates that wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle in Physics can be explained by the same fundamental theoretical constructs, is instructive at multiple levels. First, incentives in the scientific and academic world has long been skewed toward the ability to publish – and often this means repackaging old wine in a new bottle. And, second, educational systems world over have missed a trick – learning the “established theories,” is a sheer waste of time for the next generation. In Physics, Medicine and Economics, most established theories are known to be wrong – as they do not explain observations or provide complex explanations that cannot be tested.

Engineering progress – largely based on empirical approximations of incorrect theories – does not necessarily mean that the knowledge content of humans is increasing. In some sense, it is the opposite. Educational institutions strive to drill complexity into the heads of budding engineers and doctors – draining any innate creativity. In effect, Universities manufacture zombies and automatons, steeped in tradition and the status-quo, unable to question or even think beyond what is in the text books. The idea that text books could be wrong is a major shock to the “educated,” as they have invested most of their lives learning what has been written down. But, writing something down and perpetuating it across generations, does not necessarily mean that it is correct. Modern technologies allow more rapid propagation of ignorance.

Simplification has to be the fundamental building block of knowledge creation in a world, mired in complexity and misaligned incentives.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Irrational life

Humans are often thought of as utilitarian, able to maximize individual and societal utility. In this scheme, however, life itself is irrational. With a hard constraint on time to expiry for the individual, society and the environment at large, extending all the way to the small part of an instance of the multiverse that is visible, utility itself loses all meaning. Utility, then, has to be defined in the micro – there is no impact an individual can make on the universe, she has been assigned to. But she could, certainly, enhance utility for herself within the hard constraints that exist – time, space and the limitations of knowledge.

Individual, then, provides any reliable subset of the measurement of utility. There are many parameters in this complex function, mediated largely by initial conditions. In very limited horizons, it appears sustaining herself is paramount. Sustenance, however, seems to have differing meaning for different people. The cost of sustenance appears to linearly increase with wealth. Perhaps, the slope of utility is a more meaningful measure for the individual. If so, those who start with a higher cost of sustenance are less likely to be able to enhance individual utility. For this cohort, life is even more irrational than the populace at large.

Life, a highly irrational notion, continues with inexplicable regularity.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Millennials’ tech

A recent article in the International Journal of Business Information Systems investigates how social networking could be used positively during campus emergencies. The generation gap between the young and the old has been growing at such a rapid rate that the knowledge held by the young encompasses most of what is relevant for the future. Octogenarians in the Congress, aging bearcats that govern the economy and those waiting to retire at the top of large organizations are slowing down technology progress to such an extent that most in universities today will never consider working for a company or voting. Recent elections that swept a “red wave” across the country accounted for a 35% turn out – most showing up to send their relatives back to Washington.

The millennials certainly have the technology – to eliminate crime, to grow knowledge and to create next level societies. If the “wise men,” could remove the shackles, they can grow a lot faster. For the status-quo, findings such as “social networking has a positive effect in emergencies,” seem to be a new revelation – but for the millennials, it is part of their life. The internet – as described once by a policy maker as “a series of tubes,” has taken a toll – not only on the ego of those who came before but also their ability to be effective. This has happened before – airplanes and computers themselves opened up discontinuities that separated generations – and it will happen again.

Those, unwilling to admit ignorance at the face of accelerating technology, will destroy knowledge, wealth and the security of future generations.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Sunny value destroyers

A recent article in the Review of Accounting Studies, that apparently demonstrates CEOs with “sunny dispositions,” –  have a positive impact on stock price, is symptomatic of the time and money wasted by accounting and those who research it. Accounting, the bane of corporate America, deploys so many people – in Wall Street and inside companies, measuring, monitoring and reporting numbers - that have little impact on shareholder value. Part of the blame has to go to business schools, still steeped in tradition, graduating people with irrelevant skills for the modern world.

Shareholder value is seldom created by accounting or “sunny dispositions” of the CEO or the CFO, as claimed by the article. Apparently, the authors mistake bumps in stock price as shareholder value – it is not so. However, “sunny,” the reporter is, those who invest in the stock of the company, do care about the real assets of the firm and how they are growing. They do not really care how “gold plated,” the investment banker is and how McSleasy the consulting firm is. And BS, has an expiry date.

The idea that dressing up numbers and reporting them with a sunny disposition enhances the value of the firm has no empirical validation. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Economic value of segregation

Humans, still fundamentally driven by visible features, created by less than 1% of their DNA, could be ahead of themselves as they struggle to create better societies and structures. Their recent arrival on a planet, substantially more sophisticated than themselves, signaled a regime change – preferential to tactics than strategy. For 100 thousand years, a mere glimpse of space time, they have been struggling to sustain a clan structure – first created by proximity, then by the shape of the skull and distance between the eyes and in the modern world, apparently by the color of the skin, the least compelling of the segregation schemes they have been able to devise.

If humans are unwilling and unable to rise over their mental constraints – one has to sympathize with them as they had very little experience with it. It appears that societal utility could be enhanced by segregation in transition, something that may extend over a century. A recent study shows that humans tend to segregate when the space occupied – say in a city – hits a threshold level. This indicates that a hard wired need to segregate exists in every one of the currently existing 7.2 billion specimens. Countries provide an efficient segregation scheme and for half the word’s population, the problem reduces to regional schemes – language, imperceptible shades of skin color, height and food. In any case, the need to segregate is as fundamental as the human itself.

Although it may be alarming for some to consider, it is possible that segregation is utility maximizing in transition to a higher level society. The planet, a sitting duck in the midst of space debris, may need to consider local and temporal maximization of utility – and segregation could be a dominant policy choice to maximize societal value.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ubiquitous Quantum

Recent observations from Princeton (1),  published in the Journal of Nature Chemistry advances the productive frontier of the intersection of Physics and Chemistry to influence biological systems. Scientists steeped in their chosen disciplines, chasing dead ends, have substantially reduced innovation potential and societal utility in the last few decades. The use of quantum mechanical modeling to expand our understanding of chemical properties and their interactions with biological systems is in the right direction. However, traditional life sciences companies do not have the skills or expertise to take advantage of this expanding knowledge.

Physics, the foundation of everything, is not understood well by scientists engaged in the use of chemical actions to impact even less understood biological systems. Chemistry, an inelegant and incomplete bridge, has effected a deadlock on innovation by encouraging incremental benefits. Better understanding of the nature and intent of electrons and the ability to predict their dancing clusters, may allow better design of interventions of biological systems by chemical means. More importantly, this may also open up possible magnetic and electric intervention pathways, something the status-quo appears to have little interest in.

Innovation is about the application of new ideas – it is not about incrementally improving what is existing.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Stochastically Jumping without a clue

Recent research from NYU (1) that apparently demonstrates that the modeling techniques used to forecast stock market fluctuations could be used to predict animal behavior – in this case, movements of zebrafish – ignores many fundamental aspects of modeling. First, unknown to most people in the financial industry, stock market fluctuations cannot be predicted.In spite of the proclamations of a recent Nobel laureate, who claims he could smell a bubble anytime anywhere, he is still to demonstrate a usable prediction ex.ante. And, high flying hedge fund managers, without insider knowledge, could never create alpha – risk adjusted excess returns, systematically. And, second, equating animal behavior modeling to stock market predictions shows a level of incomprehension in both areas.

Stochastic jumps do occur – the problem with such things is that they are not predictable. Perhaps what the NYU team is missing is the right language – the characteristics of the underlying process of the movement of the zebrafish appear to have stochastic jumps in it. But that has nothing to do with stock market modeling – an oxymoron. The reason the zebrafish is jumping stochastically is the same why stock markets do at times – arrival of new information. And, by definition these are not predictable.

As trillion $ slosh around an industry with no value added to society, further research toward predictions of stochastic jumps seems unwarranted.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The scope of ignorance

The scope of space and time appears incomprehensibly large – covered by what is visible to us in a narrow slice, covering 15 billion years and speculated to be at least ten times as large, beyond the horizon. This knowledge, albeit imperfect, has not awakened the intellect of the homo sapiens, most still locked in tactical struggle for basic necessities and the rest, perpetuating ignorance in every action and thought.

The scope of human ignorance is at least as fascinating as the artifacts of space and time. Their arrival on a planet that is impossible to detect in space-time – a completely insignificant event – seem to be of great importance to them.The most ignorant of the lot – the religious – seem to engage in such acts that a child would find objectionable. On the other hand, the intelligentsia, claiming superiority, simply make up stuff, as if they are allowed to do so. The most ignorant believe that color of skin and hair and useless religious beliefs are, somehow important. On the other hand, the intellectuals and academics, having figured everything out, wait in amazement why the world has already ended.

Humans, the most comical construct, will continue their journey to the abyss of ignorance.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Policy by convenience

A recent study from Duke (1) showing that politicians believe or disbelieve in scientific theories, primarily based on their policy orientation, should not come as a surprise to anybody who has been watching the campaigns. This is also the reason that half the country has checked out of the process, with no intent of ever returning. This number will continue to increase as more objective millennials take hold of an archaic system ran by octogenarians. The question is how long it will take to clean up the system currently dominated by a few people, with little understanding of science, technology and accelerating knowledge.

Climate change has been an interesting area of contention, as noted by the Duke study. It appears that politicians with free market based policies tend to disbelieve that it is happening. And those, with a passion for severely regulating everything to save the world, believe the world has already ended. This is an unfortunate side effect. Science and analysis should guide policy as forecasts and expectations are not religious. However, forecasts have significant uncertainty and policy alternatives often present flexibility – both in terms of timing as well as choices. Scientists, heady with data and modern tools, have all but sure that the fate of the blue planet is sealed. However, policy is about trade-offs, something academics do not seem to appreciate well. And, any trade-off decision needs to avoid premature exercise of options based on known (but uncertain) data, when waiting is often optimal for policy actions.

It is a conundrum – we have ignorant politicians attempting policy and dogmatic scientists, crying wolf. Neither is likely to get it right.

(1) Denying problems when we don't like the political solutions. Published: Friday, November 7, 2014 - 04:43 in Psychology & Sociology. eScience

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Awakening by exercise

Exercise has been in the news – as the only non-medical route to avoid diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. It appears to be a good idea, especially in moderate amounts. But a healthy body without a healthy mind is value destroying for the individual and society. Not to be left behind, video games and other mind-exercising technology sites have been gearing up to awaken the little old grey cells. But they all seem to be missing the bigger picture.

The human brain, an energy hog and complex, does not exercise by playing games or solving puzzles on the computer screen. There is a lot of power behind the veil and most often, the organ simply retires to boredom. By feeding it prescriptive education and jobs that take nothing, society has been playing a losing game. The human brain has, substantially detached from the status-quo, for the problems fed to it seem so trivial and irrelevant.

Content, questions with the scope of the universe strategically and the world, more tactically, could possibly awaken the sleeping organ. More importantly, an advancing society could stitch live brains together to rediscover imagination, a feeling that has been dead for long.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

White alpha

A recent study from Michigan State University seems to prove what the Chicago school has been asserting for nearly half a century. Although the study claims to be “first of its kind,” the conclusions have been known to most academics for long. There is no alpha – risk adjusted excess returns – anywhere. And, by implication, a blind man, a high flying hedge fund manager or a super-smart financial advisor has an equal chance of making random alpha in the market.

Mad and fast money experts on financial TV have been perpetuating a farce. The only alpha they make is the money they get paid by the producers of the show. That is indeed, alpha - if they spent that time trading, they would have lost money and alpha, if they knew what that meant. A trillion $ sloshes around the markets – idiots trading back and forth – as if it means something. Then, there are tens of thousand of “financial advisors,” most not qualified to advise anybody and the rest helping to destroy wealth systematically, in fees. The financial services industry destroys wealth to that extent that if the industry is made illegal, the economy will grow by an additional couple of percentage points.

Value is only created by real companies, innovating and creating new products. Those, trying to monetize and trade on them, simply destroys value. And, those who “advises” the common woman on how to invest, destroys more.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stating the obvious

A recent study that states that controlling Ebola in West Africa is the most effective way to decrease international risk (1) seems to state the obvious to most straight thinking humans. Hopefully, this study did not burn too much money proving what could have been obvious to any high school freshman in her sleep.

Yes, it is indeed better to stop Ebola in West Africa. However, it does not seem to have sunk in with the less endowed – politicians and celebrities. Ebola, the most incompetent virus, unable to transmit without physical contact and exchange of fluids, has been riding high. It has travelled far and wide, without paying airfare. It has made a joke out of those living in the most powerful state in the country, led by the incompetent. It has killed humans after they showed up for treatment in hospitals. And they have successfully jumped from human to human, apparently using protective gear.

Humans are, indeed, prone to dramatics – and more stupid than they could ever imagine.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Are we there, yet?

Recent news from Lockheed Martin that their engineers may have successfully tamed small scale fusion and practical generators, the size of a truck, could be available in a decade, is the type of discontinuity that the world has been craving for decades. The famous Skunk Works, may have done it again. Although academics are skeptical, if true, it will substantially change the game.

Humans, notorious for destructive tactics at the expense of strategy and damaging anything they touch, may still pull a rabbit out of the hat at the nick of time. Misguided environmentalists and compassionate politicians have been filling the airwaves with noise, with no benefit. The solution has always been zero cost energy and if the Lockheed engineers are right, it will mark one of the proud moments in the history of humanity. Now, they could afford clean water, air and environment, at no cost to society. They could shield the blue planet from countless projectiles from space. They could create airplanes that stay afloat and seaplanes that stay underneath for years – measuring, studying and rectifying the blue dot in the unimaginable void. They could print food, clothing, shelter and medications for anybody on demand. They could, possibly, bring happiness back to earth.

Engineers, behind thick glasses and adorable pocket protectors, may still save the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Humanity, –0.1?

Ebola, with low transmissibility and dormant, delegated to the guts of fruit bats, has been creating havoc world over. It has been a wild ride for the virus, simply unimaginable to them. They were nearly done – they needed a human to come in touch and then many more as they overwhelm the original host. It required meticulous planning – as transmission is not easy. They could not move by water, air or anything else – transmission required physical touch of the bodily fluid emitted by the infected. And they have done it.

The 7.2 billion simply stayed back and witnessed as the incompetent virus spread. The solvers of problems and hoarders of wealth – from Seattle to Omaha and San Francisco to Mumbai – have been silent. As they bought and sold stocks and provided nets to those who could be at risk of Malaria, they simply forgot the few in West Africa – as they have been circumvented by not only the virus but also the rulers of the land. As their organs failed and fever overcame any remaining senses, they simply vanished from the face of the Earth. Humanity has shown its hand –they remain to be colloquial and local utility maximizers. Healthcare workers, without boarders, remain to be the only shining beacon – something with flickering hope.

Humans have shown their depth and it is as shallow as a cup of tea.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Erasing bad memories

A recent article in the journal Neuron describes how bad memories could be erased in mouse models using light. This has broad applications in humans if the experiment could be extended to complex systems. TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) - both carry similar markers in the brain.If these could be erased, that has beneficial impacts on humans suffering from such CNS disorders.

The brain, source and cause of most human strife, remains to be largely unexplored by modern science. Memories, responsible for most pain for humans, have been left untreated as medicine follows complex brain altering mechanisms in the treatment of diseases. The ability to selectively erase memories could usher in a new era in the treatment of CNS disorders. A massive and misunderstood organ, the brain, holds the keys to happiness and diseases in human systems.

Memories – with a negative skew of disutility – are likely bad for humans. The ability to erase them could substantially enhance individual and societal utility.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pipe dreams

A recent article in Physical Review Letters claims a novel form of “dark matter” known as “flavor-mixed multi-component dark matter.” The authors, who ran a large number of simulations on a super computer, conclude that they have successfully solved many of the vexing questions in the standard model – such as, “what exactly is the 80% of the stuff out there that shows gravity and if we do find it what may cause them not to collapse?.” These appear to be questions that a child will ask if faced with the status-quo theory. Adding a few flavors and components seem to show that the standard model is in fact “correct” and the “exotic dark matter,” is a bit more exotic than initially thought.

The amount of time, money, effort and computer time wasted to prove an incorrect framework that does not explain most of the observational data is alarming. This is a very rich area for physicists, mathematicians and engineers, as a complex and likely incorrect theory provides significant empirical flexibility to invent particles, fields and flavors. Academics, driven by the need to publish papers, are likely to simulate more garbage to prove what has been stated. In the process, they move humanity away from knowledge. There is little difference between fiction and current research in high energy physics.

Common sense, which has been “quantum evaporating” for a century, has to return to this field for it to move forward. This is unlikely to be aided by faster computers or wasteful grants.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Quantum AI

A recent article in the Journal of Physical Review claims that the application of quantum mechanics driven algorithms can substantially improve the performance of robots and other automatons that use artificial intelligence. This appears to be in the right direction as it is known for a while that the brain itself is a quantum computer. Mediocre and linear attempts at artificial intelligence by leading engineering schools have brought ill-repute to the field of AI for long.

The “new idea” brings into focus the need for robots to be flexible – able to learn and act descriptively, not prescriptively. Computer behemoths and computer science departments in universities have been battling with software and hardware constructs, totally useless for AI for many decades. To make matters worse, they showcase stupid applications such as Siri and Jeopardy winning Watson as examples of AI. These ideas have kept a generation of computer scientists bottled up, chasing irrelevant and incongruent ideas, in an attempt to create intelligence artificially.
Perhaps, we are approaching the exit of the dark ages of computing, held hostage by incompetent companies. The idea that intelligence is dependent on both qualitative and quantitative information come as a shock to the traditionalists, but much has been written about it. For any straight thinking person, it should be clear that intelligence cannot be coded in conventional languages and run on conventional computers.

Search companies and space administrations run by the government are unlikely to advance this field. It will require creative and uninhibited minds of the next generation, less worried about world domination.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Mathematical segregation

Recent research from Duke, that seems to confirm earlier studies, shows that human habitats tend to get segregated if the density exceeds certain threshold. They find that cities are more likely to get segregated along racial, ethnic and other dimensions, when the proportion of occupied sites to total available sites exceed 25%. They argue that mathematical simulations show such a result. Perhaps, a simpler explanation for the finding is that available space and associated options allow the inhabitants to delay the decision to segregate. As density increases, they are forced to exercise the option to segregate as further delay reduces their value. In either case, it is instructive to note that the need to segregate for humans is as fundamental as food and sex. The timing of their segregation decision is simply value maximizing and market based.

It seems humans, shackled to their clan legacy, are unable to break from the hard wired needs to be close to their own kind and far from the rest. What is ironic is that for most of their history – from 100,000 years to 10,000 years – the characteristics they used to identify clan membership included know-how and family ties. Modern humans, while maintaining the desire to segregate, have found much less substantial aspects to segregate – such as the color of skin and political affiliations. And recently, they have overlaid that with even more meaningless attributes – such as religion and location.

Those holding out for a more peaceful world, should understand that humans are ill-equipped to rise above the legacy they have been handed. In an attempt to rationalize it, they seem to have made it worse.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Per capita knowledge

Switzerland and Sweden, both with more than 2 dozen Nobel laureates, producing over 30 prize winners per 10 million population stand in stark contrast to India and China, returning about 0.07 on the same metric. Some may argue that it is a denominator problem but with China and India showing less than a dozen winners, it is tough to argue that it is a size and scale problem. Furthermore, Nobel prizes in areas such as Peace and Literature commanding an equal share of those in hard sciences, one cannot put this down to lack of resources and equipment.

Per capita Nobel prizes is an interesting metric as fundamental advances could be made by paper and pencil or by sheer imagination. Thus, it normalizes the technology advantages that could be attributed to advanced economies. With the US, Canada and France at only 1/3 of the rate of the leaders, it is clear that access to resources and technology cannot explain the disparity. One has to look into educational systems and the prevailing attitude to fundamental innovation in the culture as possible attributes that influence this outcome. Lack of freedom in political systems, due to either autocracy or religion, could be another common factor pointing to underperformance.

Humans, 7 billion near clones, segmented across the world, show dramatic differences in the stock and flow of per capita knowledge. The laggards could learn a lot from observing those who do it better.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Quantum chemistry

Recent news from Princeton University that describes a technique that can closely approximate lattice energy of molecules may open up new avenues for pharmaceuticals research. Innovations at the boundary of Physics and Chemistry have been slow, primarily due to the lack of flexibility in scientific disciplines that tend to prefer colloquial and incremental improvements to traditional methods. The Princeton team shows how the crystalline form could be predicted using emerging ideas from quantum mechanics. Such processes could be fully incorporated into computational chemistry. With the availability of vast computing power and software technologies, this innovation could usher in the next wave of productivity in pharmaceutical discovery.

Generation gap has been value destroying in most disciplines. Doctors use stethoscopes and engineers use calculators, even though these technologies have been made obsolete for many decades. Similarly, in the labs, once investments are taken into a technology, companies, unaware of the concept of sunk costs, tend to use them forever. In a regime of accelerating knowledge and innovation, the inertia of past knowledge has become exponentially more costly for every discipline, company and individual. Ironically, in the modern world, ignorance with flexibility is a lot more valuable trait than knowledge based on the past coupled with a resistance to change.

Incrementalism is a disease of the past. For the present, looking backward is likely most costly.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vanishing singularity

A recent hypothesis by physicists at the University of North Carolina contends that black holes simply cannot exist – mathematically. It is a bit too late – as Nobel seeking scientists elsewhere had all but accepted black holes to be at the center of most galaxies. More creative ones had speculated that black holes lead to other galaxies and provide easy avenues for time travel. This is a constant reminder that theories that lead to inexplicable outcomes, however well they fit some other observations, are not theories at all. They are fancies of grown men and women, constantly seeking meaning for the universe and their own careers.

Black holes have tickled the fancy of many just as the concept of infinity. The possibility of a phenomenon that apparently demonstrates division by zero in practice provided immense flexibility for researchers and scientific journalists alike. As they scorned the “religious” as ignorant, they hid their own massive egos under mountains of illiteracy. Competing theories disagreed – but competing scientists did not, for it was easier to prove the existence of the unseen than reject the establishment. The possibilities were endless – black holes connecting with worm holes, bending space time like a child playing with rubber bands. But,  little did they know that the child had a more complete perspective than their own, weighed down by the pressures of publications and experiments under the dome of heavy steel.

As the singularity evaporates with the radiation and associated mass, perhaps we could return to a regime dominated by Occam’s razor.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Quorum disruption

A recent paper in Chemistry and Biology describes how certain bacteria use small molecules to “quorum sense,” essentially coordinating an attack on the host. The study also demonstrates how minor tweaks in the concentration of these chemicals could substantially disrupt the “attack signal” that improves the efficiency of the pathogenic bacteria. In the era of declining effectiveness of antibacterial agents, this seems like a favorable direction for research.

Prevalent lack of innovation across the life sciences industry has kept a lid on tangible improvements in the quality of life for humans. Most of the current knowledge on how to attack pathogens has been stale for many decades. In a predictable fashion, the industry has turned into creating bigger “hammers” and if size does not do it, a cocktail of antibacterial agents to quell the infection. This brute force approach has led to the less intelligent micro-organism to simply fall back on mutations to get over what has been put in front of them, incrementally. There is no doubt who will win this war as bacteria has over 3 billion years of experience – and they are fully capable of upsetting incremental approaches to battle it.

Humans, arguably proud of the massive organ they carry on their shoulders, may have to get more sophisticated to stay ahead – taking yesterday’s technology and making it bigger is not going to do it. Disrupting communication signals seems like a better approach.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Profit maximization in societal design

A recent study in the Journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) (1) concludes what is obvious to some. They prove something that could be counterintuitive to most who do not care for economics and those who mix social preferences with economics and assume without proof, such a mixture leads to good policy and better societies.

The study looks at the automotive repair market and analyzes if the repair persons behave ethically and have social preferences, as opposed to purely profit maximizing businesses (e.g. free markets), whether society would be better off. The answer to a large swath of the population should be a resounding No – as a profit maximizing service provider seems like a bad person. In an environment where service providers are driven by ethical and social preference considerations, the study shows that the prices will rise – as they will tend to charge higher but uniform prices to everybody. If so, customers, who do not face price differentiation, will be forced to a higher uniform price, on average. In this case, analytical models show that society, as a whole will be worse off. In a society that contains both ethical and profit maximizing providers, the latter will quickly reflect the higher uniform price when it is convenient to them and reject service to those with higher costs. In a system with only profit maximizing providers and unconstrained transactions, market clearing prices will reflect the provider’s marginal cost, maximizing societal welfare.

Apparent common sense and social preferences are not necessarily good guiding principles for policy. Free markets and profit maximizing decision-makers, generally, push complex societies to higher welfare. The study correctly warns regulators and policy-makers to study social welfare issues before enacting uniform price policies.

(1) INFORMS study shows social welfare may fall in a more ethical market Published: Monday, August 25, 2014 - 15:41 in Mathematics & Economics, (e) Science News

Monday, September 15, 2014

Redefining AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI), an artifact of the 80s, has been directionless. This is partly due to the overuse of the term and assigning “intelligence” to such common place activities as search, rules based logic and machine learning. Recent news that researchers at North Carolina State University has been able to use “AI” to predict the goals of a player in a video game using machine learning, highlights the idea that the term AI is poorly understood. It may be time to redefine it more precisely so that claims of progress in this area could be tempered.

If AI is about intelligence – human intelligence – then most contemporary attempts at replicating it has failed. If AI is about naive search of large data spaces for patterns or the use of classification, clustering or rules based logic on “big data”, then AI will continue to flourish with no innovation in knowledge or software. In this vein, all AI needs is raw computing power. The current leader, Watson, is a case in point. Packing silicon ever closer together and massively parallel processing set logic channels, is not AI – even though it may be able to find the answer to any vexing question asked in trivial games. Machine learning – the latest fad discovered by business brains, without understanding that it has been happening for many decades – has nothing to do with AI - it is just raw application of mathematics, afforded by cheap memory and cheaper computers. What the AI crowd seems to be missing is that, none of these – ability to create models from data, ability to guess answers to trivial questions, ability to predict goals – is about intelligence. It is about the inevitable marriage of computing power with established mathematics.

Human intelligence, however, is not mathematical, even though every scientist and engineer would like it to be. This is why the preeminent engineering schools in the world – in the East, West and in the middle, cannot make any progress in this area. Soccer playing robots and self driving cars, unfortunately are not intelligent. They are unlikely to imagine string theory or appreciate art. Considering intelligence to be mechanical and mathematical, is the first problem. Lately, it has been shown that the hardware itself, the human brain, is a quantum computer. Feeble attempts at replicating this hardware phenomenon is not going to get humans any further in AI because fundamental issues remain in understanding the operating system and applications that run on it.

Artificial Intelligence is meant to represent complete replication of human intelligence. It is not parroting answers in Jeopardy or predicting behavior based on historical data. Humans may be giving themselves less credit by assuming that the crude machines they build, are in fact intelligent.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Analytical dogma

A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association by Stanford researchers showcases an amazing statistic – In the last 3 decades of clinical research, there has been only 37 published re-analysis of randomized clinical trial data. Of this sample, over one-third came to conclusions that differed from the original analysis. An insular culture, unaware of accelerating technologies elsewhere, has been left behind with antiquated tools and techniques. And, resistance to re-analysis is only one of the symptoms of a prevalent disease in the industry, that sticks to dogma and tradition. A regulatory regime that aids such behavior is not helpful either.

It is instructive to note that in the studies that showed significant deviations from original conclusions in the reanalysis of the data, the researchers used different statistical and analytical methods. Even changes in hypothesis formation and the handling of missing data seem to have made a difference to the conclusions. Furthermore, the new studies discovered common errors in the original publications. Definition and measurement of risk are important determinants of eventual conclusions – and in many industries, the measurement and control of risk have substantially progressed to higher levels of sophistication. The researchers point out that sharing of the data and the use of people and analytical techniques from other domains may overturn many of the conclusions, currently held sacrosanct.

Scientists, departing from the spirit of science, in which sharing of data, knowledge and techniques across experts and domains are the norm, do damage not only to themselves but also to the industry. Regulators, steeped in methodologies and SOPs that are antiquated and irrelevant, just aid persistent incompetence.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


A recent experiment at the Fermilab investigates if the apparent 3D space that surrounds us is a hologram.  The idea that uncertainty envelopes not only location and speed but also space itself is mind bending to say the least. If the universe’s ability to store information is limited, then space itself becomes quantized with far reaching implications.

A holographic universe, if proven, could reduce the complexity and put many of the current theories out of commission. It is unclear if Physicists would really like such an outcome – most are used to the expanding particle zoo, convoluted strings and deterministic views of the evolution of space –time. If space is fundamentally uncertain, as speculated by Hogan and Meyer at the University of Chicago, then the status-quo views of space-time need to rewritten.

The direction of knowledge toward simplification is apt even though it does not encourage heavy machines, particle smashing and ignorance building.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Moving deck chairs on the Titanic

News that a sizable piece of the asteroid that made a close encounter with the earth crashed in Nicaragua and the near miss of the massive solar storm in 2012 almost kissed us good bye, are constant reminders that moving deck chairs is not necessarily useful to evade a Titanic type disaster. Environmentalists and lamenting scientists have been burning the midnight oil to turn back the clock – “to protect the environment” and to slow down global warming. They fear the ice caps will melt, water levels will rise and enormous strife will follow for humanity at large. That may be true – but such a problem exists only if humanity is here to witness it in a few 100 years.

NASA and other space organizations around the world have been busy preparing probes to distant planets – to study, learn and get ready for interplanetary travel for the masses. It is indeed commendable but a more tactical need is to protect what is close at hand – not from global warming but from global disaster. The 60 ft. meteorite that crashed in Russia escaped all “monitoring devices,” of the observers and logic would tell us that it cannot be a singular event. It will be ironic if the mighty human gets wiped out by an asteroid when they are preparing to travel to Mars and slow down global warming by slapping solar cells on top of automobiles.

Protecting trees are great – but one has to assure that a forest is possible first.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) – the original five campuses, often considered to be the top engineering institutions in India and in Silicon Valley, have been losing luster. Its graduates, understandably proud of a rich tradition, look over the fact that it never figured in the top 100 educational institutions in the world. Now that “forward thinking politicians,” have decided to take split milk and spread it across the country, the demise of a good brand may be round the corner.

There are many reasons why the IIT brand never climbed into the top echelons of the most cherished educational brands in the world. Stanford, for example, propelled to the top of the pile in a few decades by combining research with entrepreneurship and creating a climate of futuristic learning. Heavy investments in technology and marketing kept MIT close and in the Midwest, Carnegie Melon, Northwestern and the University of Illinois show flashes of greatness in their chosen specializations. What is common among all of them is research – and the ability to innovate. Great institutions are often criticized for their focus on research at the cost of teaching, but this fear is totally misplaced, for there is no learning without research and any institution, vying to compete with the best has to produce the goods – both in fundamental advancement of science and innovative applications of technology. IIT has never been able to do either.

The second reason why the IITs are failing is their focus on bookish knowledge at the cost of experimentation. A well hyped and advertised brand has had its pick of the top 2000 students in the country for decades, and the fact that its graduates have done reasonably well is no reflection on the ability of the institution to shape them. It may have been the opposite. It has taken excellent raw materials – perhaps as good as any institution could hope for and turned them into bricks in the wall – adept at solving known equations and commonplace problems – with high efficiency. However, in a world of accelerating knowledge and information, efficiency is delegated to machines and the only remaining premium is in intellectual property (IP). A nation, unable to create IP at a sustainable rate in a regime that allows protection, cannot go anywhere, how many efficient engineers and doctors it can produce.

To make matters worse – much worse, in a country run by corrupt politicians, proudly wearing socialism on their long sleeves, nothing better could have been expected. In this grand tradition, they always wanted to democratize the brand. The idea of an elite educational brand, known across the world, for the benefit of a few, make them weep at night – for their nephews could never cross the threshold and their Swiss bank accounts were not enough to secure admissions. Such passion is never futile and the solution seems obvious – make an IIT in every state of the union and if possible every district, village and street corner – and spread the brand like chutney on dosa for the good of all. Those who say creativity is waning in a country bursting at its seams never studied its political intelligentsia – they have always been creative.

The IIT – now reachable for politicians on demand and fully functioning on a quota system – dividing the pie neatly to every cast, creed and religion – has to prepare for the inevitable fall from giddying heights, it never was designed to reach. Perhaps, a tolerable exit is in the works – opening the markets to higher education will instantly expose the venerable brand to competition and that may be the shock it needs to wake up from the long stupor. 

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


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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The end of mind?

In a recent study (1), the authors seem to have made the following interesting observation:

“In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

Most of the study subjects appear to be men. Does this indicate a systematic atrophy of the human mind? Is this the end of thoughts? Is this the beginning of regression to nothingness?

Humans have been busy most of their evolutionary history – they had to sense and avert danger in every corner, hunt for food incessantly and later fight other clans constantly for superiority and survival. Humans have been both tacticians and a strategists, adept at maximizing within the constraints presented. They even ventured into abstract realms – philosophy, art and mathematics – that provided little direct utility to the problems at hand. Some even had visions of space travel and rocketed to nearby pebbles as a precursor. The human mind has been active – perhaps till very recently.

Now, we find ourselves unable to think and preferring electric shocks to boredom. How did we get here? Where do we go from here? Is this a segregation of mind share? What role do society, education and industrial organizations play?  Humans, the most unlikely species to dominate the World, may have overshot their own capabilities.

(1) Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind

Timothy D. Wilson1,*,
David A. Reinhard1,
Erin C. Westgate1,
Daniel T. Gilbert2,
Nicole Ellerbeck1,
Cheryl Hahn1,
Casey L. Brown1,
Adi Shaked1

Friday, July 4, 2014

The education gap

A recent article in NY times points out correctly that there is a subtle difference between the statement that “the US has the best universities” and “of the top 25 universities, most are in the US.” Indeed, an education gap has opened up between the very top and the average available college education in the US. Many believe that the recently fashionable online education trend will even out the field, making college education fully democratic. Educators, policy-makers, rating agencies and the public appear to be missing several important considerations here.

Before one can measure and rate the outcome of a process, one has to define the objectives of the process itself. In the last century, education was supposed to train graduates for “jobs.” However, in an economy that does not create many jobs, the objective of education has to be fundamentally redefined. Today, education has to be something that prepares graduates for the non-jobs – add value to society through innovation and advancement of knowledge and ideas. These are volatile endeavors – most offering no stability and often result in catastrophic failures. In a jobless economy, the next generation has to be taught skills that are not necessarily related to parroting out standardized answers to Arithmetic, Physics, Chemistry and Biology questions (PISA scores, for example) – or churning out engineers and doctors like perfectly predictable stack of pancakes in the “International house of pancakes.”  High scores in standardized exams and high graduation rates in environments that are designed to create “bricks in the wall,” are not good metrics for the success of education.

It is important to fully redefine the objectives of modern education before one could conclude on its effectiveness. The content drilled into the brains of the merry college goers of today, is largely a commodity and it generally correlates badly to eventual success. It is the ability to look outside the content and find relationships among apparently disconnected fields that will hold the key for future success. On that measure, the US schools, still offer much higher flexibility than the antiquated systems of the East. Further, the top schools in the US continue to command the lion’s share of innovation in the world – a true measure of how good education is.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stupidity of the crowds

Recent research from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands show that Chimpanzees quickly copy arbitrary behavior of others in close proximity. The researcher noticed how a female chimp named Julie repeatedly put a blade of grass for no apparent reason in her ears and that behavior was copied rapidly by other chimps who observed it. This has implications for humans, who share most of the genetic make-up of chimps. Copying observed behavior of others may have had some evolutionary advantage for humans – at the very least it may have allowed them to experiment. It appears that such a notion is now built into the psyche of humans. This may have some negative consequences in the modern world.

For example, in the financial markets – there appears to be a tendency to follow arbitrary behavior of others, however stupid that could be. It has been established that in large markets, outcomes are generally efficient even though individual participants could be irrational and stupid. However, if copying is an in-built behavior pattern of the closest cousins of the chimps, then one could envision persistent excursions away from efficiency. Hedge funds, for example, may arbitrarily attempt a trade that could be replicated by many others – not because they understand it but because it is compelling to copy. The short term volatility in the market could be explained by such chimp-like behavior.

This behavior is equally apparent in real markets. For example, it is often observed that in large meetings within operating companies in which the participants are ambivalent as to the choices presented, a preemptive selection decision by one is quickly followed by many. In such experiments, the crowd could reach diametrically opposite decisions just because the first mover had preferences in one direction or another. Large companies are generally managed by chimp-like instincts exhibited by one and quickly adhered to by others.

It is ironic that large-brained animals – chimps and humans – may be more prone to group-think than others such as cats, who exhibit more individualistic preferences.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Maximizing children

Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that early stress – such as poverty and abuse - has a lasting deleterious effect on children’s brains. Stress at ages less than five seems to impact even the structure of the brain with predictable negative effects all through life. Policy tacticians, counting today’s debt and tomorrow’s votes and busy shutting down the government may be well advised to take a more holistic and macro view of societal costs and health.

Education and health with unambiguous positive network effects on society could substantially influence the trajectory a nation or society could progress in. Now, it appears that even micro-effects such as early childhood stress may have to be considered in the design and provision of healthcare if societies want to nourish healthy, productive and intelligent future generations. Maximizing human resources is an important strategic goal for any society and if that is understood then one could delve into policy implications.

Humans, born totally incompetent and unprotected, require systematic nourishment in early part of their lives. Evolution seems to have assumed that societies would care for the children and accordingly selected a design with a large brain attached to a feeble body that can be pushed through a narrow canal at birth. Such a design requires a system of support, for without it the results are obvious. But in more subtle ways, even if the children survive physically, it appears that they get hurt mentally if sufficiently protective environments are not afforded. The brain, a fantastic organ, requires close attention in the formative years and it appears that modern societies do not understand this well.

More practically, there are two primary questions modern societies have to grapple with. First, given that a child requires specific considerations at least in the first five years, should parents be punished if they are unwilling or unable to provide the required environments for them?. Since the child is a luxury item and a choice, more thought and planning are needed prior to a decision to have children. And, second, assuming no policy will be perfect and that transitions will be problematic in any case, how should societies treat children born into environments unable to provide the evolutionarily required conditions?

As the politicians and policy makers – some octogenarians – are utterly incompetent and incapable of understanding and thinking about the future, it seems that we are entering a very problematic time. “Serving the country,” is not a job and it requires people who recognize at the very least that they have become ineffective.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The age of AI

Computer scientists from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle claim that they have created the first fully automated computer program that teaches everything there is to know about any visual concept (1). Artificial Intelligence has been the most hyped and the least effective of concepts for over three decades. Determinism and rules based logic – underpinnings of the shallow understanding of human knowledge by humans, have put a lid on progress in this field and it appears that such a constraint could be for ever.

Watson, the current champion, has perpetuated the same ideas even though it dazzled ordinary humans by its ability to memorize rules and retrieve them fast. Not impressed, the autonomous car maker of the West, unleashed the “neural net” of immense proportions on the web where it invented search, only to realize that the beast only went looking for “cat videos.” And now, some academics claim that all they need is raw computing power to create something that will learn “everything there is to know.” It is indeed impressive.

Artificial Intelligence is showing its age. No amount of computing power is going to help humans learn how stupid they really are.


Sunday, June 8, 2014


Nearly 500 years ago, a heliocentric view of the solar system was proposed. It was reluctantly accepted over time – by the religious and not so religious, as it fundamentally shook the core belief system of humans – the idea that they are not at the center of the universe. Further intellectual excursions into defining the universe, first as infinite and then as very large, possibly supplemented by alternatives, have been eating into the psyche of humans, as they struggle to forfeit superiority.

They never really let the idea go. The fact that Earth revolves around the Sun and the solar system revolves around the center black hole of the Milky Way and the galaxy itself revolves around the center of gravity of the local group, that represents a tiny part of the space-time continuum of one of the many possible universes, never sinks in. Astrophysics and Astrobiology, arguably the most progressive of scientific disciplines of the present, still invest significant resources looking for Earth’s twins and Human’s alter-ego, across the universe. They argue that life will be found on an “Earth-like planet,” rocky with a density of 5.5 grams per cubic centimeters, revolving around a “Sun-like” star in the “habitable zone,” that affords the same temperature and radiation shields, with an atmosphere replete with oxygen and oceans with plenty of water to drink, bathe and perform religious ceremonies. Such is the power of homocentrism that leading science fiction writers find extra-terrestrials travelling to Earth to be similar to humans - eyes, legs, hands and a brain, supported on long and flexible necks, albeit with a different skin color, something humans hold dear. The less sophisticated ones create crafts that travel across space-time and find creatures, well dressed and fed, ready to converse in English.

The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has led to a feeding frenzy and heart-break for most for they are yet to find something with the precise dimensions and density of their beloved home. Exolife has eluded them and this has forced them to lower some standards. Some are now willing to accept that the Sun is no ordinary star and that there are ten times as many dwarf stars as Sun-like stars with one-tenth the energy, occupying space near and far. This has expanded the “habitable region,” where Earth’s twins would be found, albeit such a discovery may not be as exciting. On that Earth, just next door, orbiting a dwarf, they still hope to find organisms, animals and human clones of similar proportions, aerobic and hydrophilic, living, fighting and killing each other, occasionally looking for their twins elsewhere. They are ready to sacrifice the Sun but not the Earth, an ironic twist to the story of “scientific discoveries.”

Homocentrism, the curse of humanity, may have substantially limited humans.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The value of natural assets

A recent paper in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists highlights some issues most finance professionals either do not understand or tend to forget. However, it falls short of describing how value emanates from a basket of interacting options on the underlying tangible stock of natural assets. Such frameworks have been available for decades, but business schools and finance professional tend to focus on how to better count today’s money rather than value tomorrow’s options. Machines are fully capable of counting money and it is unclear why industries such as finance and accounting employ so many people with inferior skills compared to computers.

However, “the strategic thinking” exhibited in the paper should also be approached with caution. Ever since humans arrived on the planet, they have been worrying about “running out of” natural resources. This is understandable from an accounting sense for non-renewables and from a management sense for renewables, the latter if optimized with well understood portfolio techniques provide growing and prosperous paths to the future. Such a thinking, however, is based on static assumptions on technology and human ingenuity. What environmental economists (and non-economists) do not fully appreciate is that technology discontinuities could substantially remove the concerns of previous regimes within very short time-spans. So, although it is certainly important to manage the stock of fish, forests, ground-water and other such resources, it is much more important to effect a leap in technology that could make such concerns go away. Current education systems provide skills heavily focused on the present but not the future. This is why the “singularity,” feared (or hoped for) by the “intelligentsia” may never arrive.

Although the paper does not address this, from a policy perspective, it is also important to prioritize – For example, fish, forest and ground-water could become the least of our concerns if an asteroid of measurable size heads our way. Although self-driving cars and phones that glow under water are laudable goals for the current technology leaders, they should realize that humans are imprisoned on a small planet in the midst of an unbelievable amount of space debris. It is a miracle that we have the opportunity to think about managing our forests better.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The data problem

It appears that the “data age” has arrived. Aided by century old Mathematics and latest technologies for the collection of large amounts of data, nearly everybody seems to be excited about the insights that are going to be revealed. Will data prove the existence of God? Will data tell us precisely when each of us will depart from this Earth?  Will data finally usher in the long feared “singularity?” Are data enough to create insights and make better decisions?

Economists and scientists have a checkered history in the use of data to prove what they believe. A hypothesis, once stated and believed, can always be proven with data. The man from France who made a strong case for wealth redistribution may have to now relook at the raw materials he used to build the leaning edifice. The listeners to the Satellite echoes and the finders of the ocean pings, who knew precisely where the metal bird fell and sank may now have to relook at the data they collected and analyzed. Analyzing data with preconceived expectations have proven to be dangerous in many fields – Medicine, Economics and High Energy Physics, included. Data have helped many careers and it has killed many others.

Data are not enough – Common-sense and logic are still important.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Reaching Type II

Over the ages, many have wondered if humans could transform into a Type II society. Different definitions exist for Type II society, one humans could aspire to, most of which are related to technological capabilities to harness and use energy. Although this forms the foundation of measurement, a more holistic approach will be to combine such metrics with the characteristics that are likely in such as civilization.

In the status-quo society, humans are such poor users of available energy, most waste time thinking about sustainable population rates and running out of fossil fuels and minerals. The most popular worry of humanity today – global warming – would be such a trivial matter in a Type II society with zero cost energy. With a nice example of controlled fusion in close quarters, the Sun, which produces many times more than what is currently consumed if humans could harness what reaches the surface through highly inefficient current technologies, it is ironic that humans have not progressed further on fusion.

One characteristic of type II societies will be a dearth of tactical issues – problems that consume inferior societies, never able to solve them strategically. Such issues include, in addition to directly energy related problems, other attributes such as death, taxes, wealth, ego, pain and all segmentation schemes – such as class, country, race, region, religion and physical characteristics. There will not be any needs in a Type II society – such as food, health and information – with zero cost energy comprehensively providing food on demand, the cure for death making health irrelevant and all information permeating through every thinking cell. In Type II societies, with aspirations to reach Type III in the future, biological systems may simply reduce to thinking machines, with little utility for any other noise. If the status-quo Mathematics is the right way to think about it, then, all thinking cells have to connect in a massive network able to self propel to the next level of imagination.

To assess if a Type I society such as humanity is showing promising signs of moving toward Type II, one may measure a percentage of the population who could imagine such an outcome. By any measure, humanity appears doomed as most of the 7 billion appear locked in their own little boxes and an embarrassingly high percentage still looking to satisfy basic needs. The rest spend most of their time worrying about death, taxes, ego, pain and segmentation as if these are the most important issues.

Tactics weigh down on humanity and it seems highly unlikely they could rise above it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The elite racists

Racism has been in the air – some utterly stupid and others less so – some allowed themselves to be taped and others less so, some very rich and others less so, but most sharing the same characteristics. Racism is not about the words you utter but the actions you take.

I have seen racists before – brain surgeons, technologists and graduates of IV leagues who went down to South America to “study cultures.” They have been explicitly racists but it did not move a single muscle in the beast’s infrastructure, for it was expected and accepted. Graduates of the elite schools and rejects of the elite consulting firms, for they were not corrupt enough to land in jail – racism was not enough for them to rise to the top. They practiced racism all their lives but still, they could not become the one behind the white masks. They shunned anything beneath them as they portray – schools, consulting firms, investment banks – for if you are not from the one – gold coated and corrupt, you could not be accepted to the country club.

Racism, a highly sophisticated notion, is everywhere – not just in audio tapes and it is practiced by the best and the brightest of the world.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Arrested progress

As the world’s largest democracy breaks tradition from last name based idiocy, it has significant obstacles in front of it. Often high on pride but less to show for it, the country has been put on a back burner by its compassionate leaders who followed failed systems of the East, driving a population of over a billion to near desperation for long. Socialism coupled with corruption, is a potent cocktail that poisoned an entire society while a few erected 50 story homes at the heart of pain and tribulation. What could be more ironic than a country driven to the highest segregation of wealth by its “socialistic” leaders.

Now, it apparently breaks away from its secular roots, a step backward in time, but consistent with its tradition of paranoia bred from constant inundation of foreign invasion for centuries. A society that is arranged by class, neatly dimensioned in every conceivable direction – religion, caste, color, language and physical proportion – has elevated some who have preferences for religion, a concept that even modern societies find difficult to pull away from. With Gods aplenty in every slice of society even if nearly a third go to bed hungry, it has remained an enigma for anybody who is interested in societies.

Will the next leader rise to the present and pull the country out of its torturous past? It is a long shot.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Quantum consciousness

A recent paper from the University of Auckland claims, “a potential mechanism for the conscious brain to anticipate impending opportunities and threats to survival through massively parallel weak quantum measurement (MPWQM) induced by the combined effects of edge of chaos sensitivity and phase coherence sampling of brain states. It concludes that the underpinnings of this process emerged in single-celled eucaryotes in association with (a) excitability-induced sensitivity to electro-chemical perturbations in the milieu as an anticipatory sense organ and (b) cell-to-cell signaling necessary for critical phases in the life cycle.”

Although the paper is weak on evidence, it does open an interesting avenue for research. The coordinated hypothesis of evolutionary, biological and physical basis of consciousness may remain untestable but it is a satisfying thought experiment, at the very least. Those who live, may be assigning too much value to life and to consciousness but consciousness, one has to admit, has very nice properties to it. And, if it does merge into anticipation with such forecasts emanating from electro-chemical perturbations and cell-to-cell signaling at the fundamental level, it does make it more interesting to think about. More importantly, it may open new avenues to study societal consciousness, in higher order species. The complexity of the organism appears to be inversely correlated to societal consciousness with single cell organisms exhibiting highest competence. Massively parallel systems seem to require consistency at the elemental level to induce and sustain societal consciousness and this may be a subtle sign that if quantum effects are at play, they are unlikely to transfer to complex, non-uniform and non-modular systems.

Extrapolating from stable and uniform networked systems to complex organisms may be a mistake. However, it is, indeed, a good thought experiment.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cosmic blunder

Recent findings from Stanford University and the University of Chicago seem to confirm the “inflation theory.” Conformists are not deterred by the fact that the “signal” is much stronger than what would be forecasted by the theorists. Yet again, we have the classic case of “believe and prove,” and if the proof is a bit stronger, that is for the best. Institutions of higher learning should have higher standards - papers and the ever anticipated Nobel prizes cannot be the reason.

Cosmic inflation has fascinated many – academic and otherwise. Most students know that their education will be less valuable if they are allowed to “plug” something into an equation, just to make it work. But not for the best physicists of the day – if the data show that one drove from Chicago to Dallas in 6 hours, the “only explanation” has to be that she “inflated” through Southern Illinois, for the concept of time, space and the speed of the car are absolute. How is this any different from religious beliefs who academics tend to scorn. Why is it so difficult to believe that Christ simply rose from the cave and would return in the future. Is that belief any different from “cosmic inflation,” that is now proven albeit the effect is a bit “stronger than predicted.”

Physics is declining to a level comparable to religion. A hypothesis, once stated, will be proven with certainty – those still holding out for uncertainty, do it at their own peril. No Nobel prizes to follow.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Recent research from McGill seems to prove the opposite to conventional wisdom – free radicals or oxidants – increase longevity, casting a long and dark shadow over the anti-oxidant industry. This is further proof that medical research is progressing backward looking to avoid incremental harm while missing out on substantial benefits. Humans, trained to see and analyze trees as a species, often miss the forest.

Biological systems present the ultimate tease to the shallow human brain, steeped in deterministic and engineering know-how – an unavoidable outcome of constant optimization in the presence of clear and simple objective functions. Sunrise signaled the beginning of the day and they knew they had less than ten hours to hunt, collect and compact within a territory that is well marked. They will start again the next if the nocturnal beings do not invade the cave. They could do this for over five thousand times, if they avoid strong animals and stronger plant toxins in their progress to certain  and unavoidable destiny. Stupidity and ego would force them to overshoot what was attainable, shrinking them to less than a few thousand in the narrow part of the bottleneck.

Humans were never equipped with the skills to understand themselves. They comprise systems of such non-linearity, their engineering brains never had any hope of discerning themselves. It is ironic that the ultimate knowledge that will fail the humans is understanding themselves.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The economics of a disaster

Ever since the metal tube vanished off the Asian skies, there has been a flurry of activities. The talking heads on the cable news network – some living in flight simulators for months, some parading an impressive array of “experts,” who repeat a few lines less adeptly than trained parrots, some worrying about black holes and others the lack of use of psychics in the search process, wolfs, jackals and green screen men – all came out ahead. The equipment manufacturers and service providers of search – sporting blue shrimp, whale and other such aquatic beings – all came out ahead. Those went looking for the black box and heard pings, here, there and nowhere – all came out ahead. The captains, admirals, security officials and their handlers – all came out ahead. Environmentalists, buoyed by sea garbage, found yet another cause to cry and shout, came out ahead. Politicians and leaders of countries – able to look and act like a leader and win bonus points from next year’s electorate, came out ahead. The engineers and data scientists who cut, diced and killed data to find the “final resting place,” came out ahead.

Was it incompetence or just merely for the show?  Who lost? The families of those lost in sea and the taxpayers who funded a grand show for nothing.

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.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dark ages of aviation

Aviation is considered to be one of a few technological discontinuities of the last century along with the computer and the internet. The duopoly in commercial aircraft manufacturing, however, seems to have significantly dampened the technology slope with new products sporting incremental improvements with little impact on overall speed, safety and convenience. The long metal tube with wings on the side has been the design choice for over 100 years. Packing humans like sardines in a can has been the mode of operation for the airlines. Consulting companies had projected “tremendous growth” for the tin cans, extrapolating from population growth and other such metrics.

The intelligentsia has been worried about the discontinuity for decades now. As a past president boldly proclaimed to go where nobody has gone – Mars, he thought he was ushering in a new generation of innovation. Nothing can be further from the truth. As mediocrity creeps into every educational institution, bringing up the next generation with little passion and lesser creativity -  every company, whether they are curing death, inventing self driving cars or constructing grocery and books delivering drones, humanity is sinking into a lesser state. They had no chance to advance the heart and now their brain is atrophying with no imagination.

As a few hundred souls rest at the bottom of the ocean, one has to wonder if the discontinuity one should be worrying about is the wrong kind.