Scientific Sense Podcast

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bidding bias

A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that when the bidders are unaware of the characteristics of their competition, they are likely to bid more aggressively – possibly indicating inefficient price outcomes. Although the study was done on bidding in the social channels over tangible products, the finding has implications for the financial markets as well.

By definition, the originator of a bid price on a financial asset in a liquid market does not know the characteristics of the counter-party. Does this mean that there is a built-in positive upward bias (aggressive bidding) in the prices of financial assets? The article does not seem to explain if there is an asymmetry – i.e. are the sellers of assets, equally aggressive, when they are lacking such information? And without that, it is difficult to conclude anything.

However, the finding seems to imply that transaction prices are less efficient when the buyers are sellers are unaware of the counter-party characteristics. An exchange, thus, may induce a level of inefficiency into transactions. This is an interesting area of research and if straight bartering has a higher probability of establishing efficient prices, then, it may have some policy implications.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The accounting FED

Many economists and those less endowed are at the misimpression that the FED has been doing the right things. Little do they know that the FED, whose chairman had the right prescription for the Japanese a full decade ago would suffer from amnesia and take a course, dramatically opposite to it. Salt water freezes at lower temperatures but the brains of those closer to the oceans, do so faster.

Moving money around never increased value for anybody or anything - countries, companies and individuals included. Buying liabilities of the banks and giving them reserves in return that gained interest did not either. As most first year business school students know by now, dressing up the balance sheet does not increase value – for most of the value of an enterprise emanates from its ideas, people and intellectual property – none of which are balance sheet items. Placing accountants on top of companies, countries and monetary authorities are value destroying. Worse, those who are economists but doubt their own ideas could not do any better.

It is time for a monetary revolution – those with brains speculated over half a century ago that the targeting of money supply will lift production and welfare and at the very least keep the incompetent and impotent fiscal stimulus at bay. There is little know-how left, concentrated around the fresh water lakes ever dominated by those who are still willing to imbibe the toxic brine.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stuck humans

Nearly hundred thousand years of experience does not seem to have done humans much good. As they spend most of their time seeking materials that provide little overall utility and they spend the rest, harming those around them. Disconnected and sparse attempts at culture building resulted in predictable deterioration to mediocrity, over time. Similarly, attempted leaps at knowledge – religion and science – ended in dead ends.

Humans, then, are stuck. They prefer to ignore constant extra-terrestrial threats of collisions, while seeking to gain land from their neighbors. They prefer to ignore the sub-optimized capabilities of disconnected brains, while attempting to pack transistors ever closer together. They prefer segregation to integration and opinions to imagination. They prefer TV to  irrelevant books and sports to documentaries. They prefer to jog while ignoring who cannot and they prefer to dominate rather than think. They look up in the night sky, lamenting the light around them, while ignoring the knowledge underneath. They travel, learn languages and seek variety, while ignoring the neighborhoods and communities.

Humans are stuck – perhaps, that is the essence of being human.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Applied adoption

Recent research from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics seems to confirm intuition – network influences are important in the rate of adoption of emerging technologies. Large and well connected networks likely will accelerate adoption by biasing societal influence over local utility maximization. However, the study takes it one step further by suggesting that external agents such as the government can strategically grow network size and thus accelerate adoption of technologies, presumed to be good.

This is a slippery slope. The basic premise that external agencies can determine what a societal good (the study suggests that energy efficient technologies are unambiguously good) may be, is fraught with problems. External agents, where decisions are made by a few people, have never shown to be better in selecting and influencing socially optimal outcomes – it is just the opposite. Decision processes controlled by a small group will always be inferior and thus any policy emanating from such an architecture generally destroys societal utility. More importantly, in a world of accelerating networks, there is no need for external influences – the network is fully capable of selecting and adopting innovations that are optimal.

The proclivity to assume superior knowledge in a few compared to the wisdom of the crowds, have led many, down blind alleys, destroying wealth, health and the environment. Research in this direction will only exacerbate this problem.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Good bye, solar system… good bye

News that Voyager I has finally exited the influence of the sun is a major milestone in the history of the solar system. Nearly five billion years after its formation, it appears that its occupants have been successful in artificially ejecting a piece of themselves into deep space. Humans have been fascinated by the empty space beyond themselves for ever and now they are able to listen, if not see, the reverberations of deep space - not through telescopes but by the heartbeat of the metal and plastic that made the projectile, that escaped it all.

Deep space has fascinated many. Lately, it has been shown that the vast emptiness is decorated by molecules, but of such infrequency that the rejection of the existence of empty space remains, theoretical. Such was the power of observation that the skies above always appeared fully populated – some spewing light and others radiations of differing wavelengths, that the emptiness that separated them simply vanished. Only few could envision what the eyes could not see and the idea that emptiness is dominant – inside and outside fundamental particles is tough to grasp. Only the journey of a real object across the desolation could convince those who are objective.

Good bye, imagination.. good bye.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Journey of one man

My journey as characterized by the Genographic project using my dad’s lineage demonstrates a world without boundaries. In modern times, my family had hardly stepped out of a thin strip of land, 50 miles wide and 350 miles long at the Southwestern tip of the Indian peninsula. However, it appears that we arrived there recently, having taken a very circuitous and yet to be researched route – M241.


The wide distribution of the M241 haplo group covering Greece, Italy, Spain, the Arabian peninsula and India is interesting. Although more data is needed to fully characterize the path, it may indicate that we reached our present home in the Southern tip of India recently. Relatively high Mediterranean percentage (14%) in my DNA is consistent with the haplo group distribution. A 2% share of my DNA claimed by Native American characteristics also show connections to Mongolia, the only other region in the world that harbors similar markers.

Segmentation schemes invented by humans – countries, religions and languages – consume most of the world’s mental capacity today. An objective look back into our own DNA may solve most of the problems faced by the modern human.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Quantum necessity

Conventional computing has run its course – attempts at closer packing of transistors in an effort to improve speed is simply succumbing to the most basic problem – heat, with temperatures at the heart of the latest microprocessors exceeding those of nuclear power plants. This was expected but many had hoped for a path dramatically different from the doubling of speed every eighteen months. Anything less, is disastrous.

Engineering has been a decade long yawn – with little to show. As more and more brain cells migrated to less value added activities in financial services and bureaucratic corporations, they left a huge gap in fundamental innovation and humanity will likely pay a price for it. The ambitions of the creative could not have been satisfied by prescriptive increases in the speed of computing – incremental improvements to the status-quo. Demand for computing has been increasing at a rate that cannot be satisfied by conventional ideas, in every field from biology to predictive analytics.

The question is why humanity finds itself in such an unenviable position. With asteroids flying around the blue planet at will and biological systems that demonstrate ever increasing complexity, the young and timid species of homo sapiens run for cover. They were not expected to be here and a twist of fate has them ruling over a highly tolerant planet. It is ironic that humans are left with observations of calamity but no capability to struggle over them.

Quantum computing is a necessity – not a luxury.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Algorithmic discovery

Recent research (1) from USC that demonstrates how predictive algorithms can propel discovery in many areas including medicine and astronomy is further indication that applied mathematics is coming of age. Misguided attempts at rules based Artificial Intelligence kept a lid on more productive empiricism – something engineers and economists have known for many decades. Life sciences has been notoriously backward in the application of mathematics in predictions and decisions. Many have argued that biological systems represent complex interacting uncertainties and hence are not amenable to modeling. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Determinism and normality statistics have played havoc with many fields, including life sciences, for decades. Specialists in this industry followed standardized processes of discovery with rigid and prescriptive expectations of outcomes. The constant and nearly predictable failures have not forced significant changes, yet. The long cycles of research and development have allowed the perpetuation of the status-quo. The USC approach of taking well known mathematical principles and applying them differently with an eye toward practical applications is refreshing. More research of this ilk is needed if the industry is to pull out of the rut it is currently in.

Predictive and decision analytics – supported by established mathematics can wake up the slumbering life sciences industry. Tools have been available for over a decade – but not many have been willing to take the plunge.

(1) Taking the gamble out of DNA sequencing, Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 15:32 in Biology & Nature, e!Science News.