Scientific Sense Podcast

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.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Intelligence handicap

Humans have been handicapped with a huge quantum computer they carry on their shoulders. The miracle machine, that may house as much as a billion qbits, has been bored out of its wits for over fifty thousand years. The best physical systems could come close to replicating is a million times less powerful. It may be truly ironic if the species gets wiped out before it understands what it may have been capable of.

Excess capacity has been costly in most situations. In the case of humans, they have been endowed with an organ, they could never truly understand. A quirk in the objective function obscured intelligence and presented useless constructs such as ego and wealth that drive most of the seven billion specimens across the blue planet. Some have put down reluctance of adherence to conventional expectations as disease and many have attempted to bridge the chasm with chemicals treating the brain.

If intelligence is a handicap, then a favorable direction of evolution is less of it. And, that will likely minimize pain for humanity.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Noisy trials

A recent study in the European Heart Journal that shows that the common wisdom that high HDL has a protective positive effect on cardiovascular health could be wrong, is a warning signal to traditional medicine, handicapped with normality statistics and decades long practice of small randomized trials. As many other disciplines prove routinely, including the mathematically pure Physics, once stated, a hypothesis is easy to prove. And, as everybody knows, economists can prove pretty much anything including the Princeton hypothesis that 100 Trillion in US debt will cure all the world’s ills. Medicine, has been lagging for decades – driven by the collection and use of noise from limited observations to satisfy regulators blinded by ignorance and institutionalism.

Mendelian randomization (MR) that combines genetic information with clinical observations is in the right direction. But till the industry realizes that normality statistics have lured them into conclusions that are utterly wrong, it will continue on the well-trodden and disastrous path. With little market feedback, the scientists are unlikely to see the emergence of black swans or the assumption that white swans walk in a straight line is wrong – and this will continue to propel them into bringing incremental therapies to market with little patient benefit. In the financial market, incompetence is rewarded by bankruptcy but in science, generally, incompetence is rewarded with prizes as the lack of feedback let those adept at data manipulation rise to the top.

Statistics – may have led humans astray in most fields with complex non-linear effects – such as Physics, Medicine and Economics. The engineers, who are happy with this conventional tool, may ultimately end up leading everybody else into dead-end alleys.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mathematical beauty

A recent paper in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal shows that the region of the brain – medial orbito-frontal cortex – is uniformly involved in the assessment of beauty, whether it is in art, music or mathematics. In a study where mathematicians rated formulae on a beauty scale, their brain activity seem to correlate with such assessments in other pursuits, including art and music. This fundamental and universal neuro-biological basis to beauty, possibly points to humans seeking elegance in abstract constructs and equating such a notion to beauty. Humans appear to generally crave for mathematical elegance, perhaps because elegance takes the least amount of energy to understand, imagine and internalize. Elegance, thus, is the most energy efficient sensation – something that is intuitively pleasing and inherently memory-forming – characteristics that are wrapped into a more complex construct of beauty. In this context, perhaps beauty can be measured by the overall entropy of sensation – lower entropy indicating higher beauty.

In a world, mired in complexity, nearly every field is rushing to higher order solutions to marginal problems. In the process, they create truly ugly solutions, creating chaos but not much else. In business, collecting big noise and crunching them with big computers in anticipation of insights is ugly. In Physics, nurturing the particle zoo and constructing heavy steel to smash particles in anticipation of the validation of the stated hypothesis is ugly. In medicine, mass manufacturing of the same dose pills and shoving them down the throats of willing patients is ugly. In economics, the complex dance between monetary and fiscal policies, fine tuning in anticipation of growth and inflation is ugly. In politics, the bureaucratic friction among the institutions of yesteryear that would not allow effective modern policies is ugly.

Elegance is beauty. Complexity is ugly.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The decision arbitrator

A recent study from Caltech provides tantalizing clues into decision processes employed by humans. Using experimental results, the study hypothesizes that distinct parts of the brain control habits and goal oriented behaviors and that there is an arbitrator region that makes an eventual decision after comparing these potentially conflicting signals. After the arbitrator receives the two signals (decisions), it selects the one that has the highest probability of success given the problem at hand. The authors propose selective activation or inhibition of these regions as well as the manipulation of the optimization logic used by the arbitrator, could result in more effective medicines for brain diseases.

Better understanding of how the brain circuitry works in making decisions is also useful in the design of business processes and complex organizations. Modern companies and technologies require decision-makers to substantially side-step their evolution driven logic engines. Making decisions under significant uncertainty requires logic that does not fit into habits or goal orientation. With the arbitrator lacking historical parallels to modern problems, it is likely to proxy the current unfamiliar situation with a combination of unrelated past episodes, leading to bad decisions, routinely. Multi-factorial uncertainty is indeed a new experience for modern humans and all indications are that they are perpetuating knowledge from an irrelevant past.

Leaders of organizations need to understand the physiology of their own brains and the physiology of the groups of complex humans they are leading, to be effective.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Last men standing – US Graduate schools

A recent report from the NSB (National Science Board) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) portray a gloomy picture for the US – showing the majority of the R&D shifting East and the lion’s share of the technology manufacturing moving to China. Measuring innovation content of countries has always been tricky. For example, the elite engineering schools of India, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), with arguably the first call on the best talent in India for over 50 years, have failed to produce any breakthrough innovation for all of its history. Any misguided comparisons of it to the top graduate schools in the US is just that – totally misguided.

Innovation is not necessarily about technical know-how – it is about the ability to combine multi-disciplinary knowledge into practical stuff. Diving deep, albeit being interesting from a theoretical perspective, has never been proven to be a profitable strategy. Institutions that have contributed to the progress of mankind by high innovation always practiced the art of multi-disciplinary learning. Efficient production of one-dimensional people is not a good thing – neither for the individual nor for the countries that engage in it.

The top graduate schools in the US, continue to be the pillars of open innovation. Stealing and replication can take one only so far.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Efficient designs

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a group of non-experts in aggregate produced designs for RNA molecules that are substantially better that what were created by computer algorithms. Humans have always shown significant capabilities for pattern finding that are unsystematic. However, it has also been shown that perspectives of a single individual are inferior to what could be accomplished by systematic computer searches. So, it is the group of interacting people, albeit being independently imperfect, that shows superiority over machines. The slight imperfections in each provides random excursions in the search space that could get reinforced or negated away by the crowd. In financial markets, this is called efficient prices and in other areas, wisdom of the crowds.

This idea appears to be poorly understood in many areas. In the financial markets, significant value is lost by advice and individual trading of securities, based on the premise that individuals can beat crowd wisdom. In large companies, decisions are made by a few managers without extracting the knowledge that reside in the people who make up the company, based on the premise that they know better and/or the broader information cannot be systematically gathered. In politics, representative democracy destroys value by instituting a small number of decision-makers between the population and policies, based on the premise that the representatives know better and/or the populace cannot realistically express opinions on policies.

The idea is simple. Human crowds are the most powerful logic engines. Neither machines nor a few selected people are going to have any better insights. Humans interacting with machines that allow collaboration and aggregation likely dominate in most areas.