Scientific Sense Podcast

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.