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.