Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Limited imagination

And then, she could see the heavens beyond her imagination
Out in the distance, Quasars shine but the physicists do not know
Near in time, people die, but the intelligentsia does not know
Champaign flows and the suits in glass houses get religion
8 Billion, too few to count, but too many for those, counting pennies
Brain cells, a liability for most, have failed again to make an impact
They sever heads in the East and intelligence in the West
It is, indeed, a show, nobody should miss
Blonde hair, racism and democratic intent on television and media
The ones in the South adhering to belief and those in the North to principles
Neither wins nor do they advance humanity
It seems futile and irrelevant to those with brains over their shoulders
Humans, complex animals and a quirk of evolution, normalize again
They should not be here, but now, they are ready to inflict damage
To themselves, and anything they may touch and destroy
They cannot measure damage, they write history with glowing language
Time, the only artifact with power, shall erase every action and thought
And space, inferior to time, shall close in on the incompetent and stupid
The predictable collapse, cannot be anticipated by those with constraints
But then, the question remains for the few who may be left behind

Monday, March 2, 2015

Small noise

Recent research from Penn State (1) surfaces interesting questions on privacy in the modern world. Privacy has become a stumbling block in the use of valuable data for research and business purposes. Penn State team advocates adding small noise to data to achieve “differential privacy.” Privacy, a theme picked up by regulators with little knowledge of technology, has to be advanced by foundational mathematics. High tech giants, makers of search, faces, operating systems, databases, flashy hardware and next-quarter’s profits, are ill-equipped to solve this problem.

Research has been lagging. Privacy is a mathematical problem and not a data problem. With less than 8 billion samples across the world, it should be relatively easy to assure privacy if its is solved systematically. Regulators, lost in time and space, are attempting to use archaic tools to solve a problem, they deem important. And, big businesses, who want to hoard and abuse data are unlikely to play. Hence, this is a problem, only academics can solve.

Privacy, as important as education and health in the modern context, can only be protected by the application of mathematics. With few distinct samples with limited time horizons, it should not tax academic minds, if they focus on it.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Value of society’s health

Policy makers, both sides of the aisle and across the pond, often seem to miss the big picture. Sure, a democratic system that works in 4 and 5 year election cycles, is not amenable to strategy. Healthcare, a lighting rod for idiots running for office, is a complex question. For most of their history, humans were driven by simple objective functions – food and sex, dominating anything else. In the modern world, for most, the equation has not changed much. Although the village elders may have thought strategically about the health of the clan, as managing a portfolio of men and women with high specialization is not a trivial problem, such ideas did not flow much further.

The idea of society, an abstract concept, is very new. In the modern context of interconnected humans by technology, the definition of society certainly has been expanded. Facebook boasts of a society, nearly billion strong and that system is not significantly different from China and India. Although politicians would like to cleanly divide populations by faith, ignorance and color, fitting them neatly into societal fragments, such ideas have been rendered obsolete for a while.

Assuming that one can clearly understand societies – an interconnected organism - then one can envision the best way to nourish it. The foundational elements of a modern society are health and education. Every participant benefits from positive externalities associated with these common goods. Thus, policy imperatives that substantially enhance health and education should be dominant in a modern society. However, the tactics of implementation differ significantly. Health, for example, is as much the responsibility of an individual as it is of the society. Thus, an individual who does not care for her health and education (societal goods) cannot be helped by society. Her actions, then, will be against utility maximization for herself and more importantly, for the society.

Upgrading a society is likely a two-step process – first, information has to be widely available to all participants including the society’s objective function. Then market forces have to take over to move the system to a better state – providing appropriate incentives and disincentives to all participants as long as there are no market failures. If market failures are present in the provision and use of common goods, they have to be removed through appropriately designed constraints. And, all policies have to be consistently implemented.

It seems unlikely that modern humans can design next level societies as they seem to lack necessary knowledge and skills.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cultural slippage

Human societies, from inception, have shown a positive slope, albeit small, toward higher culture – defined by a better and abstract understanding of extra-self. Arguably, contemporary modern humans show measurable slippage in culture. Alarmingly, this could be big enough to reverse many centuries of progress. The instruments used to sustain a positive slope in culture for centuries, such as religion, are largely responsible for reversing the trend, now.

For most of the history of the upstart humans, it was art that provided the fuel for a positive cultural slope. For the past several centuries, however, science has taken a dominant role. But it has been inferior to provide a sustaining momentum to the human psyche. Materialism, that spreads like cancer, coupled with prescriptive science, has largely assured that the trend reversal is permanent. It has been successful in dividing the world into tiny fragments, each apparently different but certainly fighting the rest. It is ironic that at the peak of pride for technologists, the world shows signs of humans returning to their origins, when little technology was present.

The slope of cultural progress, the only tangible measure of advancement for the human mind, has turned negative again with little chance of yet another reversal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The utility of strategy

Strategy, a long term view of evolving uncertainty, has been misunderstood. Blue chip consulting firms and investment banks - sultans of PowerPoint and handlers of boardroom dramatics, have been leading firms in the wrong direction for decades. Business schools, filled with those adept at finance and accounting, have been drilling the wrong stuff into the brains of every budding graduate. The economy is suffering from ”stratgeists” and not from the lack of them.

Strategy, however, is a useful construct, not for individuals or organizations but for society. For the society, it provides guidance to nourish a stable, productive and improving population, able to propagate the human genes, across space and time. For individuals and organizations, with limited decision and harvesting horizons, strategy provides negative value. This inherent conflict – the whole benefiting from longer horizon thinking but not the parts, means that the former is likely to lose. Utility maximization for an individual or organization, is inherently constrained by limited time horizons and tacticians, indeed, add more value.

Strategy has to be redefined – it is not about entering new markets, culling dogs and embracing stars, maximizing equity value, next quarter’s earrings or next year’s bonuses. Strategy is a notion that may help assess and improve humanity.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Is living longer, better?

Statistics have been clear, humans are living longer (1). India, projected to be the most populous country in the world as the Chinese have been systematically controlling the birth/death ratio for long, cunningly culling the variety that could create more, has been able pump up nearly 20% of the world population to longer life expectancy. In India today, one is expected to live till 65 and the world at large to 71. The more important question is whether living longer is better.

Biological systems are preprogrammed to maximize life span. The basic equation is driven by reproductive requirements and those living longer are more likely to transmit their DNA to the next generation. Nature, with little flexibility to adjust to technological advances, seems to have gotten it wrong. Living longer is the biggest liability in the modern world, controlled by humans, who do not think straight. Today, over 80% of the healthcare costs of an individual is attributed to the last year of her life. For the individual, waiting to fade away in dignity, extension of life is likely utility destroying.

There could be an optimal life span for a human driven by the status of technology and the availability of resources. Moving outside such bounds is unlikely to be good and this has policy implications for medicine, education and societal formation.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Living on the edge

A recent article published in the open access journal ZooKeys (1) shows that the 10 Km wide asteroid that impacted the Earth, 65 million years ago – famous for removing the dominant species at that time, nearly terminated the weaklings, the mammals, as well. The paper portrays a picture that is striking – the placental mammals that dominate the world today – from mice to women – just got lucky. They do not seem to posses any significant advantages but the conditions afforded by the trauma, removed all competition, allowing them to thrive.

If mammals were any wiser, they would analyze this event in depth. Dinosaurs had technology – largely supported by biology but the discontinuity made the status-quo technology, a liability. Humans, apparently, on top of the food chain today, seem to be proud of their technology as well – most of which are finely tuned to current conditions. Their societies seem to have morphed into systems with little networked flexibility. Any minor perturbation could send them galloping back 50,000 years – hunting for food and sex, aided by a volatile organ, an evolutionary mishap, on their shoulders. Technology would not matter in such a discontinuity.

10 Km wide space debris are like pebbles in a system, teaming with primordial matter, sprinkled across an irrelevant planetary system at the boundaries of a less than ordinary galaxy, in a bubble universe, member of an infinite multiverse. Such an event is a near certainty for a planet that is in a straight jacket in limited space-time.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

BELLA rules

Recent news that the Berkeley Lab has achieved an energy of 4.25 Giga Volts in a miniature accelerator, 9 centimeters long on a desktop, continues on a profitable path to next level of discoveries in Physics. Traditionalists, steeped in the philosophy of “size matters,” have been on the wrong track for over 50 years. They dug tunnels and abandoned them in Texas and they dug longer on the other side of the pond, that could prove pretty much anything in the midst of mind-numbing noise in the data. Size and volume do not matter, insights do.

It is ironic that scientists bow to engineers in an effort to make fundamental discoveries. Engineers, bored out of their wits, need no invitation to build ever bigger guns. This combination is deadly – it is costly and it takes away any possibility of fundamental discoveries in Physics – Not the Nobel seeking ones, but real ones. Einstein's obscure paper on LASER would have given a favorable direction 100 years ago for the brilliant minds of this century. But in the midst of mediocrity, some even nourishing visions of accelerators, the size of the solar system, it was all about size. BELLA thinks differently – and that ultimately could make a difference to the “dark” ages of Physics – where anything inexplicable is tagged with “dark.”

Few provide insights – but many publish, build and run experiments.