Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wasting resources

A recent article in Child Development shows what has been obvious to many – stressful home environments have significant deleterious effects on a child’s development. Since such low level stress is generally negatively correlated with income and wealth, children from the lower economic strata are at a much higher risk of this phenomenon. As the technologists and politicians strive to build a “better society,” they are completely ignorant of the most important resources, being wasted – children.

As more than one third of the world’s children, impacted by lack of food, shelter and education, struggle to make sense of a system that seems to be moving backwards with lack of empathy and knowledge, we are fast approaching a stalemate. The intelligentsia, appear to understand the mechanics of Net Present Value (NPV) for their pet projects, but often miss applications of finance and economics for policy that may positively impact society. Even the Nobel Laureates from the “Chicago School,” famous for seeing beyond the mountains, seem to have lost the desire to make a fundamental change. Tacticians galore and in the process, we are losing.

Any policy, that does not have a positive impact on malnourished, undereducated and stressed children, occupants of this planet tomorrow, is not worth pursuing.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Societal memory

Recent finding that amnestic mouse brains are able to recall lost memories is encouraging for those with Traumatic Brain Injury and Alzheimer’s disease related memory loss. Lost memories, perhaps, the most costly aspect of human societies, have not been studied in sufficient detail. For most of the history of homo-sapiens, downloading memories was central to their development – with the village elder willingly transmitting knowledge to the chosen few of the next generation for perpetual propagation. Modern humans, virtual slaves to technology, seem to have lost the art of memory storage and propagation, yielding to the least effective mechanism for the same, computers.

Memories, that encapsulate experience and knowledge, are misunderstood by humans on a treadmill to nowhere. The rat race keep them occupied for most of their lives, unable to make memories or to appreciate those who create them. A society that is unable to store and propagate memories is not sustainable, for its content will be left undefined and its tactical accomplishments, fleeting. A human, the combined total of chemicals worth less than $25, is nearly worthless without memories – her own, or those of her society. In spite of all their technical accomplishments, humans will drift endlessly if they could not figure out how to create, nourish, store and utilize societal memories.

Memories – most valuable but least understood resource of a society – may ultimately define the path humans could take.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Inelegant science

Science, perhaps the only accomplishment of modern humans, is affected by the collective myopia of scientists – the tendency to spend too much time on details and little on larger questions. For example, recent revelations that indicate that the universe is so finely tuned to be flat that even an addition of a single gram of mass into the system could substantially change its future, seem to have gotten little attention. Attempted descriptions of dark matter, energy, flow and tilt – with heavy and incomprehensible mathematics is the status-quo. Some at space agencies world-wide get too excited about sending a craft to Mars or designing a sojourn with Titan. If one cannot answer the larger questions, it does not matter if the atmosphere of Europa could be finely measured. Answering, larger questions, however is more difficult.

Details, often the noise that destroys elegant solutions, have been dominant in every field. One could argue that an elegant, simple solution to the larger question, even if it is incorrect, is much more valuable than adding yet another particle to the zoo to explain phenomenon that will remain inexplicable with existing theories. Humans seem to be evolving downward, adding skills that aid detailed analyses – but losing the ability to see the bigger picture. Part of the blame has to go to educational systems worldwide – masters of creating cogs in the wheel, adept at taking standardized tests and soaking up text-books from the past, most of which have become irrelevant. Further, hiring managers in the dying behemoths, trained at conventional techniques prefer those who can deliver next quarter’s earnings at the expense of a valuable enterprise. 

We could be tending toward a world of engineers, doctors and scientists – who have no interest in answering why we are really here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Light chip

Recent research from the University of Utah seems to get closer to silicon photonics and faster light based processors, many orders better than conventional products. Splitting light has always been easy but Utah engineers have accomplished it with beam splitters of a mere 2.4 microns of size. This may propel us out of the ongoing rat race of packing silicon ever closer on conventional chips for less interesting performance improvements.

Moore’s law, held sacred by technologists and used by exponential curve plotting, singularity seeking intellectuals, for stupid predictions, may have done significant damage to the psyche of innovation in electronics. Humans, grand optimizers of their limited life horizons, always fall into the trap of incrementally improving what is available. They appear to be satisfied with metrics that double over long horizons – such as years and this is in stark contrast to their keen awareness of limited time. With less than a thousand months of life span, a metric that doubles every 18 months appears so much less interesting than one that explodes by a few orders of magnitude in the same horizon. More importantly, doubling computing power in 18 months with no perceptible impact on existing applications is a waste of time.

It is time to throw out processes that grow within the same orders of magnitude every year – they will certainly employ people, but they will not make any difference to humanity.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Accent inefficiency

A recent study from the University of Washington at St.Louis, speculates that accents may have a high negative correlation to comprehension and recall to a population, that is native. If true, this is a significant loss of efficiency for 8 billion people, worldwide. Humans, already reeling from a plethora of disconnected languages and incomprehensible accents, seem to have painted themselves into a corner. Language, the foundation of communication that propelled humans away from their close cousins, chimps, may be their Achilles’ heel – as they struggle to understand each other.

And, most humans do not understand each other. Their natural inclination, driven by evolutionary forces, has been to distrust anything that is foreign – structure and accent. The segmentation schemes they have been able to invent – countries, religions and now, accents – have kept them bottled up from progressing any further for nearly hundred thousand years. As they take pride in their understanding of the universe, computers that run faster than ever, aluminum tubes that propel them across continents and into space, medicines that keep them alive and in pain for an incremental five years and ego that keep them stressed for ever, they are worried primarily about color, language and accents.

As the space agencies search for dominant extra-terrestrials across space-time, as the intellectuals seek a meaning for life, as physicists seek the next particle from heavy bombarding, as economists seek to define how money flow from one to the other, as chemists and biologists seek to keep the dying human on life extending machines, one has to wonder if a world with a singular language and indistinguishable accents could have made a difference.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Downward sloping cognition

Humans, apparently on top of the mammals’ evolutionary chain, appear to lack some basic cognitive capabilities, as exhibited by their distant cousins- rats. A recent article in Animal Cognition describes advanced cognitive capabilities in rats that unilaterally lend a helping paw to another who may be sinking in water. This instinctual reaction appears to supersede food based reward, a dominant aspect of mammal life.

Evolution, held sacred by scientists as a sure way to higher intelligence and cognition, has to be rethought. It appears that tactical advantages gained by random mutations are more likely to create freak systems – such as humans. If there is a physical reason for life – such as accelerated entropy, it does make sense at the macro level. Systems that are able to think many different permutations and combinations to enhance entropy, will be selected and humans certainly fit the bill. The organ they carry on their shoulders, certainly helped them invent fire and they have been burning everything they could find for over 100 thousand years. And burning, certainly, is a sure way to increase entropy.

Somewhere along this evolutionary cycle, humans, seem to have picked up some bad habits – such as observations, societal formation and learning. These traits are certainly against the prescribed objectives and will be deselected if the objective function is indeed very clean and includes only positively sloped entropy. Since rats appear to be significantly less efficient than humans to accelerate entropy, it is clear that the forward momentum of evolution will likely correct for any random noise that was introduced such as empathy, knowledge and the desire for better societies.

Humans, a dominant evolutionary construct, have been efficient in optimizing a simple objective function – accelerate entropy at any cost. And the laws of physics indicate that they will get more efficient at it over time.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Seeing is not believing

Experimentalism and empiricism, corner stones of modern scientific exploration, have substantially dampened step-function changes in knowledge addition in almost every field. In economics, availability of metrics and statistics in abundance have kept academics, spending most of their careers proving the established theories. In Physics, the ability to generate data at will with heavy machines has kept any innate creativity bottled up. In life sciences, manufacturers, staffed with conventional statisticians and a regulatory regime with little understanding of risk management have assured that breakthrough drugs are yesterday’s story.

It is a perfect storm. As a vanishing generation, steeped in qualitative and non-scientific processes of information gathering is bombarded by another, trained to see and analyze data, we are left with little hope to advance knowledge. For the former, data do not matter and for the latter, it appears, only data matter. Neither can be further from the truth. From a societal perspective, one has to worry less about the former as they are checking out from the ecosystem. But, it is problematic to see educational systems, world-over are catering to processes that start from data and not knowledge. The implicit assumption of modern science, that experimentalism and associated empiricism are necessary conditions for the creation and establishment of theories, is fundamentally incorrect.

If we create a society, enslaved to data and thus prone to considering experimentalism and empiricism as the primary tools to generate and advance knowledge, we are doomed.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The cost of thinking

A recent article from MIT (1) argues that consumers’ decision processes in the retail arena, replete with confusing choices and an overabundance of brands, are dominated by an “indexing strategy.” To reach a decision, consumers may be indexing (or utilizing a bundle of proxies to compare) rather than conducting an exhaustive search as such an optimization process could have high cognitive costs. If true, this finding has implications for companies in the retail arena for product design, promotions, delivery and pricing.

First, it opens up a dimension in the psyche of the consumer, that makes analyzing decisions more complex for the observer (retailer) even though it simplifies the process for the consumer. In a world of a large number of close substitutes for any product or service, a consumer with a preference for minimizing cognitive cost, will only consider a subset of products, that is not necessarily obvious to the retailer. As the consumer “indexes” against an unknown subset of substitutes, she will likely consider all aspects of comparability – as the simplified process allows her to do so, in the comfort of an already reduced cognitive cost. Ironically, these attributes may include both physical and virtual aspects – with differing weights, making it very difficult for the retailer to define “competition,” in a world of interacting product definitions.

Second, status-quo strategies that may include price discounting, bundling and couponing, may have a longer lasting effect on the “indexing strategy,” followed by the consumer. Such tactics by the retailer could move the brand away or closer to the indexing bundle, used by the consumer. Although the impact of such strategies on the near term decisions of the consumer is ambiguous, it does increase the complexity of optimizing such strategies. And, finally, retailers who have a rigid view as to “who their competition is,” may find themselves drifting – as the consumer preferences and retailing tactics may enroll or remove them from the proxy bundles considered by the consumer.

Retailers may have to move away from long held views on the competitive landscape and tactics that may have brought customers to their doorstep in the past. Flexible and dynamic strategies in design, delivery and pricing may be needed to win the consumer indexing game.

(1) The brain in the supermarket, Published: Friday, March 27, 2015 - 11:33 in Mathematics & Economics, Science News