Scientific Sense Podcast

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Where has all the compassion gone?

Recent news that hunger amplifies infectious diseases (1) is problematic for areas such as Nigeria where life is becoming more of a struggle. Humans are funny animals - they spend hours seeking pennies from work and then lose all of it in the stock market in a micro-second. There are 2 billion souls in the world struggling to defeat disease and hunger and they are there only because of the bad initial conditions they started from. Not many got "a few million $," to start a business, something the most powerful man in the world considers to be nothing. Ignorance typically has limits but not always.

Health and food are important public goods. Humans, attempting to rise from their meager beginnings from a few hundred thousand years ago are stuck in a level 0 society, seemingly forever.  They have successfully erected walls in every dimension and are often forgetful of the world at large. They are all connected by a singular genome in spite of the visible surface features, they seem to attach too much importance to. As their cousins die in areas hard hit by hunger and disease, most are unaware of humanity and life itself.

Could we ever pull ourselves to the next level? Could we stop religion and politics? Could we get over academics seeking tenure and politicians getting elected, again? Could we get those pretending to be the best come down from the heavens and could we get those in hell, climb upwards? Could we get humanity to even or at the very least understand that gold is not a proxy for value and power is not a proxy for intelligence?

Where has all the compassion gone? It is time for the next generation to rise and do something good.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

The good people

Recent finding (1) that uses Uranium-Thorium dating on cave paintings in Spain seems to show that they are at least 64,000 years old, well before the arrival of the dominant species in Europe. The gentle and shy humanoids, the Neanderthals, perhaps more artistic and humble than their modern day counterparts, have been wiped out in the blink of an eye by those who migrated from the South. There have been many debates about their brain power and capabilities, arguments likely biased toward those who are making them. But now, it seems like their ability to create art, a clear precursor to intelligence, has predated the humans by a sizable slice of time.
The misunderstood species, now living in less than 5% of the human genome in the world may have been a more worthy occupants of the blue planet. Their swift elimination by those who invaded their hunting grounds indicates that they were gentle and perhaps accommodating. We have many modern day scenarios of the same. In South India, they welcomed most varieties of humans from around the world in recent times only to be run over later. In the Americas, the curiosity of the original inhabitants seem to have done them in. It has happened before, advanced societies seem to perish in the presence of brutal invaders and it could happen again. This implies that advancing thoughts and culture is not necessarily dominant if you want your genome to survive.
The simple objective function that drives most biological entities today - to optimally spread their genes - has a downside. It sub optimizes societal evolution and prefers micro advancement without any overall objectives. Humans are in the worst position - most believe they are put on this earth by God or something similar. And, they try to eliminate anybody who is different.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lies spread faster than truth

A recent study (1) that shows lies spread ten times faster than truth and reach as many more believers, is troubling. This appears to go against the basic notions of homo-sapien evolution as one would assume selection advantages to those who could separate truth from lies. So, either such advantages did not exist or the structure of recent society has given undefinable advantages to those who go against the grain. If it is the former, that implies who lived longer was able to utilize lies more advantageously and if it is the latter, perhaps society can do something about it.
As the social media kings rise - doling out information with zero marginal cost, they do not seem to understand that their actions have societal costs. As economists stick to their century old text books that discuss the trade-off between work and leisure, they are missing an important point. Leisure has a dark side, especially in the presence of "social media," where those with low cost of lack of work could derive higher utility from unbelievable lies than boring truth. The US currently has a leader who seems to have figured out this idea, perhaps by sheer accident. As the academics in ivy towers try to set the story right, they do not seem to realize that they have been rendered irrelevant by a populace, who derive no value from "education."
If the velocity of lies is ten times faster than truth, humanity may be progressing toward doom. The cause of this phenomena cries out for further research - but then it is unlikely as the social media kings are making money they cannot even count and the academics are still writing papers based on century old ideas to assure tenure.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Blue monkeys

As they roll out the next great technology - operating system and all - those behind the "revolution" seem to have missed some basic things. They have reinvented the "blue box," that shows up arbitrarily on your screen - and since they are all engineers, they do not want to give any options to the user. Often on my server, they show a blue box that requires you to "see" the updates and on my desktop, they give me only a few minutes before they forcibly shut my computer down. Monopoly has costs and if the company does not learn it, there could be trouble ahead.
Granted, they may be saving you as they realize the attacks from the East (and perhaps even from the West), but is it worth having a blue box at the center of the screen when you are doing something important or even watching a Netflix movie? More importantly, forcibly rebooting one's computer in the middle of watching a movie, may be taking monopoly power a bit too far. Even if the evil twin from the East is clamoring to get into your computer, throwing up a screen that proclaims your computer has been infected and you should call them so that they can disinfect you, it seems like a high price to pay when you are enjoying a movie. As often the case, engineers do not have much respect for the population and their programs are "most efficient." Efficiency, however, is not the only thing in life.
Makers of operating systems, autonomous cars and search, need to have an introspection. It is unclear if the leaders of these companies, "know everything." The blue box and failed artificial brain are ample evidence that they do not.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Economics 101

As the "best schools," attended by policy makers may have skipped Economics 101, it may be worthwhile to visit basic principles high school graduates understand. Ricardo's comparative advantage holds true in most cases and unilateral tariffs, however "strategic," are value destroying. There are many countries around the world who understood this after many years of bad experimentation. But now, one of the most advanced nations seems to be backtracking. Free trade and free markets are value enhancing for society and if the policy makers have any doubt, they may want to return to high school, perhaps this time avoid the "best ones," and attempt to learn something.
A few people making decisions that determine winners and losers has been shown to be sub optimal. In an integrated world economy, with firms and countries holding comparative advantages in differing competencies and production capabilities, it is always better to create an environment that allows specialization and trade freely. The socialists and worse have had difficulty understanding this concept. Some prescribed how many guns and butter to produce and others misguided by their elite education in the West, strategically imposed tariffs on selected goods and services. Underlying all these bad policies is the assumption that the policy maker has infinite wisdom to optimize. And, that has never worked out.
And now with infinitesimal wisdom, the one who is home alone, is attempting policies that have been conclusively proven to be bad. Education from the "best schools," may not be enough to have sufficient common sense.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Less precise health

A recent article (1) proposes that precision health should prioritize actionable information and long-term user engagement. That's a lot of words but it seems to make sense. Hardware and software companies have been on the prowl to sell "precision health," even though they may not know what it means. This could be a shocker for the statisticians, but health is not precise, not by any stretch of the imagination. As they roam the hallways with pocket calculators and actuarial tables, seeking higher and higher "precision," it is important to recognize that the human remains to be the most complex and enigmatic to figure out.
Health is a difficult construct to define. The regulators have gotten wind of "risk," recently and they are clamoring for "risk stratification." None of these people have had any formal education in risk or economics, but they feel they are experts on policy involving the same. They don't even seek information from other industries and that has been symptomatic of the entire healthcare value chain that includes manufacturers, providers, and payers, who seem to know pretty much everything there is to know. Not so. They may be brain surgeons but there are plenty of rocket scientists outside their domains. It may be better to talk to them, before plunging head down into the abyss.
A century of "development," appears to have increased lifespan by 2000 days. But from a utilitarian perspective, the incremental 2000 days gained by fantastic pharmaceuticals, crazy yoga and jumping up and down the whole day, do not seem to add much value. More importantly, the time gained generally reduces the quality of life, impacted by pain, hospitalization, and a lack of flexibility to make decisions. The human brain appears to deteriorate past allowed time and the individual behind the smoke screen suffers. The manufacturers who plunk down close to 100 billion every year into R&D do not seem to have any acceptable answers. The providers, left in the lurch to care for their patients who may not even recognize them, suffer equally. Meanwhile, the accountants at the payers are cranking up their calculators so that they can meet the quarterly EPS.
It is a painful movie to watch. As the brilliant folks in Washington figure out how to save themselves and perhaps the country, there is significant suffering across the landscape. Losing a life is unthinkable, losing a mind is equally traumatic.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Stop hiring "data scientists."

They have been riding high. The abandoned and somewhat less sexy field of Statistics has taken the business world by storm. Bottling old wine in new bottles certainly helped and now both venture capitalists and operating companies may be heading for a hangover. Engineers and statisticians have always wanted to be scientists and now they are crowned as such. There is a .ai company formed every 15 minutes by graduates of prestigious universities and there are capitalists with sacks of money willing to entertain them. As we have seen before, this movie will likely end in tears for many.
Data is certainly a good thing and applying "science," to it could also be good. But those who assert their "scientific credentials," based on regressions and neural nets should be aware that the slide rules they are using have been available for nearly half a century. Mathematics does not fade but asserting old ideas have suddenly sprung to life certainly shows the maturity and age of the emerging "scientists." Consulting firms have always been creative and some of the most famous ones, who could hardly spell "data science," just a few years ago are now pretending to be experts at it. Conferences are plenty where the scientists meet their seekers and the vendors portray their wares almost like the bartering that was routine a few centuries ago. They flow tensors, cognitive networks and even hardware in a Pizza size box, that apparently has solved all the world's problems, already.
Stop hiring "data scientists." They are ordinary human beings with bias and they could do your companies a lot of damage.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Breathe, breathe in the air

As the first biological entities emerged out of the water and into the land, the battle was just beginning. The toxic air was oxygenated over time and as complexity increased, they had to develop sophisticated systems to breathe. The toxin turned into life-giving Oxygen and over a million years, humanoids experimented with systems that could shuttle the magic molecule to power their systems.
Allergies and asthma followed modern humans as they transversed the globe with their badly designed respiratory systems, prone to catastrophic failure and that killed them in large numbers. Later, modern medicine will keep them alive for a few more decades but they often succumb to the inability to oxygenate. Their nemesis, the Virus, attacked their Achilles heel as most died of the common cold and some of the more advanced versions, aptly named Pneumonia. Recent news (1) that claims advances in bronchodilator drugs in asthma is certainly welcome news.
Humans, fragile and badly designed in most systems, do not appear to be robust enough to move to the next stage.