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Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Dunbar's Number


Thursday, August 13, 2020

A slap on the face of racism

 

The nomination of Kamala Harris to the democratic ticket is a slap on the face of racism, worn by most humans. A combination of black and brown, married to a Jewish person may be too much for those seeking to be pure. She is contra-indicated for everyone, blacks, whites, browns, and anything in between. It is sad humanity has reached this nadir.

Attempts at explaining the 8.4 billion specimens across the world share the same genes have not been successful. It is not surprising as a sizable number believes the Sun goes around the flat Earth. The attributes of color, religion, and language govern decision-making for most, remnants of clan-based organization of homo-sapiens. Modern humans have devised sophisticated ways to hide their racist beliefs. But their actions speak volumes and the leaders of the greatest and largest democracies always understood it. The electorate may talk a good game but behind the screen in the election booth, their instincts kick in.

Racism is the most prevalent disease of humanity today. It shows no signs of abatement. It means that the training of the brain through information, although necessary, is not sufficient to eradicate the disease. It appears to be resident in the operating system and applications put on top of this foundation, simply mask the instincts temporarily.

The “progress,” of humans may become irrelevant if they are unable to put on a new operating system on their hardware upstairs.

 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Vanishing Species

Humans, a recent arrival on the planet Earth, appear to be on track to vanish in a few 100 years. According to a recent article in Lancet (1), population growth is slowing and the aggregate population is expected to peak in 40 years or so, just under 10 billion. With a Total Fertility Rate well under the replacement rate in many countries and the rest moving rapidly in that direction, humans are on course to a slow and painful extinction in the blink of an eye. In less than a century, the value of a human could rise to such levels that countries may fight for them or devise ways to manufacture them.

Humans were never expected to be here. A mere 75,000 years ago they were reduced to a few thousand samples during the Toba catastrophe (2). As they ventured out of Africa, just 50,000 years ago, they were given a palette of relative freedom to create their own history. They eliminated any other humanoid they found systematically, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans, albeit after mating with them, using abundant experience from clan-based violence borrowed from their ancestors (3). In less than 10,000 years ago, when humans settled and succumbed to agriculture and domestic animals, they exposed themselves to organisms that could wipe them out quickly. Their height and health started to decline since then (4) and with little knowledge of their invisible enemies, they remain to be sitting ducks in the midst of advancing pandemics.

There are three common themes that characterize Homo-sapiens all through their sojourn on the blue planet that possesses an incredible level of homeostasis. First, they are driven by a simple objective function, just like any other biological entity on Earth, a need for energy and a desire to perpetuate their architecture — more specifically, food and sex. Second, they try to maximize this objective function through violence, perhaps worse than other animals that have shown to be prone to irrational empathy. A freak evolutionary quirk ballooned their brains and that gave them the ability to strategize and collaborate to eliminate the foe. Ironically, the bigger brain accelerates their path to extinction as they devise weapons of mass destruction, religions, and caste systems. Finally, their long-practiced clan behavior pushes them to segment to ever so finer distinctions based on visible surface features and presumed differences. In other words, the deadly cocktail of food, sex, violence, and racism has set them up for the final assault by disease as their numbers naturally decline due to falling fertility rates.

Physics is yet to provide a reasonable explanation of life. The most elegant of ideas has been the second law of thermodynamics (5) and a systemic force toward increasing entropy at an ever-faster rate. Life certainly fits this as a biological organism is able to accelerate entropy by many orders of magnitude higher compared to a random combination of chemicals that make life. If so, it makes sense that Humans, an extreme form of entropy enhancing mechanisms, materialized. If the Physics holds true, they will be replaced by other forms that are more efficient in increasing entropies. The new species has to be more potent than humans in the current environment. Recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics may fit the bill. It is more likely that the environment of contemporary life will be blown to pieces in a shock and awe process of massive entropy accretion.

Humans, the vanishing species, a quirky experiment of evolution, never had the staying power.

(1) 

(2) 

(3) 

(4) 

(5) 



Sunday, August 2, 2020

Ignorance, the biggest threat to society

In the midst of pandemics, environmental degradation, social unrest, and other observable catastrophes, the primary threat to humans remains to be ignorance (1). Merriam-Webster defines ignorance as a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness. More generally, it is a state of being apathetic to emerging information and a lack of a framework to evaluate such data.

It should worry every human on earth that the greatest and largest democracies have leaders who demonstrate ignorance to such levels that their mere presence is a threat to humanity. It has been assumed that in a democratic system, fair elections will guarantee that elected officials will be competent at the very least. It was also an implicit assumption that democracies will avoid those who have evil intentions to roll back the ideals of the system. It is clear that these assumptions do not hold and it may be time to ask if the democratic systems, as designed, are appropriate.

The concentration of power has always been a problem in a democratic system. The world’s largest democracy, which purports a unitary system, has accumulated power at the center and that has led to the uneven treatment of states all through its short history. As the pandemic illustrated, the center has schizophrenia, taking credit for what works and blaming the states for the rest. In the world’s greatest democracy, which is apparently getting greater every minute, the dangerous effects of concentration of power in the executive branch are becoming clearer.

Democracy has always been a fragile system. It relied on the intelligence, foresight, and compassion of elected leaders to perpetuate it. All it takes is one or a few individuals to turn it back. Large democracies are sitting at the precipice of a societal tsunami. How they manage through this period will have a profound impact on history.

(1)  https://www.amazon.com/Flexibility-Flexible-Companies-Uncertain-World/dp/1439816328



Sunday, June 28, 2020

The knowledge paradox

Gaining knowledge is costly. It takes time, effort, and money. Rational decision-makers will partake in this activity only if the risk-adjusted excess returns from it are positive. Since the risk associated with investing in gaining knowledge has both a systematic and idiosyncratic component to it, if the individual is able to diversify the unsystematic risk by accumulating varied and less correlated knowledge items, the relevant risk for computing returns to knowledge is only the systematic component. Thus, it may be dominant for a young person to garner knowledge in uncorrelated domains. In this context, education systems that force an individual to specialize may be responsible for reducing overall returns to knowledge for the individual and for society more broadly. Further, the value of specialized knowledge declines in a regime of high volatility as the aggregate option value of the portfolio will be higher if it is constructed with diverse and uncorrelated knowledge components.

The value of knowledge, however, declines with age. Both the returns to knowledge as well as any diversification advantages that exist from varied knowledge decline sharply after a certain age. Thus, it is puzzling why older people will engage in the accumulation of knowledge in diverse domains. It has been observed that individuals take on foreign knowledge domains, such as new languages, music, literature, and even science after retirement. Since the computable and observable returns from these apparently irrational activities are negative, it has to be that there are benefits that are intangible. Such benefits may include an incremental extension of life by keeping the brain active and packets of happiness emanating from gameplay if knowledge-seeking is constructed as a game. These are difficult to measure and may depend on the individual.

As the expiration date of an individual is predictable within reasonable error bands, it may be possible to tease out the motivation for knowledge activities through longitudinal studies. Controlling for the individual’s mental deterioration with age, it is possible that the individual will continue to enhance the diversity of her knowledge portfolio. If the extension of life is the dominant objective, this activity should decline over time with a sudden drop closer to expiry. If gameplay drives the motivation, it should hold steady and perhaps even increase as the individual nears the irreversible outcome.

A diverse portfolio of knowledge appears dominant whatever age one is, except very close to expiry.