Saturday, October 31, 2009

Random musing for the time capsule

Hope - On-going relay race of feeding today with the vivid imagination of the future and when tomorrow dawns, feeding frenzy continues irrespective of the queued pending imaginations. May be this is one of the crucial Darwinian survival trait but breaking this infinite loop to live for today is what Max does. I want to live the cognitive life of Max for one day. His concept of hope is very different, his hope is moment driven and mine eternal driven. Moment driven hope can be subsided and substituted making less prone to disappointments. Good news is brain is plastic and Max's energy is contagious.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brain scanners can tell what you're thinking about

This is one jaw dropping and may be the beginning of adios privacy, thanks to on-going neuroscience research. Today's article on New scientist:

"WHAT are you thinking about? Which memory are you reliving right now? You may think that only you can answer, but by combining brain scans with pattern-detection software, neuroscientists are prying open a window into the human mind.
In the last few years, patterns in brain activity have been used to 
successfully predict what pictures people are looking at, their location in a virtual environment or a decision they are poised to make. The most recent results show that researchers can now recreate moving images that volunteers are viewing - and even make educated guesses at which event they are remembering.
Last week at the 
Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Jack Gallant, a leading "neural decoder" at the University of California, Berkeley, presented one of the field's most impressive results yet. He and colleague Shinji Nishimoto showed that they could create a crude reproduction of a movie clip that someone was watching just by viewing their brain activity. Others at the same meeting claimed that such neural decoding could be used to read memories and future plans - and even to diagnose eating disorders."

"A brain structure called the hippocampus is critical for forming memories, so Maguire's team focused its scanner on this area while 10 volunteers recalled videos they had watched of different women performing three banal tasks, such as throwing away a cup of coffee or posting a letter. When Maguire's team got the volunteers to recall one of these three memories, the researchers could tell which the volunteer was recalling with an accuracy of about 50 per cent.
That's well above chance, says Maguire, but it is not mind reading because the program can't decode memories that it hasn't already been trained on. "You can't stick somebody in a scanner and know what they're thinking." Rather, she sees neural decoding as a way to understand how the
hippocampus and other brain regions form and recall a memory.
Maguire could tackle this by varying key aspects of the clips - the location or the identity of the protagonist, for instance - and see how those changes affect their ability to decode the memory. She is also keen to determine how memory encoding changes over the weeks, months or years after memories are first formed.
Understandably, such developments are raising concerns about "mind reading" technologies, which might be exploited by advertisers or oppressive governments (see "The risks of open-mindedness"). Yet despite - or perhaps because of - the recent progress in the field, most researchers are wary of calling their work mind-reading. Emphasising its limitations, they call it neural decoding."

"Another focus of neural decoding is language. Marcel Just at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his colleague Tom Mitchell reported last year that they could predict which of two nouns - such as "celery" and "airplane" - a subject is thinking of, at rates well above chance. They are now working on two-word phrases."

I simply don't want to debate the pro's and con's of neural decoding since I see a debate of all debates coming soon. So I am not going to sweat on that but I envision someday, when someone enters the domain of cognitive dissonance, a loud siren going off and flashing blue lights over their head. That's one awesome scene, I would love to witness before kicking the bucket.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What I've been reading

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan.
The book has blog feeling to it but its a great book for someone who is oblivious to neuroscience, behavioural economics  et al and it sure will jump start their curiosity in those fields. Its funny how since the last decade the trend changed from "power of positive thinking" to blunt exposure of the human shortcomings and limitations. The myriad of books joining the bandwagon is great news but the question is the people who should be really reading them, when was the last time they read any book? This split in knowledge of the population is going to create another "speculating" crowd, oblivious to the fact that all this are facts and nothing to speculate about but an opportunity to improve ourselves in-spite of our shortcomings.

I love this quote from Alan Greenspan's Age of Turbulence:

"Despite the many short comings of human beings, it’s no accident that we persevere and advance in the face of adversity. It is in our nature, a fact that has, over the decades buoyed my optimism about the future."

Oddly the books ends on how  "Being a Roman in Rome" is an important happiness factor, which is very true but I wasn't sure if that was the purpose of this book.

The Insanity of the FDA Approved Obesity Drug for Dogs

The Insanity of the FDA Approved Obesity Drug for Dogs
Great post by Rebecca Skloot:

"The other day I took my dogs to the vet for a checkup and saw a woman with her morbidly obese dog waiting to fill her prescription for Slentrol -- the first obesity drug for dogs -- which made me feel the need to resurrect this post below, which I wrote the day the FDA announced they'd approved the drug for use in dogs:The FDA just announced that they've just approved the first-ever obesity drug for dogs, which really makes me cringe. Why? Because dogs don't have eating disorders -- their owners have feeding disorders.
This summer, I adopted a new dog after she ran in front of my car on an interstate. She was starved, so I took her home and fed her. And fed her. And fed her. She weighed 20 pounds and could eat a heaping cup of food in 28 seconds (yes, I timed her). But that was fine, because she needed all the extra calories she could get. Then, about three months later, during a good wrestling match, I realized I couldn't feel her ribs anymore. Suddenly, she'd gone from being emaciated to being pudgy. So I did exactly what everyone else with a pudgy dog should do: I started feeding her less. Instead of getting a heaping cup at each meal, she got 2/3 of a cup. Three weeks later, she wasn't pudgy anymore. That's the amazing thing about dogs and weight: Humans control their calorie intake, and there's nothing dogs can do about it. If your dog needs to lose weight, you feed it less food.It's true that there's an epidemic of canine (and feline) obesity right now, just like there's an epidemic of human obesity. Which is no coincidence: People don't exercise, which means their dogs don't exercise. When people eat, they feed their dogs scraps, so the dogs gain weight right along with their owners. And don't even get me started on the ingredients in dog food. But there are other less obvious problems: Owners often have no idea how much they should feed their dogs, and if they follow the guidelines on most dog food bags, they're probably going to have obese dogs, because pet food companies encourage overfeeding. I had a 125 pound dog who lived to be 16 and was never an ounce over or under weight. If I'd followed
the guidelines for his food, he'd have eaten 2 1/2 times what I actually fed him, and surely become obese. My very healthy 17 year old dog Bonny eats 1/4 the recommended amount, always has. During my years as a veterinary technician, I saw many dogs die or become paralyzed from obesity. Today, when I see an obese dog on the street, I want to walk up to its owner and say, You love your dog, right? Then why are you killing it?If it's come down to this, and people are unable to control themselves when it comes to feeding their dogs, I'd rather see dogs medicated than dead. But I hope vets who prescribe this stuff paste a sticker on every bottle that says, Dogs don't need obesity drugs. They need owners who will feed them the right amount, cut back when necessary, and make sure they get exercise. (Perhaps the FDA should consider a self-control drug for humans with dog feeding disorders.)"

Rebecca exposes the dirty screte  - "If I'd followed the guidelines for his food, he'd have eaten 2 1/2 times what I actually fed him, and surely become obese."

I never read the feeding guideliness and I don't buy regular mass market dog food either. The most uncommon thing is common sense and that explains the insanity.

Religion flowchart

Thanks to Amit Verma for this hilarious post - Choose your religion.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Limitations of Mrs.Logic

Sam Anderson argues on how "Ayn Rand never got into an argument she couldn’t win. Except, perhaps, with herself". His case against Ayn Rand, vindicates me for not reading Atlas Shrugged even though Fountain Head is one of my favorite book and I do admire Rand's philosophy. The logic sounds weird but it helps me from being biased and someday when I over come some shortcomings I will catch up on Atlas Shrugged. Anderson should have been less harsh on her personal life, which obviously influenced her but never a decent thing to bring in personal life to attack a person. If you want to refute a person believes, do it with facts who go against their believes. Rand wasn't an all out hypocrite but was driven by a unique philosophy with only some of it pragmatic and lots of it lacked   the concept of empathy. In the end, she died alone with her cats, on the surface it sounds sad but probably that's what she would have wanted. It makes he speculate that she must be one of those people who had bottled up all the empathy and opened it up only to self.

Its stupid to put anyone on a demigod pedastal, when we have natural human  imprefections. There are so many factors involved here like some theories can be incongrous, some lost in transaltion, some not pragmatic and the most important human short coming, the distrotion of the memory. The best option is prudent to filter the best information out of the anyone and in the process from history (without being a cognitive miser). Instead, if we want to use every past theories for a great quasi-intellectual debate with no specific destination expect for ones self satisfication on accomplishing a great oration.

"Few men can be satisified with their own private consciousness (without any social recognition)" - Adam Smith.

I think, Mr.Smith meant Women too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

World's oldest dog

I wish. I would do anything. 

Good food. Regular checkup. Lots of love.

A Symbiosis to live for!!

I loved the seed artcile questions (decimates) man's ego - The deep symbiosis between bacteria and their human hosts is forcing scientists to ask: Are we organisms or living ecosystems?

"As soon as we are born, bacteria move in. They stake claims in our digestive and respiratory tracts, our teeth, our skin. They establish increasingly complex communities, like a forest that gradually takes over a clearing. By the time we’re a few years old, these communities have matured, and we carry them with us, more or less, for our entire lives. Our bodies harbor 100 trillion bacterial cells, outnumbering our human cells 10 to one. It’s easy to ignore this astonishing fact. Bacteria are tiny in comparison to human cells; they contribute just a few pounds to our weight and remain invisible to us.

It’s also been easy for science to overlook their role in our bodies and our health. Researchers have largely concerned themselves with bacteria’s negative role as pathogens: The devastating effects of a handful of infectious organisms have always seemed more urgent than what has been considered a benign and relatively unimportant relationship with “good” bacteria. In the intestine, the bacterial hub of the body that teems with trillions of microbes, they have traditionally been called “commensal” organisms — literally, eating at the same table. The moniker suggests that while we’ve known for decades that gut bacteria help digestion and prevent infections, they are little more than ever-present dinner guests.

But there’s a growing consensus among scientists that the relationship between us and our microbes is much more of a two-way street. With new technologies that allow scientists to better identify and study the organisms that live in and on us, we’ve become aware that bacteria, though tiny, are powerful chemical factories that fundamentally affect how the human body functions. They are not simply random squatters, but organized communities that evolve with us and are passed down from generation to generation. Through research that has blurred the boundary between medical and environmental microbiology, we’re beginning to understand that because the human body constitutes their environment, these microbial communities have been forced to adapt to changes in our diets, health, and lifestyle choices. Yet they, in turn, are also part of our environments, and our bodies have adapted to them. Our dinner guests, it seems, have shaped the very path of human evolution."

I want to scream at the top of my lungs and want this to be so true. I cannot wait to see the ripple effect, this is going to cause when it becomes a "self-evident" fact.

"Recently, for instance, evidence has surfaced that obesity may well include a microbial component. In ongoing work that is part of the Human Microbiome Project, researchers in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis showed that lean and obese mice have different proportions of microbes in their digestive systems. Bacteria in the plumper rodents, it seemed, were better able to extract energy from food, because when these bacteria were transferred into lean mice, the mice gained weight. The same is apparently true for humans: In December Gordon’s team published findings that lean and obese twins — whether identical or fraternal — harbor strikingly different bacterial communities. And these bacteria, they discovered, are not just helping to process food directly; they actually influence whether that energy is ultimately stored as fat in the body.

Even confined in their designated body parts, microbes exert their effects by churning out chemical signals for our cells to receive. Jeremy Nicholson, a chemist at Imperial College of London, has become a champion of the idea that the extent of this microbial signaling goes vastly underappreciated. Nicholson had been looking at the metabolites in human blood and urine with the hope of developing personalized drugs when he found that our bodily fluids are filled with metabolites produced by our intestinal bacteria. He now believes that the influence of gut microbes ranges from the ways in which we metabolize drugs and food to the subtle workings of our brain chemistry.

Scientists originally expected that the communication between animals and their symbiotic bacteria would form its own molecular language. But McFall-Ngai, an expert on animal-microbe symbiosis, says that she and other scientists have instead found beneficial relationships involving some of the same chemical messages that had been discovered previously in pathogens. Many bacterial products that had been termed “virulence factors” or “toxins” turn out to not be inherently offensive signals; they are just part of the conversation between microbe and host. The difference between our interaction with harmful and helpful bacteria, she says, is not so much like separate languages as it is a change in tone: “It’s the difference between an argument and a civil conversation.” We are in constant communication with our microbes, and the messages are broadcast throughout the human body."

Brain chemistry?? Wow, this is going to be fun!! I simply cannot comprehend why humans are so obsessed to be top of the chain instead being just a other lone branch in the tree of life?  Wouldn't it be fun, if anyone who doesn't believe in animal-microbe symbiosis should come out honestly (sans the cognitive dissonance) and volunteer to remove those microbes from their body? Why do I have feeling they wouldn't line up to do that? Last time I checked, they eschew science but still go to doctor regularly and pop pills.

"Microbes in the gut, for instance, encounter bacteria that ride in on the food we consume. These visitors introduce a huge, unpredictable component that makes any determination of a core microbiome all the more difficult. In order to develop well-framed research questions, it’s crucial that microbiologist learn how to differentiate between co-evolved species and these itinerant “tourists.”
What we do know, however, is that our own personal microbiomes tend to be partly inherited — most of us pick up bacteria from our mothers and other family members early in life — and partly shaped by lifestyle. Ley, who has surveyed the gut bacteria of several species, says that diet is an important factor in determining the communities that live in an organism. Even with our processed foods and sterilized kitchens, Ley says, humans are not radically different from other animals that share our eating habits.
The individuality of each person’s microbiome might complicate the project of studying human-microbe relationships, but it also presents opportunities — for instance, the possibility that medical treatments could be tailored to a person’s particular microbiota. Much like a genetic profile, a person’s microbiome can be seen as a sort of natural identification tag. As David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, puts it, “It’s a biometric — a signature of who you are and your life experience.” With support from the Human Microbiome Project, Relman is currently developing novel microfluidic devices that can isolate and sequence the genomes of individual bacterial cells. (Extracting genetic information from a complex sample normally mixes together hundreds if not thousands of unique species, so this single-microbe technology could well revolutionize the speed and scope of the entire field of metagenomics.) Personal microbiome information will also have implications for practical concerns, such as how we deploy antibiotics. Might those antibiotics we down at the first sign of an upset stomach be waging a microbes n unjustified civil war? Where do the massive quantities of antibiotics we feed to our livestock ultimately end up, and do they disrupt delicate ecological balances? We have lived with for our entire evolutionary history; how has the widespread use of chemicals that kill them changed those long-forged evolutionary relationships?"

On the lighter side, this is one more obvious case to eat less processed food and stick to natural evolutionary diet - more plants and less meat. Human-Microbe project is another website on the list of sites to check on a daily basis.

What a blow this would be to the human ego propogating their omnipotence? How can scientist convice this ( if it becomes a fact ) to people who don't even believe the theory of evolution? I bet, the future is going to fascinating one when science starts digging into this more. I haven't heard a better quote in a long lone time:

"Ironically, the human ingenuity that drives us to understand more about ourselves is revealing that we’re much less “human” than we once thought. "

Sunday, October 25, 2009

2007 and 2008 "Max" Holiday Cards

Thanks to Shutterfly, with my limited spatial skills I was able to design holiday cards.
2007 Holiday Card:

2008 Holiday Card:

I would love if someone can paint Max, hoping to find someone before this year's holiday season.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What I've been reading

I have built up this huge list of over 200 to-be read books on a excel sheet and every day, its building up like global warming. I tried in vain to emulate Tyler Cowen reading 8 books at a time but gave up after it was driving me insane and Max was pissed. So reading this book which is not part of my backlog made little sense. Couple of weeks ago, I was eyeing this book in the library, which had this very catchy title but having led by confirmation bias, I deduced it must be one of these quirky comedy central crap. Nevertheless, the grey matter made a concrete note to read it soon which eventually led me to pick it up last weekend.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J.Jacobs is an awesome book. I had a hectic week (result of avoiding multitasking) and this book came as a rescue. A.J's book had so many similarities with my life and to be precise lot of what happening now in life. Before you deduce it as my absolute recency effect, I have this blog for rescue and witness.

A.J goes around experimenting on some of the stuff which we don't practice but like to believe we do, unconsciously hoping it will be a self fulling prophecy.

  • My favorite project was his Rationality project (of-course!) and you bet its hilarious. Its kind of the stuff I have been trying to do (in a less hilarious and more boring way) , like getting rid of my cognitive dissonance et al (here, here and probably rest of my life). Complete wiki list here.
  • Practicing George Washington's "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation" is another project I love. My respect for the first president grew, ever since I read about it in one of David Brooks columns and I wanted to practice those too. To be honest some on the list are incongruous but most of it is timeless. 
  • Other project is "Project Truth", its astonishing how easily we slip into other mode every day. Born in India et al, I tried to practice Gandhi's my experiments with truth and I have got into troubled waters doing so. I have seen too many people growing up in India who led a Gandhi-an way of life only to be ridiculed by the society.(especially when the language becomes non-colloquial). AJ's project is more on removing the filter between the brain and mouth.
  • Avoiding multitasking was another project. It was bang on target since this was the first week I had decide to avoid multitasking (it was more or less slowly killing me). When it comes to Max, I have to multitask and I am not getting rid of that habit when it comes to him. The point is except in shower and natural calls, we need each other and which for him translates to non-non-stop playing.
  • Some of his other projects in the book (like posing naked of magazine) are completely out of my league and dont want to pursue not even in my wildest dreams.
  • Other eerie thing was A.J mentions about HBO miniseries on John Adams.  Coincidentally, I got the DVD set this week and was in process of debating whether to watch it or not (its over 9 hours). Now, I am in the middle of 2nd DVD and loving it!!
  • Last year's article about Patternicity on scientific american is one of favorites and I tend to use it all the time to avoid lured by any juicy conspiracy theories.
  • Did I mention we share great deal of books which probably explains the obsession with rationality and finding an explanation for everything and that obession with metacognition too!!
Its such a relief reading this book since it gives sense of security there are other nut cases, worse than me searching for rationality and making sense of each and everything. I feel lucky for not having it to do that for a living unlike A.J. Hmm but then why am I feeling jealous of A.J? I think its because he is reinstating what Max has been trying to teach me - the process of pursuit of happiness has to be fun else well duh!!

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    The Fountain Head Effect

    Ayn Rand's Fountain Head is one of my all time favorite book. I read it when I was 23 and (obviously) had a huge impact on me. I liked it so much that I didnt want to distrub the essence of that book by reading any of her other books (I have read here essays). It's a weird logic but it worked out good so far and till date I haven't even read Atlas Shrugged (which usually has a polarizing effect on most and so far I have escaped unscathed).
    One of my all time favorite quote is:

    "It is not in the nature of man—nor of any living entity—to start out by giving up, by spitting in one's own face and damning existence; that requires a process of corruption, whose rapidity differs from man to man. Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it. Then all of these vanish in the vast swamp of their elders who tell them persistently that maturity consists of abandoning one's mind; security, of abandoning one's values; practicality, of losing self-esteem. Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man's nature and of life's potential." - Introduction to The Fountainhead,The Objectivist, March 1968, Ayn Rand.

    Above lines had so much impact on me that every time I try to rationalize my irrational actions, I playback those lines, which in turn complicates the rationlizing algorithm making it harder for my grey matter to process.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Timewarp: How your brain creates the fourth dimension

    Timewarp: How your brain creates the fourth dimension - life - 21 October 2009 - New Scientist

    Fascinating report on study by David Eagleman (he drove me crazy with his time perspection theory.)

    "THE MAN dangles on a cable hanging from an eight-storey-high tower. Suspended in a harness with his back to the ground, he sees only the face of the man above, who controls the winch that is lifting him to the top of the tower like a bundle of cargo. And then it happens. The cable suddenly unclips and he plummets towards the concrete below.
    Panic sets in, but he's been given an assignment and so, fighting his fear of death, he stares at the instrument strapped to his wrist, before falling into the sweet embrace of a safety net. A team of scientists will spend weeks studying the results.
    The experiment was extreme, certainly, but the neuroscientist behind the study, David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, is no Dr Strangelove. When we look back at scary situations, they often seem to have occurred in slow motion. Eagleman wanted to know whether the brain's clock actually accelerates - making external events appear abnormally slow in comparison with the brain's workings - or whether the slo-mo is just an artefact of our memory.
    It's just one of many mysteries concerning how we experience time that we are only now beginning to crack. "Time," says Eagleman, "is much weirder than we think it is."
    By understanding the mechanisms of our brain's clock, Eagleman and others hope to learn ways of temporarily resetting its tick. This might improve our mental speed and reaction times. What's more, since time is crucial to our perception of causality, a faulty internal clock might also explain the delusions suffered by people with schizophrenia.
    But first, the basics. Perhaps the most fundamental question neuroscientists are investigating is whether our perception of the world is continuous or a series of discrete snapshots like frames on a film strip. Understand this, and maybe we can explain how the healthy brain works out the chronological order of the myriad events bombarding our senses, and how this can become warped to alter our perception of time."

    In a way its seems that making reality out of the crappy Adam Sandler movie "Click" might not be impossible. Its might not be a time machine but a time preception device.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Bingo!! Here comes the neural representation of cognitive dissonance

    Finally, I get my (first) answer (to a series of questions) for what happens in the grey matter when we induce cognitive dissonance?

    Sharon Bailey in this week's Newsweek column gives this long awaited explanation (I am not alone, she too uses the word 'convenient" with cognitive dissonance):

    "To investigate cognitive dissonance, neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, led by Cameron Carter used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of volunteers who were made to experience the psychological pain of clashing beliefs and actions. Specifically, the volunteers spent 45 minutes doing a boring task inside the cramped fMRI tube, after which they answered written questions indicating how they felt about the experience, which they did not enjoy. To induce cognitive dissonance, the subjects were then asked to answer the questions again, and to say this time that they enjoyed being in the scanner. Some of them were told their answers were being read by a nervous patient who needed reassurance. The other participants were told that they would get $1 each time they answered the questions as though they were enjoying the scanner, but they were not given the worried-patient cover story.

    While faking it, two brain regions were particularly active in both groups: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula. One of the functions of the dACC is to detect conflicts between incompatible bits of information; it is especially active when a person lies. The anterior insular has a similar job description, monitoring psychological conflicts such as a clash between stated beliefs and true ones. The scientists, writing in Nature Neuroscience, call this extra activity in the dACC and insula "the neural representation of cognitive dissonance." Basically, "the more that participants in the dissonance group 'lied' [about enjoying the fMRI], the greater was…activation" of these regions: they detected when beliefs and actions parted ways.

    To me, that finding isn't particularly noteworthy, since it is just another "neural correlates" discovery—that is, a finding about which brain regions are active during which mental activity. It was the next part of the experiment that caught my attention. Debriefed later about their true attitudes toward the scanner, participants asked to fake it for the worried patient changed their beliefs more than participants who were paid $1. In fact, the greater the activity in the dACC while faking their feelings about the scanner, the more participants later said they truly enjoyed it. The brain activity that accompanies cognitive dissonance had changed their minds about the experience of being in the fMRI."

    I bet people almost equate cognitive dissonance to quasi-sex except in this case one can sustain the pleasure life long with no trace of exhaustion. What a 'splendid' way to spend one's life?

    Three Tweets for the Web

    Three Tweets for the Web
    Posted using ShareThis

    The above essay was adapted from the book, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. (one of my favorite books!!)

    Having spent first half of my life in India, I know the "significance" of 50th, 100th and every other 50th chuck of anything in life. So I should have planned this to be my 50th post since its about the person who made me blog. Tyler Cowen of mariginal revolution fame was the my motivation to blog. I call him the Jackie Chan of blogs - this guy has some fingers!! I don't know anyone  who can blog so much on a given day (he has been doing it for 5/6 yrs without missing a single day and he has a full time job as professor too) and the best part is all his posts are phenomenal.

    So thank you Mr.Cowen for nudging me to blog and you are right, it feels damn good!!

    Genome sequencing reverses a faulty diagnosis for a genetic disorder

    Genome sequencing reverses a faulty diagnosis for a genetic disorder
    This is awesome!! first person in the world to have a genetic disorder diagonsed by genome sequencing.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    What I've been reading

    The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd , was on my list for while now ever since I watched Phil's TED talk last year. Need to take time perspective test  before reading the book otherwise it wouldnt make sense or it would too convinient to nudge the test positively if we take the test after read the book .
    I had mixed feelings about the book. The time perspective classifications were right on the mark and sure it will make us think about our short comings. It's kind of weird I read this book since I am trying to get out of the viscous cycle defined by time we all live in and just enjoy the moment like Max does. This book is bound to have a profound impact of many peoples lives  although it didn't for me. Books falls short giving solutions,  since there is no easy panacea to be preached. Well, self reflection is the only panacea and if that was easy, wouldn't we all be living in an utopian world?

    "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." - Leo Tolstoy

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Can we do research sans the animal torture?

    Big question is how do we research something when a trait is human specific, like language?

    It turns out with time we do more than just fine (ok it's a reductionist statement). Here is scientific american report  about the organization of language in the Broca region (fascinating theory on Brain and Language by Lera Boroditsky ) :

    "Thanks to an unusual opportunity to implant electrodes into the brains of alert adults, researchers have described the sequence and timing of distinct steps in language processing to a finer degree than previous methods have allowed.
    The brain's language center, named Broca's area after the French physician Pierre Paul Broca who discovered it in 1865, has remained a relative black box since its recognition.

    Unlike other brain-based functions, such as movement or vision, there are no animal models for language study—formal language being a uniquely human skill. So observing how the brain rapidly recognizes and produces words has been challenging for even contemporary scientists who have to rely largely on comparatively imprecise techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or lesion studies.”

    Well, necessity is the mother of all invention. It's just that its convinent to have this poor mute animals to torture and we never have enough initiative to look at any alternatives. I do understand when expirementing on animals is called a "necessary evil" but what bothers me is the lackluster attitude in which most of us just accept it or. Necessary evil should stop with medical research and needs to reevaluated constantly to eliminate it one day. There shouldn't be any question of considering these torture for cosmetics. Goodguide is great place to find PETA animal treatment assessment in cosemetics and stop buying the products which torture animals.

    "Vote with your dollars".- Daniel Goleman

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Neuroscience of literacy

     Here's a fantastic post by Ed Yong on Columbian Guerilla literacy!!

    "In the 1990s, Colombia reintegrated five left-wing guerrilla groups back into mainstream society after decades of conflict. Education was a big priority - many of the guerrillas had spent their entire lives fighting and were more familiar with the grasp of a gun than a pencil. Reintegration offered them the chance to learn to read and write for the first time in their lives, but it also offered Manuel Carreiras a chance to study what happens in the human brain as we become literate.

    Of course, millions of people - children - learn to read every year but this new skill arrives in the context of many others. Their brains grow quickly, they learn at a tremendous pace, and there's generally so much going on that their developing are next to useless for understanding the changes wrought by literacy. Such a quest would be like looking for a snowflake on a glacier. Far better to study what happens when fully-grown adults, whose brains have gone past those hectic days of development, learn to read.

    To that end, Carreiras scanned the brains of 42 adult ex-guerrillas, 20 of whom had just completed a literacy programme in Spanish. The other 22, who had shared similar ages, backgrounds and mental abilities, had yet to start the course. The scans revealed a neural signature of literacy, changes in the brain that are exclusive to reading."

    That's a great vindication for neural plasticity . I am looking forward for the day when neuroscience discloses that brain loses "precious" connections if a person enjoys debating non stop non-sense with no relevance to facts in name of freedom of speech.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009

    Heights of Cognitive Dissonance

    People who blow themselves to find eternal pleasure with dozens of virgins, people who live convinced humans emerged spontaneously in a botanical garden, people who sacrifice animals to placate the omnipotent to make their lives better and cognitive dissonance reaches its pinnacle  when these three kinds laugh at each others ignorance.

    Being pro or anti globalization is normal and will be a ongoing debate. Being against it, when happily making a his or her living (or a family member), working for a foreign corporation makes even the dissonance hang its head in shame for not reaching those heights of dissonance.

    Being against science since it stands against their beliefs but popping handful of pills which is a product of science, before bedtime to delay their journey to the very place they believe they were born to reach. It's "dual" cognitive dissonance in process everyday.

    The paradox of cognitive dissonance is more one embraces it, more unconscious the dissonance becomes and more happy the creature becomes. I hope cognitive dissonance is Somatic not Germline .

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Finally !! TED posted Henry Markram's talk

    After a long wait, TED today posted the talk by Henry Markram, the director of the blue brain project.
    He rightly calls the neocortex, the holy grail of neuroscience since its part of brain responsible for consciousness.Thanks to Antonio Damasio, he starts the speech with Rene Descartes famous quote "I think, therefore I am".

    I am waiting on Henry Markram and the blue brain project to answer to some of the ultimate questions that has been pestering humanity for ages. I wish them the very best.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    What I've been reading

    I never read any review or knew about this book but sheer curiosity of the catchy title made me "listen" to this book and I am so glad I did.

    The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner is one hilarious and a thought provoking book.
    Weiner (!!) goes on a whirlwind tour around the world - Holland, Swiss, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, UK, India and USA on the look out for happy places.

    Having lived in India and USA, I can tell his narrative was bang on target.He also agrees happiness is relative to culture and neuroscience has also been telling us lately how different parts of our brains acts to differently according to our culture/social status. David Brooks says it all in his column this week.

    “Keely Muscatell, one of his doctoral students, and others presented a study in which they showed people from various social strata some images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.

    Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.

    Mina Cikara of Princeton and others scanned the brains of Yankee and Red Sox fans as they watched baseball highlights. Neither reacted much to an Orioles-Blue Jays game, but when they saw their own team doing well, brain regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens were activated. This is a look at how tribal dominance struggles get processed inside.

    Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by subordinate behavior — the same region rewarding different patterns of behavior depending on culture.

    All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as utrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that.”

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Max meets Marley's John Grogan!!

    John Grogan was at Mendham Books for book signing his new paper back Longest trip home .
    It was pleasant surprise since I always wanted to him with Max but I never thought it would happen so fast !!

    Grogan was very gracious and delighted to meet Max. His comments Marley was more hyper than Max but Max is more hyper than Gracy his other yellow lab.
    Oh yeah, he did comment "I can see you are smitten by your dog!!" . So true, smitten is the word I use to  describe who I am - I am smitten by Biophilia.
    After this eventful night, got  home around 9pm and missing the frisbee time today was on the top of Max's thought. So I had to take him out in the dark to play frishbee but surprisingly he was very understanding and agreed to call it quits in five minutes. May be he read what Grogan wrote when he signed our book:
    To Max - BEHAVE !!

    Tax break for pet owners!! (well, I am an optimistic dreamer)

    Its been debated for years now and finally some serious contemplation about passing a new bill.

    "A bill making the rounds on Capitol Hill marries two feel-good propositions -- tax cuts and pet ownership -- to generate a novel idea: A tax break of up to $3,500 per person for pet care expenses.
    The measure is a legislative long shot. But it's been championed by a veteran Hollywood tough guy and by a conservative Michigan congressman, and has drawn the enthusiastic support of animal rights groups eager to promote pet ownership during economic down times.

    We think this is as much a health care bill as any, said Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs at the Humane Society of the United States. It's a human health issue to ensure that pets are provided with better care because of the role they play in our families. The measure even has a snappy acronym: the HAPPY Act, as in Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years."

    Never underestimate the scarcity of "cognitive misers" who make this great country polarized and worst they debate the dissonance in the name of "free will".

    "The bill seems unlikely to advance very far. Both Republican and Democratic aides say it hasn't risen near the top of anyone's priority list, given the other huge challenges confronting lawmakers these days.
    And reactions among conservatives are mixed at best.

    Ed Morrissey, writing for, pointed out that carving out new tax deductions works against efforts to simplify the tax code.

    I like both Davi and McCotter, but this seems rather misguided, especially for a conservative Republican like McCotter," Morrissey wrote. Republicans have been demanding tax simplification, not further complication, for the last few years, and for good reasons. The problem with the current tax code is precisely that 'using the tax code to encourage positive behavior is common practice.' Congress and presidents routinely press for tax breaks for their ideas of social engineering, which is why we now spend hundreds of billions of dollars in tax compliance."

    It's ok to have a subsidized food industry (not many understand our food is subsidized) to slaughter animals in billions but it's not okay to have a simple tax break for pet care.

    "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. - Max Planck, A Scientific Autobiography"

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Courage under traffic

    This is a heartbreaking video of a dog trying to rescue another dog lying lifeless in the middle of the traffic in Chile: 

    Not a single person had the heart to pull over and help the brave soul. How did we become this way? And Where is it going to lead us? When most of us don't even bother to self reflect, its stupid to expect them to comprehend the empathy of animals.
    And I wish Adam Smith saw this video:

    "Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. - Adam Smith"

    Cancer Drugs for (and) Dogs

    New Scientist reports, Sick American dogs get first shot at cancer drugs:

    "Dogs with cancer in the US are now entitled to receive experimental drugs – before the drugs are available for humans. Twelve trials are under way on groups of 15 to 60 dogs, and in several of them cancers have disappeared.
    We've had dramatic remissions in dogs with really aggressive cancers, says Chand Khanna, head of the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium newly formed in Bethesda, Maryland, by the US National Cancer Institute. We've also had responses allowing dogs to have their original cancers surgically removed, he says."

    This is excellent news but we all know statistics reveals only what it wants to reveal.

    "As well as looking after their sick dog, owners can help gather data for the researchers. "They're given notebooks so that they can complete assessments of quality of life, appetite, demeanour and perhaps even collect some specimens," says Khanna."

    I guess this is a second hand life-style study which is a crucial factor for human and dog health but grossly underestimated. We need more studies like this to elighten the dog owners.

    "Because owners carry on caring for the dogs, and because the hope is that pet dogs will get better as a result of the treatment, the approach also challenges claims by antivivisectionists that all experimentation on animals is wrong. I understand their sensitivities, and we've had informed discussions with individuals, and some do see the value of helping dogs with cancer in this way, says Khanna.

    But some antivivisectionists think the trials will provide an excuse to try out risky procedures and drugs seen as unacceptably dangerous in people. This raises serious concerns with respect to what the dogs may have to endure, says Nedim Buyukmihci, a vet consultant to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Instead, he favours giving untested drugs directly to people."

    Although there might be similar symptoms and cure for cancer between mammals, there should be more species specific studies. Dogs have been fortunate in the evolution game since they piggy back on the humans and its been a win-win game so far. Hope researchers keep their morals straight and we don't need Pepper the Dalamatian tragedy ever again. (I couldn't finish five part series on Pepper at, its preposterous what we humans can do.)

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    Greyfriars Bobby and Tokyo Hachiko

    I never knew about Greyfriars Bobby until recently.

    Greyfriars Bobby was "a Skye Terrier who became known in the 19th-century in Edinburgh and Scotland after reportedly spending fourteen years guarding his owner's grave, until his own death on 14th January 1872. belonged to John Gray, who worked for the Edinburgh City Police as a night watchman, and the two were inseparable for approximately two years.[1] On 15 February 1858 Gray died of tuberculosis. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Bobby, who survived Gray by fourteen years, is said to have spent the rest of his life sitting on his master's grave. A more realistic account[citation needed] has it that he spent a great deal of time at Gray's grave, but that he left regularly for meals at a restaurant beside the graveyard, and may have spent colder winters in nearby houses.
    In 1867 when it was pointed out that an owner-less dog should be destroyed, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers (who was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), paid for a renewal of Bobby's licence, making him the responsibility of the city council.
    Bobby died in 1872 and could not be buried within the cemetery its+B51elf, since it was consecrated ground; instead, he was buried just inside the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from John Gray's grave."

    This is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    Tokyo Hachiko was "brought to Tokyo by his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo. During his owner's life Hachikō saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno did not return on the usual train one evening. The professor had suffered a stroke at the university that day. He died and never returned to the train station where his friend was waiting.
    Hachikō was given away after his master's death, but he routinely escaped, showing up again and again at his old home. Eventually, Hachikō apparently realized that Professor Ueno no longer lived at the house. So he went to look for his master at the train station where he had accompanied him so many times before. Each day, Hachikō waited for Professor Ueno to return. And each day he did not see his friend among the commuters at the station.
    The permanent fixture at the train station that was Hachikō attracted the attention of other commuters. Many of the people who frequented the Shibuya train station had seen Hachikō and Professor Ueno together each day. They brought Hachikō treats and food to nourish him during his wait.
    This continued for 10 years, with Hachikō appearing only in the evening time, precisely when the train was due at the station."

    This is the statue of Hachiko at Tokyo's Shibuya railroad station

    Do I have to add anything more? Well, please don't dimiss them as  "Black Swan".

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    What I've been reading

    Once in a while there comes a thought provoking book, asking us to re-evaluate the perspective of our society and what is to be civilized. Frans de Waal's new book Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society  falls under that genre. Having said that it is not ground breaking since science is trying to still catch up. I am saying this because there are still many human creatures who will read this book and without breaking a sweat would say "So..?".
    But its an essential book (its not incongruous because duh!!) to carry the torch until the next "Origin of Species" shows up at the local book store or on the Kindle.

    Pleasant surprise was de Waal's talks about one of my favorite book Philosopher and Wolf by Mark Rowland and his wolf Bernin!! (yeah, it's confirmation bias and I love it!!)

    Every since capitalism thrived with competitive self-interest ideology, empathy is considered "sissy". Empathy is very essential part of who we are, trying to subside goes against everything that is human. At the same time empathizing blindly will lead to path of self destruction.

    "What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven. - Friedrich Holderlin"

    Debate to find the right balance be empathy and self-interest, has been going on for decades in vain. What both sides are missing to focus on is the most significant aspect which acts as a hurdle for the consensus is the "free-rider" issue. Free-riders are the quintessential thorn for most issues world face today. I don't want to write about it now since this book is about empathy and I will save it for later. We have to start looking life more than just as economics.

    The best lines from the book which should have been self evident long time ago but for some it might be an epiphany and for others who still don't comprehend, there is always that great word waiting for them - "cognitive dissonance".

    "Ultimately, I believe that reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion. And not just any religion, but particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us. With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature. Similarly, in the East - surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan - religions don't draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Reincarnation occurs in many shapes and forms: A man may become a fish and a fish may become God. Monkey god, such as Hanuman, are common. Only in Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul. It's not hard to see how desert nomads might have arrived at this view. Without animals to hold up a mirror to them, the notion that we're alone come naturally to them. They saw themselves as created in God's image and as the only intelligent life on earth. Even today, we're so convinced of this that we search for other such life by training powerful telescopes on distant galaxies.

    When first live apes went on display, people couldn't believe their eyes. In 1835, a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo, clothed in sailor's suit. He was followed by a female orangutan, who was put in a dress. She called the apes "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human." This was a widespread sentiment, and even nowadays I occasionally meet people who call apes "disgusting." When the same apes at the London Zoo were studied by the young Charles Darwin, he shared the queen's conclusion but without her revulsion. Darwin felt that anyone convinced of man's superiority ought to go take a look at these apes."

    The blind spot of Judo-Christian religious foundations is obvious. The foundations of East culture were right because of their Geography (as Jared Diamond would put it), nevertheless I have seen youngsters deluded by quasi-westernization - "cool", despise the  some of the essential moral radar crossing species boundaries without even realizing the implications. No wonder some of the fastest disappearing bio-diversity hot spots and endangered species are in India and China. It's ludicrous to state animals don't have soul (when we even don't know if we have one or there is something called soul exists) but I often see the significance of that statement. I have heard both westerners and easterners "advise" me sometimes about my bond with Max - "After all he is just a dog". I used to get ballistic losing my rationale when I hear those "advises" but these days I just smile.