Sunday, February 28, 2010

Please don't tell me who killed JFK

Great excerpt from Daniel Ellsberg's book chronicling his advises to Henry Kissinger before sharing secrets with him.

Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.

"Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

"In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

"You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

That's the curse of secret. Few months ago, someone came to me and in the middle of the conversation, the person spontaneously shared a secret. I was shocked and the ape inside me instantly spluttered -  
WHY? but the very next instant, I said - "No, I don't want to know, it's none of my business." The conversation took a different mundane turn from there.
After reading this excerpt I understood why I said that. That's my metamorphosis from Max which subsided the ape. The answer to the "Why" would have inadvertently made me prone to a life long bias and judgement, leave alone the burden of secret. In essence I would have lost little of my innocence which I have been trying to inherit from Max. I dearly guard my innocence. There needs to be room for Tabula Rasa - Blank Slate saved up to keep an open mind. Secret creates a sense of quasi-enlightenment leading to an illusion of knowing it all. A genesis of wisdom per-say when there is none and I don't want that. There is an immense satisfaction and pleasure in life long cumulation of wisdom and there are our innate biases which already act against that cumulation. Secrets add to that innate biases.

There are social implications of not willing to accept a secret. One might be branded as rude since the very act of sharing a secret is based on mutual trust. I was lucky to come out unscathed from my last encounter. But its not easy always. So anyone who I reading this please share your thoughts, not your secrets. Our bond can be more adhesive with an open mind rather than sharing secrets. I don't want to know who killed JFK instead please teach me the secrets of quantum physics. I wouldn't trade my innocence for anything. So thanks, but no thanks.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What I've been reading

Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink. Only reason I picked up this book from the library was his latest book wasn't available. This is one of those books which tries to make neuroscience more pragmatic by minimizing the technicalities. Since lot of mundane reasoning of the left brain can now be done by those ubiquitous computers, the triumph of human uniqueness is bound to  come from right  brain - the creative part of the brain. Based on this presumption, this book lays out six factors driven by the right brain which might enhance our USP in life and career.

  • Design - Moving beyond function to engage the sense.
  • Story - Narrative added to products and services - not just argument. Best of the six senses.
  • Symphony - Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
  • Empathy - Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
  • Play - Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
  • Meaning - the purpose is the journey, give meaning to life from inside yourself.

This book was written in 2005, in retrospect lots of it are now self-evident, so it was boring to me (developing a hatred for confirmation bias). Nevertheless since there is so much clarity in his clairvoyance, I am looking forward to read his new book - Drive:The surprising truth about what motivates us.

The Second Brain - Neurons in our "gut"

Fantastic report euphemistically stating that we don't know much about the purpose of neurons in our bellies:

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system, Gershon says.

This multitude of neurons in the enteric nervous system enables us to "feel" the inner world of our gut and its contents. Much of this neural firepower comes to bear in the 
elaborate daily grindof digestion. Breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and expelling of waste requires chemical processing, mechanical mixing and rhythmic muscle contractions that move everything on down the line.

Thus equipped with its own reflexes and senses, the second brain can control gut behavior independently of the brain, Gershon says. We likely evolved this intricate web of nerves to perform digestion and excretion "on site," rather than remotely from our brains through the middleman of the spinal cord. "The brain in the head doesn't need to get its hands dirty with the messy business of digestion, which is delegated to the brain in the gut," Gershon says. He and other researchers explain, however, that the second brain's complexity likely cannot be interpreted through this process alone.

"The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon," says 
Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. "Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant," Gershon says.

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. "A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut," Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one's moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve—a useful treatment for depression—may mimic these signals, Gershon says."

Without reasoning, we innately "feel" multitudes of emotions right from our gut. There are people who thrive on gut feelings and considered it more important than reason. And there are Aristotelians who only reason, ridiculing the flags from the gut. It's safe to presume both are wrong. This becomes another version Antonio Damasio's
somatic marker hypothesis. Reason should co-exist with multitudes of other feelings. I cannot find better way to fine tune this co-existance than what Damasio quoted in Descrates Error.

""In order to decide, judge; in order to judge, reason; in order to reason, decide (what to reason about)."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Looks can be deceiving...

I am not sure how Max manages to keeps this innocent composure...

Neuroscience of Honesty

Common sense says its easy to be honest than trying to weave stories to cook up a lie. Yes, neuroscience now vindicates that common sense (duh!!). Earlier post on the same here.

Here is Joshua Greene's last year report (thanks):

"Using neuroimaging, psychologists looked at the brain activity of people given the chance to gain money dishonestly by lying and found that honest people showed no additional neural activity when telling the truth, implying that extra cognitive processes were not necessary to choose honesty. However, those individuals who behaved dishonestly, even when telling the truth, showed additional activity in brain regions that involve control and attention.
Being honest is not so much a matter of exercising willpower as it is being disposed to behave honestly in a more effortless kind of way, says Greene. This may not be true for all situations, but it seems to be true for at least this situation."

The "Poop" Games

5 a.m +  Winter + Canine nature call instigated by a homo-sapien + Olfactory adventures of Max + Me, a furless animal + An impatient ape inside me =  A prefect recipe for disaster.

This Spy vs Spy game between us went on for past 3 winters. For starters, ever since Max was a puppy, we had a mutual agreement to separate the poop time from walking time. That worked out well but yet I tend lose cognition on a cold winter morning which never helps his bowl movements either.

Last december, after reading the book 
Inside of a Dog:What Dogs see, smell, and know, I made myself a promise to increase my "patience quotient" to tolerate his olfactory adventures. Of-course, it was much easier to write and hard to follow. I don't remember why, how and when I decided to do what I do now but I am so glad I did. One of million advantages Max's has over me is to read my thoughts (TOM) by gazing at me like a hawk (yes, he can write my autobiography better than I will ever do.). I thought breaking that gaze would create a win-win situation.

During our 5 am ventures, I decided to avoid direct eye contact with him and pretend to admire nature even with zero visibility. For the first few days he tried to look at me, come around me but I would simply put on a poker face with deep thoughts on a successful bowl movement. So far, this has been working out great. We would go out around 5 am, he would start sniffing, I would do my fake introspection and with-in 2 minutes average happiness of our home sky rockets.

I think Max does his thing quick to get my attention back. I really haven't thought about it much since I am still cherishing my newly found psychoanalytical skill !!  

The new equation for psychoanalysis of bowl movements is:
5 a.m +  Winter + Canine nature call instigated by a homo-sapien + Olfactory adventures of Max + Me, a furless animal + An impatient ape inside me + Fake introspection sans the gaze =  A prefect bowl movement. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philosophical lessons from Chickens

Bio-mimicry aside, we can learn so much about life from every living being in this world. My own journey with Max has been immensely educational that I wish, I remember every minute of the time we spend together but it's impossible. Even the blogging has its limitations, only thing tangible is the changes in me. Given the limitations of our memories, my metamorphosis has become my memory. The day when my world shatter's, the metamorphosis he bought about in me will be my solace and rescue. I don't look forward to that phase of my life.

Peter Lennox beautifully chronicles his philosophical lessons from his chickens.

"I've not heard of a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of mirror neurons in hens, but they do learn by copying each other. One hen makes a special, ungainly jump to get at the out-of-reach juicy berries - very comical. By the end of the week, they're all at it until the berries are gone. Next year, the technique is deployed straight away.
It's the same with finding out how to get over the fence in stages; a low wall, then on to the shed roof, along a bit then a short flight and a crash-landing in next door's garden. Once one does it, most of them can; the escape route will have to be sealed.
If you allow a mother hen to hatch some chicks (and not all hens are equally good at this - some just forget the eggs!), they suddenly develop a whole new vocabulary, teaching the chicks how to peck, scratch the ground and so on. Mother hens fuss endlessly; the chicks, initially clueless, learn rapidly. Chicks that have been reared in an incubator without a mother hen seem a lot more clueless, for a lot longer.
Hens that have lived the first year of their life in commercial intensive-farm environments are amazingly clueless when introduced to my garden. Sometimes they won't come out of the hen-house for the first day or two, even with the open door right in front of them. They don't know how to roost, and instead sit all night (and day) on the floor. Once they do get out, they don't know how to scratch and peck. However, once hens have become used to the outdoor life and the freedom of the garden, if they are left shut in the compartment (which is outdoors, with plenty of food and water), they insistently march up and down the fence or try repeatedly to fly over.
Now, I've hardly done much to refute charges of anthropomorphism - but am I bovvered? I'm not projecting human characteristics on to dumb animals - I'm saying I really don't see that much difference in their hopes and fears, behaviour and petty foibles. If one actually lives with chickens, it's a lot harder to treat them as mere objects.
Their preferences are astoundingly obvious, so what possible excuse could there be for giving them any less? If they like greens, why give them pellets? If they like sunbathing, why pack them into a tiny, noisy, smelly place with no natural light? If, as I suspect, the answer is something to do with the "efficiency" of food production, then the notion of efficiency is horrible, incompetent, brutalised and brutalising, and it's certainly not in the interests of chickens at all. And I'm not sure that our ethical notions are all that more advanced than chickens'.
All right, we could argue that they're only chickens, not people, and frankly, we're the top species so we call the shots - that's evolution, we're the winners and might makes right. So our notions of ethics extend only to "like me"? But how like is "like"? In the grand scheme of things, if we stand back and consider all the matter and energy we know of in the universe, we're a lot more similar to chickens than we are to almost everything else - all that rock and water, those suns, the endlessness of space and dark matter. Chickens are positively family.
In today's economic climate, efficiency and competitiveness are the guiding principles of business, of life; more product faster, while taking up less space. But are these concepts in our interests at all? Efficiency without ethics is psychopathic. And how much cleverer than chickens are we, ultimately?
So what do I get from chickens? Simple lessons like these: competition without co-operation is nonsense; you can't win by simply eradicating all the opposition - that's a pyrrhic victory. In life, winning really isn't everything - it isn't even anything. Taking part is all.
Reward and risk go hand in hand. The top cockerel has to take the biggest share of both. A flock can manage without a cockerel, but a cockerel without a flock is nothing.
A flock can keep you warm, inform you about dangers and advantages, and provide you with companionship; but you have to work at it.
Everyone should have a place in the pecking order. Strive for your place in life, not someone else's. Someone else's bread isn't necessarily tastier than your own. Envy will cost you dearly.
Don't let "flock-think" smother your own opinions; give yourself space to be an individual. Common sense is useful, but it's not always right. The society you're in may prompt you to behave badly, but only you can change that.
One could spend years on a moral philosophical quest, or keep chickens and treat them with courtesy and common sense. One doesn't just keep chickens, one lives with them. All chickens are not born equal, but they deserve equal respect."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Temple Grandin Talk

This week has been Temple Grandin week!! TED today posted her fascinating talk:

"To understand animals, autism and art requires getting away from verbal language."

I wrote earlier that my lack of language skills might acted as an adhesive for my bond with Max. I think its time to make this bold premature and reductionist statement - "For a better world, heck with FOXP2".

Fundamental Attribution Error

"The fundamental attribution error (sometimes referred to as the actor-observer biascorrespondence bias or overattribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what "kind" of person he is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person. This default assumption leads to people sometimes making erroneous explanations for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is much less likely to occur when people evaluate their own behavior."

That's the basic definition of
Fundamental Attribution Error. This explains (thanks) the huge public outcry after Tiger Woods incident. In other words just because he plays perfect golf, people presumed him as Buddha in every aspect of life.
This also explains why in
third world countries, famous people become politicians promising utopian dreams. A little introspection can get rid of this bias but constant propaganda on the air makes it close to impossible. But even with introspection sometimes this is hard to eliminate. There cannot be better example than I. I have had this FAE with someone for almost 20 years now. In-fact I have taken FAE a much higher level. It's very ironic given the aversion I now have for watching sports. I grew up not only watching Sachin play but admiring him as a human being from the very day he started playing. Talk about the fallacies weaved by our memories -  I remember the day he made his debut, his good days, his bad days and what not. I have gone so much further that this person became more important  than the game and his character became more important than his game. These days I don't even watch cricket but still follow his progress. He has become a quasi-family member. So far the world and he with his impeccable character has vindicated me from this error. He is 36 and I am 35, we both have a long ways to go and time is against me, he can mess up big time exposing my fallacy. Even if that happens, as a teenager and young man growing up, I learnt the lessons of gratitude, maturity, cognitive composure and simply how to better human being from him. I am grateful for him for saving me from my under developed frontal cortex. May be I used the "idea of him" for my benefit without knowing the real him. So far, so good.

The reason I am writing this because Mark Rowlands
blogged about this today and of-course today was the "perfect" day out - 200*.

"It took nearly 40 years of waiting and it was well worth it. Sachin Tendulkar chose one of the better bowling attacks doing the rounds, to eclipse the record for the highest score, before bringing up the first ever double-hundred in ODI history.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Zero Rupee Note and the 5th Pillar

One of my favorite quote from an "Indian" movie roughly translates like this "In every other country people usually bribe to get a job done better but only here in this country we need to bride just to get the job done." The situation has become so deplorable that nobody even bothers about it anymore and the symbiosis has become so worse that its not even a symbiosis any more but more like a fish in a water.The author and business consultant Gurcharan Das once said without a hit of Irony, "India grows while its government sleep".

Having seen this myself for so many years, I had given up hope. Only occasional solace for those hyper active
mirror neurons is watching the robinhoods of Indian movies fight corruption on the silver screen. No wonder, I was more than thrilled to read about 5th Pillar. The Indian emblem is made up of four lions atop the Ashoka pillar (people call Ashoka one of the greatest emperors but I think he is one of the greatest human ever). My guess is the number and pillar for name of this organization was deduced from the emblem. The basic concept of zero rupee note is:

According to Anand, the idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance. Anand took this idea further: to print them en masse, widely publicize them, and give them out to the Indian people. He thought these notes would be a way to get people to show their disapproval of public service delivery dependent on bribes. The notes did just that. The first batch of 25,000 notes were met with such demand that 5th Pillar has ended up distributing one million zero-rupee notes to date since it began this initiative. Along the way, the organization has collected many stories from people using them to successfully resist engaging in bribery.

One such story was our earlier case about the old lady and her troubles with the Revenue Department official over a land title. Fed up with requests for bribes and equipped with a zero rupee note, the old lady handed the note to the official. He was stunned. Remarkably, the official stood up from his seat, offered her a chair, offered her tea and gave her the title she had been seeking for the last year and a half to obtain without success. Had the zero rupee note reached the old lady sooner, her granddaughter could have started college on schedule and avoided the consequence of delaying her education for two years. In another experience, a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen."

No one is naive to imagine this can eradicate corruption from India. With over a billion people, its quixotic even to think that way. But India is a country of paradoxes. For decades the truism was that the huge population was India's achilles heel but ironically it turned out be the catalyst of Indian economic miracle. So can how can a corrupt bureaucracy be beneficial for a better future? I think it can.

When people get weary of something this nauseating, it propels them to innovate and be more creative. Indians have already adapted to live with out any assistance and expect zilch from the government. When India becomes a developed country in a couple of decades they wouldn't expect much from government and the "wealth effect on consumption" leading to humungous government expenditure (to satisfy people's in-satiatable appetite) which is currently making USA run nightmarish deficits might never happen in India. Instead we might see a genesis of Adam Smith's second invisible hand to embrace the underprivileged (not the free riders) which capitalism eschews. A libertarian's dream come true.

Let's ask the idiots about science

Funny post on the sad state of scientific knowledge among the geniuses on TV. If someone can fix this, I bet we will cross 50% of all the hurdles humanity faces.

"When it comes to matters of opinion or personal beliefs, it is absolutely the duty of the news media to report both sides (and any extra sides there may be, on those rare odd occasions when there are somehow more than two). It doesn't matter which one they agree with, they need to acknowledge the fact that some people think gay marriage is a right and others think the gays are forming a unicorn army that will kill us all.

When it comes to matters of fact, however, they absolutely do not have that duty. Particularly when it comes to technical or scientific matters where it takes somebody with training to speak knowledgeably on the subject.

If we're talking about if, say, vaccines cause autism, we need to hear from scientists. That's a scientific issue. We do not need to hear from Jenny McCarthy or Jim fucking Carrey, in the name of giving "both sides." Jim and Jenny don't get a side. They have no background in the subject, and it's one that requires fucking background.

Sure, they can talk about poisonous vaccines to Oprah or whoever is sitting next to them at the Lakers game all they want. They have freedom of speech. That freedom does not guarantee them a seat on a panel of experts."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Temple Grandin Movie

New HBO movie based on life of Temple Grandin, world's most famous autistic. She single handedly made lives of zillion animals inside the slaughter houses more humane (here and here). I cannot think of more meaningful life than hers. The meaning of life according to her:

You know what working at the slaughterhouses does to you? It makes you look at your own mortality."
"When I was younger I was looking for this magic meaning of life. It's very simple now," she says. Making the lives of others better, doing "something of lasting value, that's the meaning of life, it's that simple."
How about meaning, I ask. What's the picture for that word? "Ok, now I'm seeing a mother saying your book helped my kid go to college—that's meaning. Or my kid got a job because of one of your lectures—that's meaning. Or a rancher comes up and says that piece of equipment works really well—that's meaning. Concrete, real stuff. On. The. Ground."

What I've been reading

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (free here). This book was written in 1987, a critic against the state of university education in this country. But yet this book is more irrelevant today than ever. Little has changed in the past quarter century and it has only gotten worse. The irony now is all his critic has been so conveniently assimilated and euphemism-ed as "American culture", so anybody who dares to ridicule is branded as unpatriotic. So much for freedom and liberty. Fad camouflaged and assimilated into culture for convenience cannot become culture. Culture evolves from reason, responsibility and righteousness which is mutually exclusive with an ephemeral fad.

Any pseudo moralist outside America dwells in a self-fulling relativistic superior moralistic wring under the skull should read this book. There are "real" moralist's all over in the world, morale never was and is culture, geographic and religion centric. It's an innate human gift but can only be developed by perceptual self-reflection, a cumulative process in a bayesian inference style and never can be developed by hitchhiking on past generations virtues or inferring from an overpaid polemicist cognitive miser on the air.

Bloom elegantly "laments" on some the following "timeless" dissonances.
1. Openness - to new ideas and having an open mind - here.
2. Rock Music - Well, it's self evident.
3. Relationships -  the perpetual adolescence which the society promotes is a the crucial factor in the lack of pursuing any serious relationship. And there is that ubiquitous fillers like "no big deal", "fun", "cool" et al.
4. American style nihilism - virtues, creativity, culture etc - This is not trait developed by some spontaneous genesis but by understanding history, philosophy etc. But the "know it all" generation vilifies the quest for wisdom as boring.

Reading this book makes one wonder, if all these ramblings are really true or just figment of our imagination since it has become so rare and abstract, albeit one can quantify it in an instant with little cognition.

There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in such things as telling the truth, paying one's debts, respecting one's parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little honor in the world." - On Morals

"The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency --the belief that the here and now is all there is." - On Reading

"Reason transformed into prejudice is the worst form of prejudice, because reason is the only instrument for liberation from prejudice." - On Prejudice

"Only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labor, that he was ignorant. Now every high-school student knows that. How did it become so easy?" - On Ignorance

"As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing." - On Education

"Indignation is the soul's defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. It justifies putting Socrates to death. Recognizing indignation for what it is constitutes knowledge of the soul, and is thus an experience more philosophic than the study of mathematics."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Re-Engineering the Human Immune System

Another fascinating update on the evolving Genetic revolution which is bound to change the face of life on this planet (and may be the universe as well).

For now, the best way to supplement the body’s own defenses is through vaccines, but vaccines are far from a panacea. Each vaccine must be prepared in advance, few vaccines provide full protection to everybody, and despite popular misconception, even fewer last a lifetime. For example, smallpox vaccinations were lifelong, but tetanus vaccines generally last 5-10 years. There is still no vaccine for HIV infection. And when it comes to bacteria like tuberculosis, current vaccines are almost entirely ineffective. What’s more, the whole process is achingly indirect. Vaccines work by first stimulating B cells and T cells in order to induce production of antibodies. They don’t directly produce the needed antibodies. Rather, they try (not always successfully) to get the body to generate its own antibodies. In turn, stimulation of T cells requires yet another set of cells — called dendritic cells — and the presence of a diverse set of molecules called the major histocompatibility complex, creating still further complexity in generating an immune response.
Our best hope may be to cut out the middleman. Rather than merely hoping that the vaccine will indirectly lead to the antibody an individual needs, imagine if we could genetically engineer these antibodies and make them available as needed. Call it immunity-on-demand.
At first blush, the idea might seem farfetched. But there’s a good chance this system, or something like it, will actually be in place within decades. For starters, as mentioned above, every T cell and B cell expresses a unique receptor that recognizes a very small piece of a foreign structure from viruses or bacteria, such as proteins. Advances in recent genetic technology have made it possible to reprogram B cells, directly or through stem cells, to produce antibodies against parts of viral or bacterial proteins. Similarly, a new clonal army of T cells that are genetically engineered to recognize parts of a virus or bacteria would help the B cells produce potent antibodies against soft spots of these viruses and other pathogens that would otherwise neutralize or kill them."

This silent revolution that's been unfolding oblivious to the dopamine driven masses, might bring about an unlikely causality. Depending on how the delivery mechanism evolves, its worth contemplating that the victim of creative destruction could be the behemoth pharmaceutical industries. If and when that happens, in retrospect all the current cacophony of health care debate might seem ridiculous and hilarious. Of-course, there is always that change of pharmaceutical companies spontaneously becoming a born again Christians.

Children and their Pets

A fantastic post on the scarcity of research (in the past and present) on the effects of pets on children's. Soaking in Biophilia from a young age is immensely important for a kids cognitive skills, creativity, empathy and ad infinitum. Of-course, the above inference came from my somatic markers but there needs to more scientific research to back that statement.

hen asked to name the 10 most important individuals in their lives, 7- and 10-year-olds on average included 2 pets. Melson offers two important functions of companion animals that might support social/emotional development.

The first is social support. Dozens, if not hundreds, of studies demonstrate that lack of human social support is a risk factor for physical and psychological problems, especially for children.
There is evidence, though, that pet-owning children derive such emotional support from their pets. A 1985 study of 7- and 10-year-olds in California showed that pet owners were equally likely to talk to their pets about sad, angry, happy, and secret experiences as with their human siblings. 75% of Michigan 10 to 14 year olds reported that when upset, they turned to their pets. 42% of Indiana 5-year-olds spontaneously mentioned a pet when asked “who do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy, or wanting to share a secret?” Even more interesting: when comparing parents, friends, and pets, elementary school children considered their relationships with their pets as most likely to last “no matter what” and “even if you get mad at eachother.” Even among pet-owning children, those who did turn to their pets for support were rated by parents as less anxious and withdrawn than those who owned pets, but did not seek such social support from their pets.
The second is nurturance. Melson argues that since pets are dependent on human care, pets provide children with the opportunity to learn about how to care for another being. Further, she argues that the development of nurturance underlies future effective parenting, nonfamily childcare, and caregiving for the elderly, sick, and disabled."

At times, I dwell on hypothesizing the relation between Max and a kid, if there was one here. Watching them grow together would have been my version of "greatest show on earth". He absolutely adores kids except I cannot touch them!! Missing that show is my version of you cannot get always what you want. Paradoxically, the gratitude for what I have stops me from dwelling on that show.

I didn't grow up with pets but I had a chance and I blew it. Yes, we had a Pomeranian for a year and we had to give him away since... every one at home was afraid of him. In retrospect, it was my fault and there was no sense of rationality for my fear of dogs. My mom was busy with two toddlers,  my dad was working and traveling a lot. The onus was on me and I could have taken the responsibilty. Had I eschewed that fear, my life would have take a completely different turn. No way on earth I would have left a dog and came to this country. Oh well, it would make a great possible route in a multiverse world.

Given pets weren't part of my childhood and its hard to find a nurture explanation for why I had become such a dog nut. But I did find a factor after doing some liberal Freudian distillation of my childhood. My grandparents used to have a German Shepherd, Tommy. He passed away when I was a year or two. I have absolutely no memories of him (not even a photo) but I grew up hearing stories about his adventures (a.k.a "loyalty"). I used to be thrilled to hear the same stories over and over again. May be Freud was right , the subconscious character I had created of Tommy probably nudged me (to a certain extent) to be what I am today with Max.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Three Kinds of Passions

This is one of the best post (old one from 2008), I have read so far this year (thanks). No question, I fall into the third category.

"The world seems to be split into roughly three different types of people: Those who have a passion for nothing, those who have a passion for one thing and those who have a passion for everything. This way of categorizing is not to cast a value judgement onto any particular group. My informal observation is that aspects such as intelligence, courage, moral fibre and wisdom seem roughly evenly distributed across all three of these groups although it may initially not seem that way. It’s always difficult trying to describe a group with an insider’s perspective if you’re not an insider but I’m going to give it a try:

People with a passion with nothing are the ones who are content to lead an ordinary life. They are the ones who can grow up, go to school, get married, get a good job, buy a house in the suburbs, raise children and grandchildren and die utterly content with their lives.
People with a passion for one thing are those who have found some calling in life and live and breathe that calling. These people may have multiple “one things” for which they are passionate about but they are interested primarily in the thing itself. These are the people who have dreams about thier passion, who spend idle moments of their day thinking about it and who possess a sense of manifest destiny and purpose once they discover their calling.
People with a passion for everything are not interested in things themselves, they’re interested in interest. To them, the actual objects of study are actually incidental, what’s fascinating to them is the more abstract layers in which everything is interconnected. This is not to say that these people are equally interested in everything or even that there are large areas of human experience are completely alien and boring to them(sport gets cited as a common example). But these people are voracious and indiscriminate readers. They’ll be able to converse knowledgably about a huge range of topics and often know surprisingly huge amounts of trivia. If you’ve ever met someone who is a massive fan of TED talks, this is someone who is fascinated by everything. At the same time, for these people, their lives are constantly wracked by a guilt and longing that there is simply never enough time in the world to truly accomplish what they hope to accomplish or master what there needs to be mastered."

I cannot find a better way to describe what a nut case I have become. I loathe sports and my only impatience comes from not having enough time in the world to assimilate all the knowledge to answer all my questions. But Max has taught me that patience is a virtue and other lessons learnt the hard way has kept me in check. I knew the following lines before I read them but yet it's easy to know and hard to come in terms with that reality. It's a life long learning process and I am malleable.
"What people who are passionate about everything fail to grasp is that others could be passionate about something without being passionate about your things. It’s a grave affront to people passionate about everything that you cannot convince someone else that something is worth being passionate about. You can’t convert someone into being passionate about your things but you can at least give them a sense of why your thing is worth being passionate about. It’s an utterly alien mindset that someone could be passionate about A, B & C *only* and care not one whit about the things you’re passionate about.
When a person who is passionate about everything meets a person who is passionate about nothing, the lack of curiosity is mistaken for unintelligence or a lack of opportunity. If only they were smarter or if only they had been exposed to a brilliant teacher in school like I had, they would be infused with the same sense of wonder with the world that I have. I think this is one of the more insidious miscommunications that exists because it imposes a subtle form of prejudice and judgement.
So much of the rancorous debates and misunderstandings I see in the world can be boiled down to a conflict between these basic personality types. Debates about education, about hope, about destiny and about ideals ultimately don’t boil down to the issues at all, they boil down to these three very radically different ways of thinking about the world. Each one is legitimate and each one is valuable and can act as a complement to each other."

Friday, February 19, 2010

How your ego filters information

Every since I discovered Farnam Street (their blog slogan is a nudge too), I am hooked to it. Another interesting post, this time how the cognitive biases are used to feed the EGO:

The most striking features of the ego are three cognitive biases, which correspond disturbingly to thought control and propaganda devices that are to be defining characteristics of a totalitarian political system. The three biases are: egocentricity (self perceived as more central to events than it is), "beneffectance" (self perceived as selectively responsible for desired, but not undesired, outcomes), and conservatism (resistance to cognitive change).