Wednesday, July 31, 2013

We Need A 21st-Century Definition Of Cancer

The recommendations, from a working group of the National Cancer Institute, were published on Monday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. They say, for instance, that some premalignant conditions, like one that affects the breast called ductal carcinoma in situ, which many doctors agree is not cancer, should be renamed to exclude the word carcinoma so that patients are less frightened and less likely to seek what may be unneeded and potentially harmful treatments that can include the surgical removal of the breast.

“We need a 21st-century definition of cancer instead of a 19th-century definition of cancer, which is what we’ve been using,” said Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, who was not directly involved in the report.

The impetus behind the call for change is a growing concern among doctors, scientists and patient advocates that hundreds of thousands of men and women are undergoing needless and sometimes disfiguring and harmful treatments for premalignant and cancerous lesions that are so slow growing they are unlikely to ever cause harm.

The advent of highly sensitive screening technology in recent years has increased the likelihood of finding these so-called incidentalomas — the name given to incidental findings detected during medical scans that most likely would never cause a problem. However, once doctors and patients are aware a lesion exists, they typically feel compelled to biopsy, treat and remove it, often at great physical and psychological pain and risk to the patient. The issue is often referred to as overdiagnosis, and the resulting unnecessary procedures to which patients are subjected are called overtreatment.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Another mistaken notion connected with the law of large numbers is the idea that an event is more or less likely to occur because it has or has not happened recently. The idea that the odds of an event with a fixed probability increase or decrease depending on recent occurrences of the event is called the gambler's fallacy. For example, if Kerrich landed, say, 44 heads in the first 100 tosses, the coin would not develop a bias towards the tails in order to catch up! That's what is at the root of such ideas as "her luck has run out" and "He is due." That does not happen. For what it's worth, a good streak doesn't jinx you, and a bad one, unfortunately , does not mean better luck is in store.

- Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The CIA, A Secret Army & A War At The Ends Of The Earth

Excellent review of the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti.

Formulated more abstractly, the way we fight has a marked impact on when and why we fight. This is true despite what experts in the laws of war tell us about a theoretically watertight separation between jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Fighting in a way that limits the risk to one’s own troops makes it possible to fight limited-aims wars that don’t spiral into all-out wars for national survival. This, I think, is Obama’s best case for drone warfare. Land wars are ‘dumb’ because they almost inevitably involve mission creep as well as postwar responsibilities that US forces are poorly equipped to assume. Drone warfare is smart because, while helping dismantle terrorist organisations and disrupt terrorist plots, it involves less commitment on the American side, and is therefore much less likely to escalate out of control.

It is a good case, but not good enough. And it will certainly do nothing to satisfy drone warfare’s most far-seeing critics. To understand why not, we need to re-examine the sources of disquiet with drone warfare that such defences, however reasonable they sound, utterly fail to address. Doubts about Obama’s programme of targeted killing are not rooted in some dim notion that drone technology is especially creepy. Nor do its critics allege that killing the enemy without risking one’s own life is somehow cowardly. They do not deny the obvious fact that Obama has radically reduced the US military’s footprint in foreign countries. And they acknowledge that armed drones have been essential for dismantling the al-Qaida network in northwest Pakistan. As Mazzetti’s on the record interviews reveal, Obama’s harshest critics even agree that ‘the drone programme is the most effective covert-action programme in CIA history’ but nevertheless argue vehemently against the way drones are being deployed.

When we try to evaluate Obama’s decision to ‘embrace targeted-killing operations as the future of American warfare’, we need to make out what kind of future he has in mind. This is the crux of the problem. We stand at the beginning of the Drone Age and the genie is not going to climb back into the bottle. The chances that this way of war will, over time, reduce the amount of random violence in the world are essentially nil. Obama’s drone policy has set an ominous precedent, and not only for future residents of the White House. It promises, over the long term, to engender more violence than it prevents because it excites no public backlash. That, for the permanent national security apparatus that has deftly moulded the worldview of a novice president, is its irresistible allure. It doesn’t provoke significant protest even on the part of people who condemn hit-jobs done with sticky bombs, radioactive isotopes or a bullet between the eyes – in the style of Mossad or Putin’s FSB. That America appears to be laidback about drones has made it possible for the CIA to resume the assassination programme it was compelled to shut down in the 1970s without, this time, awakening any politically significant outrage. It has also allowed the Pentagon to wage a war against which antiwar forces are apparently unable to rally even modest public support.

Obama rightly boasts that he has extracted the country from land wars. But he is simultaneously sleepwalking it into new conflict zones around the world. He would presumably not be doing this had drone warfare not been an available option. In his 23 May speech, speaking about the war America launched in the wake of 9/11, he said: ‘this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.’ What he apparently meant to say was that he has found a way for this war to continue without penetrating the consciousness of US citizens. That is apparently what American democracy demands. The instrument that has allowed him to narrow the fight guarantees that the fight will go on. Obama came into office promising to restrict and reconfigure the country’s counterterrorism efforts, to bring them back within the rule of law. Instead, he too is fighting fire with fire. He continues to play according to bin Laden’s archaic playbook, perpetuating an endless post-9/11 revenge cycle, tit for tat. The Khost tragedy, where revenge against drone strikes justified further revenge strikes by drone, is a case in point.

Quote of the Day

Travelling is a fool's paradise. We owe to our first journeys the discovery that place is nothing. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern Fact, the sad self, unrelenting identical that I fled from.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Monday, July 29, 2013

How Has The Human Brain Evolved Over The Years?

For the first two thirds of our history, the size of our ancestors' brains was within the range of those of other apes living today. The species of the famous Lucy fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, had skulls with internal volumes of between 400 and 550 milliliters, whereas chimpanzee skulls hold around 400 ml and gorillas between 500 and 700 ml. During this time, Australopithecine brains started to show subtle changes in structure and shape as compared with apes. For instance, the neocortex had begun to expand, reorganizing its functions away from visual processing toward other regions of the brain.

The final third of our evolution saw nearly all the action in brain size. Homo habilis, the first of our genus Homo who appeared 1.9 million years ago, saw a modest hop in brain size, including an expansion of a language-connected part of the frontal lobe called Broca's area. The first fossil skulls of Homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago, had brains averaging a bit larger than 600 ml.

From here the species embarked on a slow upward march, reaching more than 1,000 ml by 500,000 years ago. Early Homo sapiens had brains within the range of people today, averaging 1,200 ml or more. As our cultural and linguistic complexity, dietary needs and technological prowess took a significant leap forward at this stage, our brains grew to accommodate the changes. The shape changes we see accentuate the regions related to depth of planning, communication, problem solving and other more advanced cognitive functions.

John Hawks

Quote of the Day

I am convinced that we must commit ourselves to the view that a universal ethics is possible, and that we ought to seek to understand it and define it. It is a staggering idea, and one that on casual thought seems preposterous. Yet there is no way out. We now understand how tendentious our beliefs about the world and the nature of human experience truly are, and how dependent we have become on tales from the past. At some level we all know this. At the same time, our species wants to believe in something, some natural order, and it is the job of modern science to help figure out how that order should be characterized.

- Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA

Brilliant piece on the importance of genetically modified food for our survival and the planet's - A Must Read!!
  • The disease that sours oranges and leaves them half green, already ravaging citrus crops across the world, had reached the state’s storied groves. Mr. Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus, in charge of two and a half million orange trees and a factory that squeezes juice for Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, sat in silence for several long moments. “O.K.,” he said finally on that fall day in 2005, “let’s make a plan.” If he had had more time, Mr. Kress could have waited for the orange to naturally evolve resistance to the bacteria known as C. liberibacter asiaticus. That could happen tomorrow. Or it could take years, or many decades. Or the orange in Florida could disappear first. Mr. Kress’s DNA candidate would have to fight off the bacteria or the insect. As for public acceptance, he told his industry colleagues, “We can’t think about that right now.”
  • Even in the heyday of frozen concentrate, the popularity of orange juice rested largely on its image as the ultimate natural beverage, fresh-squeezed from a primordial fruit. But the reality is that human intervention has modified the orange for millenniums, as it has almost everything people eat. Before humans were involved, corn was a wild grass, tomatoes were tiny, carrots were only rarely orange and dairy cows produced little milk. The orange, for its part, might never have existed had human migration not brought together the grapefruit-size pomelo from the tropics and the diminutive mandarin from a temperate zone thousands of years ago in China. And it would not have become the most widely planted fruit tree had human traders not carried it across the globe.
  • A second contender, Erik Mirkov of Texas A&M University, was further along with trees he had endowed with a gene from spinach — a food, he reminded Mr. Kress, that “we give to babies.” The gene, which exists in slightly different forms in hundreds of plants and animals, produces a protein that attacks invading bacteria. Even so, Dr. Mirkov faced skepticism from growers. “Will my juice taste like spinach?” one asked. “Will it be green?” wondered another. 
  • “This gene,” he invariably replied, “has nothing to do with the color or taste of spinach. Your body makes very similar kinds of proteins as part of your own defense against bacteria.”
It's ridiculous to fear of GM Orange when most of us don't know anything about how Orange juice is processed; check this book fascinating book Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice by Alissa Hamilton

In the 1980s Tropicana coined the phrase “not from concentrate” to distinguish its pasteurized orange juice from the cheaper reconstituted “from concentrate” juice that began appearing alongside it in the refrigerator section of supermarkets. The idea was to convince consumers that pasteurized orange juice is a fresher, overall better product and therefore worth the higher price. It worked. Over the next five years sales of Tropicana’s pasteurized juice doubled and profits almost tripled.

In fact, “not from concentrate,” a.k.a pasteurized orange juice, is not more expensive than “from concentrate” because it is closer to fresh squeezed. Rather, it is because storing full strength pasteurized orange juice is more costly and elaborate than storing the space saving concentrate from which “from concentrate” is made. The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year.

Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder gives us a rule of thumb on how to choose a drink:

As to liquid, my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old— so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee. No soft drinks. Perhaps the most possibly deceitfully noxious drink is the orange juice we make poor innocent people imbibe at the breakfast table while, thanks to marketing, we convince them it is “healthy.” (Aside from the point that the citrus our ancestors ingested was not sweet, they never ingested carbohydrates without large, very large quantities of fiber. Eating an orange or an apple is not biologically equivalent to drinking orange or apple juice.) 
From such examples, I derived the rule that what is called “healthy” is generally unhealthy, just as “social” networks are antisocial, and the “knowledge”-based economy is typically ignorant.

Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

NYT review of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent - An excellent history of alcohol prohibition:

On Jan. 17, 1920, America went dry. The 18th Amendment had been ratified a year earlier, banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States and its territories. Thus began the era of Prohibition, a nearly 14-year orgy of lawbreaking unparalleled in our history. The 18th Amendment was a rarity in that it limited the rights of the individual rather than the activities of the government, thereby guaranteeing a hostile reception. As such, it holds the distinction of being the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed. Which leads one to ask: How did this happen in the first place? Why would Americans curtail their precious right to drink?

Okrent, views Prohibition as one skirmish in a larger war waged by small-town white Protestants who felt besieged by the forces of change then sweeping their nation — a theory first proposed by the historian Richard Hofstadter more than five decades ago. Though much has been written about Prohibition since then, Okrent offers a remarkably original account, showing how its proponents combined the nativist fears of many Americans with legitimate concerns about the evils of alcohol to mold a movement powerful enough to amend the United States Constitution.

By the late ’20s, all but the most extreme backers of Prohibition could see how miserably it had failed. Millions of otherwise honest citizens routinely flouted the law. Thousands more were poisoned by cheap homemade brews. Government revenues plummeted, while official corruption ran wild. Ruthless local gangs, led by small-time hoodlums like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, formed syndicates that modernized criminal activity throughout the United States.

Yet in some respects the experiment was a success. Prohibition did cut down on drinking and alcohol-related illnesses. Equally important, its repeal in 1933 did not inspire a prolonged national bender, as many had feared. Indeed, alcohol consumption has actually declined over the years, with Americans drinking less today than they did in the first years of the 20th century. What is missing from Okrent’s otherwise splendid account is a sense of which groups were most affected, since it is clear that enforcement varied widely among regions and social classes. We get hints, but little more, that Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor.

Quote of the Day

Nor is it difficult to see what is the tie between man and man which replaces by degrees those forms of reciprocity in rights and duties which have their origin in the Family.  It is contract.  Starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of individuals.  In Western Europe the progress achieved in this direction has been considerable.

Thus the status of the Slave has disappeared – it has been superseded by the contractual relation of the servant to his master.  The status of the Female under Tutelage, if the tutelage be understood of persons other than her husband, has also ceased to exist; from her coming of age to her marriage all the relations she may form are relations of contract.  So too the status of the Son under Power has no true place in the law of modern societies.  If any civil obligation bind together the Parent and the child of full age, it is one to which only contract gives its legal validity.  The apparent exceptions are exceptions of that stamp which will illustrate the rule.  The child before years of discretion, the orphan under guardianship, the adjudged lunatic, have all their capacities and incapacities regulated by the Law of Persons.  But why?

The reason is differently expressed in the conventional language of different systems, but in substance it is stated to the same effect by all.  The great majority of jurists are constant to the principle that the classes of persons just mentioned are subject to extrinsic control on the single ground that they do not possess the faculty of forming a judgment on their own interests; in other words, they are wanting in the first essential of an engagement by Contract.The word Status may be usefully employed to construct a formula expressing the law of progress thus indicated, which, whatever its value, seems to me to be sufficiently ascertained.  All the forms of Status taken account of in the Law of Persons were derived from, and to some extent are still coloured by, the powers and privileges anciently residing in the Family.  If then we employ Status, agreeably with the usage of best writers, to signify these personal conditions only, and avoid applying the term to such conditions as are the immediate or remote result of agreement, we may say that the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.

Ancient Law, Its Connection with the Early History of Society and Its Relation to Modern Ideas by Maine Henry Sumner Sir

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Always Faithful

Always Faithful, a documentary film that traces the path of five Marine dog handlers from their training through to their deployments, will premiere this Sunday in the greater DC area as part of the 2013 GI Film Festival.

With this feature-length documentary, director Harris Done and producer James Moll, focus on each handler's story with a straight-to-the-camera interview style that includes photos and footage from combat theater. One of the most interesting aspects about this documentary that I haven't seen delved into in great detail elsewhere is the application process for becoming a handler. It has varied based on the "urgent need" for handlers in recent years, but becoming a Marine Corps dog handler is a distinctly competitive pursuit. At the end of the test taking and the essay writing, the Marines applying for this job have to face a review board -- a daunting and nerve-wracking experience which Done has captured on film.

- More Here (DVD version of the movie)

Trailer of Harris Done 2010 film War Dogs of the Pacific:

Wisdom Of The Week

Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists and the Merely Eloquent by Garret Hardin is one of those books which needs to be re-read every few years to keep educating that delusional mind of ours.

The political scientist Lynton Caldwell, who reviewed the manuscript of this book, concluded that it "offers an antidote to some of the more perverse and dangerous irrationalities of our time: wishful self delusion, educated incapacity, and foolhardy optimism."

Professor Hardin identifies three major filters against folly that we citizens can use against the blindness, short sightedness, and sheer idiocy that so often comes disguised as eloquence or expertise. Hardin contends that most of the major controversies of our time can be better understood as the result of the participants relying too much on any single one of these three filters. Since no one filter by itself is adequate for understanding reality and predicting the consequences of our actions, Hardin devotes the rest of the book to a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three filters.
  • The first filter is literacy - "the ability to understand what words really mean.": Literacy - skill in the written and spoken language - enables us to draw on the wisdom (and foolishness) of human beings distant from us in space and time. In his discussion of the sins of the literate, Hardin contends that language has two functions beyond communication - "to promote thought and to prevent it." He spends most of the chapter identifying ways in which we use language to prevent thought. While his discussion of the "verbal diarrhea" or the merely eloquent and the misuse of poetic license is fascinating, it is Hardin' s discussion of the use of such discussion stoppers as "infinite," "inexhaustible," "non negotiable," "self evident," "must" and "imperative" to prevent the use of the other two intellectual filters against folly that is most revealing. Hardin also asks why we always talk about shortages rather than about "longages" of demand or of people. He concludes that it is in large part due to the fact that virtually no one profits from supplying less. Hardin's penetrating analyses of how language has been used to distort our perception of the world echos the concerns of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
  • The second is numeracy - "the ability not only to quantify information, but also to interpret it intelligently.": Numeracy involves the ability to measure and to interpret quantities, proportions and rates. Hardin points out that human beings have all too often learned how to use the resources of literacy to hide numbers and the need for numerate analysis. Hardin draws attention to the problems created by always thinking solely in terms of dichotomies (safe vs unsafe, pure vs impure) rather than in terms of relative risks and benefits, etc. The widespread apathy to quantitative analysis which is so important in science, technology, business, and government, while understandable as an emotional reaction to the remarks of the more arrogant of the practitioners of numeracy, bodes ill for a complex and fast moving society where quantities, ratios, rates and duration of time all matter. Hardin also discusses the limitations of numeracy - that the conclusions of an accurate mathematical analysis is only as good as its premises. Hardin concludes that "Given effective education - a rare commodity, of course - a numerate orientation is probably within the reach of most normal people."
  • Hardin calls the last filter ecolacy - the ability to take into account the effects of complex interactions of systems over time: A more comprehensive development of ecolacy - the ability to ask and answer the question: and then what? so that the effects of the interactions of systems over time can be taken into account - is necessary if we are not to fall victim to the forces we unleash and are unwilling or unable to control. Some ecologists have tried to draw attention to the interrelatedness of our world by stating that everything is related to everything else (sometimes called Barry Commoner's first law of ecology). This statement has been criticized by many scholars because while it is valuable as a warning it is useless as a guide to action. While all things in the environment interact they interact in different ways. The ecologist Garrett Hardin restated this important ecological understanding in the following language so that it can serve as a guide to action: WE CAN NEVER DO MERELY ONE THING which is now known as Hardin's Law. The language that we have used to describe the effects of our actions demonstrates the reality that Hardin's Law draws our attention to. We talk about effects and side effects, products and wastes. Hardin contends that since we cannot do just one thing we must always ask and answer the question and then what? when we try to ascertain the benefits and costs of proposed courses of action on both the individual as well as social levels. The ecological systems way of thinking employs modern scientific theories and knowledge to study a world of interlocking processes characterized by many reciprocal cause effect pathways. The ecological systems way of thinking has to become an integral part of the thinking of the well educated person if we are to adequately control technology rather than fall victim to the forces we generate and are unable or unwilling to control. Ecological systems thinking provides well educated persons with the opportunity to act more rationally, because they have learned a more comprehensive and more accurate way of estimating the probable costs and benefits of their actions.

Quote of the Day

The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.

- Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tracing Memories Of Things That Never Happened

In the research reported Thursday, Dr. Tonegawa’s team first put mice in one environment and let them get used to it and remember it. They identified and chemically labeled the cells in the animals’ brains where that memory was being formed. The mice were not shocked in that environment.

A day later, in a completely different environment, the researchers delivered an electric shock to the mice at the same time that they stimulated the previously identified brain cells to trigger the earlier memory.

On the third day, the mice were reintroduced to the first environment. They froze in fear, a typical and well studied mouse behavior, indicating they remembered being shocked in the first environment, something that never happened. The researchers ran numerous variations of the experiment to confirm that they were in fact seeing the mice acting on a false memory.

The tools of optogenetics, which are transforming neuroscience, were used to locate and chemically label neurons, as well as make them susceptible to activation by blue light transmitted by a fiber optic cable. With these techniques the researchers were able to identify and label which neurons were involved in forming the initial memory of the first environment, and to reactivate the labeled cells a day later with light.

Dr. Tonegawa said that because the mechanisms of memory formation are almost certainly similar in mice and humans, part of the importance of the research is “to make people realize even more than before how unreliable human memory is,” particularly in criminal cases when so much is at stake.

- More Here

Funny Letters From Famous People

Sherwood Anderson's resignation letter from the book Funny Letters from Famous People by Charles Osgood:

Dear Barton:

You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability, but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work.

There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and messy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office.

But Anderson is not really productive. As I have said his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired and if you will not do the job I should like permission to fire him myself. I therefore suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on [the first of next week]. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.

Respectfully submitted,
Sherwood Anderson

- via the ever fascinating brainpickings

Quote of the Day

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt, Strenuous Life

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How the Nest Thermostat Could Save the Planet

I bought Nest early this early and so far it has been really smart (to compensate for my dumbness and laziness) and it did save me few bucks, but I haven't had the time to calculate the exact savings. Now Daniel Gross is installing two in his home and promises to report back soon:

So how should I expect this device to save me? It depends, said Fadell, on whether the user’s primary goal is saving energy or being very comfortable. “We’ve seen anywhere from 5 percent to 60 percent reductions,” he said. A typical home can reduce heating and cooling costs by between 20 and 30 percent, regardless of geographic location. Nest notes that its customers have collectively reduced their usage by 80 million kilowatt hours (compared with their pre-Nest energy profile), which is enough to take the entire American economy off the grid for 15 minutes.

Fadell notes that the Nest can only optimize temperature control. It can’t do much about other factors that affect efficiency, like poor insulation, leaky roofs, and open windows. The Nest’s value is that it can help people make the best, most rational and intelligent use of energy -- given the way they like to use energy and the physical condition of their homes house. Other features include True Radiant, which compensates for the longer time it takes for baseboard systems to adjust temperatures. In addition, Nests could help households play a role in demand-response programs – initiatives in which customers dial down usage of utilities during peak demand.

Quote of the Day

If (as those of us who make a study of ourselves have been led to do) each man, on hearing a wise maxim immediately looked to see how it properly applied to him, he would find that it was not so much a pithy saying as a whiplash applied to the habitual stupidity of his faculty of judgment. But the counsels of Truth and her precepts are taken to apply to the generality of men, never to oneself; we store them up in our memory not in our manners, which is most stupid and unprofitable.

- Michel de Montaigne, Essays, "On habit"

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why Do Some Innovations Spread So Swiftly And Others So Slowly?

Anything Atul Gawande writes has always been full of simple & practical insights, yet another fascinating essay from him on Slow Ideas:

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

Quote of the Day

Perhaps one central reason for loving dogs is that they take us away from this obsession with ourselves. When our thoughts start to go in circles, and we seem unable to break away, wondering what horrible event the future holds for us, the dog opens a window into the delight of the moment.

- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where Mathematics Comes From

Brilliant wiki entry of the book Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez. A brief summary :

Mathematics arises from our bodies and brains, our everyday experiences, and the concerns of human societies and cultures. It is:

  • The result of normal adult cognitive capacities, in particular the capacity for conceptual metaphor, and as such is a human universal. The ability to construct conceptual metaphors is neurologically based, and enables humans to reason about one domain using the language and concepts of another domain. Conceptual metaphor is both what enabled mathematics to grow out of everyday activities, and what enables mathematics to grow by a continual process of analogy and abstraction;
  • Symbolic, thereby enormously facilitating precise calculation;
  • Not transcendent, but the result of human evolution and culture, to which it owes its effectiveness. During experience of the world a connection to mathematical ideas is going on within the human mind;
  • A system of human concepts making extraordinary use of the ordinary tools of human cognition;
  • An open-ended creation of human beings, who remain responsible for maintaining and extending it;
  • One of the greatest products of the collective human imagination, and a magnificent example of the beauty, richness, complexity, diversity, and importance of human ideas.

Quote of the Day

If you can't swallow your pride, you can't lead. Even the highest mountain had animals that step on it.

-Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Monday, July 22, 2013

How Montaigne Influenced Hirschmann

If there was one author who captured Hirschmann’s imagination, it was Michel de Montaigne.  The highly personal vignettes, meditations, and moral reflections shook Hirschmann to his core. He immediately grasped the power of the essays — Montaigne questioned absolute forms of knowledge by submitting everything to the interrogating eye of the observer, starting by looking at himself, turning himself over and over to capture the multiple points of perspective or the multiple forms of the self.  “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves,” Montaigne wrote.  “Whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing he must learn to know is what he is.

Montaigne’s affection for the aphorism, for accumulating quotes, rubbed off on Hirschmann instantly, and he began to stockpile his own, starting with a mantra from Montaigne; “observe, observe perpetually.”

His favorite pastime was rereading Montaigne’s Essais. He told Ursula that “this is perhaps the bedside book— livre de chevet— par excellence, the one that would probably be my choice to take if I had to choose only one book.”

- Excerpts from Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann by Jeremy Adelman (I am smitten in this fascinating book)

Quote of the Day

Practice is funny that way. For days and days, you make out only the fragments of what to do. And then one day you've got the thing whole. Conscious learning becomes unconscious knowledge, and you cannot say precisely how.

- Atul Gawande, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Algorithms - Transportation Optimization Starts With math, But Ends In Understanding Human Behavior

Of course, even the human balks at understanding the behavior of other humans. Powell showed me a sample diagram he’ll sometimes give to a roomful of trucking executives. “I’ve got a load that has to be picked up. I’ve got a driver 60 miles away. All I have to do is dispatch him and it’s done. I’ve got another driver who, once he unloads, will be about 30 miles away—should be in around midafternoon.” Do you take the sure thing, even if it consumes more miles? Or do you take the risk on the shorter trip, which might get in later? When he asks for a show of hands which choice is better, the response is typically mixed.  “Driver B saves me miles. But he hasn’t arrived yet, and what if he doesn’t?” he says, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Different people will answer it differently. They’ll say, ‘I know that driver, he’ll make it.’ Welcome to real-world decision making.”

Transport optimization, then, is hard, and understanding how to implement it can be harder still. “One of the hardest things to teach a math analytics group,” Santilli tells me, “is the difference between a feasible solution and an implementable solution. Feasible just means it meets all the math constraints. But implementable is something the human can carry out.”

But optimization has succeeded in coming a very long way. Modeling has become much more sophisticated, a development that Powell outlines in his life’s work, a book called Approximate Dynamic Programming: Solving the Curses of Dimensionality. “You went to the math literature, and it was all toy problems. It was literally about 20 years before I could go to a whiteboard and say, you know what, I can actually write down the problem.” Mapping has improved dramatically. A few decades ago, the mapping service UPS bought literally had people calling businesses to ask them if they actually were where the data UPS had suggested they were. Early GPS maps were also flawed. “When we got some bad results early on,” says Ranga Nuggehalli, UPS’s principal scientist, “we didn’t know whether it was because the algorithm was so bad, or our data was so bad.”  It was the latter.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Quote of the Day

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Whiskey Speech - John Grisham Reads Soggy Sweat

My friends,

I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.


If when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

- More Here

Wisdom Of The Week

The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.

Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself.

- Seneca, IV, Loeb Classical Library Edition (via FS)

Quote of the Day

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods


Friday, July 19, 2013

Baseball or Cricket? It's a no-brainer

In one, the pitcher generally hurls the ball at the batter; it doesn’t bounce. The batter tries to whack it out of the park and if he makes contact, drops the bat and runs to first base, or, if he gets lucky, makes a home run. The fielders wear mitts in order to facilitate the catching of the ball. It strikes me as being not much more than glorified rounders (a game I played in the park last Sunday).

Cricket’s equivalent of the pitcher, the bowler, comes in many guises: fast, medium-fast, swinging, seaming, leg-spinning, off-spinning. The ball almost always bounces of course, and deviates off the pitch: the batsman therefore can’t just whack it, but has a range of strokes, defensive and attacking, at his disposal. Of those in the field, only the wicketkeeper wears gloves. Add to that the influence of the weather conditions. And then there’s the fascination of the statistics: batting and bowling averages, immortalized in the game’s annual, Wisden.

I would rather watch somebody like David Gower stroking the ball effortlessly to the boundary  – than some guy trying to slam it out of the park. And when it comes to poise and athleticism in bowling, what about the great Michael Holding in full flow.

The complexity and sophistication of cricket means that it simply has no peers. And as the current Test series between England and Australia shows, it can be pulsating over a full five days.

As for golf – a good walk spoiled as Mark Twain said – don't get me started.

- More Here

Biodiversity, Endangered Species & Machine Learning

Somewhere in Puerto Rico, a small yellow frog is chirping into a microphone attached to an iPod. Several kilometers away, a computer is listening. Within a minute, that song will be posted online, and the species of the frog will be identified — all without scientists lifting a finger.

This wildlife recording studio is part of a new project to study biodiversity using automated hardware and software. ARBIMON, which stands for automated remote biodiversity monitoring network, was developed by Mitchell Aide and Carlos Corrada-Bravo from the University of Puerto Rico, who report their new work this week in the journal PeerJ. They teamed up to apply 21st century technology to the problem of species monitoring, combining readily available parts with advanced machine-learning algorithms to analyze thousands of hours of wildlife audio in real time.

The key was to remove a bit of the human element and replace it with computers. “The main contribution has been the software side of it,” Aide explained. “Lots of people are wandering around with external hard drives full of recordings and have no way of analyzing them or managing them.”

The heart of the ARBIMON recording unit is nothing more than an inexpensive microphone attached to an iPod. Wired to an antenna that can transmit the data to a base station as far as 40 kilometers away, the whole setup is powered by a solar panel and a car battery, tucked away from the elements inside a waterproof case. From that base station, the data is sent over the internet to Puerto Rico, where ARBIMON’s servers go to work.

In under a minute, machine-learning algorithms have analyzed the audio files, scanning the frequencies for patterns indicative of a specific species. So far the team has used the technology to single out calls from several frogs, a couple birds, a monkey, and two yet-to-be identified insects.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

A man came up to a national park gate, and said to the park ranger, "I've only got an hour to see Yosemite, If you only had an hour to see Yosemite what would you do?" The ranger said, "Well, I'd go right over there and I'd sit on that rock. And I'd cry."

The National Parks: America's Best Idea by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Your Brain At Work

Neuroscientists have discovered as many as 15 neural networks and subnetworks. The four described below, along with their implications for knowledge work, are considered core and are the best understood.

The Default Network
  • Activates: When people are awake but not focused on external stimuli or any specific goal.
  • What it controls: Introspective thought and the ability to envision the past, the future, or alternative realities.
  • Crucial for understanding: Creative thinking and breakthrough innovation.
The Reward Network
  • Activates: In response to stimuli that induce enjoyment—such as food and water, money, and praise.
  • What it controls: Perceptions of pleasure and displeasure.
  • Crucial for understanding: Motivation and incentives.
The Affect Network
  • Activates: When people experience emotions.
  • What it controls: Autonomic and endocrine responses (alterations in blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature) that the brain interprets as feelings.
  • Crucial for understanding: Hunches and gut instincts, and the role that emotions play in decision making.
The Control Network
  • Activates: When people weigh long-term consequences, check their impulses, and selectively focus their attention.
  • What it controls: People’s ability to align their behavior with their goals.
  • Crucial for understanding: The benefits and risks of multitasking and how to set and manage priorities.
- More Here

India Has Many Achievements But Some Gigantic Failures - Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen talks about his new book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.

Half of all Indians have no toilet. In Delhi when you build a new condominium there are lots of planning requirements but none relating to the servants having toilets. It's a combination of class, caste and gender discrimination. It's absolutely shocking. Poor people have to use their ingenuity and for women that can mean only being able to relieve themselves after dark with all the safety issues that entails," says Sen, adding that Bangladesh is much poorer than India and yet only 8% don't have access to a toilet. "This is India's defective development.

Quote of the Day

Like all dog-lovers, Habib Rehman finds it hard to get one out of his system. All of us who become as irrevocably attached to dogs as we are to our own children find our own ways of coming to terms with their eventual departure. Rehman’s way of dealing with the death of Gori, his spitz of ten years, is to build a house overlooking the spot where Gori lies and to write a tender requiem.

A Home For Gori - One Man's Moving Tribute to his Dog by Habib Rehman (to state the obvious, he is an Indian muslim living in India)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson. We are a social species, we thrive and benefit mutually because of our social interactions - this has been a recurring theme of Steven Johnson's books. I am a big fan of his books and of-course E.O.Wilson must be smiling!!
  • Sullenberger was in command of the aircraft as he steered it toward the Hudson, but the fly-by-wire system was silently working alongside him throughout, setting the boundaries or optimal targets for his actions. That extraordinary landing was a kind of duet between a single human being at the helm of the aircraft and the embedded knowledge of the thousands of human beings that had collaborated over the years to build the Airbus A320’ s fly-by-wire technology.
  • There is nothing intrinsic to the peer-progressive worldview that says social problems can be wished away with some kind of magical Internet spell. For starters, many peer networks do not involve the Internet at all. (Think of the Sternins’ search for positive deviance in the peer networks of rural Vietnam.) While the design of the Internet embodies most peer-progressive principles, its powers can be easily exploited by top-down, hierarchical organizations. The Internet makes it easier to build peer-based solutions to social problems, but it does not make them inevitable.
  • Put another way, “market failures” are not just the twenty-year storms of major recessions or bank implosions. Markets are constantly failing all around us. The question is what you do when those failures happen. The pure libertarian response is to shrug and say, “That’s life. A market failure will still be better in the long run than a big government fiasco.” The traditional liberal response is to attack the problem with a top-down government intervention. The Right says, in effect, “Read your Hayek.” The Left sets about to build a Legrand Star. The peer-progressive response differs from both these approaches. Instead of turning a blind eye to market failures, it assumes that these problems are widespread, and actively seeks them out as the central focus of its agenda. Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, it tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange. Sometimes these interventions are supported by government funding; sometimes they are supported by charitable contributions; sometimes they involve Wikipedia-style contributions of free labor; sometimes they draw resources from private markets in creative new ways. In effect, they create Hayek-compatible solutions in the blank spots that the market has overlooked.
  • The libertarian looks at Kickstarter and says, “Great, now we can do away with the NEA.” The peer progressive says, “Now we can make the NEA look more like Kickstarter.”
  • “The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order,” Hayek wrote, “is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” Billions of dollars were spent by private companies trying to build global networks based on proprietary standards: AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, Microsoft, Apple, and many others made epic efforts to become mainstream consumer networks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were all defeated by a set of networking standards— TCP/ IP, the e-mail protocols of POP and SMTP, and the Web standards of HTML and HTTP— that were effectively public property: collectively developed and owned by no one, or by everyone. This was the stunning coda to Hayek’s career: he won a Nobel Prize by explaining how markets shared information much more effectively than centralized states, but when it came time to build a global system for sharing information, the ultimate solution came from outside the marketplace.

Quote of the Day

These different ways of looking at the same goal impact everything about us — our strengths and weaknesses, the strategies we use, and what motivates us. When the goal in question is to pay the lowest price or to get the biggest raise, our focus has profound effects on the way we negotiate.

Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Voice Of The Natural World - Bernie Krause

An enlightening and a poignant talk.. by Bernie Krause author of The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places

There are many facets to soundscapes, among them the ways in which animals taught us to dance and sing, which I'll save for another time. But you have heard how biophonies help clarify our understanding of the natural world. You've heard the impact of resource extraction, human noise and habitat destruction. And where environmental sciences have typically tried to understand the world from what we see, a much fuller understanding can be got from what we hear. Biophonies and geophonies are the signature voices of the natural world, and as we hear them, we're endowed with a sense of place, the true story of the world we live in. In a matter of seconds, a soundscape reveals much more information from many perspectives, from quantifiable data to cultural inspiration. Visual capture implicitly frames a limited frontal perspective of a given spatial context, while soundscapes widen that scope to a full 360 degrees, completely enveloping us. And while a picture may be worth 1,000 words, a soundscape is worth 1,000 pictures. And our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the natural sources of our lives, which indeed may hold the secrets of love for all things, especially our own humanity.

Quote of the Day

Because they are so precious, these are memories you don’t want to change, the safest memories are those you never remember.

- Daniela Schiller on Stephen S. Hall brilliant column Repairing Bad Memories and he is author of one of my favorite books Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience


Monday, July 15, 2013

Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism - H. L. Mencken

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a ``right thinker,'' if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us. I do not exaggerate its terms. You will find it running through the critical writings of practically all the dull fellows who combine criticism with tutoring; in the words of many of them it is stated in the plainest way and defended with much heat, theological and pedagogical. In its baldest form it shows itself in the doctrine that it is scandalous for an artist --- say a dramatist or a novelist --- to depict vice as attractive. The fact that vice, more often than not, undoubtedly is attractive --- else, why should it ever gobble any of us? --- is disposed of with a lofty gesture. What of it? say these birchmen. The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be.

And this brilliant analogy for critics:

The word ``creative'' is a bit too flamboyant; it says what he wants to say, but it probably says a good deal more. In this emergency, I propose getting rid of the misleading label by pasting another over it. That is, I propose the substitution of ``catalytic'' for ``creative,'' despite the fact that ``catalytic'' is an unfamiliar word, and suggests the dog-Latin of the seminaries. I borrow it from chemistry, and its meaning is really quite simple. A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps too other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment --- and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

- Read the whole essay by H.L.Mencken - here

Quote of the Day

All people have secrets. Part of being human is having secrets, and being curious about other people’s secrets. Dirty fetishes and debilitating fascinations and shameful defeats and ill-begotten triumphs, humiliating selfishness and repulsive inhumanity. The horrible things that people have thought and done, the lowest points in their lives.

- Chris Pavone, The Expats: A Novel

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Taleb On GMO & Nuclear Energy

I am big supporter of drought resistant crops, high yielding crops sans introduction of external genes & Nuclear energy and always wanted to ask Taleb this question but Long Now foundation & Stewart Brand beat me to it - Taleb's response:

Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs: Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) To borrow from Rupert Read, there is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become “natural”.
What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay —or have my descendants pay — for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there —our non-naive version — simply because we would discover errors after considerable damage.

Nuclear: In large quantities we should worry about an unseen risk from nuclear energy. In small quantities it may be OK —how small we should determine, making sure threats never cease to be local. Keep in mind that small mistakes with the storage of the nuclear are compounded by the length of time they stay around. The same with fossil fuels. The same with other sources of pollution.
But certainly not GMOs, because their risk is not local. Invoking the risk of “famine” is a poor strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty. And calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor —indeed warped —understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.

Indeed, we should worry about the lobby-infested state, given the historical tendency of bureaucrats to produce macro harm (wars, disastrous farming policies, crop subsidies encouraging the spread of corn syrup, etc.) But there exists an environment that is not quite that of the “wisdom of crowds”, in which spontaneous corrections are not possible, and legal liabilities difficult to identify. I’ve discussed this in my book Antifragile where some people have an asymmetric payoff at the expense of society: keep the profits and transfer harm to others.In general, the solution is to move from regulation to penalties, by imposing skin-in-the game-style methods to penalize those who play with our collective safety —no different from our treatment of terrorist threats and dangers to our security.

I completely agree with Taleb's nuclear response. He is right about Monsanto but GMO is not always equal to Monsanto. Having saved and inspired by Norman Borlaugh, there are hundred of scientists (especially in India and other third world countries) who have produced and working on GMO crops. They really don't get "exotic" with gene manipulation, but they use baby steps - make wheat crop little drought resistant without using gene from other species to say the least. Most importantly they don't patent it like Monsanto does and plays the monopoly game.

Bottom line - Norman Borlaugh was right about feeding the world using genetically modifying crops but he was wrong about Monsanto and their "good" intentions. It's about time we start segregating GMO's into different categories for better policies and public understanding. It will be probably much easier to check on the "skin in the game" if broken down into simple categories.

Raanjhanaa !

Three different personalities make bad choices because of love while emotionally venerable and Anand Rai has done a brilliant job weaving that into a beautiful story.
  • Sonam delivers her career best performance
  • Vintage A.R Rahman is back 
  • Abhay is the most versatile actor in the Deol pedigree
  • And Dhanush is the heart and soul of the movie - he is one of the most underrated actors in India and he just steals the show with his emotional oomph!!

Quote of the Day

These three reforms -- charge fair-market prices for curb parking, return the resulting revenue to neighborhoods to pay for public improvements, and remove the requirements for off-street parking -- will align our individual incentives with our common interests, so that private choices will produce public benefits. We can achieve enormous social, economic, and environmental benefits at almost no cost simply by subsidizing people and places, not parking and cars.

- Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Artificial Intelligence Is On The Rise, And That Might Be A Good Thing

Maybe.. just may be.. sometimes road to heaven might be paved with good intentions or may be not...

We all know the standard tropes and fears surrounding artificial intelligence — how the robots will replace all of us at our jobs and evolve to overthrow humanity in an apocalyptic blaze, that kind of thing. PBS Off Book wanted to poke those tropes with a stick and see just what AI could actually bring us, so they gathered up several computer science professors from NYU and Oxford to ask them just what we should expect from our future cybernetic overlords.

Don’t worry, they all say variations on this: We’re still a very long way off from authentic AI, despite how good Watson is at Jeopardy. Even better, most of them seem to think it’s going to do a lot of good for humanity in the long run. Well, that’s comforting.

- More Here

Wisdom Of The Week

At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means.

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

I am looking forward to being 80.

Joy of Old Age  - Oliver Sacks on his 80th Birthday !!

Quote of the Day

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.

- BrenĂ© Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Friday, July 12, 2013

Peter Singer on Drones

As Singer discusses, the current debate around drones is comparable to the initial challenges posed by the introduction of the car in 1900. This technology brought strange new questions, such as how to protect people from them. The first fine for “speeding” came just a few years later, when a man was arrested for endangering the lives and property of pedestrians in downtown Jacksonville, Fla. He had exceeded the 6 mile per hour speed limit. “Horseless carriages” were a technology that once seemed alien much like unmanned aerial systems do today.

When we think about technologies like the Predator or Packbot, we need to remember that they are just the first generation—the Model T Fords and Wright Flyers. We are still at the “horseless” stage of this technology. Describing these technologies as “unmanned system” means we are focused on what they are not, rather than wrestling with what they truly are.

What the opening of the civilian airspace will do to robotics is akin to what the Internet did to desktop computing. Revolutionary technologies force us to ask new questions about what is possible and consider things that weren’t conceivable a generation before. But they also force us to relook at what is proper. They raise issues of right and wrong that we didn’t have to wrestle with before. With robotics, issues on the technical side may ultimately be much easier to resolve than dilemmas that emerge from our human use of them.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.

- BrenĂ© Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Thursday, July 11, 2013

How World War Z Used AI to Build Smarter Zombies

Reviewing the Reviewers

What I find most striking is that, having begun the process of looking for reviews of the restaurant, I find myself reviewing the reviewers. The use of the word “awesome”—a term whose original connotation is so denuded that I suspect it will ultimately come to exclusively signify its ironic, air-quote-marked opposite—is a red flag. So are the words “anniversary” or “honeymoon,” often written by people with inflated expectations for their special night; their complaint with any perceived failure on the part of the restaurant or hotel to rise to this momentous occasion is not necessarily mine. I reflexively downgrade reviewers writing in the sort of syrupy dross picked up from hotel brochures (“it was a vision of perfection”).

In one respect, there is nothing new in reviewing the reviewer; our choices in pre-Internet days were informed either by friends we trusted or critics whose voices seemed to carry authority. But suddenly, the door has been opened to a multitude of voices, each bearing no preexisting authority or social trust. It is no longer merely enough to read that someone thought the vegetarian food was bad (you need to know if she is a vegetarian), or the hotel in Iowa City was the best they have ever seen (just how many hotels have they seen?), or a foreign film was terrible (wait, they admit they don’t like subtitles?). Critics have always had to be interrogated this way (what dendritic history of logrolling lay behind the rave about that book?), but with the Web, a thousand critics have bloomed. The messy, complicated, often hidden dynamics of taste and preference, and the battles over it, are suddenly laid out right in front of us.

If the God Criticism—in the sense of experts telling the anxious middle what to read, what to see, and how to be—now lays on its side, an Enver Hoxha statue in a Tirana back alley, what’s left? A new utopia of fisherman-critics who are free to make up their own minds and influence others? A glorious world of transparency and objectivity? A radical rewriting of the canon?

Perhaps. But there are complications with this idea that the Internet has obviated the need for experts and for critical authority. One question is what is happening to criticism itself when the evaluative architecture on a site such as Amazon is the same for leaf blowers as it is literature, when everything seems to be quantifying one’s hedonic response to a consumption activity; when we are forced into a ruthless dyad of thumbing up or thumbing down, or channeled into expressing a simple “liking” for something when the actual response may be more complex.

- Read the entire essay by Tom Vanderbilt , author of one my favorite books Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Quote of the Day

The problem of meaning today is the problem of how the diverse and superficially self-contradictory experiences of men can be put into a consistent picture that will provide contemporary man with a convincing basis from which to live and to act.

- Carroll Quigley, Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Quote of the Day

It is not the conscience which raises a blush, for a man may sincerely regret some slight fault committed in solitude, or he may suffer the deepest remorse for an undetected crime, but he will not blush... It is not the sense of guilt, but the thought that others think or know us to be guilty which crimsons the face.

- Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

AIM - Autonomous Intersection Management For Driverless Cars

We are in the Learning Agents Research Group, which is part of the AI Laboratory in the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

This project "AIM"s to create a scalable, safe, and efficient multiagent framework for managing autonomous vehicles at intersections.

Intelligent vehicle technology is progressing very rapidly and recent advances suggest that autonomous vehicle navigation will be possible in the near future. At modern-day intersections, traffic lights and stop signs assist human drivers in conducting their vehicles safely through the cross traffic. However, in the future, with computers "behind the wheel", will it make sense to have intersection control mechanisms that were designed with today's human drivers in mind? With all the advantages computerized drivers offer - more precise control, better sensors, and quicker reaction times - we believe automobile travel can be made not only safer and easier, but much more efficient.

- More Here

How Maths Illuminates Our Lives - Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet is the author of Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math which will be out on 30th July.

Quote of the Day

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.

- John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

Monday, July 8, 2013

How to Make Your Day Last Longer

  • Keep Learning - Learning new things is a pretty obvious way to pass your brain new information on a regular basis. If you’re constantly reading, trying new activities or taking courses to learn new skills, you’ll have a wealth of ‘newness’ at your fingertips to help you slow down time.
  • Visit New Places - A new environment can send a mass of information rushing to your brain—smells, sounds, people, colors, textures. Your brain has to interpret all of this. Exposing your brain to new environments regularly will give it plenty of work to do, letting you enjoy longer-seeming days. This doesn’t necessarily mean world travels, though. Working from a cafe or a new office could do the trick. As could trying a new restaurant for dinner or visiting a friend’s house you haven’t been to.
  • Meet New People - We all know how much energy we put into interactions with other people. Unlike objects, people are complex and take more effort to ‘process’ and understand. Meeting new people, then, is a good workout for our brains. That kind of interaction offers us lots of new information to make sense of, like names, voices, accents, facial features and body language.
  • Try New Activities - Have you ever played dodgeball on trampolines? How about jumped from a plane or raced cheese down a hill? Doing new stuff means you have to pay attention. Your brain is on high alert and your senses are heightened, because you’re taking in new sensations and feelings at a rapid rate. As your brain takes in and notices every little detail, that period of time seems to stretch out longer and longer in your mind.
  • Be Spontaneous - Surprises are like new activities: they make us pay attention and heighten our senses. Anyone who hates surprises can attest to that. If you want to stretch out your day, this is a good way to do it. Try surprising your brain with new experiences spontaneously—the less time you give your brain to prepare itself, the less familiar it will be with any information it receives, and the longer it will take to process that time period. In fact, overwhelming your brain, is one of the best ways to make time slow down.
- More Here

For more insight on time vs brain, check out David Eagleman's fascinating book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain