Bacteria don’t think.

8 06 2013

It seems a statement of the obvious, but bacteria don’t think.

Yet bacteria get around, and indeed are remarkably successful. Same with viruses. So thriving as a species does not require planning, studying, concentration and imagination, all the things we humans are so arrogant about.

And I’m not just talking about surviving, I’m talking about achieving the incredible. Think of the fungi that take control of ants, get them to climb up to a good spot and hunker down so that when the fungus bursts out from the corpse like a slow motion firework (see the picture) it’s got a fair chance of spreading its spores.

20130608-110232.jpg
Did the fungus plan it? Of course not, the trick ‘evolved’ as the most successful of many different permutations, via, of course the process of natural selection.

So what?

Well, what about humans? We like to think we are the pinnacle of evolution with our big brains and our consciousness and our self-awareness. Our abilities to plan, co-operate and imagine have led us to dominate the planet. Or have they?

Could it be, that just as no ant envisions the design of the anthill, none of us can claim to have masterminded very much? Yes perhaps a building, a harbour or a town’s zoning, but who can claim to have masterminded New York or world trade or democracy?

Surely these ‘real’ achievements are not ours to claim, but should also be laid at the door of the power of evolution, of the unstoppable force of trial and error, of the natural emergence of order from the chaos?

See more about the Cordyceps fungus:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Cordyceps

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Leveraging the Inventiveness in your Mind

15 02 2013

There are some tasks our brains find hard. We cannot remember long numbers or calculate square roots and we learn information at such a low rate, it takes a lifetime to fill up our hard drive/brain.

illusion

The impressive visual tools in our brains are fun to trip up.

We are fooled by simple magic tricks, our memories can change and we constantly lie to ourselves in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Yes, we are pretty awful, and it’s pretty amazing we manage to get through the day. The reason we do is that our brains were not designed to remember long numbers or to calculate square roots, we were designed to …get through the day.

Thus it’s no surprise that we can spot tigers hiding in the shrubbery, and judge someone’s intent from the curl in the corner of their mouth – things computers can’t even dream of!

evolution

Amazing Things the Brain Can Do

There are some really remarkable abilities the evolutionary arms race has given us. Consider for a moment how hard it is to teach these skills to a computer:

  • Facial recognition (from any angle!) – and similar advanced pattern recognition
  • Theory of mind – our ability to realize that others have motives and intentions and the ability to guess them reasonably well
  • Inventiveness – our ability to make connections from disparate fields

Much has been said about these skills, and in particular, much value has been placed on theories about our inventiveness – if only we can understand how we invent, we can unleash a torrent of innovation!

torrent_of_ideas

The ideas usually run something like this: the human mind is so highly integrated that many concepts are forced to overlay one another so connections are inevitable – while others suggest the mind reviews new learning each night during sleep and tries to spot patterns, suggesting our innovative spark is really just our pattern recognition skill in disguise [1].

While I suspect there is truth to both theories, there is probably more to it than that…

Another Amazing Skill Often Overlooked

Now – if you have ever caught a child being naughty, you may have been lucky enough to see another remarkable human talent…

Lying.

naughty-baby

Lying is tricky. Lying requires amazing computation – it needs theory of mind, it requires creativity, and does its invention under pressure.

Lying requires creating an entire alternate reality that fits the evidence but makes you look innocent of all crimes! It’s so hard that young kids don’t always get it quite right, but at some point most of us master the art. Our brains can also be switched to this mode of inventive overdrive in another way: when we attempt to explain incomplete data.

The most common opportunity to fit a narrative to incomplete data is when we recall faded memories – it turns out many of  us can bring out our internal Dr. Seuss when recounting our roles in past events.Dr-seuss-oh-the-thinks-you-can-think1

And because we all like to think of ourselves as pretty darn awesome, our memories cannot contain any information that could contradict this most evident truth. Thus when we recall situations when we did something downright shameful, our brains become positively electrified and we will magic up perfectly good reasons for what we did out of thin air.

Almost everyone can do it. However, if you ask us to write a short bit of utter fiction, our ability instantly vanishes.

writers_block

Leveraging Brain Power

So the question is this… how can we tap into these remarkable abilities? Do creative people already do it?

I, for one am going to try!

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[1] How the mind works – Steven Pinker





Global Warming Canaries, Anyone? A short intro to why most scientists are worried about climate change…

18 08 2012

The current state of arctic sea ice (see graph below) sends a chill down my spine.

Image

So what it says is that the ice is melting furiously, and looks like it’s not yet slowing down even though the days have started to draw in.

However, any scientist will tell you that no single data point can be used as evidence of global warming, there are simply too many fluctuations for anything to be concluded over anything but the longest timescales. We cannot simply look at the mean temperature for a hot year and say, there you go, global warming!

Now, the issue is, there are well-known cycles over pretty much all timescales – this pretty much undermines all serious attempts at prediction.

So, what to do? Well all is not lost; there are still some clever little leading indicators we can look at to give us that sobering wake up call.

#1:  CO2

Firstly, we know CO2 concentration is up, no doubt or argument, this can be seen in the famous Hawaii data above, complete with the seasonal ‘breathing’ by global plant-life. The argument is about whether the greenhouse models that say this will result in warming will turn out right. I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t even have to wonder if the CO2 levels weren’t going up, would I?

#2: A Record Breaking Rate of Record Breaking

Secondly, rather looking at averages or ‘new records’, we can look at the frequency of records. So rather than saying, “we just had the hottest summer ever in some parts of the US, there’s the proof” we can look at how often records are set all over the world – hottest, coldest, wettest, dryest and so on. This approach creates a filter; if it shows there are more records being broken on the hot side than the cold side, could this be an indicator? I hope not, because there are.

Again, it could be part of a long-term cycle that could bottom out any time now. But on the other hand, if it was going the other way, I wouldn’t have to hope, would I?

#3: Sea Ice

Now the sea ice. The sea ice is another proxy for temperature. The reason it’s interesting to climatologists is because it is a natural way to ‘sum-up’ the total warmth for the year and longer; if ice is reducing over several years, it means that there has been a net surplus of warmth.

CryoSat – The European Space Agency’s Sea Ice Monitoring satellite launched in 2010 – (Image credit ESA)

Today we are seeing a new record set for minimal northern sea ice. And not only is there less area of ice, but it is thinner than previously realized and some models now suggest we could be ice-free in late summer in my lifetime.

Now if that does not strike you cold, then I didn’t make myself clear. This is not some political posturing, not some ‘big-business’ spin, nor greeny fear mongering. It’s a cold clean fact you can interpret for yourself, and it could not be clearer.

So is it time to panic?

Well it can still be argued the melting is part of a cycle, it could of course reverse and hey, no biggy. After all, what does it matter how much ice there is?

Well, yet again, I hate to rely on the ‘hope’ that it’s a cycle. Because if it continues, the next effect will be felt much closer to home…

Sea Level

Sea level is the ultimate proxy for warming. Indeed, sea level change can be so serious, maybe it is the problem rather than the symptom. If the ice on Greenland and Antarctica melt, the rise in sea level would displace hundreds of millions of people and change the landscape so dramatically it’s a fair bet wars and famine will follow. Now that is serious.

So have we seen sea level rise? Well, yes. Here’s the plot:

Now, it looks pretty conclusive but hold the boat. Some say’s it’s proof of warming but not everyone agrees. It’s true it could again be a cycle. Also, the sea level rise is fairly gradual; what people are really arguing about is whether we should expect it to speed up. If temperature goes up a few degrees it could go up 5 or 10 times faster. The speed is the issue. Humanity can cope if the level goes up slowly enough, sure, countries like Tuvalu will be in big trouble either way, but countries like Bangladesh and cities like New York and London will only be in real trouble if the rate increases.

Actual Canaries

Canaries taken into mines in order to detect poisonous gases; the idea being they would suffer the gas faster than the people and if the canary dropped, it was time to vacate. Do we have systems that are hypersensitive to climate change?

Yes! There are many delicately balanced ecosystems that can can pushed over a tipping point with the lightest of touch. Is there an increase in the rate of species loss, or an increase in desertification? Yes!

We can also look at how far north certain plants can survive, how high up mountains trees can live or how early the first buds of spring arrive.

Again, these indicators fail to give solace. Everywhere we look we see changes, bleached coral, absent butterflies, retreating glaciers.

The conservative approach is to ascribe these changes to the usual cut and thrust of life on earth; some take solace from the fact that humankind has survived because we are the supreme adapters and that the loss of species is exactly how the stronger ones are selected.

Yes, we are great at adapting, however, to kill any complacency that may create, consider the following: for humans just ‘surviving’ is not the goal, that’s easy, we also need to minimize suffering and death, a much tougher aim. We’ve also just recently reduced our adaptability significantly by creating ‘countries’. Countries may seem innocuous, but they come with borders – and mean we can no longer migrate with the climate. Trade across border also needs to be of roughly the same value in both directions.  While some countries will actually see productivity benefits from global warming, most will not, and without the freedom to move, famine will result. Trade imbalances mean inequality will become extreme. The poorest will suffer the most.

So for now changes are happening, and advances in agricultural technology are easily coping; however, because ecosystems are often a fine balance between strong opposing forces, changes may be fast should one of the ropes snap.

Conclusion

Looking at the long history of the earth we have seen much hotter and much colder scenes. We have seen much higher and much lower sea levels. We are being wishful to assume we will stay as we have for the last 10,000 years. It may last, or it may change. Natural cycles could ruin us. And mankind is probably fraying the ropes by messing with CO2 levels.

Can we predict if we are about to fall off of our stable plateau? No, probably not. But is it possible? Heck yeah.

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If you liked this, you may like these earlier posts on the subject of global warming:

  1. What does the earth’s history tell us about climate? And how can we find out if our house will be one that sinks should sea levels rise? Find out here!
  2. Can we  change the planet’s dangerous behavior? Read my call for a study in mass behavior.




Big Pharma: Heroes or Villains?

25 12 2011

What is ‘Big Pharma’?

Many people have argued that alternative and complimentary medicines are suppressed because they threaten the status quo for ‘big pharma’.  Before we accept this claim, let’s unpack the idea of big pharma a little to understand the incentives at play and when it may be right not to trust big pharma.

Let me start by making it clear – big pharma, as a label for the largest pharmaceutical companies, deserves a healthy dose of outrage; but before we toss the baby out with the bathwater, but lets see when – and why.

Big pharma is just another name for ‘big business’: a big business is an organism that has grown beyond the people that founded it, such that rather than having emotions, conscience or guilt, it has KPI’s like turnover, cashflow and return on investment. Big pharma is in the business of making money and as such should generally be expected to default to that option unless constrained by law. The collective conscience of shareholders only tends to kick in when dirty laundry is put out on show. Ok, so firstly, I think we can agree, a business is not a charity.

Next we take this lack of compassion and combine it with size and complexity – we see we now have an organism susceptible to plain outright crookery – from the white collar sort, like insider trading – to the very tangible – such as the dumping of toxic waste. These practices usually require the corruption of people – but not always – it is very easy for companies to do bad things without any individuals having malicious intent; it could simply be negligence or incompetence, or it could simply be that profit sometimes comes before fairness.

Take for example the problem of selling DVD’s in the world market. They are small and lightweight and easy to ship worldwide. This usually means that the price would be similar worldwide, if dealers in one country were to raise prices, residents would simply import the product. However, the enormous wealth differentials that exist between, say, the USA and Mexico, mean that the company could set a high price to extract maximum value from the US market, but then essentially price themselves out of the Mexican market. If they lowered the price, they would sell more product but with much reduced profit margins.

This problem is thrown into stark relief in the case of drugs, where the most profitable option is often to cater to the richer countries. This is sound business – set your price high, keep your factory trim, reduce shipping costs, keep high margins. However, if the drug can radically improve health outcomes, this policy could be seen as unethical.

This is the sort of problem big pharma face routinely; they are not selling entertainment, they are sometimes selling life itself, and often find they need to play profits against ethics in they way I describe above. It is thus hardly surprising that the general public have a distrust and general suspicion toward Big Pharma. In addition to drug import controls, there are many other situations where governments have had to step in to ensure the pharmaceutical companies ‘do the right thing’, such as the case with antiretroviral drugs (for HIV) coming into Africa.

Now think for a moment on this thought experiment: what would happen if a small publicly traded company discovered a cheap and easily reproducible cure for cancer? Would they really be able to hold on and extract full value for their shareholders? History actually suggests they wouldn’t – the drug would become public property, or would simply be nationalised if the company tried to resist. Inventions like the major vaccines and the first antibiotics were often not patented, and we see if we look at the pharmaceutical industry that their biggest profits come predictably not from miracle cures but from drugs that cater to the maladies of the richer classes. The top targets are heart disease, heart-burn, stroke, mental health and asthma. Once you  add disorders like diabetes you have accounted for the most profitable chunk of the industry.

This trend raises fresh concerns, because there are many severe ailments that are simply not attractive to profit making operations, the poster-boys being malaria, TB and HIV/Aids. Drug companies can be bullied into doing work in these areas, but it tends to fall to governments and charities to fund research in the afflictions of the poor, or on the so-called ‘orphan diseases’ – ailments that affect too few people to ever make a profitable market.

Economists will also argue that profit making businesses, being creatures under the strict control of incentives, will be unlikely to aim for ‘cures’ because cures are ‘one-offs’. While this criticism has some sad validity (in the board-room if not in the clinic), we have to remember that the big drug companies only exist because they make profits; in an imagined world where the first dollars were always spent on the most dire diseases and we only get to do botox and erectile dysfunction once those are all solved we would have no private industry at all, so far fewer trained scientists, far less public knowledge and certainly no map of the genome. We have to remember that to some extent at least, the aging american taking their cocktail of pills every day for the last 50 years has in some sense subsidized the field doctor in rural Africa. Yes, they also subsidized Wall Street excesses, but perhaps it’s a deal worth making.

Publication Bias

Another area where drug companies increasingly in need government intervention is in drug trials; specifically, they are presently allowed to pick and choose what to publish; this sounds OK at first, because, surely, you assume, the drug company has to make a bulletproof case before the drug is licensed? Well, if you do 100 trials, you may well find 50 good results, and publish those, and simply sweep the duds under the carpet. What’s more is those duds could have revealed possible side effects or interactions that could actually turn out to be real issues later on down the road. This is going to be a big one in the next few years.

The Big Picture

When criticizing the pharmaceutical industry it is easy to get caught up in the weeds, for there are weeds, but let’s also try to remember that this century has seen unparalleled improvements in life expectancy world-wide, and the improvements in child mortality in the third world do owe a lot to the sometimes cold-hearted business models intrinsic to western medicine.

Before I move on, and being a scientist, I wanted to make another point about big pharma. While it’s true that big money is involved, we have to remember that the Pareto principle applies here too – the majority of the profits come from the minority of the research. There are legions of perfectly good people, motivated by no more that the desire to help people in distress working in healthcare all around the world. Drugs are highly integrated with other therapies at the clinical level and the people actually running trials ‘in the trenches’ face-to-face with the patients (and often dealing with terrible trauma)  are rarely shareholders in big pharma, and many would not even think for a second they are part of what people would call big pharma. Yet it is they who have gradually built up our current understanding of the human body, not the men in suits.

Conclusion

To me, the idea of executives at the top 5 drug companies has become conflated with the idea of the ‘canon’ of western medicine. The idea that the whole world of ‘proven medications’, the result of countless years of hard graft (and the learnings from millions of deaths), can be dismissed because it’s under the control of ‘fatcats’ is a sick tragedy. Western medicine is simply a name for ‘what has been statistically been proven to help’, and the idea that even a tiny fraction of the scientists who developed it would be working to suppress good ideas from outside the ‘fold’ sounds frankly paranoid. Yes big pharma has some warped incentives that cause it to focus on the wrong things and leave the poor out in the cold, but all for-profit publicly-traded businesses do that! Ask yourself for a minute – even if a cure for heart disease were found that threatened the profits to Pfizer and friends, could they really recruit a worldwide network of conspirators who think a cure for cancer is something worth selling their very souls for to suppress?

It hard enough to run a real business, let alone running one so effectively in complete secrecy in the face of so much scrutiny. If they have that much skill and power, they should go legit, they would make a real killing!





An itch scratched…

5 09 2011

Tennyson said:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

I propose a more general theorem, to which I believe the above a corollary:

‘Tis better to have itched and scratched
Than never to have itched at all.

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Consider:

A weekend spent fixing something broken is more satisfying than a weekend spend idle – with nothing broken.





Why big ideas evade big businesses – An Analysis

18 07 2011

Big companies usually sell many products – and this collection of products is in constant flux – new ones come, poor ones are chopped and the population may grow or shrink accordingly.

The sheer number of products is however not directly correlated to the revenues or profits though, this is determined by the quality of each product. The main benefit of having a large family of products is that allows diversification (thinks eggs in baskets) – but the down side of having many products is all the additional overhead.

The real health of a product portfolio is not the number of products but an aggregate of the health of the individual products – for each product we consider the margins, the security of those margins, the revenue, the trends in revenues and the prospects of the target market.

Thus a large company should be constantly nurturing and pruning its portfolio, adding products with good margins, and killing off products that do not give the target ROI.

The process, if done well, can result in a company slowly morphing as its follows the money. A company that fails to follow the money is doomed to either die or settle at a marginal profitability protected only by their slim margins and depreciated assets.

It is in this sense that new products make you future proof – the first player in the game gets to makes the rules while new technologies can often be patented to block competition – leading to higher margins. The first entrant may also corner the market  and then benefit from an economy of scale that makes competition for the scraps pointless.

Of course, launching new products requires investment – you need to spend money to make money. And big business has the money entrepreneurs can only dream of.

So the question is this: why is it that small start-ups keep upsetting the apple cart?  Why can’t big business with all its money, all its brainy MBA’s and all those shiny laboratories corner all the good ideas?

Allow me to hazard a guess as to why this is.

Firstly, because of risk:

  1. Once you have a lot of money, it’s no longer a good strategy to “bet the farm”. You have too much to lose.
  2. Once you have money, a better strategy is to spend some of it on risk analysis, and find ideas that are a surer bet – this leads you to products whose success you can predict – which are more likely to be those similar to your existing products.

The problem is, that in the population of all ideas, the game changers are probably at the risky end. See my illustration:

As you can see, big business is stuck in the white sector. The problem is there will always be a risky idea – that big business will pass up – that will turn out to be pure gold.

Now let’s think about the competition. The competition is the world of entrepreneurs – all those people out there itching to start something up.

What we have to realise is that while big business is, on average, smarter than the entrepreneur, it does not have the monopoly on thinking, and though the ideas that come from the general populace may on average be lower in quality, the sheer volume of thinking that gets done and the sheer number of things that are tried out, mean that great ideas will happen. And we won’t hear much about the hundreds that don’t.

My next drawing shows the frequency of idea birth for the two communities – the little curve shows the ideas born and investigated  by big business while the big curve shows the ideas pursued by the wider public. Although big business only pursue nice valuable ideas, the sheer size of the public idea base, combined with their access to riskier options, means the wider community still has the lion’s share of the truly game changing ideas!

So this is my theory about why big business is less innovative than small business. Small business benefits from darwinian selection – it is really a multitude, most of which die – whereas big business cannot afford to die, so its strategy is always to hedge.

So what to do about it? Clearly this should give heart to the entrepreneur – yes, you have an advantage, yes, you will win! Alas, reading more deeply, your advantage is your dispensability – so the trick is to see its a game of numbers, so the real key is to keep trying. You can keep failing and rise to try again, but big business can’t take that risk.

But what if you are big business?   In this case, watch out for promising start-ups and buy them! Connect with the entrepreneurial community by getting involved with things like “open-innovation“, where you publicize what you have and what you need and work with inventors and other companies to solve market needs. Otherwise take your business where entrepreneurs can’t follow – where money is still a huge barrier to entry – land management, mining or pharmaceuticals spring to mind.

And what if you’re an big $ investor? Well in that case, get in touch with The Provincial Scientist 🙂

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Disclaimer: it may be the era of micro-electronics and software that is to blame. When the fuss about these has died down, maybe big business will rule securely as the aristocracy once did.





Parenting: is giving unfair advantage fair when it comes to our kids?

16 05 2011

Is equality worth fighting for? Should everyone have the same opportunities in life?

Of course!

Then why is it that so many of us bust our butts to fight for the complete opposite?

Of course, as the title suggests, I am talking about parenting. It seems that while we are happy to claim equality as a goal we work so fervently to create advantage for our kids? When it comes to our little angels, we suddenly forget our high-minded ideals, and act with a favoritism that would be illegal if it were based on colour, religion race or creed.

This may sound like a trivial point when you first think about it, but hold on two ticks and give it a little think.

How will society ever become equal if every parent is hell-bent on giving their kid every advantage they can?

Would I not try to get my kid into the class with the best teacher, or the school with the best record, or the college with the most prestige?

Would I not work hard to pay for ballet classes and piano lessons and school trips to DC and all the things a kid needs in order to be equipped for the high life? Would I not wish for them to inherit a fortune and thriving family business?

How can I compete in a meritocracy with my only aim being to give my kids an advantage in the next leg of the race?

The meritocracy is no meritocracy if you can inherit advantage, and if you can pass on no advantage to your kids, then what is the point of the fight?

It seems the very concept of a fair system where reward is based on individual effort is unstable as we all strive to pass on generational advantage.

It also seems to me that people’s fortunes do not depend on their own merits as individuals, but rather on the merits of their “node” in the web of society – where opportunities depend on connections. As the sayings go – no man is an island and it’s not what you know, but whom.

These realisations suggests to me that equality or even the idea of the meritocracy are mirages – good to aim at, but don’t go too close as they will recede, or worse still, vanish.