The observable examined

Archive for November 2010

gift giving

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Dan Ariely recetly wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal entitled

The Secret to the Best Gifts“. Very entertaining article.

Key messages : People feel guilty buying expensive things. They also feel guilty when consumption is accompanied by payment. Hence the popularity of gift cards etc., (I could also argue that gift cards are popular because it makes gift giving stress free)

Essentially, his recommendation, buy someone a gift that he/she would feel guilty buying on his/her own. 

My favorite part of the article is this quote:

Woody Allen might have said it best in the Manhattan taxi ride when he turns to his date to say, “You look so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.”

BTW, if you have not read “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely, please do. It is a highly entertaining tour of human judgment and decision making biases. He also has a new book out. Have not read it yet.


Written by asterix98

November 29, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Posted in General, gift giving


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A few days ago, I was walking on the parking lot of Fry’s, a local electronic store.  I looked up at the clear night sky and was greeted by a really beautiful, bright full moon.  It was a sight to behold.  All my scientific training, cold rationality, voices of reason, etc., etc., were nowhere in sight. Instead, at that moment, I was hoping against hope, and I was thinking “Lechi, I hope you are out there somewhere, smiling!”. I took a lot of comfort in those thoughts. Oh well, to be human!

Written by asterix98

November 27, 2010 at 5:09 am

ready for war

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My daughter had her ears pierced a few months ago. Being very cautious by nature she has been favoring her ears expecting that it will hurt a lot if  anyone tries to replace the existing earrings with newer ones.  Recently, she put on a brave face and agreed to an earring change if I would apply “Emla cream” to numb her earlobes.

The mention of Emla brought about a flood of memories,in my mind, vis-a-vis Lechi. As our hospital visits were getting more frequent and there were an innumerable number of tests being done, Lechi was constantly being poked for blood draws, radioactive tracer injections, something or the other. In fact, I recall that many sites near her elbow and the topside of the palm were pretty bruised from all the poking (all of this was compounded by the fact that she had small veins). This is, mind you, on both arms!  We had requested her doctor to prescribe Emla (a local anesthetic that could be applied on the skin with a cotton swab) to alleviate these painful events.

When I look back, I am realizing how determined Lechi was, to fight the dreaded disease. Just like warriors paint their faces before getting on the battlefield, Lechi would apply Emla to her arms (with our help) and gamely head to her next appointment.  She was ready for war.

Written by asterix98

November 27, 2010 at 4:56 am

End of days

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Lecturer: Dr. Rita Wechsler

A very entertaining lecture. Wechsler likes to deal with very large time scales (on the order of billions of years) and it was exteremely interesting and fun. I liked the way she kept referring to “stuff” when dealing with dark energy/dark matter.So here goes…..

  • Till about a 100 years ago, the prevailing view in Cosmology was that the universe was static
  • In fact, Einstein added a term in his theory of general relativity (which naturally allowed for expansion and contraction) to make it static!
  • Galaxies, I think, are also known as spiral nebulae
  • Hubble used spectrum to measure velocities
  • V= Hod (velocity is proportional to distance – H0 is the Hubble constant)
  • More matter in the universe implies expansion is slower. If we measure expansion rate, the age of the universe can be calculated
  • Our universe is 13.7 Billion years old !!
  • Big Bang
    • Universe is expanding
    • past universe much denser
    • denser means hotter in the past
    • implies our universe is now cooling and diluting over time

Time scale cheat sheet

  • Age of the universe : 13.7 Billion years
  • 1st Galaxies              : 13.3 B
  • Milk Way                  : ~12-13B
  • Sun                            :  4.6B
  • Earth                         : 4.5B
  • Life on Earth            : 3.8B
  • Mammals                  : 200 Million years
  • Humans                     : ~ 400K

Lets stop here for a moment (actually a sec) and put this perspective.  If the Universe were 1 sec old, our existence on this Earth as a species has lasted a mere 30 microseconds. If you and I were to live the full 100 yrs, it is a mere 7 nano seconds since the dawn of Time. Again, 7 nanoseconds!!

I think somebody asked, “where is the center of our universe?” . Wechsler answer was, Big Bang happened at a single point. We are at the center of our observable universe (limited by the distance light has travelled).

There was a fun section on how life on earth may end. Here are some interesting tidbits

  • Chances of the earth being destroyed by an Asteroid are 1 in 700000 over a lifetime. In fact, Congress has mandated that all asteroids upto 140 meters (?) in diameter be catalogued and monitored
  • Gamma ray bursts – would completely fry the ozone. Burst within 10000 light years would be dangerous. But the odds are only 1 in 14Million over a lifetime. So no real worries there!
  • Dusty Milky Way – could block our sun. Imagine what could happen. Chances – 1 in 30Million years. Rest easy.
  • Death of our Sun – He is middle aged now. Burning hydrogen and getting hotter. Also getting brighter by 10% every Billion years. In 6 Billion years our Sun will be dead. Long live the Sun!

The Milky Way has the brightness of 30 Billion suns !! What kind of sunglasses would you need if you lost your way and ended up near the Milky way?!

In about 3 Billion years, the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda. We watched an exhilarating video simulation of this event . Upshot is that the collision will completely upend the spiraling Milky Way, which means we are also in trouble.

The expansion of the Universe is accelerating. This is contrary to most expectations.

Distinct from dark matter there is this stuff nobody really understands called Dark Energy.

Interestingly, the make up of the universe is

  • 4% atoms (0.4% stars, 3.6% gas)
  • 26% dark matter
  • 70% dark energy

95% is not in the periodic table or in the standard model !!

Written by asterix98

November 24, 2010 at 6:52 am

Sleepless at Stanford

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This lecture was given by Dr.Clete Kushida MD, PhD

key learnings

  • There are about 90 disorders of sleep!
  • 1-1.5 hrs of sleep deprivation in young adults reduces alertness by a third, on average
  • REM sleep comprises about 25% of total sleep time
  • NREM-N3 is the deepest sleep state in humans (0.25 – 4 cycles/sec)
  • NREM-N1, N2, N3 are the sleep stages
  • REM sleep sometimes described as “an alert mind in a paralyzed body”
  • In babies, 50% of sleep is REM sleep. Speculation that this is a sign of brain maturation
  • How much sleep is needed? It follows an almost normal distribution, with the mean around 8-9 hrs.
  • I learned two new terms – hypnogogic (transition from wakefulness to sleep) and hypnopompic (transition from sleep to wakefulness)
  • Hypocretin deficiency (in the CSF and brain, lateral hypothalmus) contributes to nacrolepsy
  • There were a couple of interesting videos – one on restless leg syndrome (this poor guy, filmed in the lab, was constantly moving in bed as he could not keep his legs still during sleep) and the other on a young kid afflicted with sleep apnea (snoring loudly and waking up startled).
  • CPAP while cumbersome, is very effective for sleep apnea
  • Kushida’s word of caution – Benadryl as a sleep medication has many cognitive side effects. In general, avoid any of the OTC sleep medications
  • For insomnia, the most effective treatments are behavioral (for example ,meditation, not reading in bed)
  • Two useful sites for sleep related information – Sleepeducation.com, sleepcenters.org
  • Throughout the lecture there was repeated emphasis on the importance of morning light for synchronizing circadian rythms

During Q & A , I asked Dr.Kushida about how yawning was related to sleep? The surprising answer was that nothing much was known and the relationship had not been systematically studied!! There are some weak theories on yawning as a behavioral adaptation. Seems like an interesting topic for research. Any takers?

Written by asterix98

November 24, 2010 at 5:56 am

The math behind the internet

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This lecture was given by Margot Gerritsen – Stanford Univeristy.

The core ideas:

  • Web pages are represented as a massive interconnected graph with real and virtual (for mathematical convenience) links.
  • Importance of each page is determined by the importance of the pages linked to it.
  • Web pages and their inter-relatedness can be captured in the form of a giant multi-dimensional (represented by search terms) mathematical matrix
  • For rapid retrieval, this multi-dimensional space is reduced to a smaller space through projection (for example 3D interrelationships can be projected onto 2D accurately by carefully selecting an angle of projection that will preserve the interrelationships).

There were lot of equations and such in the lecture. I do not yet know of an easy way to capture it in a blogging platform. Nevertheless, the mathematical framework is so simple and elegant I would encourage you to find out more.

For me, it was pure cognitive pleasure. It gave me ideas for constructing a theory of human brain function which is simple and yet powerful. I think it can solve two fundamental issues in brain science: representation and rapid retrieval. I have shared some of my ideas with Prof.Gerritsen. Awaiting her response……..

Margot responded!! Will be meeting with her soon. Will keep you posted.

Written by asterix98

November 21, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Stanford Saturday University

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This past weekend (Nov.13,2010) I attended an experimental program at Stanford University entitled Stanford Saturday University. There were eight lectures to choose from. For topics see


I attended three of them.

The Math Behind the Internet…
Sleepless in Stanford….
End of Days……

I will write about each one separately.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day. The lectures were well attended.
The speakers were entertaining and authoritative.The questions from the audience astute. I am looking forward to it next year (or whenever the next one is).

Written by asterix98

November 20, 2010 at 11:42 pm

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