The observable examined

Archive for August 2011

aging and longevity

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Yesterday was my birthday. When I opened the newspaper, as if on cue, the review section headlines proclaimed, Living to 100 and beyond.  There is a vibrant scientific community engaged in significantly extending the “healthy” human lifespan. If they are successful in their endeavors, taxes may be the only certain entity in our lives.

The opening paragraph reminds us of the immortal struldbrugs, from Swift’s Gulliver’s travels, and their predicament(while blessed with long lives, they were still subject to aging and disease). (After reading this paragraph, I have added Gulliver’s travels to my reading list). There is a nice survey of some of the scientific advances, such as extending the lives of worms, using gene therapy and printing organs (that’s right, PRINTING!).

What does this mean? For family dynamics, be it between husband and wife, siblings, remarriage (at the young age of 150), socioeconomics, public policy etc., The remainder of the article concerns itself with tackling these questions.

There are a couple of claims that caught my eye.

“…The world’s advanced societies are finally in a position to launch a true offensive against the seemingly irresistible terms imposed on our lives by disease and death. That’s good news for us as individuals and for humanity as a whole. A longer span of healthy years will lead to greater wealth and prospects for happiness…

Well. I am not so sure.

“...But what is noble, beautiful and exciting about deterioration and decline? What is morally suspect about ameliorating human suffering?

The answer is nothing. Everything that we have, socially and as individuals, is based on the richness of life. There can be no more basic obligation than to help ourselves and future generations to enjoy longer, healthier spans on the Earth that we share….”

Healthier spans, I can understand. But where is the need to extend life to hundreds of years? Would we make these technologies and therapies available to terrorists, and evildoers so they can also live to be 100s of years. It would interesting to delve more into the author’s thesis (this article is excerpted from her book) to find out if she has answers.

On the whole, a thought provoking article. Worth a read.


Written by asterix98

August 28, 2011 at 6:19 pm

decision fatigue

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One of my favorite topics in all of behavioral sciences is judgment and decision making. The pioneering scientists, who made the fundamental discoveries, and had the best insights into this aspect of human behavior, are  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Be sure to look them up for really interesting research.

I have setup alerts on NYTimes for articles related to the brain. I received this one today on Decision Fatigue. I thought I would give it a dekko and retire to bed. But it proved to be a great article so here I am sharing it with you folks. The essence is that willpower to exercise self-control is a finite quantity and depletes throughout the day as you make various decisions (the process is termed ego depletion). A little dose of glucose (sugar) can somewhat replenish it. Real-world decisions , from granting parole to deciding wedding registry items, seem to be systematically affected by ego depletion. Supermarkets exploit this by placing candy right at the check out. Very interesting read. Check it out for sure.

The upshot seems to be that the best times for key decisions are early in the day or after a good rest.

Written by asterix98

August 22, 2011 at 6:53 am

Posted in decision making

In lighter vein…..

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I heard this one while at lunch today

The leading cause of Death is LIFE !!

Brilliantly beautiful isn’t it? When I heard this, the experience was similar to popping a lump of horseradish into one’s mouth.


On someone’s office wall

“Even the calendar says Monday and Tuesday are followed by WTF!!”



Written by asterix98

August 20, 2011 at 3:02 am

Posted in humor

the genius of a hacker

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You must read this article : Protecting Your Data From People Like Me. The author is Kevin Mitnick, a notorious hacker turned good samaritan. What is impressive is his deep insight into the psychology of human behavior. The scary part is his systematic exploitation of the said talent to gain access to private data, with impunity. He lays out, in great detail, his methods for obtaining confidential information from government officials and bank employees Fortunately for us, he is now on the right side of the law.

Written by asterix98

August 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Posted in hacking

trends in customer service

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Last weekend, WSJ ran an article in the review section entitled Fun for the Whole Family: The Long Wait in Line . Everybody from car dealers to hospitals are figuring out ways to reduce the ennui of “waiting”. For example, a car dealer is also offering pet grooming services while their customers are having the car serviced. Other examples include cutting the wait times at DMV (sic) through the use of text messaging. I love it!


Written by asterix98

August 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Posted in customer service

The tell-tale human brain

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I just finished reading a book entitled “The tell-tale human brain” by V.S.Ramachandran. [For those of you who do not know the name, Ramachandran, is a world renowned neuroscientist. He is a remarkably gifted scientist and has conducted many path breaking studies that have significantly advanced the status quo in our understanding of the human brain. Some people even think he may be a Nobel prize candidate for his pioneering work in neuroscience]. His research is one of the contributing causes to the many neuroX subdisciplines (neurotheology, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing to name a few) that have mushroomed in academia and industry.

This book is a good synthesis of much of his research. If you ignore his not so great sense of humor and sometimes chest beating, there is a lot of great material in the book to ponder on. What I love about his books is his rich catalog of neurological patients and their attendant deficits. Through their abnormalities, we are lead to an understanding of the inner workings of a normal human brain.  My favorite is the “god center” located in the temporal lobes. Patients with temporal lobe epilepsies see visions of god!! [My advisor used to say, irreverently, that the claims of received wisdom from God are actually manifestations of a hallucinating brain. I must say I agree with him.]

Some of the topics include mirror neurons and their role in social cognition, neural plasticity, synesthesia (blending of the senses), impostors moms and dads. It is utterly fascinating when we consider the remarkable insight that our unified percept of the external reality is really the orchestration of many interacting functionally specific brain modules [the timing and sychronization of these processes are also extensively studied topics in neuroscience]. Blindsight, a phenomenon, described in some detail, will make you wonder about what we really mean when we talk about consciousness.

Ultimately, the book is about what sets humans apart in the animal kingdom. The book format allows the author to speculate a great deal. If you pick this book up, I urge you to do so with a fairly wide open mind.

Written by asterix98

August 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Lechi would have turned 40 today

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Most people would have marked their entry into a new phase of life (I hesitate to call it middle age as I think the bar has shifted to the right for the population) by celebrating the big four oh birthday. Alas, for dearest Lechi, this life marker proved elusive.

Two years ago, this day, I bought Lechi a pendant with her birthstone (some were of the opinion that I had paid too much for it). I had had the sinking feeling that dear Lechini was not going to be around for long (given how her treatment was progressing and the generally available prognosis). I am so glad I bought it for her because it proved to be the last opportunity I would ever have to show her, materially, my love and affection for her. Last year, on Lechi’s birthday,  Mahati gave her a card saying she was the greatest mom (which I have preserved) and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita!! (this on her own accord).

I wonder if Lechi took this as a sign and decided to give up the fight (she lasted one more day past her birthday).

Many times, this past year, I have been in denial about Lechi’s illness. I have had to make a mental effort to recall the pain and suffering she endured, visualize the specifics to convince myself of the reality that Lechi is indeed in a better place.

However, I have missed her a lot and still do, consciously and unconsciously. Most recently, on my current India trip. Consciously: during our (Mahati and me) visits with friends and family. We were invited to a birthday party and there were games that involved the parents. Most kids had their moms (the default parent chosen by the game show host). Mahati was dragging me there.  Unconscioulsy: Mahati, her grandpa, and I saw the last installment of the Harry Potter movie. There was a lot of fun and excitement at the theater as the kids at the movies were shouting and screaming. I was choking and tearing up inexplicably (I have wondered if this stems from a sense of guilt).  Thankfully, Mahati enjoyed the experience. This was also true when I was performing the first anniversary rituals.

When birthdays are celebrated, most people (including myself) today treat it very superficially. What Lechi’s life has taught me is to understand and appreciate the deeper significance of marking these personal milestones. (It is probably, also, the origin of the celebrations in the first place).  In the same vein, I have also learned to appreciate the value of the rituals associated with remembering loved ones long gone. Not so much for the mechanics (even here I think there are interesting aspects that can help with psychological closure), but for the opportunity to set aside some time to focus on them. [I have to mention here that the Hindu rituals allow for three generations in the heavenly abode, we will cover this in a later blog].

Science tells us, except humans, most animals live in the here and now (which many a philosophy book urges us is the best form of living to aspire for). We have the unique machinery to dwell on the past, present, and future. One of advantages of this- we can continue to remember our loved ones, in spite of their physical absence. I know she will always inhabit our ( Mahati and mine) mental world. Happy Birthday Lechi!  We miss you, we love you!

Written by asterix98

August 1, 2011 at 3:16 am

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