The observable examined

Archive for February 2012

Trends in the lifesciences

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If you are interested in healthcare or the lifesciences, this is a great time to get involved. Especially if you are a technologist. There are a number of reasons. The trajectory of healthcare costs is soaring and the trends are unsustainable. There are not enough doctors to handle the demand for care. Most affected is the aging population. After decades of stubbornly resisting the  rapid adoption of technological advances, the healthcare industry seems ready to embrace them. Witness the power of a tool like Watson from IBM. Cloud computing, big data, wireless sensors, wireless technology (near and far field), tablet computing combined with trends in bioengineering, molecular genetics, biomedical engineering and other disciplines is now enabling a very exciting interdisciplinary effort that is poised to revolutionize healthcare and lifesciences. (In the 90s, the genesis of cognitive neuroscience,  combined forces from computer science, neuroscience, psychology, physics, and other fields to make significant advances in the understanding of the human brain. I am proud to have been a part of it).

In an earlier blog, I wrote about one such effort at the Smolke lab at Stanford. A couple of days ago, I learned of this great  program at John Hopkins University. You can read more about CBID here. It brings together partners from the industry, biomedical engineering and medicine to deliver, pratical and immediately applicable innovations to healthcare both in the developed and developng world. One brilliant example of a product developed at CBID is a marker like pen filled with the ingredients required for detecting eclampsia (high blood pressure) in pregnant women. What is neat about this device is that it enables women in the underdeveloped world to be diagnosed at the cost of pennies. You simply mark a piece of paper with the device. The women pee on the paper and the litmus test indicates Yes or No. A clever part of this design : the cap of the marker is the same color as a positive result. Neat!

Other examples of innovation (not from CBID) include the Mobisanti portable ultrasound for your mobile phone!! Skin implants for Alzheimer’s patients to keep track of them and even guide them. Subvocal speech recognition (out of NASA) and this one is way out there : the Proteus raisin microchip. This is a biodegradable chip that can be swallowed. It sends out a signal to the doctor that you have taken the pill (something drastic like this is necessary because the medical adherence rate is about 21% !!).

We at iNDx Technologies are bringing together pathologists, physicians, molecular geneticists, and technologists, to deliver some innovative products for enabling integrated diagnostics for improving quality of care at reduced costs. Stay tuned!


Written by asterix98

February 26, 2012 at 1:50 am

Science, God and Atheism

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My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“Fact and Faith” (1934)   Quoted in Lawrence Krauss’ article God and Science Don’t Mix


It happens to most of us.  In the late adolescence, early adulthood stages, we tend to contemplate life’s big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers we settle on, more or less, form the “spiritual” foundation for the rest of our lives. For most, what started as a spiritual quest morphs into a religious identity (the mileage here varies from liberal to orthodox to fanatical), usually centered on a personal God/benefactor. However, for a small minority, the introspection, coupled with evidence from science, leads to a worldview filled with a lifelong skepticism or rejection of commonly held beliefs, particularly the religious kind. These individuals go by the moniker of atheists or the weaker version: agnostics.  They would acknowledge the notion of a God (or Nature or Einstein’s God), devoid of any special interest in human affairs.

On the face of it, one can just dismiss theism or atheism as just two differing viewpoints and move on. But if you examine the evidence over the years, it is abundantly clear that the institution of religion, in spite of it many societal benefits, fosters a worldview that numbs the intellect. Consider its origins. Early man is out foraging for food. Rainclouds are forming above him. Suddenly there is a flash of lightning followed by thunder. He is awestruck by this spectacle. Maybe even a bit fearful. He begins to wonder how and why (a fantastically unique human trait). He seeks an explanation for the phenomenon he has just witnessed. The methods and tools of scientific inquiry are not yet available to him. He walks away, answers not forthcoming. This cognitive state of affairs is common among his fellow tribesmen. Something interesting happens. Over a roast deer dinner, they discuss rain, thunder, and lightning (notice that language has emerged as a means of communication). They concur and attribute agency of these events to an external/unseen entity (this is an outcome of the projection of a mind similar to their own onto this agent). To address this agent collectively, they create symbols. Amongst this group, there is one individual who is thinking deeper and harder about these issues. He is observant and starts noticing some patterns in nature. He can predict an eclipse. He figures he can profit from it. He impresses his fellow tribesmen by predicting the next rains. He also claims he can communicate with the agent. The witch doctor/shaman is born. We also witness the birth of the religion meme.

[In this view, the method of inquiry gave birth to religion contrary to the view that science was born out of religion].

At this stage in human history, human societies are small, the migrations out of Africa are just beginning, the cerebral cortex is evolving, and agriculture as a way of life is still to be discovered. The religious meme, however primitive, offers a “reasonable” explanation of the world humans see, with their as yet meager cognitive abilities. It sticks. And travels with the bands of migrants.

Gradually society transforms from nomadic in nature to settlements. Man is now very appreciative and respectful of the bounties of nature [I find it interesting that many Native American tribes follow a ritual of paying their respects to bodies of water and then sprinkle some on themselves.  A similar tradition exists even among religious Hindus.]  His growing cerebral sophistication leads to awareness at several levels. Foremost amongst them is the realization of the inevitability of death: his own and those of others. This is very confusing and maybe even outright scary. To alleviate this anxious state of affairs he invents the notion of afterlife.  There are even barbaric elements (animal and human sacrifices for the appeasement of the Gods). In parallel, with the growing complexity of expanding societies, social structures emerge.  Social norms are put in place. The leaders find it challenging to enforce these rules. With the help of the high priests they devise a plan. They play on our inherent fears using religion and God as a convenient and powerful instrument for exercising control.  The outcome is the invention of Paradise and Hell. Good conduct is rewarded with a ticket to Paradise, bad results in a journey to Hell. Redemption and retribution become the cornerstones of the religious edict.  Collectively, these developments lead to the evolution of the primitive totem pole symbolism to a more sophisticated divine entity. The God meme has mutated towards theodicy: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. More importantly, this God is extremely tuned in to the personal fortunes of individuals.

Societies continue to expand and disperse. Within the general framework of a God outlined above, newer religions take on unique cultural identities. Elaborate hierarchies, involved in managing the affairs of the Gods, have now replaced the primitive shaman. The modern religious institution is a thriving economic enterprise with organizational structures that rival the best of breed in business. Most of them are monotheistic with one supreme liaison to God (the CEOs of the God enterprise). Interestingly, the Hindus and the Greeks have specialist Gods compared to monotheism that is more dictatorial in style [but has the benefit of unifying the message]. Thus, the God meme over generations has mutated into a very complex menome, very much in lock step with other cultural advances. God then was made and evolved in the image of man.

So there we are. From its humble and benign beginnings as a schema for the unexplained to its modern incarnation as a multi-headed Hydra, religion, like any other invention of man, has proved to be a double-edged sword. The graveyard of history is littered with the carcasses of religious excess. Unless you have been sleeping, the footprints of religion’s pernicious influences across the world are abundant. Ironically, many of the conflicts are based on religious identity [my God is better than yours]. At the individual level, the concern is more with the numbing of the intellect or lack of critical thinking. Individuals make important life decisions based on superstitions, numerology, astrology, and prayers. The list is endless.

Along the way, skeptics have emerged in all cultures and societies. They asked questions that threatened the foundations of established beliefs. But because the God meme has had a stranglehold on the majority, these individuals were labeled blasphemous or heretical, and usually met with terrible deaths, such as burning at the stake. Some, like the Buddha, were initially successful in establishing an alternative worldview, but the message has been slowly eroded.

Through the work of many generations of inquiring minds, starting with the early natural philosophers to modern day scientists, science has systematically unraveled the many mysteries of the universe. But the single most important intellectual achievement is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It offers a fairly simple, beautiful, and elegant explanation of the natural world. It is indeed a monumental piece of cerebral dexterity. Instead of Religion’s cop out answer of “God works in mysterious ways” when confronted with the many contradictions and inadequacies of the religious worldview, Darwinism brings it all home, plain and simple. Darwin brought God down to Earth. Now advances in brain science (Neurotheology), has placed the locus of God inside your head!!

Richard Dawkins (some have referred to him as Darwin’s Rottweiler) has stirred the religious pot quite vigorously in his book: The God Delusion.  I highly recommend it.

Although, I do not agree with his main thesis (that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to relieve the anxiety of death), I also recommend Matthew Alper’s book: The God part of the brain, for an interesting take on this whole issue. He, amongst others, has noted that the claims of received wisdom, a cornerstone of many modern religions, can be attributed to delusional minds.

Here is a full length debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (a Christian Mathematician).

There is a fundamental misconception that the Atheist worldview has no room for accommodating and appreciating the beauty and grandeur of Nature. In this debate, Lennox argues that the atheist worldview is “hideous”. Compared to what? The lame God and his “mysterious ways” worldview?   The Buddha held the view that Prince or Pauper, you cannot escape Disease or Death. I want to argue that the atheist point of view, far from being pessimistic (everything is pointless) urges us to apply the razor of critical thinking when we conduct our worldly affairs. However, critical thinking does not come for free. It requires an open mind and enormous cognitive effort. I find it interesting that, in Indian thought, there is some cognitive stratification. The Jnana yogi is the thinker, his tool is introspection and contemplation. The Karma Yogi is the doer, finds meaning through action. The Bhakti yogi is the prayer (pun intended), requires the most help, and comes with many instruction manuals. The majority, in any society or culture, belong in the last category. Hence, Marx’s observation – Religion is the opium of the masses.

As Lawrence Krauss notes “.. Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.”

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2012 at 5:59 am

wireless, street smarts, and strategy

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I retrieved the above image from the web. Image copyright of the originator.

Downloaded this from the New Yorker (Feb 6th). Street smarts but no book smarts?

Also from the New Yorker (Feb 6th). I would love to use this to introduce the concept of strategy in business!

Written by asterix98

February 5, 2012 at 5:24 am

Posted in humor

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