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Can we know when we made a good decision?

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The third lecture I attended at Stanford Saturday University, on November 5, was given by Prof. Ron Howard, from the Management Science and Engineering Department. The title of his talk was : Can People make good decisions? How would they know? As I have indicated elsewhere, judgment and decision making is a favorite topic of mine.

Howard started out by observing that our lives, professional or personal,  are dominated by decisions at every turn. Decisions are logically distinct from outcomes. Think about this for a second or two. It is an important idea. Decisions are what you control. In general, decisions are difficult because of uncertainty.

Howard’s classifies decisions as being mediated by two systems: deliberative and affective. The deliberative system, aka the “cool” cognitive system relies on brain structures more recent in origin (eg., prefrontal cortex about 150,00 yrs old). The affective system, or the “hot” emotional system relies on ancient brian structures (> 6 million yrs old) and are involved typically in decisions related to sex, fear, hunger, proximity, impatience, and empathy. Decisions are also modulated by will power, stress, and cognitive effort.

We are prone to a number of cognitive biases that affect our decisions. These most common ones include

  • anchoring – sticking to one piece of information
  • availability heuristics – basing decisions on what is available in memory
  • confirmation biases – ignoring information that contradicts the information you have
  •  endowment effect – demand more when they give up something versus when they want it
  •  framing effect  – the way the information is presented affects your decision
  • illusion of control  – overestimating how much control you have over external events

Decisions are based on three factors : what you can do, what you want, and what you know. The other factors include the logic you bring to bear on the decision making process, and the frame/context. Clarity of thought should guide clarity of actions.

Howard narrated the history surrounding the myth of Stork visits and Babies. The origins are in Denmark and has to do with Stork nesting in chimneys. But the main point of this story was to illustrate how we end up making errors in attributing cause and effect to correlated events.

Howard also pointed out some common logical failures in decision making. Here are a few : confounding decisions with outcomes;including sunk costs in decisions; experiencing worry and regret;thinking wishfully in assigning probabilities; using associative logic instead of conditional probabilities;confusing relevance and causation. He talked also about framing failures and ethical failures. Here my notes are incomplete, so I am leaving them out.

Finally, he talked about the need to teach the techniques of proper decision making at a fairly early age. He wants kids to think about being HIP when making decisions.

  • H – How will it change?
  • I – What is the impact on others and me?
  • P – Is it Permanent or Reversible?

Probably the last slide had the best nugget of all. How to assess your decision readiness? The signals to HALT a decision are

  •  H – Hungry
  • A – Angry
  • L – Light Headed
  • T – Tired

While I learned a few new things from the lecture (the most important one I think is is the idea that decisions are logically distinct from outcomes), something bothered me about Dr. Howard. When someone asked him for further reading on the topic, he suggested in all seriousness that they wait for his book which is forthcoming. There is plenty of material on this topic by Tverksy and Kahneman. Kahneman has a book out where he discusses ideas similar to the deliberative and affective systems, He calls them System 1 and System 2.  Dan Ariely has widely popularized the irrational side of our being in a couple of books. So I did not quite understand his response. Nevertheless, still enjoyable. In summary, people make decisions. If the outcome is good, it was a good decision else it was a bad decision.

Across the three lectures, the money, and time were all well spent. A great decision I must say.


Written by asterix98

December 4, 2011 at 7:50 am

Synthetic Biology: Can we reprogram the living world?

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The second lecture I attended at Stanford Saturday University on November 5, 2011 was given by Christina Smolke, a professor in the Bioengineering department. It is such a fascinating time to be a student because there are such interesting areas of study, especially in this new frontier of science and engineering called Synthetic Biology. While many of the details of the lecture escaped me (the language here is all gene and protein related), the general ideas and potential benefits were clear enough to get the endorphin high going.

The title of the blog is taken verbatim from Smolke’s talk. She began the lecture outlining some natural chemicals and materials such as Taxol (anti-cancer), Silk, rubber, codeine/morphine, and butanol that humans have used for various purposes. The motivation underlying the question she raised then has to do with producing, for example, codeine, on large scale using natural “microbial factories” (beacuse they are much greener) instead of synthetic ones.  One huge benefit of being able to do this: to treat hard to get at diseases such as brain tumors, by injecting microbial factories in-vivo (Intelligent Therapeutics) to eliminate the tumor (she made a reference to the classic movie Fantastic Voyage).

Currently, these types of ideas are still sci-fi fantasies because the tools are lacking for enabling the applications. The rest of the lecture delved into the details of the state of the art in our understanding of protein coding (transcription) and directions for making proteins (translation). Here is an interesting tidbit. The human genome has 3Billion DNA sequences, of which less than 1% code for about 23,000 proteins. With our current knowledge, we can annotate pretty readily the protein coding regions but the directions for making proteins are not very well understood.  In fact, the functional significance of 99% of the DNA sequences are not well understood. Genome sequencing has revealed that we have about as many coding regions as worms!!

Smolke then talked about the evolution of various techniques for gene sequencing. Essentially, her lab is involved in creating a “library” of the basic building blocks. From this library, the building blocks can them be combined in specific ways to enable the mass production of the various natural chemicals I mentioned at the beginning.

As I was listening to the lecture, I was reminded of the evolution of the VLSI industry (which is where I spent the last dozen or so years) beginning in the 70s. I think Carver Mead did for VLSI what Smolke and her colleagues are doing in the area of Synthetic Biology. Mead essentially came up with a CAD (computer aided design) methodology that uses a library of standard cells which could be stitched together to create very complex integrated circuits. The whole industry took off once these tools were in place.

It was also a wonderful lecture. I sincerely hope Smolke is successful in her endeavors. We are poised to witness some science fiction become fact in the not too distant future.

Written by asterix98

December 4, 2011 at 6:16 am

Why some have power and others dont?

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On November 5, 2011, Stanford held its second Stanford Saturday University. The agenda can be found here. I had the opportunity to attend this year too. I attended three lectures. I will write a piece on each one. This one is the first. The topic : Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t. The lecture was given by Dr.Jeffrey Pfeffer, a leading expert on the topic and the author of a book with the same title. In a nutshell, he was very engaging, entertaining, authoritative, and confident – essential hallmarks of a powerful person.

He began the discussion by providing some operational definitions (or rather reinterpreting some common definitions). For example, Genius is really high performance in any endeavor. It is not innate or spontaneous but is achieved through practice and perseverance.  Power then is the opposite of dependence (that is, others depend on you ). Power is the ability to get your own way (in the face of opposition). If you are powerful, you never leave a position involuntarily.

Pfeffer then launched into some hard truths about power in the workplace. Power is inevitable when hierarchies are involved. By its very nature hierarchy implies there will be competition for advantageous positions (think alpha males among chimps). Here is a piece of advice from Pfeffer. Get over your ambivalence about power. It is good for you. It can be monetized. If you are powerful, you can get things done and affect change. Get this, having power leads to improved health and mortality (apparently you are less stressed because you control your agenda).  So seek power as if your life depended on it.

Here is another interesting insight: job performance does not equate to power. Other contributing factors include education, tenure and most importantly, political skill.

So what does political skill entail ?

  • Social Astuteness – ability to sense hidden agendas
  • Networking ability – connected to influential people
  • Interpersonal influence, and the most interesting one
  • Apparent sincerity – appearing sincere is sufficient

Typically, if you lack power, the likely reasons are you are your own impediment (afraid to fail, and excessive worry about how others perceive you).  A tongue in cheek comment, power will most certainly bring likability. We lack power because we accept status and hierarchical differences. We see the world as fair because we are less vigilant and strategic. (Here he recommended the book “Why bad things happen to good people”).

Other reasons for lack of power : you are unwilling or unable to make trade-offs required for power. For example, if you prefer being liked versus getting things done. Forming fun relationships rather than strategic relationships. Doing work strategically with an eye towards advancement versus doing interesting work. In essences, you cannot be an accidental tourist in the land of power, you have to plan the trip.

Some people think they are powerful but they are actually not. These individuals suffer from a self enhancement bias : they think they are above average when they are not. They overestimate their positive attributes. And suffer from the illusion of control. They are committed to decisions and not willing to change (reminded me of sunk costs).

Pfeffer’s list of individual qualities necessary to attain power

  • Ambition/drive
  • Focus
  • Energy and Endurance
  • Self-knowledge
  • Confidence
  • Empathy
  • Capacity to tolerate conflict
  • Persistence and resilence

Here are some tips for acting and speaking with Power

  1. Be aware that you are on stage
  2. Put on a show
  3. Posture, body language and eye contact are very important
  4. Use gestures
  5. Display anger instead of sadness or remorse.

This is where Pfeffer shined.  He used all of these techniques to great effect throughout his lecture.  He offered even more tips on how to speak powerfully.

  • Interruption (most people would think this rude but I suppose it is also a measure of power)
  • speak in clear, declarative and simple sentences
  • in a debate, contest the premise of the debate
  • make use of lists
  • use Us versus Them references
  • Use contrasts
  • Pause for emphasis
  • Avoid notes
  • Use humor

The last part of the lecture was all about attracting allies. Here you rely on the norm of reciprocity (you scratch my back, I scratch yours). Escalating commitment. Try not to be judgmental. Flattery is an effective tool. Most important, be positive and certain (this contributes to emotional contagion that can win people over).

Many of these topics, I am sure, are flushed out in greater detail, in his book. It is on my reading list. All in all, a very engaging first session.

Written by asterix98

December 4, 2011 at 5:31 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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