Universal Constants

To get the theory of relativity Einstein held the speed of light constant and let time and space vary.

These days cosmologists are holding the infinity of the universe as constant and letting its density and expansion/contraction rate vary.

In some sense quantum mechanics is about holding the observer constant and letting the physical interpretation vary (particle or wave; position or momentum; exist or not).

What would we get if we held consciousness constant and let the universe vary?…

What is Fear?

Based on an informal assessment and polling I’ve done recently, here’s what we fear:

  • Identity
      • Death / Pain / Insignificance
      • Self-Exploration / Failure / Change
      • Being Found Out / Self-Expression / Lying
  • Control
      • Power / Anticipation / Fear-Itself
    • OTHERS
      • Intimacy / Just Doing It / (Lack of) Freedom
      • Disaster / Crisis / Unknown-Unknowns
  • Authority
    • RIGHTS
      • Being Unworthy / Unmet Expectation / Meaninglessness
      • Unfairness / Inequality / Injustice
    • RULES
      • Doing it Wrong / Shame / Guilt

Each of us has a unique profile of what fear is depending on how we related to various value dimensions (intrinsic, extrinsic and systemic).  For me the scariest are: (1) Unknown-Unknowns (2)  Power (3) Being Wrong (4) Self-Expression (5) Injustice

How about you?…

The New Scientific Enlightenment

There is a massive paradigm shift occurring: beliefs about the nature of scientific inquiry that have held for hundreds of years are being questioned.

As laypeople, we see the symptoms all around us: climatology, economics, medicine, even fundamental physics; these domains (and more) have all become battlegrounds with mounting armies of Ph.D.s and Nobel Prize winners entrenching in opposing camps.  Here’s what’s at stake:

. . .

Scientific Objectivity

In 1972 Kahneman and Tversky launched the study into human cognitive bias, which later won Kahneman the Nobel.  Even a cursory reading of this now vast literature should make each and every logically-minded scientist very skeptical of their own work.

A few scientists do take bias seriously (c.f. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong).  Yet, nearly 40 years later, it might be fair to say that its impact on science as a whole has been limited to improving clinical trials and spawning behavioral economics.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo poignantly illustrates …

A New Cancer Mentality

This interview was done as part of the New Cancer Mentality initiative:

New Cancer Mentality is a grassroots organization focused on giving cancer patients a virual townhall to ask their questions to leading oncologists and researchers about their work. Furthermore, New Cancer Mentality focuses on bringing about collaboration between researchers as well as giving researchers an online forum to share their views and what needs to be done to cure this disease.

If you’d like to learn more or join the movement, check out blog and contact David.…

Sunlight vs. Vitamin D

[This is part 3 of Epidemiology vs. Etiology]

You may have heard there is an epidemic of low vitamin D levels in the U.S.  An estimated 60% of Americans are at a level that has been correlated with increased risk of nearly all chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and depression.  My personal belief is that the epidemiology is horribly flawed.  But perhaps not in the way you might think….

As most people know by now, we humans photosynthesize vitamin D in our skin when it is exposed to direct sunlight.  How fast depends on our ethnicity and amount of exposure.  Since I’m light skinned and get a lot of sun in my normal life, it came as a huge surprise when some routine bloodwork I had done about 9 months ago indicated I was “dangerously low.”

My doctor immediately prescribed large doses of vitamin D supplement, but I was convinced that the result was spurious.  Perhaps it was due to …

Medicine 2.0

Kim Scheinberg sent me a great article from The Atlantic that relates to my multi-thread rant on epidemiology.  Since the article speaks for itself, I’m just quoting points I think are salient.  The only words below that are not a direct quote are the headlines (i.e. “Did you know?”).  The emphasis is mine as well.

Did you know?

  • mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told
  • Zoloft, and Paxil were revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression
  • staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks
  • taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease

Medicine has caught a plague

we think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously.

There is an

A1 vs. A2 Milk

Large scale epidemiological studies have linked casein (a cow’s milk protein) to autoimmune disease and heart disease (see The China Study).  I just ran across the following twist on this theme which purports to explain a mechanism: a genetic mutation many years ago in domesticated cows transformed the original, safe casein (“A2”) into a toxic form (“A1”).  Most cow’s milk available today has both.

What do people think of this?  Has anyone tried personally to ingest milk products that are exclusively A2?

Given the dubious connection between cholesterol and heart disease, could the bad rap on cheeses, cream and ice cream have more to do with A1 and sugar than the animal fat and cholesterol?…


Daniel asks, Does the Mind Influence Physical Processes?

Proof: our mind sets out to modify our environment in particular ways (i.e. set goals); then we act in ways consistent with that intention; more often than chance, our environment changes in those intended ways (i.e. goals are achieved).

This is a form of entanglement — spooky action at a distance — between our minds and the environment (which includes other minds), but we usually dismiss this as trivial, not very spooky. On the other hand, we know that quantum entanglement exists and it seems spooky to us because we have no mechanism to explain it.

We also observe that there are quantum effects in the basic architecture of the brain (nanotubules) and wonder if these are somehow the “ghost in the machine” of consciousness. But this could be just a red herring. Perhaps quantum effects matter to consciousness, perhaps they don’t. Still quantum effects are part of the human experience in some sense — and so …

The Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman has a concept called the Adjacent Possible which I find incredibly useful in understanding the world.  Simply put, if you think of the space of possibilities from the present moment forward and just concentrate on those that are achievable today — adjacent to the present moment — that’s the Adjacent Possible.

What’s interesting about possibility-space is that tomorrow’s Adjacent Possible depends on the actions and choices we make today; it’s not symmetric and it’s nonlinear.  Certain actions generate more future possibilities than others.  In my experience, those actions tend to be the cooperative ones, ones that produce network effects: financial, social and otherwise.

Due to our evolutionary heritage, having come from a resource-constrained world, we may be predisposed to see the more competitive actions which tend to shrink the Adjacent Possible.  Whether or not this is a bias or an actual state of affairs, much of our thinking is based on scarcity, so we are drawn to actions that become self-limiting.

Here’s …

The Process

Imagine a multiverse, infinitely infinite.  There’s just infinity.  Or if you prefer, nothing.   There’s no space, no time, no matter, no energy.  There’s no structure whatsoever, and nothing “in” any of the universes that make up the multiverse.  it’s not even clear whether these individual universes are separate from one another or the same.  But since our minds seem finite and we have to start somewhere, let’s imagine them as separate: an infinite collection of universes with nothing in them, no dimension, and no relationship between them.

Now lets assume there is some process for picking out universes from the multiverse.  Since there’s no time in the multiverse, the process has no beginning and no end.  It’s like a computer program, but it’s infinitely complex.  Let’s call it The Process.

If The Process is infinitely complex and has no beginning and no end, what can we know about it?  We know that it picks some universes but not others, which effectively creates an “in …

Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

The Link Between Food & Healthcare Reform

Also must-read this Sunday is Michael Pollan’s NY Times Op-Ed piece from Wednesday.  Nice cap to my week of ranting on the dismantling of rationality when it comes to lifestyle choices that directly impact one’s health, here and here.…

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

Rafe Issues Challenge to Statin Industry

I have been trying to get the straight scoop on whether statins actually decrease mortality and morbidity in a significant way and I haven’t been able to find any real evidence that they do.

If you ask a cardiologist it’s clear that they believe unequivocally that statins work, mostly because they see what statins to do blood cholesterol levels.  But remember, cholesterol numbers in and of themselves do not matter.  They are a proxy variable for cardiovascular health.  Plaque buildup matters.  At one time blood cholesterol numbers were the only non-invasive indicator we had of plaque buildup, but that’s not true anymore.  However, drug companies are highly incentivized to prove that statins improve health.  So they fund lots of studies.

Notwithstanding the systemic bias when there are profit motives and publication motives, we can turn to these studies and see if statins actually work.  The best way to remove bias is to look at large-scale meta-analyses, like this one.  If you simply read the …

Should You Use Sunscreen?

This is a very complex topic, as the following talk suggests:

The main takeaways from this that I got are:

  1. Cancers for which sunlight deficit is a risk factor are orders of magnitude more prevalent than the few for which overexposure is a risk factor.
  2. People who are using sunscreen regularly are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be.
  3. We should be very careful and sparing about recommending sunscreen usage or sun avoidance, and always temper such advice with the tradeoffs of not getting enough sunlight.

As someone who wonders on a regular basis whether the public has the right information to make informed decisions about health-related tradeoffs, I am curious… does the above strike you as surprising?  What do you currently do regarding sun exposure, and are you likely to change anything based on the above?  What do you think the overall message that reaches the masses is regarding sun exposure?…

Celiac Disease on the Rise

According to a new report in Gastroenterology (July 09), Celiac Disease is now 4 times more common in the US than it was during the 1950’s. The disease results from an intolerance to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye.  When celiac patients consume gluten, they suffer an inflammatory reaction within the small intestine that can lead to a host of manifestations, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, infertility, malnutrition, and premature osteoporosis.  It can develop at any age and is frequently misdiagnosed or undiagnosed because of its non-specific symptoms.  Based on this new evaluation, about 1 in 100 people have it and many are not aware.  Anyone with chronic gastrointestinal complaints or any of the features listed above, should be screened for this disease.  A simple blood test can determine the diagnosis in most cases.  Treatment entails lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.  The “silver lining” for folks diagnosed with Celiac disease is that it largely and forever commits them to

Something Fishy About Mercury

Here is a fascinating discussion on NPR’s Forum from earlier this year on the subject of mercury and fish:

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If you’ve listened to this the whole way through (which you should), I’m curious as to how it will affect your habits, if at all.  And why?…

Cancer as a Complex Adaptive System

Heng, et al recently published a review paper that brings together and touches on many different aspects of cancer complexity.  I thought this an opportunity to selectively quote the paper and organize the quotes loosely around various complex systems concepts they relate to.  I’m curious whether this makes sense to readers of this blog, or whether there’s too much unexplained jargon and too many large conceptual leaps.  Please ask questions or make comments freely below.

One preface I think will help is to understand that genome, karyotype and chromosome refer roughly to the same thing.  Here are several schematics that I will present without explanation that together illustrate how genes relate to genome/karyotype/chromosome structure, and how that in turn relates to the so-called genetic network (loosely equivalent to the “proteome”).  Of course “gene” is an outdated and inaccurate concept, so don’t get too hung up looking for genes here, just understand that they are sub-structural elements of the genome.

From MSU website

Newcomb's Meta-Paradox

Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?…

Stability Through Instability

A friend pointed me to a doubly prescient talk given by George Soros in 1994 about his theory of reflexivity in the markets.  Essentially Soros notes that there’s feedback in terms of what agents believe about the market and how the market behaves.  Not groundbreaking, but he takes this thinking to some logical conclusions which are in contrast to standard economic theory:…

Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:…

Placebos Work Even If You Don't Believe in Them

This is one of the most important medical “breakthroughs” in recent memory.  You should read the entire article, because it makes some subtle points, but the upshot is that placebo has (at least) two components, one that is triggered by conscious belief in a putative cure, and another that is triggered by unconscious, Pavlovian association.…

Preventing Cancer Through DNA Replacement?

On the Cancer Complexity forum, I pose a question: if we could somehow replace all the damaged DNA in each of the cells of your body with an undamaged copy on a continuous basis, would that prevent you from getting cancer?

What do you think?…

Crohn's Disease

Debbie Maier asks us on the Upcoming Topics page to address Crohn’s Disease.

I don’t know too much about it except that it’s an autoimmune disease and has a complex, multi-causal etiology and pathology.  In my reading on autoimmune diseases in general there seems to be a direct link between latitude an incidence.   Specifically, the farther from the equator you live the more likely you are to get Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.…

Individual vs. Systemic Causation

George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on yesterday called The Obama Code.  I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion.  Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:…