Invisible Etiology

The Economics of Abundance

Here are some things I used to believe:

  1. The power of the free market comes from competition
  2. If you are nice to someone, you will be rewarded commensurately
  3. A penny saved is a penny earned
  4. The more scarce something is the more valuable it is

I no longer believe these statements to be true.  To understand why, I’d like to share a little of my journey as an entrepreneur and investor.

In the mid to late ’90s I was working on a startup and getting my feet wet as an angel investor in Silicon Valley.  I, like everyone I knew, was an adherent of the Chicago School of Economics and the Efficient Market Hypothesis.  One of the mantras of this religion is that

The invisible hand of the marketplace will feed us all, but we have to compete vigorously with one another for it to work its magic.

Signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement on a first date — that’s not just good business, but a moral …

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?…

Innovation as Moral Leverage

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  (Margaret Mead)

“Be the change you want to see in this world” (Gandhi)

There is an idea virus within American culture that has the power to destroy.  The idea is that technology and innovation are fundamentally good.  Whether you consider yourself a technologist, an entrepreneur or a scientist (all labels I use to identify myself at times) I’d like to propose an alternative to to this idea and an inoculation against the virus.

Observation #1: Innovation amplifies whatever values and beliefs are held by the innovator.

For instance, if I value my time, I might invent the first clock, or start a business to create time-management products, or devote my life to unlocking deep mysteries of the physics of time.  And if I believe clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, I might invent a new method of water purification, or …

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 Secret to a Great TED Talk

Recently I learned from two separate people how the Obama campaign won the 2008 presidential election and it’s fascinating.  Basically everyone who was a part of it learned the “campaign narrative” structure and delivered their personal message to spread the gospel:

  • The Story of Me: why I’ve personally been inspired by this campaign
  • The Story of We: why we (me speaking and you listening) are united and inspired by this campaign
  • The Story of Now: why it’s urgent that you take action now; the train is leaving and you can jump aboard or be left behind

If you think about it, this is a very powerful narrative for creating grass-roots action of any sort.  Having just spent the last week watching many dozens of TED talks (and having watched hundreds of them over the past few years), I’ve been thinking about the fact that the great ones all follow a shared structure, which I will share with you now:

  • The Story of

End of The Gene

Exhibit A: Reductio Ad Absurdum

Exhibit B: Genetic Dark Matter

“A fruit fly study suggests the whole-genome approach may be the way to go.”

Exhibit C: The Genome vs The Gene

Exhibit D: The Proteome vs The Genome

“you need to look at the things that the genes are producing, and what’s happening after the genetics.”

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.…

Biological Immortality

There’s a scientific paradox in the world of nutrition about what the optimal diet is.  A new theory may resolve the paradox.  Oh, and help you live forever too.

The majority consensus is the “post-agricultural revolution diet” is best, which says that a majority of your intake should be vegetables and fruits, and that you should severely limit your animal product intake, especially red meats.  Some proponents (like T. Colin Cambell of China Study fame) go as far as claiming that a strictly vegan diet is best.

The other camp argues for the “paleo” or “caveman” diet, which says we need to eat what our paleolithic ancestors ate: lots of foods high in animal fat and animal protein, and avoid industrialized grains altogether (some fermented natural grains are fine).  Fermented foods in general are encouraged, honoring the fact that before preservation, refrigeration and pasteurization we evolved a symbiosis with bacterias that are critical for our digestion and processing of nutrients.

Both sides agree that processed …

“Freudian Value Semiotics”

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

Epidemiology vs. Etiology

Over the last several years I’ve been digging into the science of cancer and systems biology, while at the same time looking at the epidemiology of disease and nutrition.  And the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that there’s a gap that our scientific tools and methodologies cannot account for.  While I’ve discussed this generally under the heading of Science 2.0 (also here), I’ve had a hard time putting into language the exact nature of the gap.

I’ve begun a series of posts that I hope will illustrate the gap, which I believe has to do with the fundamental difference between epidemiology (which is based on statistical observation) and etiology (which seeks to find causal mechanisms for observed phenomena):

Once I’ve completed these posts, I’ll attempt to explain the nature of the gap and what it means for the future of scientific inquiry.…

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 Most Important TV Show in America

Remember Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize Wish?  Well tonight is the prime time season premiere of his Food Revolution show on ABC.  The Huffington Post called Undercover Boss the most subversive show in America, and I can’t disagree.  But in terms of importance to the future of America (and by extension every country which imports American TV and culture), Food Revolution I can’t imagine a more important show.

It’s not just the lives of individuals who eat crap (which is most of the country, frankly, even though they have no idea how toxic what they are eating is).  It’s the happiness and achievement potential of today’s youth.  It’s the emperor with no clothes at the center of the healthcare debate.  And it’s a lynchpin for economic recovery and sustainability.

Watch the premiere, and spread the word……

Science 2.0

I liken cognition to a hill-climbing search on the landscape of theories/models/maps that explain/predict reality.  It’s easy to get stuck on peaks of local maximality.  Injecting randomness creates a sort of Boltzmann machine of the mind and increases my chances of finding higher peaks.

But I have to be prepared to be more confused — and question more assumptions than I intended to — because chances are my new random placement on the landscape is initially lower than the local maximum I was on prior.  This part is scary.  People around me don’t understand what I’m saying initially because I necessarily need new words, new language, to describe the new landscape.

And rather than start totally afresh with a new lexicon, I notice it’s more productive (personally and in communication) to overload old terms and let them slowly blend into their new meanings.  We all resist the strain, especially those who did not sign up for the jump through hyperspace.  They use the …

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 …

The Technium

Here are the slides from his talk. My favorites are 3, 4, 8, 10, 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, 29, 35, 37, 38, 53, 66, 68.

Approaching a Cure for Cancer

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure recently called for a back to basics approach in dealing with cancer.  In previous post threads I’ve discussed cancer’s complexity and in particular the confounding and scary implications of somatic evolution, which underscores some of the reasons we are not winning the “war on cancer.”  Here I will discuss some cutting edge approaches to treating and preventing cancer and how they might pan out in light of the complexities of the disease.  The categories below are not mutually exclusive, and the examples cited are nowhere near exhaustive, but this should give you some food for thought.  If you have ideas, questions or know of approaches that should be highlighted, please comment.

Target & Kill Approaches

Biris and Zharov are making some exciting progress in using nanotubes to tag and then track cancer cells inside the body as they move around.  They propose to kill the cancer cells by heating up the nanotubes using lasers, while others are

How Many Calories for a Dollar?

Michael Pollan, as always, making perfect sense:

Now watch Will Allen on urban farming…

Comments on Human Cultural Transformation

This is a followup to Ben’s post on Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations.  Too many links for this to be accepted into the comments directly…

In thinking about these questions, it helps me to remind myself of the difference between evolution and emergence. Evolution happens whenever you have a population of agents with heritable variation and differential reproduction rates. There are at least two types of emergence, both of which can create new types of agents. Various self-reinforcing mechanisms lead to stronger and more stable agency. We may not even recognize the emergence of nascent agents for what they are until said agency (or coherence) becomes strong enough. For instance, many people have a hard time wrapping their head around cultural agency of any form.

Obviously none of us on here have a problem with the concept of non-human agency, but as Alex and Ben collectively point out, cultural agents depend on human agents for their very existence.  Yet …

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 — …

Complex Systems Symposium

Should be of interest to everyone who reads this blog.  Here’s the program, here’s the website, and here’s some more info that you can’t get from either yet:

Dear all:

Just wanted to share with you all a couple of updates for our Fall Symposium.  We’re very pleased to have two invited speakers so far: John Christiansen of Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and Mitchell Waldrop of Nature magazine.

John is the director of the Advanced Simulation Technologies Center at ANL, and has over 30 years of modeling and simulation experience across many fields, including: meteorology, ecology, botany, anthropology, archeology, healthcare, and more.  He will present some of his work on a recent NSF Grand Challenge in Biocomplexity, which created an agent-based model to study the rise and fall of Ancient Mesopotamia.  He will also use this work to illustrate different hardware and software platforms, with a particular focus on the challenges on going from the desktop to HPC.

Mitch is currently the editorial

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