Showing posts with label fractal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fractal. Show all posts

Monday, March 28, 2011

Full Circle: Pottenger's Prophecy and The New Evolution Diet Coincide and Collide


Sometimes, the stars align.

Sometimes, things coincide.

It's at these times when serendipity collides; we see signs of the times.

The recent publishing of two Ancestral Health books, Gray Graham's (et al.) Pottenger's Prophecy and Art DeVany's The New Evolution Diet, provides one such time: it's full-circle time.

When these two books combine, we see three clear signs:

Uno: Through epigenetic mechanisms, as seen in Dr. Pottenger's research, lifestyle decisions in one generation influence future generations in remarkable (yet-to-be-fully-understood) ways.

Dos: Evolutionary perspectives of the human condition provide valuable hypotheses for testing empirically.

Tres: Aligning lifestyle choices with ancestral traditions appears to be the safest default for averting modern-day chronic diseases.

Taken together, these two books empower readers to "think big" on an evolutionary time-scale and across many generations in order to enhance gene expression for improved health, longevity, poise, and fulfillment.

Taken together, these books encompass my own personal Ancestral Health journey.

Nearly five years ago, I read Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan. In response, I started my blog. Then, Nassim tipped me to Art DeVany, an epistemocrat who applied evolutionary paradigms, fractal mathematics, Levy-flight dynamics, and power-law principles to all things health, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. I was intrigued. I followed his lead. I altered my training, my eating, my living: I started along my Evolutionary Fitness self-experimenting. And now, after improving my own health state along the way, I'm thankfully back at the beginning; that is, I'm learning, un-learning, and re-learning: I am thinkering (thinking + tinkering).

Here are some highlights from these two books that are worth considering:

The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us About Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging by Art DeVany (with an Afterword by Nassim Taleb)
"At some point, I realized that a human being is just another economic system. Indeed, your body contains an entire economy. There is the allocation of assets according to a hierarchy of needs. There are competing interests that sometimes struggle over resources and other times cooperate for the common good. There are surpluses. There are shortages. Like economies--like the movie industry--your body is a complex, decentralized system poised between chaos and order, a constantly changing situation that is, second by second, atom by atom, also adapting to those changes." (112)
"Another scientific concept, the power law, also comes up often in my discussions of health and fitness. It is based on the Pareto principle, named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In essence, it describes the relationship between how common a factor is and how much influence it exerts. It says that the most unusual events will have the greatest impact." (115) 
"I use other terms and concepts that are not normally found in fitness books. Stochasticity, for instance, means 'randomness' or 'chance.' A living human leaves a 'trail' of events and accomplishments that is so complex that it appears to be random. That means there is no model that can compress the information that is required to describe a lifetime. The appearance of randomness is an acknowledgement of the limits of our knowledge." (117) 
"Each of us has what I call an ensemble of stochastic life paths--the choices that we make. ... Each path leads to more choices: a cascade to echo all the other cascades that rule our lives. Choosing the path is the extent of your control--beyond that, it's out of your hands. ... There is no failure, only feedback." (117-118)

Pottenger's Prophecy: How Food Resets Genes For Wellness or Illness by Gray Graham, Deborah Kesten, and Larry Scherwitz
"The implications of Pottenger's studies are quite remarkable. Actually, they're stunning. ... We can draw two conclusions from his studies that are nothing short of life-changing. The first is that they raised the possibility--for the first time--that physical degeneration caused by a poor diet in the mother is inherited in the offspring and passed on through the third generation. Pottenger also discovered that the converse also seems true: when a mother's diet is nutritious, not only does she benefit with good health, so, too, do her offspring . . . and their offspring, and so on." (XXI) 
"Yes, we are indeed catching up with Pottenger's prophecy of wellness or illness over generations through the food we eat and how we live our lives. [W]e're on the precipice of unraveling the reasons behind what Pottenger learned more than 70 years ago: the food we eat each day has a cascading effect. It influences illness or wellness, not only in ourselves, but in our children, grandchildren, and even our great-grandchildren." (XXIV) 
"The fact that we evolved on a host of different diets means there is no ideal diet for all individuals. Rather, our genetic and family histories have programmed how our genes respond to the food we eat, and because of this, human beings have a wide range of individual biochemical differences; in other words, biochemical individuality. ... Because of such biochemical differences, each of us must search for the ideal diet by considering personal genetic history, health, ethnic food preferences, how your body responds to certain foods when you eat them, and by how satisfied you feel when you eat different foods." (193) 
"Figure in Ferments: ... Supplementing your daily diet with fresh fermented foods, which contain living microbes, provides a plethora of health benefits--mostly through the probiotics they produce that protect the gut from harmful pathogens--and increases absorption of nutrients." (195) 
"Get Personal: Residing in your genes are the dietary requirements and food tolerances that fit you best, personally. In other words, the foods on which you're likely to thrive are based on the genetics you inherited from your ancient ancestors and the epigenetics that were passed on from more recent relatives. Because of this, just as a pair of shoes fit each person differently, there isn't a single diet that's a right fit for everyone. To create your ideal diet, ask yourself (195-196):
  • "What foods were available to your ancestors?"
  • "Do you have health concerns to consider, such as lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity?"
  • "What's your physical activity level?"
  • "Do you have any ethical or health beliefs about food that influence your food choices?"
  • "And, of course, ask yourself which foods make you feel best? Once you identify them, adjust your food choices accordingly."

In the end, if you dig into these two books in concert, you'll find synergy, harmony, and ample room for self-experimenting creatively, with an important respect for individuality.

Personally, I'm deeply grateful to Art for nudging me gracefully down a "stochastic life path" that ultimately encouraged me to learn more about my own ancestry and to Gray (et al.) for composing such a thoughtful book based upon the legacy of my ancestor, Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., MD.

I've gone full circle.

And I've got a long way to go.

To good health,

Brent

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fractal Governance

Ancestry


Fractal Governance: Organizing Society like Nature

by Brent Pottenger, healthcare epistemocrat, @epistemocrat (*BP)
by G, The Daily G, not-on-Twitter! (*G)


It's supremely challenging; this whole business of governing; of leading.

BP: The problem with inventing something that doesn't exist is simply that: it doesn't exist. Thus, conceptualizing a new system of governance, for instance, can only be that: conceptualizing. It can only reach this semi-abstract level initially via essay mythologizing because of the reality that we cannot predict a priori what a system will ultimately look like when it finally takes (its Levy) flight. However, we can focus on principles; we can construct micro-scale blueprints; we can try to paint a picture locally--in hopes that this foundational thinkering creates some form of a platform for novel growth and development going forward. Then, at some point, we can try to institute these principles in our own communities by leading institution responsibly.

From the ashes they will rise, institutions that we newly derive.

BP: Human beings needs institutions. Institutions seem to coalesce spontaneously when human beings operate in supportive environments. Why? At some minimal level, we're social animals. At some other level, we benefit from combining our unique talents and abilities in synergy; that is, working in teams is a net positive for society. Too often, though, we tend to criticize and deride existing institutions without taking the next steps; the hard steps; the baby steps: steps to create new robust institutions to displace fragile ones. As Nassim Taleb says, "The best way to cut a diamond is with a diamond," and this is the case with institutional change as well: the best way to transform society for the better is to help shape institutions--both existing (carrying on tradition) and newly-derived (building a new tradition)--into structures embodying the core values deemed necessary for people to survive and thrive collectively as a result of underlying poise individually.

Integrating collectivism and individualism

Clearly, whenever we think institutionally, we must confront an apparent dichotomy: individuality vs. collectivity.

G: For me, the intention in offering some model of an 'organic' society is to completely obviate the sterile conflict between 'collectivism' and 'individualism'. Because an organism is neither and both. A cell does its thing with no thought of itself but neither does it work to some vision of the whole--that is beyond the capabilities of a cell. A cell's business is to think of its immediate environment. I would be wary of being fundamentalist about this though: humans are bigger than cells and in my opinion should have some awareness and concern about the whole. But the daily business of living should be mainly focused on people I know and problems I can solve at my own scale of effectiveness.

BP: And here is where human physiology and human governance collide: the human body is an organically organized system of governance that evolved over billions of years, benefitting from countless mistakes to reach its current state. In this way, the human body embodies fractal governance: its an organized society like nature in which the boundaries between individualism and collectivism are blurred but still observed, paradoxically. Personally, I view hyper-localism and place-ism as fractal manifestations of how cell live in the human body effectively. Opacity is a termed that Nassim Taleb created to refer to imperfect knowledge, to limited wisdom. In any given situation, what appears to be random may actually emerge from an underlying pattern; yet, given the limitations of our perceptions, our insights, and our information filtering devices, we cannot comprehend the mathematics driving the information-generating function. We don't know what is really going on. When it comes to the mathematics of Mother Nature, luckily, we are blessed with an important concept as a result of Benoit Mandelbrot's work: the patterns of nature are fractals. Fractals are self-similar structures that appear the same at all scales. That is, the feedback loops established at the most basic level scale up in an organized manner to produce infinite complexity. For instance, a leaf resembles a branch, and a branch resembles a tree. The larger structure--the tree--is simply a manifestation of the dynamics that created the smaller structure. In simple terms, big things got big because small things interacted to create them. And it's the small things we are after when we attempt to apply insights from the mathematical structure of nature to the question of how best to organize social systems. Because, as far as we know, opacity abounds in the domains charged with the mission of leading people: economics, politics, academics, and philosophy. Perhaps, then, a bit of respect for how other organisms interact in nature could enhance our approaches to governance in the 21st century. Perhaps Fractal Governance could emerge as a new paradigm for organizing our lives.

In this spirit, currently, I suspect that lifestyle re-design is happening actively, is going to continue indefinitely, and is going to, hopefully, force people to re-connect with localism, place-ism, and family/friends, ultimately.

"Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même!"
("Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!")

"Pas trop gouverner" ("Govern not too much")

G: "The world goes on by itself" sounds like mysticism. I mean the good kind, rather than hokey magic. The Daoists talk of 'wei-wu-wei', which means 'doing-non-doing'. This is a kind of 'in the zone' state that an athlete or artist may experience a few times in his life--when performing with total absorption--and the sage lives in permanently. However, I understand that there is some quality to the state of the sage that is absent in the fortunate layperson; I won't go into that now.

Advaita Hinduism, as expressed by people like Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, is also ripe in 'there is no doer' ideas. Actions do not originate from human agents but from the true Self, which lies behind psychology and is trans-personal and universal. Such religion conceives of the problem of the human condition as that of a puppet (the personality) believing that it controls its own destiny.

Perhaps here we can discover this crucial difference between the absorbed athlete and the sage. The athlete has temporarily become a perfect puppet through the suspension of personality, identity; the sage has discovered the silent puppeteer within himself and takes this as his only 'identity'.

When the puppet tries to control itself, it only gets tangled up in its own strings: it can will nothing, but the attempt is analogous to a puppet that has been poorly made (evolved - made by circumstance) and is not good at translating the puppeteer's will into action. What is the nature of the puppeteer's will--this is a naturally arising question that I think no one can answer, though if you can understand 'An Inquiry into the Good' by Kitaro Nishida, you may find the answer in there, I suspect.

Christianity has a fair few mystics also, including JC himself, depending on which bit of the Bible you read. Whenever you hear a Christian saying something about being controlled by God and having no will of one's own--that is mysticism, so long as the speaker doesn't have any narrow idea of what 'God' is.

I think that folly has the power to undo any system, but some systems incubate folly more than others. This is really something for us to consider. We would like to develop a wise system, but where are the wise people to people it?

For this reason, I imagine it might be best to start of with some catchy trend, like co-op housing 'villages' within the pre-existing political-civic structures. But such things may not work everywhere, which is fine.

Though having said that, there is a real value in talking absolute ideals. It's just that I think that the individual is primary. The right individual can probably make the best of a system so effectively that one can't necessarily see its flaws. Every now and then one has a great boss and thinks, "So why were all my other bosses horrible/incompetent?" The exceptional boss made the best of it. He probably drinks a lot though, and wishes he could change the system.

I wish I could remember where I read this so I could quote it, but in one paper scientists observing schoolyard play noted that among the different group activities going on there was one girl skipping around all over the place, apparently in a world of her own and unconnected to anything else going on. When the scientists looked more closely at the scene, they realised that the little girl acted like a conductor, nudging the groups as a whole toward certain tempos and moods.

This is the most flexible, unauthoritative version of someone who might be called a 'leader'--a leader has a volitional (though unpremeditated) global effect without dictating specific actions or occupying a top place in a hierarchy (in the usual sense of the word). It is also, of course, very organic and dynamic. It is also ephemeral: as soon as the kids lose interest, or there is some, perhaps unaccountable change, the conductor will have no power over them. What is impressive in this case (if the scientists were right) is the global control over disparate groups who were not aware (or barely aware) of being conducted.

There are probably more cite-able examples of the above form of 'leadership'. Ants, for example, are kind of like this because the queen ant absolutely does not have the neural power to direct every activity even if she tried and possessed some omniscient radiocommunications apparatus. The ants obviously take some subtle cues from the queen, because they lose cohesion the second the queen dies, even if she is isolated in a sealed chamber and no other ants see her die, but she is clearly no dictator. But ants, unlike humans, are simple and almost entirely socially constituted and oriented; humans are (perhaps) more selfish by nature, so we do have dictators. Humans are also not, like an ant, as predetermined in form and purpose as an acorn. Ants can do things the way they do because their systems change by evolution rather than thought. Though the ant system itself has built-in flexibility, paradigm-shifts will occur (and persist) by evolutionary accident rather than design.

The human Natural Society has not only to avoid tyranny and dissolution; it must also cope with individual and social change that can happen at the speed of thought. An ant-nest is like a bundle of little neurons that make up a small, limited brain; a human society is a conglomeration of individuals who are each far more complex and varied than an ant-nest. Each mind is like a city-state, so governing a village or company is going to be like leading the United Nations.

The conductor of an orchestra represents a small step towards a controlling, dominant leader. He is an artist, like the players, rather than a manager. He is concerned with the activity itself, rather than numbers and targets. One may say that as a leader he has it easy because he is in charge of very professional people with a shared purpose, but think of a school conductor--he will make players work hard even when they wouldn't otherwise. A conductor is not only flexible--he is in fact likely to be at the forefront of change and creative thinking within the group. In an orchestra, there is the right balance of leadership and freedom. An orchestra can not only get things done; it can get them done well, without cramping anyone's style overmuch. This is my assessment, at any rate--I have never played in an orchestra!

But an orchestra does not scale to a nation--an orchestra is a squad, and the conductor is the sergeant. A nation/city/company is a tree of squads (cities/departments), and even some of the squads themselves will be unmanageably large. A tree can flex a certain amount and no more or it will snap. In a squad of individuals, that measure of freedom will probably suffice (a dog likes a certain amount of order and a certain amount of freedom; humans are the same, though the distribution changes as we age). In our 'tree of squads' model, the freedom, the flex, is apportioned between squads, not individuals, so if you are in a department of 50 workers (or citizens), averaged out, the workers each experience 1/50th of the freedom of one who works in an autonomous squad!

But it gets worse still: the freedom is not equally distributed among squad-members. There are hierarchies within hierarchies, and I think that the more this happens, the more rigidly controlling the whole edifice becomes. This is because the bandwidth of communications shrinks from touch, body-language, shared histories and emotions, down to depersonalised reports and stilted meetings. What this means is that squads in a squad-tree have less freedom than individual members of an autonomous squad, and that diminished power will be disproportionately in the hands of the sergeant, because the company/city/nation can have more of a sense of keeping some kind of track of one departmental sergeant, but not of 50 individuals.

Any thoughtful person seeking to be useful and to express himself will have experienced this powerlessness as a citizen and as a member of any large department. Even national leaders complain that their hands are tied.

Gandhi had a vision of a 'village republic', and I find that when starting from scratch I work back to this vision, which I found appealing from the very first. What we need are small communities who live and work together but still account for and take some direction from the larger spheres of organisation.

And the governing touch should be lighter as the hierarchy scales up. Lao Tzu said:

"Governing a country is like frying a small fish--you ruin it with too much poking."

He didn't say that there should be no leaders; he said that leaders should have a light touch. I think he was absolutely right, at least where nations and large companies are concerned. I can see why leaders want to micromanage: the society itself is not organically or intelligently organised so it is always on the verge of collapse and apparently in need of some strong visionary to pound it into shape. But the visionaries only defer and deepen the crisis by making people dependent on them. This is not, by the way, a question of ordinary people being lazy and deficient: the possibilities have actually been reduced, and people are too conditioned into passivity to take up those original, creative possibilities that remain. To the average person, ambition is limited to pre-formed career-paths. This is disastrous; people have become ants, and not even adept ants at that!

I see an organic society scaled by accountability: in measures that one person can account for, like the pieces on a chess-board, or like a circle of friends one genuinely knows and cares about. Perhaps 100 individuals in a village (it does not of course have to be isolated from its neighbours, just distinct), 100 villages come under one administration, 100 of those units come under a bigger one, and so on until you have a team looking after the planet. The villagers are asking themselves "how can we be happier?" and coming up with answers like "let's try farming insects" while the global leaders are asking themselves "how can we be happier?" and coming up with answers like "coordinate the space-programmes of the world to produce solar energy" (both plans would only be realised by consultation and consensus). The villager may send suggestions up to the global leader and the leader may offer suggestions to the villager about insect-farming, but there's no question of one telling the other what to do.

In terms of physical labour, there might be projects at different scales of organisation, but nothing compulsory as such, I think, and most of the work would ideally be at 'village' level so that people maintain an intimate connection to it while being mindful of the 'whole'.

I think that because everyone is working in a state of interdependence, goodwill will prevail and there will be no question of rogue squads. At any rate, there would not be the oppressive apparatus in place to protect rogues from reprisal (even the rulers of our current democracies can be caught committing crimes yet stay in power, or you might get a meaningless change of faces). I doubt such a system would even need much in the way of laws or police, just like a good parent has natural authority and does not need to punish or be punished on an everyday basis; for the most part, a dynamically tense harmony will prevail.

Representatively visualising what I've described, it actually is like a picture of a fractal. The large-scale squads are doing the same as the small-scale squads but on a larger scale; they have similar structures; the same number of units that they have to get to know reasonably intimately to work 'with', as opposed to 'control'.

There will always be a limit to how well a leader can know his squad, but this structure mirrors itself at every level and allows much more intimacy at every level than the depersonalising bureaucracy we have at present. This structure means that if you do good locally, you do good globally, for the whole of the fractal society.

BP: Nearly two years ago, in my essay, "Stretched too Thin," I wrote the following:

We've lost our way.

Don't get me wrong; there have no doubt been many benefits along the way.

But, we've moved too far away; far too far away. Like talented students heading off to college, we have "gone away" (and, perhaps, gone astray?).

The computing and internet revolution has transformed what it means to be human in so many ways, but human beings have interacted with each other under the real (gravitational) constraints of space and time for centuries and centuries; Facebook, Twitter, GMail, et al. are only brief glimmers along the human history timeline of social behaviors. Profoundly, the digitization of social interactions has warped space and time, pulling our relationships into realms we have never experienced before (chat boxes, Facebook wall posts, etc.). And, just because it exists, does not mean it is (entirely) good for us--tools are tools and we must constantly re-assess their value and use.

A return to localism, place-ism, and authentic social relationships is in order. In the blink of an eye, on an evolutionary time scale, we have changed the social textures of our world dramatically, moving us further and further into foreign territories for interpersonal relationships. On one hand, technology connects us with others and improves communication; yet, on the other hand, we have interacted with each other using these tools for so little time that, like the foods we eat, our minds and bodies do not know how to process them (very well, yet).

From a nation state (an arbitrary / historical line drawn in the sand that carries no validity in a globalized economic world) and government complexes that have grown to astronomical sizes to banks and automakers that are also far too big to succeed, we have endangered our health levels and relationships by stretching ourselves too thin; we have leveraged our energy levels, resources, and time far too far, and we pay the direct price as a result (obesity, chronic disease, exhaustion, unbalanced lives, etc. -- all which carry tremendous $ price tags that offset the economic value they create).

So, what do we do?

We need to de-leverage in every sense of the word: one, reduce personal, corporate, and government debt; two, balance our lifestyle choices with limits; and, three, localize our social spheres (some modern-day tech tools can assist in this way too). In an increasing global world, our minds, bodies, and spirits suffer when we pull ourselves in so many directions; at some point, we must stop and ask ourselves a simple question: "Why are we doing all of this again?"

It's a question that demands that we reflect.

The American government started as a self-limiting social contract, but somewhere along the way, we stretched the limits of that contract to the point where it no longer carried much weight, unleashing an unrelenting spiral of spending, empire-building, and police-state-enforced interventions. We've lost our way; the founding American way. It's the way of localism, placeism, and tribalism; of setting limits and boundaries; of recognizing human nature and constructing minimal yet effective social and cultural rules and expectations that 'protect us from ourselves'. United, Aetna, GM, JP Morgan, et al. represent monstrosities that are, quite simply, far, far too big for anyone to operate authentically and humanly within (we can't 'wrap our heads around them'). We need to return to our ancestral roots (respectfully); and, anthropologists, like Margaret Mead, represent one group of people who study these roots and try to deconstruct their implications for how we socialize today. It's a scientific inquiry.

Dunbar's number is an anthropology concept that rises to the surface as constructive in understanding how best to respond to the 'stretched too thin' phenomenon through a return to localism (*see Mark Sisson's essay here). Other scholars have integrated this notion as well (such as Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Putnam), and Wikipedia provides this introduction:
Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group.
Dunbar's number is not a concrete reality; it's an effort to capture the real social limitations that we face as humans: remember, we are (only) human beings. Each of us only has so much energy, so many talents, and so much cognitive and emotional bandwidth to pursue our jobs, maintain our living conditions, and enjoy our family members and friends. Amidst the current economic conditions, embracing the humility that Dunbar's number suggests seems more than reasonable (and could be quite helpful in pulling us out of this mess by restoring and enhancing social cohesion, stability, and innovation).

Just as the entropy of the universe is always increasing and we, as biological organisms, must work constantly to maintain and keep our body systems in check, we must respond to our increasingly global world with diligent local searching and acting patterns in order to achieve stable social relationships with the people we interact with, cherishing our times together along the way. As the big and global giants continue to fall, I suspect, those who embrace localism will be in prime positions to emerge from the ashes and flourish.

Bloom where you are planted.

Lead by example.

To good health,

Brent

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bumbling and Stumbling Nonlinearly via Poetry

(Graphic by Sarah Rebich)

Above all, I'm thankful for my family and my friends.

Thankfully, I can count Brian Geremia (President of Ancestry) and Aaron Blaisdell (President of the Ancestral Health Society) as friends--friendships are blessings.

In response to my previous poem--"Stumbling Upon Ancestry"--Brian composed a thoughtful analysis--"Reflection on 'Stumbling Upon Ancestry'"--on his new personal Blog.

Then, Aaron crafted this untitled piece of poetry; I'll call it, "Ancestry and Me":

Ancestry begins and ends in me.
I am the product of a branching tree.
The terminal branch from many successions
of evolution and devolution, progressions and regressions.
From the first spark of life to my daughters and my wife,
from the Earth's ecosystem to my "microbe-cosm".
We never reach perfection, only strive to see
a world better suited for you and for me.
Utopia is an ideal unrealistic in scope,
but towards me-topia I strive with excitement and hope.
Each n=1 trail blazes its own path
‘till we achieve an N=1.
The Black Swan’s fractal math!

Cheers to bumbling and stumbling nonlinearly (via poetry)!

To good health,

Brent

Monday, February 21, 2011

Stumbling Upon Ancestry


"Stumbling Upon Ancestry"

From these ashes they will rise:
Institutions that we newly derive.

Institutions that we re-create glocally;
That is, institutions that we scale up fractally.

From the individual to the family;
From the family to the community:
We'll band back together synergistically,
And help each other regain our dignity, our integrity.

That is, we'll organize society like Mother Nature,
And we'll do good locally to do good globally.

From this platform entangled interactions will emerge;
Serendipitous interactions will be our spurs.

And we'll stumble upon organizational structures by thinkering.

That is, we'll stumble upon Ancestry.

NNT's envelope of serendipity.

Unexpectedly.

Spontaneously.

Unpredictably.

Finally.

To good health,

Brent

PS. I'm still working on extending G's rough-draft essay.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Popper's Republic of Science: Searching for Epistemocracy


Above: My short piece about Game Plan Academy (GPA) in Sacramento Press features a hyper-local synergy: Brian Geremia is a GPA & Ancestry co-founder and, as you can see in the picture above, his family's business, Geremia Pools, which was founded in 1922 and has served Sacramento's local and surrounding communities loyally ever since, has an advertisement running right now in Sacramento Press, which would be even better if it also included a line that read, "Discover Geremia's Living by Bliss."



Popper's Republic of Science: Searching for Nassim Taleb's epistemocracy

"A robust society is a society that can withstand large shocks and survive. The human body is a robust system. It has redundant pathways. Redundancy is the exact opposite of debt. Nature builds things in very robust ways." - Nassim Taleb


Reflection: In reality, a robust society is one that can withstand all my waffling, all my inefficiencies. I waffle. I shuffle. I talk tangentially, abstractly, non-concretely, and overly fuzzily. I repeat myself. I digress. I use too many words when fewer would suffice. I talk about the intractable, about fractals, about Black/Gray/White Swan dynamics, about cheap health options, about ancestral health paradigms, about uncertainty, about non-Gaussian distributions, about things like epistemic humility and self-experimentation in decision-making excessively. I speak of mythology, and m=1 my-thology, especially in relation to scientific inquiry, unceasingly. Did I say avoiding the justificationist addiction in the context of a deductivist lifestyle? I make up new words by "werging" (as my friend, Aaron Blaisdell, likes to say)--FRACTICAL = Fractal + Practical, as one example--and I sometimes even coin new terms, such as epimicrobiomics. I repeat myself (Did I say, "I repeat myself?"). I re-hash old ideas that have been around for centuries in my own adapted ways--"These ideas aren't new," as Seth Roberts likes to say--and I even sometimes create intuitive mathematics to accompanying these sorts of things (say, for instance, with m=1 + n=1 = s=1 reasoning). In short, I write and think iteratively, often unclearly, usually imprecisely. I wear these shortcomings like ornaments, as Nassim Taleb suggests that we do in the name of transparency. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I diverge, diverge, diverge, diverge, churning and spinning my wheels, typing away without much organization, without direction, but then, every once in awhile, for some reason, unexpectedly, after essentially failing to communicate ideas and concepts lucidly, things converge serendipitously. That is, I get lucky. Luck strikes like lightning, it seems.

Case Study: For instance, after werging "thinking + tinkering" to conceive thinkering as a new approach to biotechnology (with the associated Patient of One n=1 clinical trials nonsense), unsure of where all this 'hot air' would lead, Aaron, Chris, and I stumbled upon the Ancestral Health Symposium, which just happened to embed nicely into the yet-to-be-defined "school" that Brian Geremia and I had previously conceived called Ancestry (which we still have absolutely no idea of what it looks like in reality; perhaps, it will manifest as an "invisible college"). But, somehow, now, in concrete terms, a real event--The Ancestral Health Symposium--will take place next August at UCLA (an e-patient self-experimentation conference, in many ways) and a real 501(c)(3)--Ancestry--is in the process of being formed legally. Those are two tangible things that emerged from some way-too-abstract-imagining, from some thinkering. Admittedly, I have no idea why these things work out the way they do, but it appears that how they occur is, I suspect, dependent on having some level of feeling free to play with ideas without fear of failing, without fear of having notions and calls to action fall on deaf ears. That is, divergence breeds convergence when conditions that meet Nassim Taleb's epistemocracy exist; when epistemic humility rules the day.

Because epistemocracy--a society robust to my waffling--is full of the wrong stuff (thanks to Dave Lull). It's full of errors, shortcomings, and inconsistencies.

And epistemocracy--a society that is robust to and capitalizes on human error (of course, we will never get there completely, but we can surely try)--embraces the reality that human beings just won't get things right all the time, even when we work diligently and do due-diligence rigorously, with some reflection and open communication in between ("To err is human," as they say in healthcare). And, even when we do get things right specifically, we know that our understanding of why (assigning causation) may just end up being a transiently misplaced modifier and thus may not replicate into the future indefinitely. Undoubtedly, we're fallible creatures and that's what makes us so interesting, so fascinating.

In fact, we're still scratching our heads while trying to figure out what really motivates us (thanks to Stephen Cheung):


(Hint: Carrot-and-stick hedonics work moderately well in mediocristan--a place where linear, Gaussian mathematics link input to output crisply--but, it appears that self-direction is what we desperately need to work best in extremistan--domains where nonlinearities and power laws dominate the stage, complexifying input-output interactions with things like "butterfly effects" and Levy flights.)

That is, human beings are fascinating creatures as long as they aren't deceiving each other dishonestly.

Manipulative deception is the bane of epistemocracy. Institutions should foster accountability. Dishonesty, even more so than excessive debt leverage (though the two are inseparable, really), is the most non-robust strategy in human history because the lies we weave when we deceive come back to net all our efforts into one big heaping mess of wickedness: in time, we become NNT's Thanksgiving Turkeys because we spread ourselves too thin and the interlocking fragility of our manipulative efforts explodes, much to our chagrin. We can anticipate generally, but not predict precisely, that destruction will come to fruition when dishonesty infiltrates the rules of the game.

Of course, in addition to removing dishonesty from epistemocracy, we also do want to erode errors in systems; that's how trial-and-error evolutionary progress will hopefully proceed, with one generation standing even taller on the shoulders of previous generations, reaching new heights and insights about the human condition. That's why Atul Gawande works on check lists, for example, to improve the safety of basic medical procedures like preparing for surgery: he knows surgery teams are fallible too, and so he creates practical execution frameworks to help folks hedge against these known missteps.

Plus, we also want error to be our friendly generator of serendipity, of unexpected discoveries and positive side-benefits: in essence, we want to see (honest) mistakes and (genuine) errors as ways to buy long-tail cheap options that increase our exposure to the envelope of serendipity.

And discoveries, it seems, are the business of scientific inquiry. At least they should be, minimally. Science is a method. No more. No less. A method for making discoveries, for figuring stuff out: for "sensemaking" (or for just realizing that it's all nonsensical anyways). Science--which I argue is difficult to define, to confine--provides an approach to exploring the world. The typical goal, for instance, is to disprove that nothing is happening. That is, to falsify--prove wrong--the null hypothesis on a case-by-case basis. Basically, in practice, science comes down to generating a story (m=1 my-thology), figuring out ways to test that story in empirical reality (Patient of One clinical trial), conducting these tests as experiments (n=1 self-experimentation), gathering observations about how the universe reacts (Qualitative/Quantitative Self), and then integrating this feedback to draw tentative conclusions and to develop new conjectures for further inquiry (thinkering). That's a pretty logical process for investigating the world around us, and, not unsurprisingly, provides value in many ways.

Through self-experimentation, science becomes hyper-local (n=1 = my body), which is great, but, at some point, hyper-local data points need to link up to produce reproducibility. And when human beings start aggregating, they seem to spontaneously form institutions. Institutions are collectivities of people that share common goals: they're tribes. Interestingly, after grappling with Philosophy of Science for many years, Sir Karl Popper (who worked on The Problem of Induction extensively) started considering science in relation to institutions (see Jarvie's excellent essay; thanks to Dave Lull):
Parties with some purpose in common refers, of course, to a social group of some sort. The social group in question seeks knowledge of the world of our experience, the real world.
If science is a method that people use to solve problems, and if these people are going to coalesce naturally into groups and do science in interdisciplinary teams, then this social phenomenon might just need some "rules of the game" to play by. Which connects directly with my reflections above: evidently, Karl Popper and I both stumbled upon Meta-Rules (meta-methodology, generally) independently (offering another example of homoplasy). Decades ago, Karl Popper played with meta-methodology in the context of his envisioned Republic of Science, and I dreamt up self-experimentation with Meta-Rule formation in the context of Nassim Taleb's epistemocracy, adapted with an evolutionary story-system healthcare theme as the Ancestral Health epistemocracy.

Connecting the Dots: Walking through Jarvie's account of Karl Popper's evolution in these domains is enlightening. In Jarvie's essay, "Popper's Republic of Science," we find the following:
Here, in the shift from purely logical criteria for science to methodology, we find the beginnings of Popper's social view of science. A methodology consists of methodological rules; each rule represents a decision, a choice to act in a certain way; we make these choices, in turn, in order to foster certain aims. They are thus open to discussion. Both the rationale of the choices and whether the choices will in fact foster the desired aims are matters on which there can be reasoned dispute.
As this passage hints, figuring out how best to combine the social structures and the methods of science synergistically was important to Popper. He wanted to see that people engaged in science would succeed (achieve "certain aims"), I think. I feel the same way. Personally, the term "Meta-Rule" just popped into my mind one day for unknown reasons. I knew that "meta" meant "above" (similar to what "epi" translates as from Latin) and then, somehow, my "Black Swan Logic for n=1 Health" essay seemingly 'wrote itself' semi-effortlessly. I think that Nassim Taleb, in his discussions of how to robustify economies against (-) Black Swan shocks by de-leveraging ("Tightening our belts," as he says), is expressing a kindred spirit to what Karl Popper used to worry about. How? Well, based on recent real-world experiences, leaders of our financial institutions have experienced the humble limits of their top-down interventions, and Karl Popper cared about basing science in human experiences:
For those concerned to keep science anchored in experience, Popper suggests adopting a supreme or meta-methodological rule not to avoid falsification.
Scientific statements must be stated in a way that permits testing. For instance, Nassim Taleb continues to nudge people to recognize that we have falsified the social hypothesis that current debt levels are sustainable and manageable. He points to the humble ancestral finance wisdom embedded within many historic societies--he often cites the Babylonians or references in the Bible, as two examples--that outlawed or strongly limited debt (spending money that you don't have saved up already; gambling on future cash flows, essentially). When it comes to societal experimenting with debt leveraging, history does provide n=millions of tests associated with how best to structure economies' financial policies. And, historically, debt has permitted larger and larger firm and government sizes, and large size increases fragility (hence, the elephant is the largest land animal in nature), and fragility increases susceptibility to cracking from unexpected shocks. Epistemocracy is about withstanding these shocks.

So, when we move to construct Popper's Republic of Science as Nassim Taleb's epistemocracy, we must keep this Meta-Meta-Rule by Popper in mind:
"I propose to adopt such rules as will ensure the testability of scientific statements; which is to say, their falsifiability."
Though, that is as "meta" as I'd like to get, to avoid "thinking about thinking about thinking" too much--I like to stick to "thinking about thinking" as much as possible, though I probably even think about that way too much.

Then, when we move to conceive the Ancestral Health epistemocracy, by hybridizing Popper's and Taleb's dreams for society, we can look to this analogy for guidance:
That Popper is thinking institutionally could not, I think, be clearer; all the more puzzling, then, that it has been overlooked. Popper is here proposing that science is to be seen as an interested group that shares an aim and then legislates conventions for itself in order the better to pursue that aim. He does not explicitly say that his view is social, but he offers some analogies with the social institutions of games and of trial by jury, going so far as to refer to "the game of empirical science" (LScD, p. 53) and comparing its rules to the rules of chess. Certainly he seems to be arguing that science is constituted by its rules, as is chess. He also seems to be allowing that the rules of science can be debated, hence they are not immutable. Much the same goes for chess. The rules of chess have evolved and might evolve more. A rule revision would not necessarily make for a new game, especially if the rule was adopted by the International Federation. The fact that, in baseball, the American League permits the designated hitter to substitute for the pitcher and the National League does not, hardly raises serious questions about which league really plays baseball.
Clearly (bold = emphasis mine, above), we can falsify Meta-Rules too. The process of building our own m=1/n=1 individualized health maps by forming our own Meta-Rules is one that opens us up to testing the conjectures that we deduce from a general Meta-Rule--deducing, "Don't drink more than three beers per week," for instance, from the higher precept, "Don't consume anything that correlates with facial inflammation"--and to testing the overarching negative advice as well. Because this, I suspect, is part of the foundation of epistemic humility:
"The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game."
All the while, we know that our end result may turn up fruitless but, as John Wooden reminds us, it's the journey that matters. And, as we make our ways through this journey, we must always remember the following:
"[A]fter having produced some criticism of a rival theory, we should always make a serious attempt to apply this criticism to our own theory."
Which is why nutritional bricolage is so neat, I think; because we can test things cheaply and quickly with minimal barriers to entry:
"This makes our methodological rule that those theories should be given preference which can be most severely tested ... equivalent to a rule favouring theories with the highest possible empirical content."
Which is also why I've archived my Meta-Rule project as a static entity on my blog, so that we can keep updating and editing it as we hash out all this deductivist rule-making business:
A Constitution for the Republic of Science would need many more rules, and some specification of their institutional embodiment, including rules for dispute settlement. Popper makes no effort to organise the rules systematically and lay them out in a table so that they can be checked against one another and debated in relation to one another and the aims. This may explain why they are an aspect of his philosophy that is seldom discussed.
But, maybe, just maybe, we are collectively constructing this implied social institution on the periphery thanks to the power of online connectedness?
What kind of a social institution is it? Popper nowhere says anything about its internal organisation. The rules give us no guidance to the manner in which it is governed, or to whether there is established leadership. Indeed, although many rules are put forward for discussion, the issues of how these discussion are to be conducted and how decisions about amending the rules are to be made are not entered. Thus it is a stretch to see these rules as a Constitution for the Republic of Science or even as a proto-constitution. They are more like a proposed set of procedural rules for discussion by a body already in place.
And here we find Ancestry:
Another way to think of science is not as a series of concrete institutions but as an invisible college, an abstract institution rather like language. We might see Popper's rules as addressed to this wider community of science, one that has to do with self-identification and not with institutional gatekeepers.
Perhaps it's a home for opportunistic generalists?
... just as I see a great danger in the increase of specialisation, which also is an undeniable historical fact: a danger to science and, indeed, to our civilization.
Karl Popper and Richard Feynman (who liked to say that we must always "keep the door to the unknown ajar"), are kindred citizen scientists it seems too. I would say that Feynam arrived at this same conclusion, as far as I can tell, independent of Popper (unless someone has seen Feynman discussing Popper's influence on his thinking explicitly in this manner?):
"It might indeed be said that the majority of the problems of theoretical philosophy, and the most interesting ones, can be re-interpreted ... as problems of method."
Which brings me to the point of this entire messy essay on the messiness of science in the context of social institutions and human interactions: There is value in reflecting on the methods we use to inquire about the human condition in the information age. Or, as Marc Simonson calls it: The Differentiation of Information Age. This contemporary era is a novelty that we're still adapting to as human beings. Our local intuitions are being stretched, taxed, and enhanced by global influences. So, in response, I suspect we could benefit from adapting Popper's Republic of Science and Nassim Taleb's epistemocracy in concrete ways in modern day to help us blend the wisdom of our ancestral heritages with the advancements of science and technology gracefully.

And grace doesn't imply clarity, in the short-term, if ever. For example, nature grows in what appear to be messy ways, but it can still grow robustly (fractally):
"WE WATCH PLANTS IN THE PLANT WORLD GROW SLOWLY; AND, IF WE ARE ALERT, WE WILL REALIZE THAT THIS GROWTH PROCEEDS IN A FRACTAL MANNER." - Marc Simonson
How? Well, TheDailyG says, "[T]hings that grow in slow, nonlinear ways tend to be the richest, most complex, highest-quality end-products. It's not a rigid absolute rule, but a general truth pervasive enough that you can taste its operation in two different chickens: factory versus free-range. I also think that you see the difference in human minds. There are 'factory farmed' minds that are trained to efficiently pass exams, and broader, 'school of life' minds that have had freedom and time to explore and browse the real world and a variety of perspectives.
Conclusion: To close, human growth and development (maturation) proceed in messy, nonlinear ways, but, for whatever reason, if we hang in there with people and show some patience and perseverance, it seems like things, more often than not, tend to break through and turn out even better than expected.

Thus, it is my simple hope that by searching for epistemocracy, for a republic of science today, we just may increase our robustness against human error while simultaneously increasing our abilities to take advantage of novel opportunities.

Meta-Rule: Don't be afraid of being messy and failing.

Who knows? Things just may converge one day.

As I like to say, "Alternative Universe realities do come true."

We just don't know when, where, or why.

But they do.

To good health,

Brent

Monday, June 7, 2010

Marc Simonson on Making the Unseen Seen

Nassim Taleb works on robustness to factor for the invisible (hat tip to Dave Lull).

In the case of serendipity, such as Morton Meyers' Happy Accidents in medical research, when we finally connect the dots, the unseen is made seen.

When it comes to spirituality, Marc Simonson says the following:

HI BRENT,

IT IS EASY TO READ AND TALK IN WORDS AND TO THINK ABOUT SPIRITUAL THINGS NOT BEING IN THE VISIBLE PHYSICAL WORLD ... BUT KNOWING A REALITY-BASED SPIRITUALITY IS ANOTHER THING.

HERE ARE A COUPLE THINGS THAT HELPED MY REALITY TAKE SHAPE:

1) WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE, I READ A SHORT-STORY CALLED "THE LESSON OF THE BANYAN TREE".

A FATHER WANTED TO TEACH HIS YOUNG SON ABOUT THE SPIRITUAL WORLD, SO THE FATHER TOOK HIS SON TO SEE A GREAT BANYAN TREE.

THE FATHER SAID, "WHAT DO YOU SEE MY SON?"

THE SON SAID, "I SEE A GREAT BANYAN TREE."

THE FATHER THEN TOOK A FLOWER OFF OF THE TREE AND SAID, "WHAT DO YOU SEE MY SON?"

THE SON SAID, "I SEE A FLOWER."

THE FATHER THEN SAID, "OPEN THE FLOWER AND WHAT DO YOU SEE MY SON?"

THE SON OPENED THE FLOWER AND SAID, "I SEE A SEED."

THE FATHER SAID, "OPEN THE SEED AND WHAT DO YOU SEE MY SON?"

THE SON OPENED THE SEED AND SAID, "I SEE NOTHING MY FATHER."

THE FATHER SAID, "AH ... MY DEAR SON, THIS GREAT BANYAN TREE COULD NOT HAVE COME FROM NOTHING!"

2) YEARS AGO, I WAS IN A PET STORE WHICH CARRIED A LOT OF FISH. AS I WAS WALKING PAST NUMEROUS AQUARIUMS, I CAME TO ONE THAT WAS LABELED "GLASS FISH". WHEN I LOOKED AT THESE FISH, THE ONLY THINGS I COULD SEE WERE THE HEART, EYES AND A FEW BRAIN TISSUES ... THE REST OF THE FISH'S BODY TISSUES WERE ESSENTIALLY TRANSPARENT, AND I COULD SEE RIGHT THROUGH THEM TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE AQUARIUM.

I STOOD THERE FOR A LONG TIME CONTEMPLATING WHAT I WAS SEEING, WONDERING, "WHAT IS KEEPING THESE FISH ALIVE." AFTER SOME TIME, I REALIZED THAT THE FISH'S LIFE FORCE WAS INDEED NOT OF OUR VISIBLE PHYSICAL WORLD.

I IMAGINED THAT IF MY BODY'S TISSUES WERE TRANSPARENT LIKE THESE FISH'S WERE, I WOULD HAVE TO ALSO REFLECT ON THE REALITY THAT MY LIFE FORCE WAS ALSO NOT OF OUR VISIBLE PHYSICAL WORLD.

THESE TWO THINGS WERE A TREMENDOUS HELP TO ME IN REALIZING THAT THE NATURE OF MY LIFE FORCE IS NOT PHYSICAL; BUT, IN MY HUMAN REALITY, ... IT IS SPIRITUAL.

CHEERS,

MARC

Marc Simonson on How to Perceive Wisdom


(Above: I saw Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint in Borders.)

Perceiving wisdom is not easy.

Living in a world where we can learn by grace or by hard knocks doesn't always provide clarity.

In short, we're left, at the margin, with some form of spirituality.

Marc Simonson embraces this reality:

HI BRENT,

SINCE YOU ATTENDED A JESUIT SCHOOL, I FEEL THAT I CAN SHARE THE FOLLOWING.

MANY YEARS AGO, AS MY BIBLE READING AND PRAYER LIFE WERE DEVELOPING, I HAD A COGNITION ON WHAT I SHOULD AND SHOULD NOT ASK FOR FROM GOD.

AS I WAS READING ABOUT *SOLOMON, I WAS STRUCK WITH HIS INSIGHT ON THIS SUBJECT. WHEN GOD ASKED SOLOMON TO NAME A GIFT HE WANTED, ... SOLOMON ASKED FOR WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE.

I REALIZED THAT IF I HAD WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE, I WOULD BE ABLE TO ACHIEVE MY LIFE'S DREAMS. SO, FROM THAT TIME ON, I HAVE ONLY ASKED GOD TO GIVE/SEND ME WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE, ... AND TO PLEASE MAKE IT CLEAR TO ME, SO THAT I DON'T MAKE A MISTAKE ABOUT WHAT HE SENDS ME.

WHEN EARTHLY OPPORTUNITIES DO COME INTO MY LIFE, THAT I THINK I MIGHT WANT, I ASK HIM: "PLEASE DON'T LET ME HAVE THIS, IF IT IS NOT GOOD FOR ME; AND, PLEASE LET IT HAPPEN, IF IT IS GOOD FOR ME."

I THINK IT WAS CONFUCIUS WHO SAID SOMETHING LIKE THIS:
IF THERE IS PEACE IN THE INDIVIDUAL, THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE IN THE FAMILY, THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE IN THE COMMUNITY, THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE IN THE COUNTRY, THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE IN THE WORLD.
HE KNEW IT STARTS WITH N=1.

CONFUCIUS DID UNDERSTAND THE FRACTAL PHENOMENON AND HOW TO VERBALLY EXPRESS AND APPLY IT IN A PRACTICAL WAY TO OUR LIVES.

THE FRACTAL PHENOMENON IS GOING ON ALL AROUND US; ALL IT TAKES FOR US TO PERCEIVE IT IS TO BE ALERT AND FOCUSED ON OUR LOCAL SURROUNDINGS.

THINK ABOUT THE FRACTAL PHENOMENON IN TERMS OF REPLICATION OF DNA, CHROMOSOMES, AND THEN REPRODUCTION. TO ME, IN HUMAN TERMS, ONE OF THE MOST WONDERFUL EXAMPLES OF IT IS THE CYCLE FROM THE PRODUCTION OF THE EGG AND SPERM, AND THEN FERTILIZATION AND ON THROUGH TO THE BIRTH OF A BABY, AND ITS GROWTH TO MATURITY.

WE WATCH PLANTS IN THE PLANT WORLD GROW SLOWLY; AND, IF WE ARE ALERT, WE WILL REALIZE THAT THIS GROWTH PROCEEDS IN A FRACTAL MANNER.
"NATURE DOES NOT HURRY, YET EVERYTHING IS ACCOMPLISHED." ~ (LAO TZU)
LIKE JOHN WOODEN SAID, "BE QUICK, BUT DON'T HURRY."

CHEERS,

MARC

*Note: Here is the text that Marc referred to ...
"Give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people and to know good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9).
"So God said to him, 'Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked ...'" (1 Kings 3:11-12).
The Bible also states that: "The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart" (1 Kings 10:24).

Monday, May 31, 2010

Post 200: Cancer & Natural Disaster Dynamics

Note: This marks my 200th post, according to my Blogger archives, of attempting interdisciplinary inquiries into the human condition via essays.

Above: A picture from Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe in California; quite a scene for late May! Note the eye-pleasing aesthetics of this fractal landscape.


Cancers, like avalanches, can be devastating.

Both are events that we'd like to prevent from causing catastrophe.

Cancer is a single cell gone haywire. An avalanche is a single snowball gone awry.

And nothing acts independently; interdependent communities (see The Daily G) tie these single entities to the fates of those in their proximities.

Cancer is a single cell that has manipulated its nearest neighbors into dividing uncontrollably. In time, this cancerous cell and its deceived 'followers' reach a critical mass, forming a tumor. For awhile, cancerous tumors remain isolated (Stages I-III), and extraction of this dangerous region of body tissue is still possible (say with robotic surgery): Physicians can still, "remove the tumor," as Nassim Taleb likes to say (hat tip to Dave Lull). However, cancer tumor mathematics behave like avalanches do: that is, explosive pressure builds up rather silently for awhile and then, all of the sudden, cascading effects spread nonlinearly and unpredictably with the force and fervor of a hurricane. This type of systemic rupture--a blow up--is known as metastasis in the context of cancer dynamics. As cells from the original tumor migrate throughout the body--like the snowballing that marks avalanche unfolding--other organ systems feel the effects: these shock waves, which initially only influenced a localized region, now begin degrading global physiological functioning (the entire mountainside starts crumbling). In a fractal manner, the 'one-cell-deceiving-neighboring-cells-to-produce-a-tumor' process repeats itself, throwing kindling on the burning fire. As this miscommunication problem expands like a forest fire, patients experience the signs and symptoms that we call Stage IV Cancer. At this point, the medical treatment approaches resemble those of fire fighters attempting to contain large-scale epidemics in the hills: chemotherapy is like direct attack, for instance.

And, the best way to counter a forest fire is to recognize and extinguish it during its early stages. The same applies to cancer (and to avalanches). Once the flood gates open, the limits of being human curb our intervention abilities. That doesn't mean we don't try our best to contain and treat the problem--we do--but when it's all said and done, we realize that the mathematics of these natural disaster phenomena suggest we'd be wise to expend resources up-front (prevention and detection) to nip these problems in the bud before they ever gain any sizeable momentum to start snowballing, cascading, spreading, and metastasizing (often, uncontrollably, unfortunately).

It's fascinating to then extend these links to economies, especially in light of the notion that economies are just fractal manifestations of physiologies, produced by simplicity embedded within simplicity, creating extensive complexity along the way. If economic bankruptcy for society is like a cancerous human body, and if cancer mathematics resemble those of avalanches and forest fires (and earthquakes, etc.), and if we suspect that the misbehavior of markets follows rough Mandelbrotian randomness and fractal flickering (Pareto / Zipf / Le'vy / Taleb et al. power-laws; though, Mother Nature tends to obey gravity, while digitally-driven extremistan markets face virtually no real physical ceiling), then hybridizing oncology with other disciplines seems like a decent idea to me. For starters, we could look at how detection and prevention of catastrophes are understood, studied, and practiced in these different fields.

1. "Forests and trees are a good line of defense because they hold back snow like a giant fence."
2. "Another good way to prevent avalanches is to break up heavy masses of snow."
The net result:
"As long as these methods are followed, many avalanches can be prevented each year. Of course, it is always important to know that none of nature’s disasters can be wholly prevented. Therefore, it is best to be prepared for what may someday come."
From these notes on avalanche mitigation, we could deduce a few conclusions about economic reasoning. Namely, economics and its associated mathematical modeling tend to push people to discard of redundancy. At the margin, profit maximization in the short-term, for instance, nudges firms to remove or change the use of any resources that don't drive the bottom-line toward the green right away. This stands in stark contrast to Nassim Taleb's Black Swan recommendations for how to be robust: (1) reduce leverage, (2) be over-insured, (3) avoid clustering, and (4) be resistant to shocks. Based on some forms of economic reasoning, trees that currently prevent avalanches would suddenly appear to be nuisances to resort owners: "Cut them away; their blocking our ski runs," they may say--that is, until that day, when the system-sans-reinforcing-and-redundant-scaffolding-nodes crashes to the ground, knocking out the recently built ski lifts, costing the company an unanticipated fortune that its insurance policy fails to cover properly. Similarly, in economies, when firms get 'too big to fail', the risk of blow-ups surfaces rapidly. Breaking up large chunks of snow is like enforcing anti-trust policy, as one possibility. Of course, deciding when to intervene is not easy: just exactly when did that clump of snow get too big for its local environment to handle anyways? But the connections are there, regardless. When gigantic firms go bankrupt, the resulting shockwaves effect the entire economy, as we've seen recently with the banking industry collapsing. Likewise, when large tumors start metastasizing (physiological bankruptcy), the entire body starts malfunctioning. In medicine, I see room for translating lessons learned from handling disasters in nature to caring for patients in emergency rooms, clinics, hospitals, and elsewhere (with a kindred spirit to the integrative work that Didier Sornette at UCLA likes to do).

Finally, this reflection reveals the importance of a related issue: accurate detection and preventive intervention. Much of what self-experimentation supplies is linked to tools for increasing self-awareness. In a way, self-experimentation (blending the Qualitative and Quantitative Self) is an execution framework for becoming more aware of ourselves and our multidirectional interactions with our immediate surroundings. For example, in his recently published paper, "The unreasonable effectiveness of my self-experimentation," Seth Roberts discusses how artisanal and hobbyist (stochastic) tinkering reflects human nature, and self-experimentation captures and applies these dynamics effectively. Whether working to prevent headaches, avalanches, or cancers, people must have ways to detect information signaling correctly; that's the foundation of Meta-Rule formation as a method for mapmaking.

And, when I work on cartography, I attempt to be hyper-optimistic in concert with being some type of skeptic; I do my best to see potential and seek promising opportunities while simultaneously working to hedge against instability, against avalanche-like catastrophe.

I want to prevent cancer disasters fervently, but I also want to detect serendipity perceptively. Yet, the Paradox of Living (searching versus acting) makes another appearance when we realize that preventing and curing cancer are really the same thing fundamentally.

What does that mean? Easy: self-similarity.

To good health,

Brent

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Black Swan Logic for n=1 Health

It's good to know where your faith is.

It seems wiser than being ignorant to the fact that, at the margin, we all have faith in something. We simply don't know everything.

That's why Nassim Taleb's Black Swan logic is so important to me.

It's practical you see.

When it comes to human health and fitness, whether energy intake or expenditure decisions, several philosophical problems concern me deeply (let's focus on nutrition here):

1. What to do (or not do) in the face of nutritional opacity. That is, what is the best modus operandi when we admit that we don't know everything about human diet and health (uncertainty and epistemic humility).

2. What to do (or not do) to account for biochemical individuality (the Hume/Popper/et al. problem of induction).

3. What to do (or not do) to respect the complex nonlinear mathematics that drive thriving, non-diseased physiologies (Mandelbot/Pareto/et al. multifractals).

To start, I respect individuality immensely; telling folks to eat this or that based on averages is like dumping dirty storm water on a blossoming Tulip in the middle of May.

Instead, in order to turn lack of knowledge into practical heuristics for use while living out each day, I turn to an aphorism-churning engine: meta-rules.

Meta-rules are rules for making rules. That is, they provide 'choice architecture' for epistemocrats. This lets the bricoleur in each of us shine through to clear (some of) the smoke away from nutritional opacity via avoidance behavior. When we engage in our own processes to deduce for ourselves 'rules to eat by' or 'rules to move by', that seems more sustainable, motivational, and insightful (plus robust to negative Black Swans) to me.

A 'meta-rule to eat by': Don't eat anything that causes a negative physiological reaction (such as excess mucous production).

A 'rule to eat by' that I deduced from this as a Patient of One: Don't eat grains--they cause negative physiological reactions (migraines) for me.

A 'meta-rule to move by': Don't expend energy in a way that causes chronic soreness (such as shin splints).

A 'rule to move by' that I deduced from this as a Patient of One: Don't jog long distances wearing clunky running shoes (instead, move in a power-law manner wearing Vibrams).

But why meta-rule making?

Simple: Because I have yet to find an epidemiological study that contained me as a subject.

That matters to me.

It should matter to you.

Because as Dave Lull likes to say, "the only experiment that really matters in the end is your self-experiment, that is, your individual attempt to refute a conjecture or falsify a hypothesis involving your own body."

And Dave reminds us of what this n=1 clinical trial deductivist decision-making bricolage lifestyle approach is all about in the first place: "Remember the foundation of our nutritional self-experimental faith, our basic conjecture that has yet to be refuted: 'Every individual organism that has a distinctive genetic background has distinctive nutritional needs which must be met for optimal wellbeing.' In these nutritional experiments or epidemiological studies, isn't there always so obviously individual variations in response to whatever nutritional items are being consumed? Is there ever the same effect, to the same degree, in 100 per cent of the people being studied? Don't we use these studies only to help us come up with conjectures to attempt to refute? We don't look to their results as proof of anything, do we?"

Since we cannot ever prove anything in science, we do want to be logical and strategic, as best as possible, about deciding which conjectures to test on our own bodies. I am not about to poison myself, so I search diligently for threads that make the most sense to me.

And the fact that evolution has blown up weak metabolic systems in the past makes me think that starting with leads based on what has survived the course of human history just might be the safest way to get my feet wet for tinkering. That's why I default to ancestry; it seems most logical to me. Those are my biological roots after all. But that's just me. We have to start somewhere. I start there.

But I am well aware of the survivorship bias (chance and randomness influence evolution too), and thus I remind myself that both science and literature (and everything in-between) provide me with mythologies that I must assess for myself. So, if I observe in the world that many other people have falsified a particular health conjecture--such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption--then I take that grace nudge seriously and reason that our shared evolutionary ancestries probably make that falsification event enough reason to avoid that activity entirely. I don't need to test HFCS again on my own body--I don't want to eat something that is one chemical step away from plastic and then watch my body produce alien tissues as a result (our metabolisms simply can't handle that stuff).

And that's why Black Swan logic matters to me.

Because I want to know how to act when I admit that I don't know much of anything.

But, if I had to guess, I'd jest that people like watching figure skating in the Olympics because the skaters move about the ice according to Levy-flights; that is, they move fractally--they move nonlinearly.

We like fractal aesthetics; that's why we love music (see all my recent Twitter posts for Music Rx, thanks to Dave Lull): it paces our physiologies in healthy ways.

To good health,

Brent

Friday, September 11, 2009

Introducing Dr. Swan and Dr. DJ -- Kindred Epistemocrats in the Practice of Healing

“We must look beyond, to play a bit with our own lenses and our own perspectives,” he said. “One must keep an eye out for the sudden materialization of black swans in our lives.”

They call him Dr. Swan, Dr. Black Swan. "Swan is the name and tinkering is my game." The license plate on his car reads: 'BSWANMD'. He practices generalist medicine with the nostalgia of the empirical skeptics, treating the Patient of One each and every day--of course, people have heard him say, "Triage (tinker) away, Doc."

He often consults his colleague, Dr. DJ. "DJ is the name and mixing is my game." The license plate on his car reads: 'MUSICMD'. He practices musical therapy with the enthusiasm of a pop artist, treating the Patient of One each and every day--of course, people have heard him say, "iTunes (mix) away, Doc."


"It's an easy way to surmount linearizing forces in modern day," they both say. In this way, they both defer to Dr. Oliver Sacks' leadership.

They have hobbies, of course. One plays golf; the other in a band. Dr. Black Swan gravitates toward the Levy distribution that defines golf course architecture mathematics, comparing the sport to an ancestral hunt, stalking putts while expending energy in a fractal, patchy way: "Golf forces me to focus, to block out the bombardment of information that we constantly face today, but then relax in between shots and reflect. It's an important balancing act that we all must learn to play. Interestingly, the sport provides a valuable lesson for healthcare reformists: look at what Tiger Woods has accomplished--he reformed the game of golf from the bottom-up, by leading in a healthy way. Tiger 'walked the talk' and transformed the sporting culture of golf, motivating golfers across the planet to approach the game athletically, improve their fitness levels, and keep striving to raise the performance bar. That's how reformation and transformation get done: through cultural revolution from the ground up. The game of golf has never been healthier, in every sense of the word, because Tiger turned the mythological tide in a positive way," Dr. Swan tells his comrade Dr. DJ. Dr. DJ agrees: "Indeed, culture trumps nearly everything--just look at the power that music plays in shaping mythology every day. Music is positioned to be a powerful positive force; music therapy is one such manifestation that I feel. I feel it in my bones, reverberating throughout the atoms, cells, and organ systems governing my body functions. I love that you see the importance of music in that Ancestral Fitness stuff you never stop talking about, Dr. Swan. Music as medicine is the link that unites us, both physiologically and philosophically. It's ancestral medicine applied today."

As a dynamic tinkering and mixing pair, these epistemocrats, of course, diversify their practices as physicians in a Barbell manner--it's Pyrrhonian skepticism in medical practice--sticking to the 'bread and butter' yet-to-be-falsified modalities most of the time while always diversifying the remaining 10-20% of their healing efforts. As expected, Dr. Swan runs numerous inquisitive clinical trials, all with 'n=1', with all of his Patients of One. Population statistics never made much sense to him anyways: "Patients only care about what happens in their specific cases," he often reiterates. He sees his practice as a vibrant health story in motion, emerging and evolving, and he constantly re-edits its details as his patients' self-experiments turnover new leafs, as seasons change. But, the foundational tenants rarely change. The majority of these tinkering trials anchor on Ancestral Fitness concepts, particularly nutrition: "That Michael Pollan summed it up quite succinctly the other day when he said, 'Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.' I made that same conclusion two years ago; in fact, I just wrote this paper titled, 'ATP'. Ever since then, every bit of health policy wonkering has just been background noise that missed the deepest, most far-reaching root of the problem. It's like that Pablo Triana just said, 'it is time for President Obama to help us kill the tool that killed us.' Sure, he was talking about VaR and financial models, but he could be talking about that platonic, faulty Food Pyramid model just as well: both VaR and the Food Pyramid infiltrated / infected (think memes) our decision making processes with lies that had long been falsified. Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) falsified that VaR myth years ago. I really like that Pablo Triana--I've been meaning to read his latest work, Lecturing Birds on Flying--he is to Nassim Taleb as Son of Grok is to Mark Sisson. The parallels are there. I am happy these two tandems are working diligently to edit the VaR and Food Pyramid stories out of our lifestyle mythologies, cutting these deceptive diamonds with more robust narratives to live by. 'Sugar is like debt,' I just continue to say. Where is Daniel Kahneman anyway? He loves 'maps'. Our mainstream maps for traversing the 'health' landscape just keep causing us to get more and more lost. Kahneman warns that confidence in the 'map' may motivate beneficial action, but Nassim suggests that, in cases like the Food Pyramid (nutrition) and VaR (banking), we would be much better off with no maps at all. Let intuition and humility be our guides. Though, overall, I bet both sides would agree that we'd all be better off with better maps to guide the way. 'That's the Ancestral Fitness way,' is what I keep trying to convey."

"Hey, that's enough with that Ancestral Fitness stuff anyways," interjects Dr. DJ. "You're getting lost in a stochastic song of swans; the last thing we want is that one last swan song, Dr. Swan. I know, I know--Ancestral Fitness is your 'dynamic hedge against swan song uncertainty'--but that's enough epistemocracy for one day. Take a seat Dr. Swan, I have some music I want to play."

"Certainly, triage (mix) away, my good friend, Dr. DJ."



*Hat tip to Dave Lull for many of the links cited above.