The return of the phage! GMO phage.

Antibiotic resistance is racing through the world and a growing number of pathogens are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

Even worse, extreme drug resistance is growing where the pathogen is resistant to all known antibiotics. An increasing number of such cases end in death. 

It is not just about diseases like drug resistant tuberculosis. A simple finger cut infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria can result in amputation of the arm or death. Such pathogens have started spreading within hospitals and the victims are usually patients who have undergone surgery.

Since 1919, even before antibiotics were discovered, phages have been used to treat diseases. Phages are viruses that kill the bacteria. For every known bacterium, there is some type of phage out there which feeds on the bacteria and kills it.

The amazing effectiveness of antibiotics ensured that the use of phages stopped and disappeared. No further research happened on phages.

Now, it appears that not only can we fight drug resistant bacteria with naturally occurring phages, we can also genetically engineer phages to target any specific kind of bacteria. As this article suggests –  https://www.wsj.com/articles/genetically-engineered-viruses-treat-antibiotic-resistant-infection-11557334800

Now this is GMO research even the environmentalists should welcome!

I now hope that phages research progresses rapidly and phage based solutions become widely available before antibiotic resistant diseases ravage our planet and hundreds of millions of people die. This scary scenario is now inevitable unless we figure out new ways of curing antibiotic resistant disease.

What would you do if you had a guaranteed minimum income?

There has been a lot of talk about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in India recently, thanks to the NYAY proposal in the Congress party’s manifesto.

The Congress party’s proposal wants to fight extreme poverty by giving a minimum income cushion to people who earn less than a certain amount.

However, UBI as a concept is being urgently spoken about in many circles across the developed world for a totally different reason.

It’s not about fighting extreme poverty but about expected large scale job losses from automation. Whether it be of drivers from self driving cars and trucks, or factory workers from assembly line robots or even knowledge workers who are skilled in a specific area (like lawyers or language editors or accountants) from intelligent machines which can do some of the tasks much faster, cheaper and usually better.

Here is an interesting article which presents a socialist case for a Universal Basic Income – 

https://onezero.medium.com/the-socialist-case-for-automating-our-jobs-away-4a12780309d2

Chunky Management and other lizard problems

The article at this link talks about “Narrowing Your Focus” as a mental model that enables us to solve large and complex problems. https://jamesclear.com/narrow-focus

I think what the article covers is actually two different mental models.

One is “Break it up into manageable chunks” and the second is “narrowing your focus”.

“Break it up into manageable chunks”, creates cognitive capacity and overcomes the subconscious fear of a large time and effort commitment. 

When confronted with a project that requires many things to be done, thinking about all of them at the same time is beyond our cognitive capacity and leads to a sense of overwhelm and therefore procrastination. 

Our lizard brain also fights the commitment of time and effort that is needed when we decide to commence a complex project that has many facets. And that leads to even more procrastination! 

When you break up the problem into manageable chunks, we can do it one chunk at a time. Cognition problem solved and reduced time/effort commitment too.

The second model “narrowing of focus”, applies to practically anything that requires attention and good cognition. 

Especially to all those people who are proud of their “multi-tasking skills” – somebody should to tell them that they are probably doing a bad job and would do much better by doing one thing at a time. 

This also applies to companies which do more than one type of business. A lack of organisational focus on only one type of business, makes it too difficult for companies to create a powerful driving purpose or the cohesive set of systems, processes, structure, people and culture that are needed for success. 

Coconut tree climbing robot – where are you?

Vegetable and fruit picking robots are fast making their appearance. And this means that planting and weeding robots are round the corner too.

So are we looking at the emergence of vast greenhouses or indoor farms where planting, harvesting, packing – everything is done by robots. Similar to modern automobile manufacturing plants? And soon, the mobile robots can do this in open fields too?

At this link is a fully mobile vegetable and fruit picking system. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/11/root-ai-unveils-its-tomato-picking-robot-virgo.html

Demonstrated for tomatoes and commercially available already. It’s many times more effective than human agricultural labor and works round the clock without tiring and without requiring any supervision.  

It’s easy to say that in countries like India, human labor is cheap and will not be  replaced by such machines. But to such people, I would say two things –

One that these robots will be mass produced sooner or later, will become better every year and the productivity will soon be better than the cheapest unskilled human labor, anywhere in the world. That’s inevitable.

Second is to ask them to talk to any coconut tree owner in Kerala. It is very expensive to find people to climb coconut trees and harvest coconuts. And labor is not easily available either. They would love to hire a robot for one tenth the cost.

E-Commerce box packing jobs set to disappear

Amazon, Flipkart and others employ thousands of people in their warehouses for moving and packing boxes.

This looks like it’s about to change.

Not just Amazon in the US, but also leading e-commerce companies in China like JD.com are now beginning to use robots to do this task, which could not be done by machines so far.

The box packing machines are made by the Italian company CMC srl and are called CartonWrap.

The packing machines are many tens of times superior and faster than humans at this job. Check them out here – https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/amazon-box-packing-machines/

We can expect them to start making their appearance in the warehouses of the Indian e-commerce industry soon!

The Explanation Effect – You learn what you teach!

In the last few months, I started the practice of writing a post every alternate day on something interesting that I read in the previous day or two.

I read quite a bit (1-3 hours every day) and once every few hours of reading, some article or book chapter or piece of news catches my fancy. I then write a few paragraphs about my thoughts on it and post it on my blog.

This has resulted in enhanced retention of the ideas mentioned in articles that I write about. 

It just turned out that I remembered those articles or those ideas I wrote about, while I forgot most of the other stuff I read.

I wondered why this was the case, until I stumbled upon this article – https://medium.com/accelerated-intelligence/memory-learning-breakthrough-it-turns-out-that-the-ancients-were-right-7bbd3090d9cc

It appears that this is quite a well known mental model, called the Explanation Effect. If you explain or teach something to others, you are more likely to remember it. 

It’s a learning tool!

3 years to go for petrol engine price parity

Reference article – https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-04-12/electric-vehicle-battery-shrinks-and-so-does-the-total-cost

Electric vehicle prices to reach parity with petrol vehicles in 3 years

Battery prices are going down rapidly and within 3 years (by 2022), building an electric vehicle will be just as cost effective as building a combustion engine vehicle.

The electric vehicle age is not yet upon us because it takes subsidies and incentives to make it happen. 

This is primarily because of the costs of batteries, which means that electric vehicles cost more than their petrol engine counterparts.

With the crossover point of costs now so near, within a decade, the electric vehicle revolution will truly be upon us.

Obsolete skills

Reference article – https://medium.com/aeon-magazine/how-much-can-we-afford-to-forget-if-we-train-machines-to-remember-73bc9b21a13c

Technology makes earlier practices, rituals and ways of life redundant.

Technology destroys the past to create a future, which humans embrace as superior.

The tractor makes the bullock and the horse redundant in farming and makes it unnecessary to know how to rear an animal of labor. The automobile similarly made animal driven carts redundant.

Piped cooking gas and electricity in the kitchen makes it redundant to know how to light up and manage a charcoal stove. 

Civilisations have been built and have thrived by forgetting the past and embracing a new technology driven future.

Similarly, in the age of search engines like Google, does it make sense to memorise facts anymore in school textbooks?

In the near future, driving a car will be a useless skill. In an age where self driving vehicles are safer and indeed, humans driving a car on the roads may be banned as unsafe.

What are the skills that our generation has learnt but are now better forgotten? 

Moralistic vs Consequentialist thinking

Reference podcast – 

https://rss.art19.com/episodes/d1682fd4-9ac7-48b5-92ab-fbb943146d10.mp3

Liv Boeree – World Champion Poker Player. Liv endorses consequentialism in her interview with Tim Ferriss

Consequentialist thinking is basically that the  consequences of your actions are far more important than the actions themselves!

We now live in an age where we have access to more data and information to understand the consequences of our actions. Consequentialists therefore say that our ethics and moral rules must be guided by our knowledge of the consequences.

I disagree for two reasons –

1. This kind of “greater good” thinking has resulted in some of the biggest disasters and human tragedies that the world has seen. From Stalin to Mao and worse. Consequentialist values lead to the pursuit of poor consequences by morally twisted individuals. We are all better off with a widespread and common understanding of basic values (morals?). For example – non-violence or inclusiveness 

2. We overestimate our ability to interpret data and understand the consequences. If all of us were good at it, we would all bet the same way and on the same horses. Consequences are usually expressed in the form of probabilities and not absolutes. And it is human nature to not only get the probabilities wrong, but also to bet against the best probabilities.

Pseudoscience in school textbooks

Reference article – https://thewire.in/the-sciencges/pseudoscientific-claims-are-irrational-but-thats-not-their-biggest-danger

The mainstreaming of Pseudo Science is an unfortunate fall out of the politics in the last few years.

Just as we have the creationists in the US who do not recognise evolution (among other things), we are breeding our own versions of crackpots who see science in myth and see evidence of advanced technology in the mythology of relatively primitive times.

Nothing wrong with the crackpots. They are very entertaining.

The problem is when their theories (alternative facts?) start appearing in school textbooks.

Parents must watch out for such things in school text books and point them out to their children. Get them scientific international reading material that makes the children question everything and not blindly believe anything they see in their textbooks.

Let’s teach our children to not unquestioningly believe their text books or their teachers. They must ask their teachers and get sensible answers. They must learn to check credible alternative sources of information (books and online) and challenge the fake news, myth and fake science.

Blind obedience and belief in the guru is not a virtue in school children. It’s a damaging and stupidly outdated concept. It will be a handicap for them in tomorrow’s job market. 

Look at all the fake stuff floating around in WhatsApp groups and many of your friends actually believing them and forwarding them! Do you want your children to grow up to be like those ignorant simpletons?