War on Obesity

There is a humourous and somewhat sad article in the New York Times last Sunday on the stigmatization of the obese. The article points out a recent research article that calculates that because of American’s increasing girth, a billion extra gallons of gasoline (petrol for you Europeans) are burned each year. That means an extra 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide. So, yes, obesity is now linked to climate change.

There is a lot of talk these days about the obesity epidemic and what to do about it. Many people still believe it is a lifestyle choice. The molecular biologists in the field believe that it is a genetic problem and can only be solved pharmaceutically. Not surprisingly, those most vocal about the magic pill fix also seem to have the most patents and biotech ventures on the side. While both of these points of view are probably true in some sense, they both kind of miss the point. I think that the main reason people are gaining weight is that for our current environment, it is the natural thing to do.

We live in a world where food is extremely cheap and plentiful and exercise is optional. The most logical thing to do it seems is to gain weight and plenty of it. The health consequences of this extra fat will likely not affect most people for many years. Although the incidence of insulin resistance and diabetes is increasing, it is still not clear if moderate weight gain is really all that bad. To quote Katherine Flegal of the Centers for disease Control and Prevention from the Times article: “Yes, obesity is to blame for all the evils of modern life, except somehow, weirdly, it is not killing people enough. In fact that’s why there are all these fat people around. They just won’t die.”

So what should we do about it? After, three years in this field, I’ve come to the conclusion that there really isn’t much we can do about it on the individual level. Our metabolic systems are so geared to acquiring calories that I believe any pharmaceutical option will likely not be effective in the long run and/or have many side effects. From studies our lab has done on food records, it is quite clear that people generally have no idea how much they eat. I doubt people can will themselves to lose weight. I think the only thing that would work is a wholesale change of our society that would increase the cost or reduce the availability of food and motorized transportation. This is definitely not going to happen by choice or design. So barring a great depression or massive crop failure (which could happen), I think we’re just going to have to live with all the extra weight.

Strong AI

In the late eighties and early nineties, Roger Penrose in two books, presented an argument that the brain cannot be algorithmic and thus the AI program is doomed to failure. Unfortunately, he also proposed that a new theory of quantum gravity may be necessary to understand the brain and consciousness and so his ideas were largely ignored by the neuroscience community. However, I think his argument for the noncomputational aspect of brain function was actually well thought out and deserved more attention. I personally believe the argument is flawed but it does stir up some interesting questions.

Penrose’s argument is essentially based on the theorems of Godel, Turing and Church. Godel showed that for any formal system, there will be statements that are true but not provable within that system. Hence, formal systems are incomplete in that there will always be undecidable statements. Turing then showed that for any computer (or any algorithmic system), there exist programs that we know and can prove will not stop but no computation on that computer can ever determine this fact. Penrose then argued that since we (at least Turing and Godel) can determine the truth of such undecidable statements, then we (they) could not be doing that computationally or algorithmically.

The implications are quite profound. It means more than just the futility of traditional AI. It also means the brain cannot even be simulated on a computer because any simulation on an algorithmic machine implies the outputs are also algorithmic. Pushing it further, if the brain is based on physical principles, then this implies that physics itself (or at least aspects of it) can’t be simulated on a computer either. This is why Penrose was led to postulate that there must be some new physics out there that is beyond computation. The idea is really not that crazy if you think about it. However, it is definitely not air tight.

I think the hole in Penrose’s argument is that he believes that we actually can circumvent Godel’s theorem and decide undecidable problems. However, I don’t think that this is necessarily true. We don’t know what formal system our brain happens to be using so don’t know which undecidable statements happen to be true but we can’t prove. The ability to prove Godel’s theorem and to decide truths for other formal systems that are not ours could be implemented computationally. So, the existence of Godel’s and Turing’s theorems does not necessarily imply that the brain is noncomputational.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that the formal system of our brains are even constant in time or conserved between individuals. More likely, our brain and hence formal system is constantly changing because of random environmental inputs. Thus, Penrose’s argument for the futility of traditional AI may be correct. A truly human-like intelligent machine couldn’t be built from a fixed formal system that is knowable. It may need to arise from a massively parallel learning system that constantly changes its axioms. Thus even if you could measure the formal system at some point in time, it would be changed before you could use this knowledge. This would be the equivalent of an uncertainty principle for the brain.

Penrose also rules out the role of randomness in breaking algorithmicity. He argues that randomness can be mimicked by an algorithmic pseudo-random number generator. I don’t see why this is the case. Perhaps, true randomness is beyond computation. This then leads to the question of where randomness actually comes from. Perhaps it is a vestige of the initial conditions of the universe. And where did that come from? Well we may need a theory of quantum gravity to figure that one out. Hmm, maybe Penrose was right afterall:).

Fractional Reserve Banking and Inflation

In a comment to a previous post, the question of why there is inflation arose. Being a complete neophyte in economics, I began to think about this question. Along the way, I discovered some very interesting things about how the monetary system works. I’m not sure if I can answer the question correctly but here is my unqualified answer.

The main mechanism behind inflation seems to be what is known as fractional reserve banking. Here by mechanism, I don’t mean what economic factors drive inflation, but simply how does extra money get into the economy. When you get a bank loan, they don’t dig into their vault and give you the money. Instead, they simply put those dollars into your bank account. The money is basically created out of thin air. All the bank is required to do is to make sure that they have enough reserves to cover some fraction of their loans. It’s a complicated formula but it amounts to something like ten to fifteen percent. Each night, the banks must balance their books and they partially do this by borrowing money from the US Federal Reserve which lends at the Fed rate. In that way the Fed can influence the money supply in the economy. The amazing thing about this system is that in principle the money supply could be any size. When money is lent to you and you buy something from someone else, they can deposit that money back into the bank which can then be lent out again while only keeping ten percent in reserve.

So, when interest rates are low, the money supply expands and we get inflation or a bubble. When interest rates increase, the money supply can shrink and then we can have a slowdown in the economy, a recession or a bursting of a bubble (as we are experiencing now in real estate). If the money supply was completely static then if the economy grew we would experience deflation. (This is happening in some sectors like electronics and food where the cost of production is decreasing faster than inflation.) The problem with deflation is that people then tend to wait before they buy things and that can retard economic growth. So, the Fed tries to engineer a small amount of inflation to keep things going. When the economy is too heated then it raises the rate slightly to keep it in check, which is what the Fed has done for the past two years.

I think one of the reasons why inflation has been relatively benign these past few years even with low interest rates is that the extra cash has been used to fuel the internet bubble followed by the real estate bubble and also our savings rate is so low that banks don’t have enough reserve to further inflate the money supply. However, just to make sure I end on a gloomy note, Nouriel Roubini is predicting a recession in 2007 triggered by the bursting of the housing bubble. So interest rates may actually be coming down again.

Rotten Eggs

There is a terrifying article by Peter Ward in this month’s Scientific American. There may be strong evidence that several of the last few great extinctions may be due in part to global warming. There is a clear geochemical signature that the most recent one 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid strike in the Yucatan peninsula but the Great Dying at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago for example (see my previous post here) looks completely different.

As I wrote before, this extinction was marked by anoxia in the oceans. What I didn’t write was that biomarkers such as certain lipids have been found in the ancient strata that indicate the presence of lots of photosynthetic green sulfur bacteria. For energy, they oxidize hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and convert it into sulfur. This means that the oceans were enriched with H2S at that time. If the oxygen level is sufficiently high then the H2S can be confined to the deep ocean by oxygen diffusing downwards. However, if the oxygen level drops enough the H2S will bubble to the surface. In addition to being foul smelling and poisonous, the H2S can also destroy the ozone layer and increasing UV radiation.

The circumstances that lead to this outcome could have been triggered by global warming from
massive volcanic activity that spewed tons of C02 into the atmosphere. This heated the oceans and made it harder to absorb oxygen. The extinction would begin in the ocean and then spread to land. A less intense version of this scenario may have taken place as recently as 54 million years ago at the end of the Paleocene era. During that time the concentration of C02 was about 1000 parts per million. We are currently at 385 and at current rates could reach 1000 by the end of the next century. So, if you start smelling rotten eggs on your stroll along the beach…