So Close and Yet so Far: Contrast between Advanced Technology and Everyday Life.

In this era of lightening-fast technological advancement, new, astonishing developments emerge every day, like virtual reality goggles or driverless cars. With all of our awesome gadgets, apps and information, what has advanced technology done for us?

For the love of paradox, I catalogued a few instances of bleeding-edge technology and readily available solutions in similar areas. In no particular order:

Advanced Technology Current ‘State of the Art’

Medicine – Assistive Devices

Assistive and prosthetic devices that restore arm functionality by sensing the brain’s intention to move and moving the limb by brain command1. Stainless steel artificial hips to replace worn out joints and make recipients pain-free and able to carry out everyday activities like walking2 – certain models subject to recall3.
Google glass and other augmented reality visual aids. Meant to provide computing power through visual display and hand motions. Information about the visual field presented to the wearer, such as historical background, competitive pricing, communication history. (Privacy issues being worked out but the technology exists.) ‘Progressive lenses’. Corrective glasses allow distances, mid-range and close to be focused on, within a single lens. Works if you are vertical and the things you want to see close up are at chest height. Doesn’t work for close work above the head, like wiring a ceiling fixture or fixing the plumbing under the kitchen sink. Nor for reading while lying on your side.

Robots or other automation to do routine tasks.

Automation of jobs, such as taking your order at the fast food restaurant, sweeping the floor or delivering your take out order, through touch screens, robotic devices and drones. Youth unemployment. Many young people feel threatened by automation – that it will take away entry level jobs. There are many useful lessons people can learn working at a fast food restaurant or clothing store.
The super power of artificial intelligence has the capacity to control complex systems that include the power grid, water supply and energy production. Arguably will have the ability to dictate all human life support systems. (And lead to our control and possible demise.) Autocorrect is hysterical. Really – we fear the likes of this has the capability to rule the world? What is is a donkey ferris, anyway?

The Environment

Technology reduces an individual’s carbon footprint (electric cars, home lighting control, more efficient heating, more secure, faster electronic devices). Throw out the old version to become more environmentally efficient. Reduce, reuse, recycle. But the life cycle of many current consumer products has decreased, and most are unrepairable, unrefurbishable and apparently outdated. It’s cheaper and easier to buy the new. Into the landfill with the old!
Genetically engineered crops. Whatever you think about GMO’s, the purpose in their creation was to engineer plants that were more cost effective to grow, either due to insect, climate or pesticide resistance (allowing more efficient use of the land). Distrust of GMO’s. Concerns about toxins. Conspiracy theories about big business controlling the food supply. (The food supply is big business.)


Vast amounts of information is available to anyone with an internet connections. Misinformation about everything runs rampant. Massive amount of personal bandwidth is directed into subjects such as the black/blue vs gold/white dress question, cat videos, and conspiracy theories about big business.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad of the technology we have access to. If I lived in primitive times, I’d been eaten by a bear or other hungry predator before I hit puberty because I can’t see well enough to avoid things more than two feet away. I’m privileged to have a longer lifespan than my ancestors, and that I don’t have to churn my own butter, make candles or go down to the river to do the laundry, where I’d likely be eaten by alligators I couldn’t see. And I have this platform to air my views and watch videos about plumbing repair, creativity, and cats.

The moral of this post is that the time from introduction of a novel technology to when we all can use it depends on:

  • the scientists and business people getting together to decide what the technology might be useful for,
  • the business people determining where the market is and how to communicate to people who might find the technology useful,
  • the engineers figuring out how to make mass quantities of the new thingie,
  • the business people getting it into stores or similar distribution points so that people can buy the new thingie.

This assumes that the business people made the price reasonable and the engineers and scientists got the thingie right so it does what it’s supposed to.

I didn’t mean to make this an infomercial for the commercialization process. Technology is advancing in quantum leaps and bounds, but it takes time to make it work consistently and safely. Maybe our children will put going into space on their bucket list, along with 3D printing their dream home.

1for example



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Artificial Intelligence Part 3. Randomness: A Human Advantage.

Arnold Trehub states ‘Machines cannot think because they have no point of view’¹. Trehub cleverly links opinion and point of view. I now intuitively see how point of view, or a unique perspective, is necessary for opinion.

I’ve thrashed around on my keyboard for weeks, trying to articulate how human opinion differs from information provided by AI. I have no justification how I know they’re different, but I do. Because I’m human. Humans have a natural tendency to draw conclusions, have a point of view, based on whatever amount of information we have. AIs do not.

Does having an opinion make us human? No, it’s the other way around. Because we are human, we have opinions, derived from the way we process information and draw conclusions from what we’ve collected. For the most part, human’s work by adding each new bit of information on top of whatever they’ve already picked up, while AI has the capacity to catalogue each fragment of data until the entire story emerges. Thus, for people, how we incorporate each new experience depends on our previous experiences.

We’ve evolved the capacity to learn on the background of animal survival instincts. Are big dogs to be feared or petted? – depends on your past experience. Was your childhood best friend an Irish Setter, or was the first horror movie you watched Cujo, a story of a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a family? Each of us has decades of history – song lyrics, movies, people, places, things, weather, but our memories work in mysterious ways, smashing things together, processing them through the filters of human optimism, then reprocessing until we’re convinced things were wonderful back then, and subject to random recall.

No AI would proudly claim it recalls some things and not others, glorifies the past, or has random memories pop into its processor to distract it.

Makes it sound like fun to be a human doesn’t it?

I’ll took a stab at calculating how different each person’s life experience is from the next person’s and got to infinite before I could write any thing down².

Clearly we have our own unique set of experiences. One AI would be expected to come to the same conclusion as another if they were given the same set of experiences, even if it was in a different order. Consider how the opinions of two 35 year old coworkers might be to the first snow of the year if one lived in a tropical climate for the first 34 years of their life and the other has shovelled lengthy driveways from the age of 7.

In addition to the historical context, humans interpret each event by how it will effect us. If the temperature goes down – does that mean you’ll budget more for heating, blanket the garden, or start a promotion on skis in your store? Do changes in GDP of a neighbouring country make you plan a vacation, watch the stock market, or pull up cat videos?

We form our conclusions on the basis of what evidence we have. If it’s hot today, was hot yesterday and when you were waiting in line to buy gas a few days ago, it’s been a hot summer. An AI would collect data, from the past month, or months, calculate means, variances and then compare to the past year, decade or century before deciding if it’s been a hot summer.

Humans process information as though they’re building a pyramid. Each new experience is interpreted on the background of all the previous ones (or the ones we remember). AI’s process information like Tetris. A new piece of information is allocated to a column of relevance and a conclusion is only drawn if the column is full (i.e. sufficient data to make statistically valid conclusion).

Why do we constantly form opinions, when we know we don’t know everything about the topic? Because we have to. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’re certain what the weather or traffic is going to be like before we go to work. We put on a summer dress and take the highway because its June and the city streets tend to be under construction in the summer. We have to give a presentation to important clients.

We don’t seek out all possible information before we decide. We get on with our life, form an opinion, and change our mind later if need be. This sounds like jumping to conclusions or being a bigot but I’m talking about the human propensity to form a working hypothesis. If we eat a turnip and then projectile vomit, we avoid turnips. Sure, we’ve only have one observation that said food disagrees with us, but won’t risk it will happen again. We don’t need statistical significance to decide the possible outcome is unpleasant and avoid turnips. And we can live without turnips, because our grandfather, who never ate them, lived to be 95.

Can the same can be said for an AI? It experiences a sequence of events and learns from each, like us. I expect AI to be objective, less invested in changing its mind with the addition of new data. It would refrain from drawing conclusions with insufficient information. It would seeks information on turnips and other factors that correlate with projectile vomiting and longevity before deciding what to eat.

The AI may be more objective, but human’s have opinions, quicker. Does that make us smarter, cooler, or more adaptable? Humans will have no problem answering that question. AIs might.


¹ ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY pg 71.
‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ is gobsmackingly good. Making me think and ask questions and learn things I thought I knew about what it is to be one of my kind. And I’m not even a sentient machine. Who knew the place to find out about being a human was from a book about artificial intelligence? Although many contributors, such as George Church and Sean Carroll, describe humans as thinking machines.

² I geeked out on semi-math. Here’s what I’m thinking: Every human is in a different place – the living room, Antartica, or primary school where the lighting may be bright or dim, the weather rainy, foggy or gale force winds may blow, we may be alone, with our Mum or at a football stadium full of Argos fans, we could be a teenager, senior, or babe-in-arms, observing a coronation, action-thriller movie, domestic dispute or bird building a nest. And so on. Then, the next second, something could change, someone walks in the room, the car stalls, the cat meows, you throw up because you are pregnant, or there’s an earthquake.

We’ve done two seconds of the calculation. By the time we’re 35, we’ve lived a little over 1.1 billion seconds, so our experiences are different from the next persons by (however many parameters you would like to include but even if you just have two I can make my point) to the power of 1.1 billion. For fun, I input this into my calculator. The answer is ‘Infinity’. Even if we say that it takes an hour for a person to have a different experience, a 15 year old has lived over 130,000 hours, which is still an ‘Infinity’ of potential combinations different from her BFF who wears the same style clothes, has the same hairdo, piercings and speaks in the same idioms.

³ This is the mathematical equivalent of ‘I told you so’. In high school, there was a rumour that it stood for ‘quite easily done’, although it’s latin for ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ which could be a good name for a metal band.


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Look at Tech, It’s Growing Up.

I don’t like being called a geek, but being thrilled to attend the Toronto Tech Summit where I was titillated by the frontiers of new technology is pretty geeky, isn’t it?

Friday’s event (April 8, 2106) was a well organized and thought out conference, with high quality speakers and good breadth to the program. The event claims a focus on customer experience or ‘crafting experiences through technology’¹. Not too long into the first session, it hit me:

Tech² is growing up. Leaving that awkward teenage phrase of ‘no, I’m totally different’, to resemble a young adult who want to make good in the world, but have their own ideas about how to achieve it.

One of the speakers³ asked ‘how do we business in Canada?’. Business as a verb. Yes. The conference was about the business made possible by technology, not how to turn technology into business.

Maybe everything I see looks like a business strategy lesson right now, but I was blown away how each talk could illustrate a concept from a quintessential strategic management textbook.

Tech has grown into an enabling component of every product and service, so it’s not surprising that I imagined writing a different chapter of a strategy manual with each presentation at the Tech Summit. All the better because every story was about a cutting edge business. How exciting… tech is no longer separate, it’s integral. Not renegade and unruly, but maverick and enlightened. Less Sex Pistols and more U2.

Here are the business lessons I took from some of the presentations at the Toronto Tech Summit:

No business conference is complete without a presentation about the Internet of Things. Sachin Mahajan from Telus eloquently laid out evidence that this is an industry entering the growth phase following its introduction. Large companies, like Google, IBM and Apple are investing heavily in the area, as are venture capitalists. The business is nascent, so there are few industry standards – another hallmark of an early growth stage industry, as is knowing little about the verticals that will serve the industry.

FreshBooks – a general audience pause while we all roll our eyes because its accounting software – is in a more mature industry – enterprise software. Avrum Laurie described their process for agile design. Process innovation, the textbook says, is a hallmark of a maturing industry. Yup, integrating real-time design innovation and customer feedback may be new tech, but process innovation, to decrease waste and remain competitive, is old school, cost-focused strategy.

Classic diversification strategy was presented by Bowie Cheung of UberEats. Lots of great strategic moves here. Uber’s mission is to deliver everything to people – I’m paraphrasing and may not have got the words exactly right but clearly she was talking about new business units. What does a company do to grow? Build on its existing knowledge base. Use what it knows in new ways. In Uber’s case, deliver food to people instead of giving them a ride using essentially the same driver and car base they’ve established. Makes sense, so far. But delivering food from restaurants isn’t a new thing. Can Uber make it better? The roster of restaurants is UberEats’ differentiating factor, allowing them to realize economies of scale in making their dishes for a wider customer base, with distribution enabled by the Uber app and quick delivery. I particularly liked the idea of being able to track delivery through the app. How many times have you paced, ravenous, wondering where the heck your pizza was? Uber answers. This could be a key success factor.

The customer experience/care panel asked traditional questions about client demographics. I had to wonder when the talk turned to the use of chatbots in retail. The essence of the concept was that instead of lifting a finger to click on opinions or pull down menus, the AI would ask which option the customer preferred. Could we all become so lazy? But I can see it being the new normal or industry standard.

Other delicious morsels of business strategy I heard:

  • The requirement for organizational structure, especially as a startup grows, was attest to by Paul Grey of KiK. KiK is a social media platform used by a particular demographic.
  • Differences in new entry costs between hardware and software was a theme from Wesley Yun from GroPro.
  • Diversity in all businesses has value for the organization and is not just good corporate social responsibility, said Nada Basir from the U of Waterloo business school.
  • Another example of cost focus strategy from the mature business of online auctions, methods to reduce costs by changing currency offering.
  • And the importance of corporate culture for delivering anything in business.

As an old person, always excited about new technology, I felt right at home with the new generation. Because they’re practicing business just the way we did when I was young.



²I’ve always defined technology as inclusively as possible, encompassing software, hardware and the combination, and newly engineered physical and biological things. I was glad to hear one of the speakers say the same.

³here is the list of speakers. apologies in advance if I don’t attribute every phrase I heard correctly.


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Ruminations on Artificial Intelligence. Part 2: Are We in Danger?

What many people seem to fear from AIs, over and above a general fear of mysterious new things, is that they will subjugate us. They’ll run amok, denying humans our life-sustaining internet connectivity or fossil fuels or sporting events. Or worse, they’ll shut us down altogether, through the food supply, atmosphere, or access to cat videos.

Why would intelligence imply a domination agenda? This is also a question Martin Rees asks¹. Sure, that seems to be the way humans have behaved on this earth, forever, with various species/businesses/soccer teams outcompeting each other for habitat/market/world domination. Could something smarter, like artificial intelligence, conceive of a more inclusive world that didn’t require destroying other forms of life?

This reminds me of when I adopted an eight week old kitten and welcomed her into my home with mature cats. One was an exemplary specimen, a seventeen pound male, all muscle and fighting prowess. In their first encounter, the kitten puffed up her tiny self and hissed at the tom. He stood passively, looking down at her with what I swear was comfortable indulgence, certain that she could do neither him or herself any harm. Then he went on about his cat business. Similarly, I expect super-rational artificial intelligence to recognize when humans are acting out of fear and displaying unnecessarily aggressive tactics and calmly allow us to determine for ourselves no real threat exists.

Max Tegmart² points out that scaremongering sells³ news stories better than romanticized tales of cooperation, agreement and lack of conflict. He’s critical about how journalists have approached AI. I’m guilty of this myself – the alarmism. We’ve been presented with suggestions that AI’s will be damaging, dangerous or deadly to humans. In the science fiction movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, the intelligent computer, Hal, tries to murder people by shutting down their oxygen supply. The far-reaching control that AIs could exert over our environment frightens us. By nature, humans fear the unknown, probably for good reason. Cautiously considering whether the big, golden-furred beast, with paws as big as your head, is likely to eat you is a good survival skill.

A slightly more tangible fear with AIs is that they will control too much and shut off systems vital for our life. I can sympathize with this. I was on a bus recently that stopped working in the middle of nowhere. It was a modern bus, with electronic display boards and a synthetic voice that announced upcoming destinations and thanked patrons for prepurchasing their fare (well-meaning but a bit patronizing). As the driver attempted to restart the bus, the screens displayed the sort of nonsense I associate with a dysfunctional computer. Stack dumps, strings of port numbers and error messages. From the driver’s curses, clearly he was frustrated because he had no control over the function of this mechanical device. It’s computer system declared it dysfunctional, and it was going nowhere.

Uncooperative buses are a glimpse of what we fear from AIs. No room for humans to push to get the job done, doing the best they can to hold things together to get their passengers to the destination. No place for human ingenuity and know-how. No Macgyvering so everyone gets to work on time.

A kind bus driver will make exceptions for passengers in need and stop at unregistered stops. Would an AI driving the bus do that?

Can we program AIs to be resourceful and ingenious? To understand rules are things we made and therefore we want to break them. Human priories shift like clouds on a stormy day. We want the bus to run under the ultra-safe conditions we specified until it isn’t convenient. Then we know there are ways we can compensate to make it just as safe that aren’t written into the code.

We don’t need to fear artificial intelligence taking control over our lives. Being human is to adapt, to survive, regardless of what the unpredictable, improbable and Murphy’s-lawable throws at us. We got this.


¹ Martin Rees pg. 9- 11 in ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY

² Max Tegmark pg. 43-46 ibid

³ or the modern equivalent, gets more clicks, page hits or eyeball time.

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Ruminations about Artificial Intelligence. Part 1: Humans are Smarter because We’re More Primitive

I liked the book ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ immediately. Along with the jaunty title, it has a snappy structure – approximately 185 mini essays, brain bytes, by sage people about AIs (artificial intelligences). Each contribution is 3 or 4 pages long which is apparently how a thought is when written down.

The essayists responded to ‘What do you think about machines that think?” I’m making my way through and have read mostly entries from engineers and physicists. This book is the most fertile source of thought stimulation I’ve encountered in a long time. Each contribution is wonderful and I’m riffing off of most of them.

‘Contemplation of artificial intelligence makes us ask who we humans are’¹ Murray Shanahan writes. One of the book’s themes is ‘who are we’, although it’s a desire to set ourselves apart from AI’s that’s triggered the existential question in this case.

How are we different from thinking machines? Steven Pinker suggests the way that AI’s think is nothing special², its a series of logical conclusions. A simple example is the hierarchy of suggestions you get when start to enter a URL into your search engine. It may seem like the interface ‘knows you’ and can anticipate your interests, but really, the suggested sites are based on simple statistics about your previous behaviour. Similarly, your wise grandmother might have seemed to know things about you when you were a child that you didn’t know yourself. And she’s smarter than a rudimentary AI. She watched your reactions in a number of situations and recognized the trends like the search engine, but unlike the software, she understands human nature, and what was motivates you. When it comes to human nature, we’re often very predictable. Shakespeare provides good evidence to support this. Although he wrote centuries ago, his portrayals of young lovers (Romeo and Juliet), corrupt, yet ambitious leaders (Macbeth), and crafty business people (Merchant of Venice), ring as true today as they did when the plays debuted.

Emotion could be our defining feature. An interesting observation by Steven Pinker, ‘Being smart is not the same as wanting something’² could suggest our primal ancestry will set us apart. Was this the author’s intent? The idea of motivation, of driving force, ambition, compulsion, fills my heart with pride for humankind. Machines don’t strive to excel, or make heroic efforts to do things. They do what they’re programmed to. They achieve goals. If the goal is to maintain a temperature of 22 degrees in a room, they induce the heating elements and cooling vents of the HVAC system to warm or chill the air when a deviance from the desire temperature occurs. Machines don’t care that the three year old twins have a fever and are malnourished because their father is unemployed. AI still keeps the temperature at 22 degrees. A human superintendent knows the fragility of toddlers and the added stresses of poverty and secretly tweaks the heating system to divert more heat to protect the young, even if their mother can’t afford it.

Humans have survival instincts, very strong ones, which may set them apart from AIs. Does an AI even care if it’ll be turned off tomorrow? I suspect that depends on what it believes it needs to do the next day but I’m sure it wouldn’t fight to the death to protect itself, unlike most people who would sacrifice everything to be sure they get out of bed tomorrow, even if it’s to face the same old dripping tap, sour milk, and demonically possessed boss.

Is it instincts that set us apart from AI’s? We still have a primitive area in our brain responsible for instinctive or involuntary actions. My own option, based on observing people is that this primitive brain controls more of our behaviour than we are aware of. If that’s the case, it could distinguish from AIs.

We honour and hold in high esteem leaders who are intuitive – those that make logical leaps most of us are afraid to pursue. Are these intuitive leaps instances of higher thought – processing so fast that only the outcome is important? That would be AI-ish.

I consider instincts and intuition closely related, although many would not³. Instincts are subconscious – leading us to perform acts without deciding to do so. We act instinctive to pull our hand out of a flame or to veer the car clear of an oncoming truck on the highway. When the adrenaline wears off, we’re proud of our quick thinking. Intuition is generally considered more conscious, related to thought. However, an intuitive action or decision is one that ‘comes from the gut’ or ‘feels right’. Whether it’s to take a different route home or hire the kid with no experience, when we realize the benefits of the choice, we learn to ‘trust our intuition’. So, is intuition higher thinking than instinct? Some explain intuition as a subconscious compilation of knowledge gathered in the brain. Could it be that intuition is the instinct of thought?

This is my premise: Human’s are different from AIs because we evolved from a less evolved species and we do things that don’t reduce to a series of logic equations. AIs are cool. We made them, so they have the potential to be ok. Or at least as ok as run-away trucks, fires, demonically possessed bosses and new hires from hell. But don’t worry. We know how to disconnect their power supply, at least on the AIs.


¹ Murray Shanahan in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 1-4

² Steven Pinker in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 5-8

³I have to giggle. One site I found that explained the difference between instinct and intuition used human mate choice as an example of something decided intuitively because it was the culmination of too many thought processes to be reduced to explanation. If ever there was a decision that biologists could explain at an instinctive level, it’s mate selection. Ha-ha. Geek moment.

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A Fishy Saga about Science and Knowing what to Eat (Part 2).

Triggered by guilt-induced schisms that I was getting something too good to be true, I dug deeper into the case of a delicious new fish available in grocery stores near you for an astonishingly low, low price.

Part 1 covered the controversy of whether basa was a good thing to consume or not. To find the answer, I needed credible sources of information about fish farming but I had no idea how to identify them so I turned to friends for help, friends who are experts in the area of fish biology.

My inside information lead me to They’re on the page two of the google search on basa 1? Who is Seachoice? Their ‘about me’ page suggests an independent organization but I’m not sure of their agenda because the write up is quite generic. The overview about basa, or Pangasius, concludes with a ‘some concerns’ rating. Further down is an avoid rating. So I don’t know who Seachoice is or which rating is the rating. I’m tempted not to spend any more time on their site, but someone I respect told me Seachoice is an authority, so I download Seachoice’s 70 page pdf2 about basa and read.

The first page gets a thumbs up as it reveals an independent person with relevant credentials wrote the report. And I learn more about what Seachoice is all about. The organization’s goal is to empower consumers to make choices about what they purchase. They focus on sustainable practices in fishing, with a sustainable goal of long term fish production not jeopardizing the ecosystem. Their recommendations are based on as much objective evidence as available.

As a food source, basa can be farmed efficiently. The environmental concern is the sludge waste from the ponds which has been found disposed of illegally. The other major concern comes from antibiotics and pesticides found in the fish. A small minority of basa shipments to Europe have been refused due to such contamination.

Basa gets an avoid rating (farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment, i.e sludge dumping), EXCEPT if the fish has an ASC, GAA or Naturland certification (whatever that is) and then basa is a good alternative (some concerns about how it is produced). These rating are obtained by an estimated 23% of the basa produced at the time of the report.

Well, at least that’s a goal. I can feast on basa if it has these certifications. I should look into these certifications. But I’m tired. Going to the grocery store shouldn’t be this hard. I’m tempted to do a few things:

  • go with my instincts that tell me if the basa tastes good, my body knows what’s right (but then, we humans do like to eat things that aren’t good for us, like donuts and chips).
  • make my life easy and chose talapia instead (but is talapia ok? – it’s another farmed, recent introduction to the NA market)
  • starve to death while doing research
  • eat fries.

But I devolve. This experience has highlighted to me the challenges of making sense of scientific information even when you try to. It’s hard to identify a credible source, and when you do find it, sometimes it doesn’t answer the question.

As I travelled the path to a truth about basa fish, I wondered what my objective was. I stepped onto the path because my instincts told me that getting something at an extremely good price has its price. It goes deeper than that. What do I value in my food? I know there are animals that die to produce the meat I enjoy. It’s almost impossible that our existence on this planet is without a footprint. There are 7 billion of us, we impact the environment. Sustainability means leaving the environment so future generations can survive; I have no idea what that means. If I look back, my foreparents built cities that I marvel at. They didn’t destroy, they enhanced. But they also changed the earth. We’re facing global climate change and can’t expect the expected.

We can’t solve all problems at once. At least I can’t. I have a much better idea of whether to buy basa at my local grocery store now. If I can find it with certification, I will buy it. But I might still buy it anyway. I could be supporting a local entrepreneur in Vietnam, who will adopt more sustainable farming practice when his or her business prospers.

Meanwhile, I need to get busy developing truth-finding tools for everyone to use when faced with a wall of discord about something that should be based on scientific evidence. Stay tuned.

1Who goes to the second page of a Google search? I’ve heard marketing folks say withering things about having your website turn up as the 11th+ hit on a google search. Are those of us on pages other than page 1 are clearly interested in something other than fiddling with the rules of search engines to get ourselves to the front of the line? Perhaps content, not promotion of content? Marketing is a good thing, most of the time. But I still look at pages two to four, at least, of a google search, because I know there’s gems buried in the glitter.


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A Taste of my own Medicine. (The Beginning of a Fish Saga.)

This doctor needs a dose of her own medicine. A simple query erupted into a full-blown quandary about how to interpret information. About a fish. Me, the doctor of ‘how to understand scientific stories’ is stumped, or at least needs to do a whole lot of reading to figure out the truth.

Here’s how it began. I found a new type of fish in the grocery store: basa. Anything new in the grocery store gets an immediate ‘buy’ from me. Once I have it in my own kitchen, I wonder what it is and how to cook it. Basa is a white fish, frozen as boneless fillets. I steamed some with some garlic and it was delicious. Then I bought more, still at an almost indecently good price. After 6 months, the prices I see are cheaper by a half than frozen sole, haddock and cod.

While delighting in what good fish cakes, chowder and sauté basa makes, a niggle of doubt crept in, and made me uneasy. How could something so good be so cheap? It defies fundamental laws of economics

So I googled. I don’t remember the results of my first search. Perhaps I was relieved to find no glaring resident evil in either the production or nutritional value of Basa so my eyes glanced off the details. If it’s in all the local grocery stores, it has to be ok, doesn’t it?

Shadows of doubt wouldn’t let my mind settle, so I asked my Facebook friends if they knew anything about this wonder-fish. I have a wonderfully eclectic mix of friends, including ichthyologists, those that hunt their own meat, organic food enthusiasts, and zealous vegans. The responses I got to my Facebook question if the fish was appropriate to eat varied from ‘full of toxins’, ‘poor labour conditions on the farm’, ‘Frankenfish’ to ‘tasty, recently introduced to NA, farmed species of catfish’.

Time to read more carefully. There is disagreement. In the top ten Google hits are an informational page from Wikipedia, and two reputable Canadian food suppliers with recipes and a description of the product. Immediately below a headline suggesting consumption of basa causes death1 is a link to more recipes. There’s a video on where the fish are farmed, a Forbes article about how popular the fish is in India2 and an interesting column from The Times.3 I like this last piece. It’s full of opposing views. Apparently, the Australians love this fish, but Americans do not. Two Canadian authorities are cited with conflicting views. The controversy surrounds how the fish are farmed. They are not genetically modified but recently introduced to NA markets from Vietnam. There is disagreement over whether the river where basa is farmed is clean or polluted (you’d think that would be easy to determine, but from 20,000 km away, it’s hard to tell), what the fish are fed, and if are they given too many antibiotics.

At this point, I’d learned a few things, including where the idea basa is full of toxins or poorly farmed came from. But I hadn’t gotten to the truth yet – should I eat it? Or is that the truth I’m seeking? I started probing because of something I call Ann’s Axiom:

If it seems to good to be true

or like it should be illegal,

it probably is

or will be soon.

Delicious fish. Cheap. The free market should push the price up because basa is a desirable commodity. But it hasn’t. What does the free market know that I don’t? Or do I know something the free market doesn’t? That would satisfy my taste for being ‘in the know’.

Ha, but knowledge doesn’t come cheap – it requires work. And reveals there’s another dimension I must add to my self-help approach on how to understand science. Taking a single story and seeing the truth behind it is a good start. But we have to go further. Finding answers to everyday questions that depend on science is also critical.

Stay tuned as this doctor swallows the cod liver oil of humility to continue the quest to understand basa, and more importantly, how to understand how to understand basa and other things, in the next post*.

* The next post may not have the answer to life, the universe and everything. That’ll take at least two** more posts.

** Multiple by two and add 40 (standard approach to estimating jobs).




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Get the Tricorder, Stat!

Remember the gizmo Bones, the doctor on the original Star Trek, held a few centimetres above a patient and it provided all pertinent information including a diagnosis? It’s high time modern medicine got to the same point.

This post is a pure ‘please do better’ to the medical system. We need medical diagnosis to catch up with the 21st century. Many current diagnostic tests seem the equivalent of those creepy cages and metal contraptions of medieval torture.

Here’s what’s set me off:

med test

I saw this poster on a bus in rural Nova Scotia. I understand the motivation. Mammograms, used for screening, are documented to decrease death due to breast cancer¹. Being a responsible medical provider, the NS government is trying to convince people to undergo screening. But the test is demeaning, uncomfortable and with slight risks. They acknowledge the unpleasantness, but still encourage people to do it.

Why support the participation in something uncomfortable? Take a page out of any business marketing book – if you want people to embrace your product, make it appealing to them.

Mammograms are the tip of the medical-testing-draconian-torture iceberg. Another common medical test, supported as a life saver by various medical organizations, is the colonoscopy. Yuk. Begin 24 hours in advance with consumption of a disgusting drink and volumes of water, necessitating that you cling to the outskirts of a bathroom and feel like you ate several tins of browned beans for lunch. To add to the experience, the next day, when you’re feeling at your worse, a perfect stranger shoves a metal tube up your ass, then you feel light-headed and woozy for the next 12 hours. Demeaning, time-consuming and disgusting for the person who cleans the bathroom.

A colonoscopy isn’t that bad and it prevents death due to colon cancer². If you want to undergo a truly harrowing medical test, there’s imagining by MRI. I was prescribed one of these and on my way to the torture, sorry, I mean test, chamber, I looked into the eyes of the woman coming out. I saw fear. When I balked at the test, the technician suggested my doctor prescribe sedating drugs. When I recounted my experience, friends described their coping mechanisms. What else do we willing do that requires sedation, denial and putting ourselves through hell?

I could go on. The worst test I’ve heard of is a screen of lymph node that many cancer patients have. Everyone I know who’s had this test comes out of it in tears.

What are we subjecting ourselves to in the name of medicine?

Consider the basic human reactions that need to be over-ridden for many medical tests:

  • consuming substances that your body wants to vomit
  • enduring ‘discomfort” (either out-and-out pain or something invasive) that your instincts tell you to swat or punch away
  • surrendering all control to a stranger
  • doing things that involve side effects after or before the test including, but not limited to, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, muscle aches and feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of
  • paying for the infliction of discomfort (either directly or through your taxes).

It’s nuts: Enduring degrading, painful, anti-intuitive nonsense, parading around mostly naked, abandoning your worldly possessions (when else do you put down your phone or take off your wedding ring?), spending your time in unpleasant, perhaps grave-like or otherwise confining surroundings. Have I said YUK enough?

Yes most medical tests are beneficial to patients, identifying conditions and facilitating appropriate treatment, reducing pain, suffering and mortality. But more forethought when developing the tests might allow for a more pleasant patient experience. Tech startups do this all time – consider the user experience. All businesses cater to their customers, because happy customers buy more.

The Tricorder, with the nirvana of completely non-invasive testing, isn’t here yet, but it’s a great goal to aim for.

To put a reality-based context to this, there was a contest announced by Qualcomm in 2011³ that invited contestants to develop a real-life Tricorder which detected Anemia, Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, Leukocytosis, Pneumonia, Otitis Media, Sleep Apnea, Urinary Tract Infection, and Absence of Condition(4). The device was also expected to give routine physiological measurements of heart rate, oxygen, blood pressure, temperature and respiration rate. I am totally enthusiastic about ‘Absence of condition’. To me, that is the single biggest gap in modern medicine – the ability to say ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’. I know there are liability issues here, but it’s probably what people most need to hear and doctors are most reluctant to say.

Let’s boldly go where no medical diagnosis has been before – to an ideal patient experience.


  1. This is a credible source which attempts to summarize the data:
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It is really in your DNA?

Corporations might be legal persons but they don’t have DNA.

This expression ‘in our DNA’ is a thorn in the eye of my scientist’s sensibilities when it’s used to describe organizations. I know, it’s just an expression that means something fundamental to behaviour, beliefs or actions. Fair enough as a metaphor.

But, I don’t like it. Because of my propensity to analyze seemingly factual statements to determine if they indeed are factual – a propensity likely influenced by both my genes and my environment.

These are the top hits I found in a google search for ‘in our DNA’:

A company that develops marketing campaigns, has ‘innovation is in our DNA’ as a tagline1

They’re not the only ones who claim innovation is in their DNA. The University of Waterloo says the same.2

Boston University’s claim of what’s in their DNA: “It’s in our DNA: an inherent desire in each of our students, faculty, and staff to vigorously and dauntlessly pursue knowledge—and embrace the unlimited possibilities that come with it.”3

At Princess Margaret Hospital, a cancer-focused treatment and research facility, there’s a ‘why’ gene in their DNA4 while at the Texas A&M University School of Law success is in their DNA5.

Recent news stories suggest that fear of spiders is in human DNA6, while others speculate that space travel is in DNA7, or that our DNA is made of collapsing stars8.

Perhaps the reason ‘in our DNA’ grates on me is that no one completely understands what’s in our DNA.

The genome project has made tremendous inroads into sequencing and mapping human DNA. We have identified all 25,000 odd human genes and given them names and can classify them into functional groups9, but that’s sort of like taking apart a house and being able to classify its parts into nails, pipes, wires and 2’x4’s – useful information but still lacking an explanation of how it all fits together and what it does when it’s assembled.

As far as gene function goes, information is sparse: a few mutant human genes causes diseases such as cystic fibrosis or sudden cardiac death. Another handful are for simple traits, such as eye colour or tongue rolling. Generally, there is no linear map between a complex process, like innovation, and a gene or set of genes.

We are far from understanding how most human behaviours are influenced by genes. Studies on identical twins [genetically identical by definition] investigated the genetic basis to behaviour10 and found about half of any given behavioural response is determined by what’s ‘in our DNA’ and the other half a result of our environment. However, studies to link specific genes to specific behaviours haven’t been as illuminating as hoped, according to Psychology Today11. A thoughtful article on this topic, which considers studies on the propensity of a human populations to explore and migrate to new areas, the so-called restless or explorer genes, is here12. My crude summation is: there’s a tendency, it probably has a genetic component but that doesn’t fully explain the behaviour.

Might innovation be in DNA? Since there’s an on-going controversy in the business literature13 over whether entrepreneurs are born or made, I’m willing to add ‘don’t know’ the behaviour influences of all genes to ‘don’t know’ what makes entrepreneurs and surmise maybe entrepreneurship is in some people’s DNA. But not organizations.

Is it fair for me to object to ‘in our DNA’ when I don’t have an  explanation to offer? We don’t know if innovation or entrepreneurship or the ability to choose killer marketing approaches is in our genes. That’s a joy of human nature – there’s mystery in what people will come up with, given the chance.

Perhaps we should leave the mystery of what’s in our DNA for artificial intelligence to discover, much to its dismay.


10for example Wright, W. (1998) Born That Way. Genes. Behavior. Personality. Knopf. New York or Steen, R. G. (1996) DNA & Destiny. Nature and Nurture in Human Behavior Plenum Trade New York.

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The Problem with Processed Meat

Has news of the declaration of processed meat as carcinogenic blown over?

One answer is: I got a really good deal on bacon the other day, validating my first thoughts about the report released Oct 25, 2015 from the World Health Organization that processed meats and maybe red meat are carcinogenic:

Woo-hoo, steak’ll be cheap now.

I do love a good rare hunk of rib steak, flash fried in a bit of butter, with a side of mushrooms and onions. Mmmm. Humans are omnivores and we’ve been eating red meat since, uhm, before we were human. Also, the designation of processed meats – not red meat – as carcinogenic suggested to me that it’s a consequence of processing, not the meat, that’s the greater risk. Finally, lots of things are carcinogenic, but it depends on how much you consume and how often you are exposed. (My first scientist’s segue: the details of the announcement dwelt on the types of cancer and the amount of consumption.¹)

After a bit of data diving, I wondered if this was a good story about the fun you could have with death statistics. Then I settled down and realized only a very small fraction of the population considers statistics fun. (If you are interested, here some details about the relative significance of processed meat in the grand scheme of risk factors for mortality.² )

Adventures in epidemiology aside, I started feeling, instead of thinking. The things that are on the same list as processed meat include asbestos, smoking, sunbathing. Many of us give a healthy respect to avoiding these things, perhaps because we’ve all known someone who has died of a cancer associated with exposure to one of them. The announcement should be taken seriously.

Can we rely on efficient capital markets to take care of us? Only if demand for processed meats fall so low that they are no longer cost effective to produce will the products disappear.

Or should society take a more proactive approach, protecting citizens from hazard and remove processed meat from our grocery shelves?

A fantastic business model would be a new approach to producing savoury, well-preserved meats that avoided the current, toxic processing. Problem is, do we know what that is? I’ve seen some reports³ that suggests it’s nitroamines (carcinogenic in many models 4) generated during high temperature cooking of meats, or maybe other compounds (certain aromatic hydrocarbons), or the fat content, which tends to be higher in processed meats, or maybe the iron in red meat causes excess oxidation and is the culprit?

The biologist in me returns to add: We inherently relish the taste of the things that aren’t good for us. Consider sugar and fat. Donuts. Ice cream. Throw in starch and you’ve got french fries, potato chips. Then add meat. Hamburgers. Pizza. Chicken wings.

Need I go on?

Why do we salivate over fast food gluttonies and not celery, carrots and cod? Because we’re still living with the urges that kept us alive over the past centuries when food was scarce and storing up calories was the best thing we could do for ourselves. If the Neanderthals had had a ready supply of cheese puffs, say at the corner store, they might have out-competed Homo sapiens and we’d be in a very different place today. Perhaps non-existent. Or maybe Homo neanderthals would have been less completive and we’d co-exist. They might let us have cheese puffs if we were very good co-inhabitants of their domain.

I’m side-tracked. Maybe because the topic of processed meat is too complex. Too tied up in what it is to be human. Just as it’s human to get caught up in a sensational announcement about the dangers of a food group we’ve been revelling in for decades.

We learn. We find better ways. We evolve, whatever that means to us.


¹ I made a trip to the WHO website so I could see the data for myself. First a few definitions. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb and a few other things, like horse. Processed meat seems to be a broad category, including any of the above meats smoked, cured, salted, fermented or other. Already, I’m sceptical. Scientific studies tend to be very specific, not use broad groupings.

Next question, what specifically is the risk? Colorectal cancer, definitely, maybe stomach cancer too.

From the Q&A posted by WHO: “According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, about 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.”

² Considering that there are 7.1 billion people on earth ( retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here ) and in 2012 about 56 million people died (retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here  ), processed meats causing 34,000 deaths is a small fraction, at 34,000/57,000,000 or approximately 0.06% of annual global deaths. Of course, if you happen to be one of the people who develop cancer because of processed meats, it is significant to you and your loved ones.

Also from the Q&A posted by WHO: “These numbers contrast with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600 000 per year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200 000 per year due to air pollution.”

So, a person’s chance of dying because of eating processed meat is about 1/30th the risk of smoking.

It’s a bit unfair taking a global perspective on this when it really depends where you live what you are likely to die of  (retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here) . In developing countries, death is much more likely due to cardiovascular and infectious disease, especially in children.

In Canada, it’s estimated that 9,300 people will died of colorectal cancer this year (retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here). That’s a sizable fraction of the global number of 34,000 (9,300/34,000 or 27%).

If we add the US, where slightly under 50,000 people are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2015 (retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here) , we can see that the processed meat number has been overtaken by total deaths from colorectal cancer. Certainly, it’s not the sole cause of such types of cancer. Worldwide, there were 694,000 deaths from bowel cancer in 2012 ( retrieved Nov 25, 2015 from here). So, 34,000/694,000 colorectal cancer deaths due to processed meats. Five percent.

But wait, there’s another dimension to this. How much consumption are we talking?

Q&A on WHO site says: “An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.”

Daily? I suppose if you ate a processed meat sandwich every day for lunch, you’d be testing these levels. But occasional consumption, not so much.

³ for example, the abstract to this paper: Cross, A. J. and Sinha, R. (2004), Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environ. Mol. Mutagen., 44: 44–55. doi: 10.1002/em.20030

4 Retrieved from Nov 24, 2015

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