Doomsday Machine

My blog posts are mostly about rationality and careful thinking.

This is not one of them.

In a hypothetical world where everyone is rational, one would expect better outcomes with careful, calculated actions. In reality, we are far less rational than we would care to admit; and sometimes irrationality wins.

In the classic Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove”, the Soviets create a Doomsday Machine, which will automatically and irrevocably set off nuclear bombs and destroy Earth if one of their key targets is hit. Obviously this Doomsday Machine provides immense deterrence value. Ironically, the Soviets kept it a secret, utterly defeating its purpose.

A Doomsday Machine is the ultimate manifestation of irrationality, a willingness and commitment to go all the way. It is greatly effective as a deterrent, as the outcome is certain, terrible, and irrevocable. The key, of course, is to make everyone aware of the consequences.

Another example: in a game of chicken, two cars speed towards each other and the one who swerves away first, loses. The best way to win is to break off your steering wheel and throw it out the window conspicuously, ensuring your opponent sees it. It is worth noting that, although imitation is a form of flattery, adopting the same strategy after you see your opponent do it, is suboptimal.

Curiously, by taking away one’s own freedom to choose, the opponent’s freedom to choose is taken away as well, assuming the opponent is rational. In this case, irrationality wins.

It comes in handy on the poker table. Going all-in takes away your opponent’s freedom to bluff. Similarly, by calling a large bet early on in the game with a less than premium hand, the other players will hesitate to bluff you later, knowing you might call the bluff.

However, what is most interesting to me is not how irrationality applies to game theory, but to human emotions such as revenge (and by extension, patriotism), love, and grief. My previous post on revenge focused on the revenger’s state of mind; the omission of publicity is atypical and likely pathological, but more effective and nuanced.

To me, the most surprising of all is how it applies to grief. It seems like such a strange thing to require an explanation; after all, grief happens when you lose someone or something you love dearly. The more you love, the deeper the grief. Yet it does not explain why grief is so debilitating and intense, to the point where one cannot eat, think, or function properly. Evolutionarily this makes little sense, as one would be more vulnerable to become food for predators. Some animals seem to grieve, but not to the extent of humans. Some propose that grief forces one to plan for life after the change; this is unsatisfying as it is too intense and lasting to be useful, not to mention that it impairs one’s ability to plan.

What parent has not worried sick that something bad might happen to his/her child? That is the byproduct of love, a reminder to protect and cherish what we have. Perhaps that’s what grief is: a deterrent, an emotional Doomsday Machine. Pointless once it goes off – certain, terrible, and irrevocable. An unusual explanation, but so far the best I’ve seen.

Credit: most of the observations are from How the Mind Works by Dr. Steven Pinker, one of my favorite authors.

Let's Break Homeostasis!

A common view on health, especially in Asian cultures, is that the root cause of maladies and diseases, especially cancer, is from an “acidic” body type, and that the key to good health and longevity is to achieve an “alkaline” body type through diet. This is often shared and spread on social media without second thought.

There are entire industries devoted to making products, such as alkaline water, based on this concept, along with countless internet memes and articles.

This view has been popularized by a Japanese doctor, who allegedly tested 100 cancer patients and found their blood to be acidic. The details are not known, however this sounds like a small retrospective cohort observational study. It is unclear if this study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or replicated independently, as I could not find it. Supposedly from this he infers causation and declares that an acidic body type is the root of all evil. Really? Assuming that his findings are true (doubtful for reasons to follow), an observational study by definition shows at most correlation. It cannot prove causation.

For example, say you look at a bunch of bad golfers, and you find that they share some common traits, such as poorly fitted, beginner clubs and a towel stuck in their back pockets. You look at the pro golfers and they all have pro clubs and no towels. It would be foolish to conclude that one is a poor golfer because of cheap clubs and tastelessly hanging towels, instead of other more plausible explanations such as luck, caddie, conspiracy, and minor details such as practice/skill level and hand-eye coordination.

OK, say the 100 known cancer patients all had acidic blood, and for some unknown reason were still alive. Since they were known cancer patients, most likely they were undergoing treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, etc.). It is possible that the acidic blood is a side effect from the therapy. It is also possible that the acidic blood was caused by the cancer, and not the other way around. Perhaps the instrumentation lacked calibration, or the author’s intentions were misaligned.

Let’s turn to an article oft attributed to and allegedly written by Dr. Kuo at the Veteran’s General Hospital in Taiwan. The claims are outlandish, but since it was reported by state run TV, it is likely that he actually did write this article. The claims are not automatically true because he is a medical doctor (argument from authority); nor are they automatically false because they do not fit my worldview. Each claim deserves to be looked at carefully and critically.

First the author commits the same logical fallacy about correlation and causation. Since this is the entire premise of the article, it should be dismissed. It’s like discussing the best strategy for surviving the zombie apocalypse.

The author claims specifically:

1. Acidic blood is the root of most diseases, based on information of unknown veracity and logical fallacy;

2. Clinical manifestations of acidic blood, without citation;

3. Four causes of acidic blood, without citation or reasoning;

4. Four categories of diseases causes by acidic blood, with no citation;

5. Six causes of acidic blood despite previously listing four;

6. Blood pH can be effectively influenced by food intake, with no citation;

7. People should attempt to increase blood pH level by eating specific foods;

8. Six categories of food from highly acidic to highly alkaline, without quantification;

9. Four types of people who are at higher risk;

10. Twenty three criteria to check if your blood is acidic (!) other than a pH test.

Let’s use the standard, universal definition of acidic being pH < 7.0 and alkaline being pH > 7.0. The central claim, of course, is that acidic blood is not healthy. Regular blood pH is between 7.38-7.42. Below 7.35, acidosis occurs, above 7.45, alkalosis occurs. To have acidic blood (pH <7.0) for an extended amount of time, would mean that your whole body acid-base buffer, i.e., homeostasis, is broken. It is technically true, however meaningless, that acidic blood is not healthy, since a termination event would likely occur quickly.

The truth is, everyone already has alkaline blood.

The clinical manifestations of acidic blood that the author states: “An acidic body type manifests itself in the following ways: dull complexion; athlete’s foot; lethargy; poor cardiovascular shape; obesity” are likely moot, as a dull complexion or fungal feet seem less important, especially when you are in a coma or dead.

To break acid-base homeostasis, it turns out, is not an easy task. One would think that bad things can happen if blood pH wanders outside of this very tight range; anybody that has taken chemistry knows that it doesn’t take much to alter pH levels. Wouldn’t it logically be easier to kill someone by injecting acid instead of, say, cyanide then? Actually, someone tried that. Enter Van Slyke and Cullen, who for some sadistic reason, injected a ridiculous amount of sulfuric acid directly into the bloodstream of a poor dog. The dog not only lived, but its blood pH level did not change by much. Presumably emboldened by this experiment, many others have proceeded to test the body’s acid-base buffer with a variety of acids and alkali, not only in dogs and cats, but in humans as well. All this happened in the early to mid 1900s, presumably before the time of IRB ethics reviews.  The body is really, really good at regulating blood pH levels.

It turns out, the easiest way to make your blood pH level higher, at least temporarily, is by hyperventilating. It is certainly more effective than the foods that the author claims, which are both inconsistent and have no prior plausibility. Whether you can keep hyperventilating constantly is a different story.

Out of curiosity, let’s look at some of the other claims.

Foods that are highly or moderately acidic: Egg yolk, cheese, white sugar, bread, tuna, chicken, cream, horse meat(!). I have strong doubts that these foods are in any way acidic, except for horse meat which I have not consumed, at least not knowingly. Even if you use the special pleading logical fallacy and say that these foods break down into something strongly acidic, it makes no sense because in order to do so, something strongly alkaline must be formed at the same time. It’s like pushing on the steering wheel to make the car go faster; it cancels out.

Foods that are highly or moderately alkaline: wine, grapes, egg whites, strawberry, carrots, lemons(!!!). Lemons are alkaline, so the author claims. Maybe that’s why I see all the heartburn sufferers instinctively reach for the lemon instead of the Tums at a frequency of well, exactly never. Perhaps the author really meant lemon-colored Tums; otherwise the thought that a scientifically trained medical doctor working in a top government hospital could believe that a lemon is alkaline would make me very, very depressed. And wary.

It is never made clear as to how these foods, when ingested in normal amounts can influence pH value of blood, after passing through your stomach, which is more acidic than Coke (pH 1.5~3), and then passing through your intestines, which is alkaline. Food is mostly digested and absorbed in the intestines, an alkaline environment.

How about some other claims. “Excessive intake of acidic foods result in acidic blood, which makes the blood sticky, causing poor circulation, cold hands and feet, stiff shoulder, and insomnia”. In other words, food affecting blood pH (not established with low prior plausibility) is further stretched to also increase viscosity of blood. Asserted as fact without citation or evidence, I did a quick search on the literature, and surprisingly did find a study from 2002 supporting the viscosity claim, but not the symptoms. No studies validated the premise of normal food intake having hemorheologic effects.

Let’s look at the 6 asserted reasons behind acidic blood:

1. Improper balance between acidic and alkaline foods.

2. Lack of exercise.

3. Psychological stress.

4. Acidic habits such as smoking and drinking.

5. Irregular daily routine.

6. Environmental pollution, especially water and air.

Let’s see….wine was touted as a highly alkaline food, but here it suddenly becomes acidic. I’m confused. Environmental pollution is a head scratcher, as the amount of ingested water necessary to influence homeostasis would probably be deadly on its own. And unless you’re living next to an active volcano, air affecting homeostasis is probably the least of your concern.

I am not saying that whatever the author is recommended is invalid. On the contrary, a lot of it is good, reasonable, common-sense advice on a healthy lifestyle. However, the pity is that a lot of this sound advice is given under the pretense of nonsensical, magical thinking. Sound advice should stand on its own, with evidence to back it up.

It is unnecessary to package it with misleading and factually incorrect medical conditions. An analogy can be made with say, murder. One should not murder, simply because it is morally unacceptable. Some claim that murder is unacceptable because a book from the bronze/iron age threatens that murderers will be tortured for an infinite duration, in a location with uncomfortably high temperature after death.  Convoluted, and simply unnecessary.

Deception

This is a loose English version of my Facebook post.

This thought experiment is based on Daniel Dennett’s Library of Mendel (originally from Fechner), although he used it to illustrate something completely different.

Imagine a library that has all the possible books ever written. Suppose each book is 500 pages with 40 lines each, with 50 spaces for each line. Each page will then consist of 2000 characters per page (including spaces). Say there are 100 possible characters (including space and punctuation marks), which should cover upper and lower cases of English and European variations of the alphabet.

Somewhere in the library, there is a book consisting of nothing but blank pages, and another book consisting of nothing but obscenities. It is a large, but finite, library.

Within this library you can find every book ever published, and their translations in all languages, including long-lost ancient ones. If the book you are looking for is longer than 500 pages, it can be found in the library, properly split and numbered into different volumes.

Fascinatingly enough, here you can find your biography that is 100% accurate, not only for your past, but also perfectly predict everything in the future, to the day you die. In fact, you can find it written in regular English, ebonics, limericks, or with obscenities scattered throughout.

You can also find the correct value of pi (3.14159265358979…), up to infinite precision, volume after volume. You can find it spelled out as well, like three point one four one five nine two six five and so on. Paradoxically, pi itself is infinite, however you can find it in this large but finite library.

In this library, you can find anything you want to know about the universe, from Mozart to your innermost thoughts.

Everything I have written so far is technically true. It is also completely misleading and deceptive.

  1. Choice of words. The use of “library” and “books” primes you to think of them as what you commonly encounter. In fact, the vast majority of “books” contain nothing but gibberish. The chance of you finding a volume that contains English words is astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chance of you finding a volume that contains grammatically correct sentences is also astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that makes sense is again, astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that is correct, is again, astronomically small. This is very different from the concept of “book” or “library” that you are used to, where every volume is meaningful and deliberately written to convey a thought. An analogy would be me pointing to a bunch of numbers and proclaiming, “within these numbers you can find the winning combination of the next 100 lottos”. The difference being that the odds are better finding the lotto numbers.
  2. The example of pi is also completely misleading. You need to know pi to the precision you want in order to find the volumes, not the other way around. Yes, pi is infinite, and the volumes are technically finite, so how does that work? It works because sooner or later, you will reuse the volumes. Specifically, a volume will be reused when a 1,000,000 digit sequence repeats and aligns. Sounds crazy, but it is a mathematical certainty.
  3. Using “your biography” induces you to be emotionally invested. It uses your narcissism against yourself. After all, who doesn’t want to know their own future? The problem is, even though such a biography exists, you wouldn’t know which one is correct, even if you could find it.

To break away from this nonsense, we need to adjust the parameters and see what happens. In Dennett’s terms, it is “turn the knobs on the intuition pump”. What happens when we reduce the number of pages from 500 to just one page? Well, the library becomes much smaller, and you are simply retrieving pages instead of volumes. What happens when we reduce it further, to just one line of 50 spaces? What happens when we reduce it to just one character?

One character? That’s easy. It’s just the original 100 character set. Everything is simply built from this character set.

In fact, we can further reduce it to 0 and 1, if we encode into ASCII or Unicode.

This thought experiment shows how framing can mislead one into thinking a certain way, how cherry picking special cases can paint a rosy picture, how the brain is not equipped to deal with large numbers (scope insensitivity), how easy it is to see meaning in randomness, and how getting emotionally involved can cloud one’s judgment. Politicians use these dirty tricks, as do weight loss commercials.

Sharpening one’s thinking tools, along with some understanding of psychology, can come in super handy.  Especially when you need to deceive others effectively.

How Long Would You Want to Live?

At birthdays, I’ve heard people wish others they live to 120. It’s a nice thing to say, since everyone wants to live a long life, no? Well, let’s see.

Other than the possible but statistically unlikely age of 120, let’s not make any unfounded assumptions about the rest of the world. That means, no anti-ageing miracle breakthrough, no cyborg-like mechanical integration, no brain-in-a-jar virtual reality, no special pleading.

Imagine Longoria, a 30 year old female born in a developed country, married with 2 kids, ages 1 and 4. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, 2012 Revision, her life expectancy is around 80, and her children’s life expectancy is around 85 or so.

Cognitive Impact

Some say age-related cognitive decline starts in the 50s, while a more recent study shows that it starts in the 20s-30s. They all agree that cognitive decline accelerates towards the end. By 60 there usually is some objectively noticeable effects despite the self-delusion, and it is hard to imagine what an additional 60 years of decline will do after that. At 110 there is unlikely to be much of a mentally functioning “self” left, nor a veridical memory of it. And then come 10 long years to deteriorate. If Alzheimer’s/dementia sets in, which will for 1 in 5 reaching 80, the remaining decades would be more of a burden.  Unfortunately even if one does not have it by then, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after 65 simply due to age.  It is hard to extrapolate to 120 due to low sample size, but the odds are not in one’s favor.  There is little joy in living to 120 if one cannot reasonably make sound decisions.

With the ability to learn, think, and remember diminished, it is likely that Longoria will spend decades behind the technology curve. Imagine an average 90 year old today in the digital, wireless, always connected world, marveling at how much the world has changed in a few short years, and how detached that must feel. Longoria will have 30 years of continued mental decline on top of 30 years of rapid technological advance, after she hits 90. Of course the premise is that keeping up with society in general is desirable. An alternative is to keep up with her peers rather than the larger general society; however this option is no longer available as all of Longoria’s peers would be dead for decades.

Physical Impact

The ageing process is brutal and unrelenting. Few if any machines can run for 100 years without major overhaul; similarly, virtually every piece of original equipment in the body will experience wear and tear, breakage and replacement. From vision, hearing, mobility, strength, endurance, to any other objective measure of health, Longoria will be on a steady decline.

Most seniors end up losing mobility and consequently their independence. For many, that happens around 85-90. Let’s give it the benefit of a doubt and say that happens to Longoria at 100. She will spend 20 long years using a walker, wheelchair, or in bed, needing assistance for even the most basic daily needs.

Social Impact

Undoubtedly, Longoria will outlive her spouse, her children, and her friends by decades. There is a very real possibility that she will outlive most of her grandchildren as well, and those grandchildren that have not died will likely be quite old and not in a position to be caregivers themselves.

All of Longoria’s old friends will have long died, and any new friends that still survive will be decades younger than her, and probably have a few generation gaps. It is unlikely that real, meaningful companionship will be attainable, especially with the cognitive decline. It is lonely at the top.

Financial Impact 

Most people plan for retirement and build their nest egg for 20-30 years at most. When the savings run dry, and obviously unlikely to generate new income, the situation becomes rather dire. Medical costs generally increase as people age, and senior care is not cheap. Most likely Longoria will run out of retirement savings, and become a significant financial burden on the children and grandchildren. On the bright side, she will have received more than her fair share of whatever social benefits exist at the time. If any.

Conclusion

Sometimes death is not the worst thing. I’ve heard of the victim’s family asking the judge to spare the killer’s life; they wanted life in prison without parole instead for him, preferably with big black dudes with testosterone squirting out their pores as roommates, and they wished him a long, eventful life. Seems a lot more vicious than death.

Intentions aside, I consider living to 120 a curse.