Category Archives: The World

Ideas about politics, business, or other general interest topics.

Neuroethics

I often like to say that, in my line of work in computational neuroscience, they don’t let me deal directly with other humans. This is jokingly said to reflect the fact that I have no interpersonal skills or rather to suggest that the results from my mathematical models are narrow in scope and likely not to have direct implications on human health, for a variety of reasons. One reason for this is because the data I use to constrain my models comes primarily from experiments from animals and are often used in a qualitative fashion. This is because I am often more interested in general dynamical principles of networks that may exist in the brain, since the real problem of full understanding is quite a bit less tractable (but not necessarily impossible). Another reason is that all computational models — from neuroscience to genetics to economics — have numerous simplifying assumptions that must be understood carefully in order to interpret the model results appropriately. There is a great deal of responsibility that accompanies the communication of model results, since these explicit and implicit assumptions must be carefully specified.

Yet, despite these reasons for not marketing my work in a way that suggests it has direct implications for human health, I recognize that the study of brains and nervous systems has wide ranging implications on so many issues that will impact human health fundamentally. Perhaps even moreso than genetics, brain science is widely believed to be addressing many secrets of who we are as humans and as individuals. While both are complex molecular machines, the implications of altering brains seems to have an immediacy that may be unique. I believe that neuroscientists have a professional responsibility to understand how the greater public, policy makers, health care providers, businesses, and the law will use and interpret our findings and to help ensure that these societal decisions are supported by science. Since we admittedly know so little (as a field, we are full of factoids), we currently need to be clear when there is not enough evidence to support these decisions.

Among the issues, some of which are unique to neuroscience, include cognitive enhancement, incidental findings of maladies that might come up in a subject who is involved as a research participant, implications on neuroscience-based evidence in court, predispositions for a profile of a person’s brain toward certain decisions or actions, rights and access of a patient’s brain-related health care records, and a host of other privacy issues that may speak to core personality issues that may be exploited one day for marketing. This is not at all an exhaustive list.

There is an emerging field of neuroethics that helps to address many of these issues, with organizations that are attempting to establish guidelines that help researchers and the public make good decisions. In fact, there exists a Presidential Commission For The Study Of Bioethical Issues that in part focuses specifically on neuroscience-specific issues. They just finished up a meeting that facilitated discussion of several of these issues. My hope is that all of us as professionals take this responsibility seriously and that we engage our friends and the public in discussing these important issues openly in order to educate each other.

Faces

Just wanted to share this Kahlil Gibran poem. There’s a memorial outside of the Boston Public Library for Gibran, a beloved writer and one of my favorites. I don’t always understand his writing, but his poem “Faces” resonates with me.

I have seen a face with a thousand countenances, and a face that was but a single countenance as if it held in a mould.

I have seen a face whose sheen I could look through to the ugliness beneath, and a face whose sheen I had to lift to see how beautiful it was.

I have seen an old face much lined with nothing, and a smooth face in which all things were given.

I know faces, because I look through the fabric my own eye weaves, and behold the reality beneath.

BP oil spill in the Gulf

The BP oil well that sprung a leak has led to one of the most concentrated environmental disasters, especially for the Gulf Coast region of the Southeastern United States and surrounding coastal areas. The majorly oversimplified problem is that there is a leak in the well far below the water surface, and it’s hemorrhaging oil into the ocean. No one seems sure of how to fix it.

While I am ignorant with respect to almost anything beyond what I’ve stated above, the overwhelming complexity of the problem reminded me of another problem that I once read about as a child. In that case, there was a sunken ship or something that was submerged in the ocean, and someone had recalled an old comic where they put a lot of ping pong balls into a submerged ship in order to raise it. The idea is very simple: increasing the buoyancy in a closed system should exert a force on the object and raise it to the surface of the water.

In the case with the oil well, while the specifics of such a notion would need to be worked out, here’s one of my simplistic ideas. Because we cannot get to the source of the leak easily, perhaps we can try and contain the leak in another way, by placing a sleeve over the entire well. If sealed properly at the ocean floor, this could conceivably fill the sleeve with oil and give us a chance to contain it from the top instead of dumping into the ocean.

Another simplistic idea is to increase the size of the aperture at the surface, again where we can perhaps control the oil a bit better. Because there is pressure being exerted into the pipe, at the moment it is flowing out of the break. But if another aperture is created, perhaps the pressure is enough to push oil beyond the break and toward the surface. Consider a straw that has a hole in its side. Now actively push water through. If the pressure is relatively low, water will flow out of the side hole and little if none will reach the top, depending on several factors such as aperture size relative to the diameter of the straw and pressure. If the pressure is higher, however, this will send more of the flow past the side hole, since the side hole is oriented orthogonally to the flow of the fluid. Essentially, create another break at the top in order to lessen the impact of the lower break.

Obviously these two notions are very simplistic, but they could conceivably lead to a solution to containing the growing problem in the Gulf.

Repurposing Sept 1

September 1 is a special day in Boston. It’s Moving Day. More aptly, it’s the biggest mess of frantic young, new residents to our fair city who are desperately trying to move in or move around the city. Nearly every single lease turns over on Sept 1, so this affects a large part of the renter population in Boston (most of us). It’s the day on which Uhauls are parked haphazardly onto curbs and every minor artery is clogged with cars with mattresses strapped to the roofs, invariably with the passenger’s hand clinging for dear life to the mattress to ensure that it doesn’t end up as roadkill for the local buses. The Ridiculousness That Is Sept 1 actually begins the night before and extends well into the late evening, and so it is a day when, as a person who stays put, it’s just best not to go outside.

However, I want to repurpose the Dreaded Moving Day into something that some of us who are less crazy on Sept 1 can enjoy, while allowing us to move about our daily lives and yet avoid the traffic conditions that are worse than on Red Sox playoff game days near Fenway. I propose that today is Running Commute day, on which runners and non-runners alike can run to work in Boston. It could be that I am the first and only celebrant of this wonderful holiday, complete with baby wipes and deodorant, but from now on in Boston, this is how I will celebrate the madness that is Sept 1. While my strategy in past years was to hide in my apartment like a frightened turtle inside its shell, I will hide no longer! I will run to work. Dear reader(s), you are welcome to join.

Happy Running Commute Day!

Korea’s leaders

Even as an American citizen, I identify strongly with my joint Korean-American culture. I’ve always naturally considered the South Korean president to be a representative of me as well, since Korea is a small country with a relatively small population of people. Today, as we celebrate the life and legacy of deceased President Kim Dae Jung (김대중), we are reminded of the peace he hoped to foster with our North Korean neighbors, who preside over fellow Koreans. Recently, former President Noh Mu-hyun (노무현) also passed away, the first of now two leaders whom we as a community of Korean people have recently lost. I hope that we continue to respect the legacies of both, as we engage North Korea in dialogue and continue to seek a path toward either reunification or at least a better life for Koreans in the north.

The media as a tool

Perhaps for the first time in my adult life I’ve really paid close attention to local affairs. In Boston, it’s apparent that we rely on several services that are irreplaceable, most notably the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), who among other things is responsible for our heavily used public transportation system. This year, I’ve noticed that the media has picked up on two different, relatively large organizations in Boston who have painted a grave picture of their current financial situation in hopes of mobilizing public outrage against governmental inaction.

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The airplane’s black box

In the wake of the recent tragedy surrounding the Air France 447 flight, it appears that the plane’s recorder, or black box, is unlikely to be recovered. If the box were to not only help explain this plane’s accident but perhaps prevent future accidents, then this is unfortunate. The lead investigator held up a similar device in his hand — it appears to be relatively easy to handle. I am wondering whether or not there could be a floatation device attached to it that could make it more easily recoverable. I think that engineering can address the key questions involved in making this a viable option.

An immediate question that springs to mind is the time of the flotation deployment. Much like a raft that inflates, a parachute that opens, or an airbag that engages, such a device could be triggered by an event, perhaps something like a liquid sensor or an accelerometer.

Of course many other issues would have to be worked out, but I know nothing about this specialized field of engineering, so perhaps these things already have been employed. It seems like an idea whose time has come if it could perhaps give peace to loved ones and save future lives.

And of course, may families find peace in the wake of this tragedy.