Science Diet: Bitcoins. And Big Data


Science Diet is a weekly selection of five science/technology stories that are timely and relevant, fascinating and inspiring, and certain to stimulate your mind.

  1. More than an IT hub

It’s also India’s e-waste hub. Bangalore generates an estimated 18,000 tonnes of electronic waste a year. Most of which ends up being dismantled or burned by low-paid workers, often children without any safety precautions, to extract metals such as copper. The lead or mercury released poisons the groundwater. Quite apart from the e-waste, India is projected to be the fastest growing region in the world. For waste generation.

Stat: In the U.S., an estimated half-a-million electronic items are disposed of every day. They, and other rich nations, ship much of their e-waste  classified as “safely disposed”  to developing countries to be burned, buried, or chemically dissolved. Globally, by 2025, production of garbage of all kinds will reach 6 million tonnes a day.

Part of the problem is our insatiable appetite for the newest gadgets. Tech companies encourage this by making their product lifecyle short, releasing newer, shinier versions frequently: “Objects are not currently designed to be recycled. A change in design practices won’t occur without stricter legislation or until materials become so expensive that there is real interest from companies to design with recycling in mind.”

So what do you do with your old phone? Earn some good karma by selling it online.

2. Bitcoin

Call it the Knockturn Alley of the Web. Silk Road  selling drugs, medicines for off-label use without prescriptions, and weapons  a website only accessible if you use the anonymity of Tor, was shut down, its founder arrested, and money worth around $3.6m was seized. But that wasn’t cash in a currency you or I use.

Bitcoin is once again in the limelight. Here’s a Guardian primer on the anonymous, peer-to-peer, digital “crypto-currency”. What do they look like? Files of seemingly random data. How does it work? See this. Who created it? Someone under the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. Who uses it? Well, Silk Road accounted for a lot of its usage so far. But anarchists, libertarians and everyone who lies in between loved it for its creation of a “distributed digital economy outside the law, one where money flows across borders as free as bits.” Others became easy millionaires, just because whenever someone new uses bitcoins, their value tends to increase. Homeless people can even work for bitcoins now.

Here’s a hacker’s take on it. And a brief history here.

3. If the service is free, then you’re the product

You’ve heard it many times now. Big Data is the new oil. It’s everywhere, it makes devices smart. Big Data will transform how we live, work, and think. Big Data is so big and pervasive that there’s even an app, called Poop Diary, “to easily record your every bowel movement — including time, color, amount, and shape information.” Big Data famously enabled a retail store to predict which of its customers were pregnant and their likely delivery date. And Big Data enables IBM’s Watson to help in the development of drugs, come up with novel recipes, and act as an expert adviser to doctors in diagnosing illnesses.

This piece in the New York Review of Books asks if we’ve become puppets in a wired world and given up on our privacy. Our willingness to record and share every bit of our lives  for free  makes it possible for agencies like the NSA to “to tap the most sensitive data held on these smart phones, including contact lists, SMS traffic, notes and location information about where a user has been.”

If that sounds benign, how about “predictive policing”?

4. Can compassion be trained?

There is inevitably a problem when one tries to describe or explain subjective experiences in the language of the objective methods of modern science. One needs both approaches, if the mysteries of the mind are to be explored. One very popular tool to try and do that, is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This story in Science documents the work of Tania Singer, a researcher trying to establish the neural correlates of empathy and compassion. And no, the two are not the same, if the different brain patterns are to be believed.

There is a certain kind of meditation in the Buddhist tradition which cultivates metta, usually translated as loving kindness or compassion towards the whole world. Tania believes people can be trained to be more compassionate and better at regulating their emotions through this practice.

There’s a problem, of course. Religion and science don’t mix easily, even when the meditative practices are secularised, pulled out of their religious context and origins. So although Tibetan Buddhist monks can now be found inside MRI machines and scientists can be found meditating and collaborating with the Dalai Lama, skeptics still remain. That hasn’t stopped research, though: there’s even a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, whose mission is “to understand the neuroscience of compassion and altruism on a deep level.”

The different, but related practice of mindfulness meditation has proven helpful for a variety of mental maladies from depression and anxiety to tobacco-addiction. There are even structural differences between the brains of long-time meditators and novices. Such changes can show up after just a weeks of meditation training.

Certain other changes are happening rather more visibly: an education in modern science is now a mandatory part of Tibetan monastic education.

5. Bhatnagar Prize Awardees

Two of the scientists to be awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award this year, India’s highest science prize, are profiled by Samar Halarnkar at the Mint. Yamuna Krishnan at NCBS, works on DNA: how to artificially weave it into longer strands, which can be manipulated to create nanoscale machines of living matter. Medical devices made of such material could one day be employed to introduce drugs directly into diseased cells.

Bikramjit Basu, at IISc, grows cells on non-living material to create new bones, cardiac, or nerve cells. He does this with the help of extremely mild electric currents which regulate growth of bone, cardiac, nerve and even stem cells atop an artificial substrate.

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