My job is building software. Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment. I like to think, at least, that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.
But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly. I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it. Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock. An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever. Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed. Why the heck is this?
Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions. His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:
Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.
So what is solutionism? Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking. In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.
Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash. The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.
So, what problems are these things solving? Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful. Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish? What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook. Bin-cam can have worse consequences. Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.
Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy. In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”. Should we have a carbon tax? Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes. With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception. All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert. And so on. (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)
Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”. Morozov writes:
Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well. if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.
I said there were flaws in the book. One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations. He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference. Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:
I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.
Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book. Tim Wu writes:
“To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.
Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions. Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?
There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition. Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.
In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:
Technology mocking itself – a good sign. Maybe I should make an app for that … ?
I like old things. Old swords, old houses, old places … I prefer them all over present day fashion. Yes, I need my cellphone, but, consider a hundred year old chair: Someone made that, put their skill and attention into it, and then someone brought it home and used it. And it persisted, decades longer than any “big box” store chair will last. What’s important in thinking about the future is not the present, which by definition is impermanent, but the past, which holds real, enduring lessons.
I especially like old stories, which brings me to my subject for today, a book entitled The Jim Corbett Omnibus. This was a gift from my friend and colleague here in Pune, Bhavuk. The book presents a series of stories, all written from roughly 1945 to 1955 and that speak to experiences form the 1920s and 1930s. The subject of the stories: Hunting for man-eating tigers and leopards.
I know, I know, sounds like Ripping Yarns and Argosy kind of stuff, right? But as I said, I like old stories and I really liked this. A sample:
As the old priest got up to leave me that evening I asked him if it would be possible for me to get some shooting in the locality, for my men had been without meat for many days and there was none to be purchased at Dabidhura. ‘Yes’, he answered, ‘there is the temple tiger.’ On my assuring him I had no desire to shoot his tiger he rejoined with a laugh, ‘I have no objection, Sahib, to your trying to shoot this tiger, but neither you nor anyone else will ever succeed in killing it.’ And that is how I came to hear of the Dabidhura temple tiger, which provided me with one of the most interesting shikar experiences I have ever had.
I love the tone of this writing: Simple, almost reporter-like, but with the understated building of tension that typifies the best pulp stories.
The India that Westerners see today is, for the most part, urban and modern. Yes, you see massive poverty and bizarre forms of infrastructure as the country grows at double-digit rates every year, but the main elements of the cities here would not be out of place in Florida, for example.
Not so in Corbett’s time. The population of India then was 200-350 millions (as compared to 1.2 billion today), and all overwhelmingly rural – today 31% of India’s population lives in cities, while in the 20s-30s the figure was on the order of 13%. People then lived in villages scattered across a challenging terrain – especially in the north – of rocky hills and mountains. The region Corbett writes about is in Uttarakhand, adjacent to Nepal and practically the foothills of the Himalayas. The land then was essentially in its natural state and fish, birds and game – like chital, a small spotted deer, sambhar, a larger long-horned deer, or arna, the wild water buffalo – were abundant. Where you have game, you will have carnivores. In India at the top of the food chain you have leopards, and tigers.
If we are speaking of a time 80 years ago, to the classification of “game” I’m afraid we have to add, well, people. All across the sparsely populated landscape men, women and children of all ages eked out their livings performing the tasks of close-to-medieval farming: cutting fodder, gathering firewood, herding goats, carrying water. These things were done on the edges of, or in the midst of, utter wilderness. For a tiger or leopard that has been diminished by age or wounded – many that Corbett killed carried 20 or more long porcupine quills embedded in their flesh – a 90 pound Indian woman is far easier game than a 500 pound, long-horned sambhar. Here Corbett describes one victim of a man-eater from the district of Thak:
The victim on this occasion was an elderly woman, the mother of the Headman of Sem. This unfortunate woman had been killed while cutting brushwood on a steep bank between two terraced fields. She had started work at the further end of the fifty-yard long bank, and had cut brushwood to within a yard of her hut when the tiger sprang on her from the field above. So sudden and unexpected was the attack that the woman had only had time to scream once before the tiger killed her, and taking her up the twelve-foot-high bank crossed the upper field and disappeared …
Tigers and leopards in those days were responsible for 1,000s of deaths; among the animals Corbett dispatched were a tigress and cub that were thought between them to have killed 525 people. There are over 20 separate stories in this compendium, including the accounts of over 10 man-eating tigers dispatched, and the 2-years long story of Corbett’s pursuit and killing of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, a single animal responsible for no less than 125 deaths between 1918 and 1926.
These animals are powerful; Corbett relates how a tiger had carried a full-grown cow over 4 miles. They are also, as you might imagine, wily hunters who naturally stalk anything that tries to stalk them; several times in these stories Corbett makes his way home in darkness only to discover next day the tracks of a tiger or leopard right atop of his own.
I have to say Corbett’s writing is not for everyone. By today’s standards it is by no means exciting. There is a volume of details on hunting procedures, and most of the stories expend significant time on the failures and setbacks Corbett encountered before finally bagging each man-eater. But I greatly enjoyed Corbett’s voice as he related each tale, all of them vibrant and evocative of an India that now only exists in parks, preserves, a few remaining villages, and the memories of the elderly.
Jim Corbett was a conservationist as well as a hunter, and became an adept wildlife photographer. India’s first national park is dedicated to him, the Jim Corbett National Park. My list of places to visit here in India has now gone up. Thanks, Bhavuk, for a wonderful book.
In closing, I can only wonder, what was it like for Corbett, making his way through jungles and over hills, seeking the man-eater but wondering if the man-eater might not be close behind? Perhaps something like this:
If you missed it:
The late 70’s and early 80’s was an era of small-scale capitalism. The microcomputer made it possible for a small team – even a single person – to create a product that had real impact. VisiCalc was written by 2 guys, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. The classic game Wizardry was also a 2-guy effort, written by Andrew (aka ‘Werdna’) Greenberg and Robert Woodhead. Ever look at the credits for a game today, like Angry Birds? It’s like reading the phonebook.
It Will Be Exhilarating ($4.99 on Kindle), by Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt (with an intro by Clay Shirky), is about how small-scale is coming back. Dan and Tom are the principals – in fact the only employees of – Studio Neat. Studio Neat’s first product was the Glif, a kind of clip for an iPhone 4/4s that let’s you mount your phone on a tripod. In telling the story of the Glif, and of their other product, the Cosmonaut, Dan and Tom provide a how-to guide to indie capitalism. And what is that, you ask? First some background:
For a long time if you wanted to make a product, you had to be a big company. Sure, you can be a craft-person and make one of a kind artisanal things, but those are more art works than they are products. To do a product you need to have a market, which means advertising, and you need to have production, which means having a factory, and having both of those meant you had to be big.
No more, because of two things. First is the internet and in particular social and sharing services that make it easy for interest groups to form – there’s your market. The second thing is a range of manufacturing advances like 3-D printing – where anyone can create a physical prototype of a designed object – and small-run production – like this, this and this – which make it cost-effective for small, virtual companies to make things. What kind of things, you ask? There’s Yield Picnic, a beach-bag that converts into a blanket; Magnetic bike lights; and the Captain Crepe Pan, “the best CAST IRON PAN for making the world’s BIGGEST AND BEST CREPES.” These are just a few examples of 1,000s of projects on Kickstarter, the leading “crowd funding” site. Most of these are small efforts, in the $10 – 30,000 funding range. Some are much bigger, in the millions.
Kickstarter is the best single example of what indie capitalism means, namely: It’s traditional capitalism where buyers and sellers meet in a market and do business, but its also “independent” in that you’re not dealing with a giant corporation that is constrained to deliver only products that align with some global mega-strategy, but with a small entity whose only business is the thing you want to buy. You think Apple really cares about your individual comments on its products? If you didn’t get the memo, they don’t. Yes, when the whole world calls Apple Maps an epic fail, they care. That’s the extent of their engagement with you. That’s not how it is on a Kickstarter project. The whole idea on Kickstarter is the project owners interact with their backers and that you as a backer have a say in how things will turn out.
Last two background things I’ll mention are Maker Faire and Lifehacker – if these are news to you, they are two of the strongest originating impulses for indie capitalism. Lifehacker is for do-it-yourselfers – like, who want to fix their own smartphone. Maker Faire is more creativity and product oriented, but it shares with LifeHacker the core idea that you, not the “big guys”, can make something useful.
Getting back to the book, the great thing about IWBE is to see a complete end-to-end story. I think lots of folks have heard about the creative part of this kind of work. What about the nuts and bolts of retaining a small-run manufacturer? Should you manufacture offshore? What about packaging? Fulfillment? Dan and Tom have something to say about all that. The numbers they share on their operation are also interesting. Studio Neat’s Frameographer product has sold about 20,000 copies. At $2.99 per user, and with 30% going to Apple, they are not on the billionaire track with this stuff. But that’s not the goal. In their own words:
In “start-up” culture, there are basically two trajectories: become super successful so you can become the next Twitter or Facebook, or aim to get acquired by a larger company. There are very few new start-ups that have the goal of staying intentionally small, building great products that can be sold for a profit, and growing organically.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Indie Capitalism is that there is now a middle ground. Instead of the “go big or go home” approach of most start-ups, it is now feasible to “go small and have complete autonomy over your products and not work crazy, unreasonable hours.” That’s probably a little too long to catch on, but you get the idea.
If this is new to you and you’re interested, It Will Be Exhilarating is a pretty good read – a window into a cool world that all of us as consumers can benefit from. And if you are thinking of trying the indie capitalism thing, I heartily recommend IWBE – for $4.99 you can read about what worked, what didn’t, and get tons of references to help you plan your own personal conquest of the long tail.
Ok, let’s go back in time again. Our destination is not the 1970’s and the dawn of microcomputers, but the 1870’s and the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III and his chiefs of staff arrive just as a Prussian artillery barrage commences. Despite the confusion of breaking camp to evade the falling shells, a 24-year old chef decides the assembled leaders will want a meal the following morning. Taking some blown-up railroad ties to create a makeshift frame, the chef impales a large joint of beef on a sword and starts roasting it; taking another sword in hand he guards the beef all night from hungry stragglers attracted by the enticing aroma. At 9 am the following morning, with some supplies obtained from a local farm, he serves the following menu to Napoleon and his officers:
Canned Sardines in Oil; Sausage; Soft-boiled Eggs; Roast Beef, Cooked to Perfection; Potato Salad
- To drink was water from a horse-trough the chef filtered himself, though to finish the diners had coffee and cognac from the Emperor’s personal store. Thus fortified, the Emperor and officers and all the French troops fled the morning barrage from the Prussians.
- The chef was Auguste Escoffier, and this was not the least of his innovations or creative solutions. A Dash Of Genius ($2.99 for Kindle) by Jeremiah Tower is mostly an overview of this great chef’s life and accomplishments, augmented by Tower’s own experiences with Escoffier’s legacy and recipes. Tower is himself a tremendously accomplished chef, one who helped build the world-famous Chez Panisse.
- But this short book is all about Escoffier. As a member of the dining public, owner of all of Julia Child’s books, most of Jacques Pepin’s, and frequent viewer of pretty much any cooking show – unless it features the ever-irritating Gordon Ramsay – I like to think I know a lot about cooking, for an amateur. I of course knew the name Escoffier, but I thought of him as just an example of the broader French tradition and, coming from La Belle Époque, as a representative of an outdated cuisine, marked by heavy sauces and pointlessly complex preparations.
- How wrong I was. Everything we take for granted about fine dining, and restaurant cooking in general, comes from this man. Before Escoffier, dishes were not cooked to order. Restaurants had timed seatings, and then the same dishes – in great variety of course – were served to all diners. Escoffier perfected ordering à la carte, and the kitchen system necessary to quickly fill incoming orders. Before Escoffier, kitchens were organized into separate sections; the conduct and quality of the salads was often different from that of the grill, from that of the pastry, etc. After Escoffier the kitchen was run by a single commander, and all the sections worked together to a single set of standards and on a single menu.
- Before Escoffier, a woman – especially in England – did not dine out, unless she was a demi-mondaine. Escoffier invited the Prince of Wales to bring his wife, Mary of Teck, to dine at the Ritz; after that ladies of better society decided they could all dine with their husbands.
- Finally, perhaps his greatest contribution was a modern vision of professionalism in the food and hospitality trade. Before Escoffier the traditional French kitchen was a brutal place, emphasizing unquestioning obedience to the chef that was often reinforced with blows from spoons, rolling pins or worse. Escoffier’s standards and expectations were high, but he did not use violence to promote them; instead he used training and a refined, insightful and sometime humorous attitude that allowed him to communicate easily both with the lowliest apprentice, as well as with Princes and Dukes – of which Tower cites many examples.
- I think the great virtue of A Dash Of Genius is how much it provides in a small space. I’ve tried to give a flavor of what Tower covers, but the 120-so pages gives much, much more. Rather than listing all that, I’ll just give a recipe:
Cut up a rabbit.
Sauté in hot lard.
Add 6 finely chopped onions. Season with salt and pepper.
Add 1 glass cognac and 1 glass white wine.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
- This recipe became Lapin de Gravellote, as Escoffier first served it on the battlefield of Gravelotte. What could have been simpler? Some time back in the US, I need to make this.
- The wrap-up: A great, short book. I like it. Tony Bourdain likes it. If you care about food, you will too.
A bit of a postscript … Why did I do these two reviews together? What’s the link? Of course, A Dash Of Genius is a type of indie capitalism, the kind of writing we’d never see if it was up to the big publishers. So, there’s that.
But when I read It Will Be Exhilarating, frankly I wasn’t exhilarated. I think indie capitalism is neat and all that, but there’s a flip side to it – one of self-indulgence, a boutique viewpoint that is pointlessly unique, and products that aren’t that great, which only exist because nowadays you can find the 1000 people in all the world who care about your dorky little clip. In a cynical mode, one might re-title IWBE to “It will be mildly useful to a few people, somewhere”.
But reading A Dash Of Genius, I was taken by Escoffier’s passion. His accomplishments were great, but more important was what he surmounted, and what he stood for. Had he been around today I think he might have been an indie capitalist. When opening the Hotel Ritz in Paris and discovering all the dining room chairs and tables were 1 inch too high, Escoffier sent them back to the cabinet maker to have the inch removed, all 3 hours before opening time. I can’t picture this man working for a mega-corp. And that made me think Dan and Tom of Studio Neat must be taken by the same thing – they have their standard, and that’s what they want to build to.
Here’s the link: Personal vision and passion in what you do – things so hard to get, but with unmatched rewards, whether you’re cooking for royalty or making something for a 1,000 true fans.
Thanks for reading.
I’m a regular reader of Paul Krugman’s articles and blog. One of my takeaways from B-school was an interest in macroeconomics and Krugman’s objective and unapologetic style – as well as his argument – clicks with me.
But I’m not posting about economics. I find I share Krugman’s taste in music and books. His last Friday’s post featured Fairport Convention, an all-time favorite band for for the Salazar family. Other bands he likes I find I like too: The Civil Wars, and Arcade Fire.
Over 4th of July vacation I read Use of Weapons and Excession; both were good, though I liked Excession more. Anyway, being here in India on my assignment, not yet joined by family, I have a lot of time for reading. Since coming here I finished Consider Phlebas and am halfway through Look to Windward. I haven’t found any SF I like for so long, The Culture is a great to come across now – vast, space-opera scope, which makes it fun, and at the same time just good characters, which makes it interesting.
If this stuff is news to you, check out some of Krugman’s music and books. Of course if you also look into his politics, I really can’t help that, now, can I?
Last week’s New York Times carried a rather chilling op-ed, entitled Why China’s Political Model is Superior, by Eric X. Li. Mr. Li is the chairman of Chengwei Capital. Chengwei is an investor in firms such as Youku.com, a Chinese Youtube-like service, AntonOil, the largest oil drilling and services company in China, and AAGI, China’s leading producer of coal-bed methane. This is not Mr. Li’s first op-ed in the Times; last year they published Counterpoint: Debunking Myths about China.
So, why is China’s political model superior, exactly? In Mr. Li’s view, America and other like-minded nations assume democracy is an end in itself, causing us to waste time and energy in pointless politicking. Meanwhile, Mr. Li tells us “China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends”. And what are those ends"? Again, in Mr. Li’s words, “economic development” and the “national interest”. As to who decides what those things are – for example, whether tainted formula is or is not in the national interest – Mr. Li says only it should be left up to the “leaders”. He clearly feels China’s leaders are wise and resolute, citing the example of Tiananmen Square, an event for which the nation paid a “heavy price”, but nonetheless “ … ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.”
Chilling stuff. But this grim utilitarianism faces outwards as well as inwards, as detailed in Stefan Halper’s The Beijing Consensus. Dr. Halper is a distinguished academic and long-time republican who served in both the Reagan and Bush I’s administrations. While he acknowledges the many humanitarian and rights-oriented perspectives on China, this book is about the perspective of global strategy. Halper’s premise is that China’s state capitalism, linked with the ruthless political model praised by Eric Li, is a combination that is not only “beating the West at its own game”, but is also creating a global posture that is isolating us and, if left unchecked, could one day leave the Western democracies with few choices to debate. How China is doing this is best illustrated by remarks from Abdoulaye Wade, President of Sengal, who in 2008 said:
China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations. In fact, the Chinese model for stimulating rapid economic development has much to teach Africa … I have found that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities.
Here is Li’s utilitarianism again. Of course, Wade is not just talking about cutting red-tape, but about “incentives” for his ruling elite to allow projects to happen, something that Chinese companies can do easily, but that US companies, being subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, cannot.
Halper details how Africa is a key part of Chinese strategy. Africa has at least 30 “totally or partly unfree” regimes, and China uses an ask-no-questions policy when dealing with their leaders – which makes sense, since China has a history of pleading offense when other nations comment on its own “internal affairs”. The net benefit for China is expanded trade, access to energy reserves, access to critical high-tech natural resources (like cadmium, tin and tungsten), and support for its broader political agenda – for example, with Taiwan.
A second benefit is lurking in Eric Li’s op-ed – more and more countries seem to agree with him. As Halper points out, the majority of people in Latin America, Africa, and most of the Middle East, now prefer “social order” over democracy. It wasn’t always this way. In 2002, 67% of Venezuelans said they liked American ideas on democracy; in 2007, the number was down to 40%. Halper’s view is that wars in Irag and Afghanistan certainly haven’t helped American prestige, but what’s most important is that China is filling the vacuum we are creating. When we consider that in the wake of the Arab Spring, democracy does not seem to be surging to the fore, the direction of Li’s op-ed becomes all the more worrisome.
Halper’s book lays out a blueprint for action. His recommendations can be debated – there’s more democracy for you – but one of his points is crystal clear: America is still the strongest world power, and especially has potential for “soft power” that far outweighs Beijing’s. Developing nations may like Chinese quick, utilitarian action, but they also can recognize the proverbial two-edged sword when they see it. The day it becomes in the “national interest” for Beijing to deal harshly with any client, or even to pollute its water and air, by its own principles it will do so. We democracies on the other hand can’t act that way – we have populations that for the most part won’t put up with that. Yes, I know, there’s hundreds of counter-examples that can be cited. I still say the difference is real. We need to make sure the developing world sees those differences.
To wrap up, here’s the best way I can describe The Beijing Consensus: Before reading it I was like most Americans, I thought the most important things about China were the financial and employment impacts of US addiction to Chinese imports; eventually Yankee know-how would have gotten us out of that mess. I would have dismissed Eric Li’s manifesto of political superiority as face-saving bluster of a slowly fading system, one that was inevitably destined to be replaced with some form of democracy – Chinese people have the same needs and wants as American people, right? For me, Halper’s book put all that into the context of a bigger game, one where:
The expanding appeal of China’s governing model is shrinking the West – making our notions of society and government less relevant – and will do more to alter the quality of life for Americans and the West in the twenty-first century than any other development.
I can’t speak to the political or academic quality of Halper’s book – I’m neither a politician nor a professor – but as a member of the American democracy I found it insightful. I certainly wish we could refute Eric Li’s op-end by having our 2012 candidates speak to the challenges Halper lays out. Somehow I expect that is a job that we the people will have to do for ourselves.
My last post talked about contrasting evolutionary strategies of large populations that reproduce and mutate rapidly, vs. small populations that use individual adaptability to contend with environmental challenges. Then this morning in the Times I saw this article: Study Finds Virus to be Fast Learner on Infecting.
The article showed how bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria) mutate to use new attack pathways in a matter of days – 15 days in this experiment. The new attack requires 4 specific mutations, and in 22 out of 96 repeated experimental runs, the persistent little ‘phages hit upon the same set of 4.
Amazing stuff, this is evolution running in the lab. It also shows the infinite-monkeys principle at work, though in this case the simians aren’t typing Shakespeare, they’re typing a set of 4 mutations.
It’s also a good point to reflect on the fact that we complex, adaptable, novel-writing, sushi-making humans are not the real “rulers” of the planet. Based on biomass that lofty perch belongs to bacteria, algae and those diligent viruses.
I like reading many kinds of science books, but as a category books on evolution are my favorites. I suppose it’s because evolution is the great scientific truth that is most discernable. Certainly, relativity and quantum mechanics are biggies in the truth department, but I don’t call those “discernable”. Evolution, on the other hand, is all around – just look at a snail or a tree or a bird and ask yourself, “How did that thing get that way?” Pastafarians, of course, have their own explanation – evolution is mine.
Evolution and the Emergent Self, by Raymond L. Neubauer, takes on the “how did that thing get that way?” question from an intriguing viewpoint, by looking at how complexity arises in evolution. The starting point of the book is the observation that for all living things there are two fundamental strategies: A maximum growth rate strategy, where the organism multiplies as fast as possible, relying on very large population sizes to mutate and adapt as required; and then a stable or homeostasis strategy, where the organism relies on complexity to provide individual adaptability to contend with changing conditions. An example would be, in an environment of frequently drying ponds, algae must evolve a special cell-wall to keep from desiccating when conditions turn arid, but a frog can just hop to a different pond. No organism relies entirely on one strategy over another, but clearly bacteria, shrimp and most insects are examples in the large-population camp, while birds, mammals and good ‘ol Homo sapiens are in the homeostasis camp.
What I found enjoyable in this book is how far Neuberger was able to go with this simple idea, and how many separate destinations he achieved. An early chapter looks at the information content of life. Genes and brains both are information storage, in that both are ways of encoding different states. Having a lot of genes is one form of complexity; its benefit is when you need to adapt, you have a lot of options, in terms of things to turn on or off or to mutate. Turns out that rice has nearly 58,000 separate protein-encoding genes, while we humans have a mere 22,300. Reduced to information processing terms, there are about 832 million bits of data in those 22,300 genes. That’s just over 100 megabytes, about 10 times the size of a program like Microsoft Word.
The human brain encodes a lot more data – with 86 billion neurons, and each neuron with about 1,000 synapses per neuron on average, that’s 86 trillion bits. That is one long program. Anyway, having a brain let’s the organism encode a lot more adaptive states than having a lot of genes.
I said this book went to a lot of destinations. Some others: Why big brains generate the need for play; Entropy in evolution; Sociobiology; and even the origin of life and its likelihood outside our solar system. All this topical variety makes the book a bit disjointed, but for my part I liked it – it was like a fact-filled but rambling conversation with a congenial genius.
To wrap up, I’d never suggest Evolution and the Emergent Self as a starting point for your evolution-library – there’s The Selfish Gene, The Mismeasure of Man, and countless others to get first. But if you are looking for something refreshing in the field, pick up Neuberger’s book – I think reading it proves its own point, that having a brain is a good thing.