Feb 08

Evolution is parallel computing

Let’s say you created a program with a simple yet specific goal: to persist. This program would iterate by replicating itself and branching off into new directions with very simple changes to the underlying code. Each version of the program is without volition, yet, if successful in persisting long enough to replicate, it will pass along key components to the next version. This would grant further success and the program would survive.

DNA is this program and we who inhabit the earth are its compiled result. If all life is the result of this process of iteration (biological evolution), it makes sense that to iterate more rapidly and efficiently it would help to have multiple branches, populations, and individuals iterating in parallel rather than attempting to iterate serially from a single line of individual organisms. In other words, maybe our rich biodiversity is the result of Life increasing its processing power by developing in parallel.

DNA HelixLife started out with a limited ability to create new versions with significant variation. In the beginning, presumably only a handful of different organisms existed (maybe even an ur-lifeform, or grandfather organism) and these tended to be unicellular with minute amounts of genetic information. As life forms evolved and grew more complex, they incorporated other single-cell organisms into them and adapted sexual reproduction, which granted enhanced variability in genetic information through the combination of two sets of different yet fundamentally compatible DNA sequences.

Other thoughts:

  1. Life has developed from simple forms with limited genetic information and a limited impact on its environment, to complex forms with complex genetic information and a more pronounced impact on its environment. How will this trend continue? Will it?
  2. Life has developed multiple methods of reproduction trending from simple to more complex, which has led to greater genetic diversity. Is there a logical improvement on sexual reproduction? Intelligent, self-directed mutation? A networked organism comprised of intelligent individually evolving components?
  3. The human genome consists of 3 billion base pairs, which is equivalent to about 750 MB. Our genome contains genetic information from more primitive organisms (bloatware?) just as our physical structure has primitive antecedents.
  4. Our biological systems have tended from simple to complex. Consider the development of the eye, or the heart (fish have a two-chambered heart, birds a three-chambered heart, and mammals a four-chambered heart), for example. Is technology the proper extension of this complexity? (This is a point made in The Singularity is Near)
  5. Semi-related: The symbolic use of information in religious sources like the Bible is reminds me of the idea of DNA as living information: From John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” and Revelation 1:8 “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
  6. Zawinski’s law: “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.”

Jan 08

Patterns of thought and behavior

I have an on-again, off-again love affair with personality tests and personality types a la Myers-Briggs, Socionics, etc. As dichotomies can be used to define reality (light / dark, true / false, hot / cold) it makes sense to me that certain human qualities can be defined and described as existing along a continuum of possible outcomes. It also makes sense that while every human being is unique and individual, out of 6 billion individuals certain patterns of behavior are likely to emerge.

On a scale where astrology is zero and a DNA test is 100 in terms of usefulness in understanding reality, I would put personality studies at 15-20. As a field of study, it is not scientific at all, but the “soft sciences” (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.) have a difficult time proving anything as they are, ultimately, the study of patterns and behavior. More synthetic in outlook rather than analytic. Yet, we still find the “soft sciences” helpful.

The study of personality types is an extension of Psychology. In differs in that it tries to present personality as a continuum of specific attributes: introversion / extraversion, rationality / emotionality, etc. that can be evaluated and understood in a framework of possible types. The study of personality types has the potential to illuminate many areas of human interest including: market behavior, criminality, public health, addiction, and education. This is what is most compelling…the ability to understand why people behave the way they do and how to know who is likely to think in a certain way.

The biological sciences have been approaching social problems from the opposite direction through neurochemical explanations for human behavior. However, this approach is limited and leads to a chemically deterministic view of human psychology, one that is promoted by the medical sciences. The problem with the analytic approach of medicine is that it is satisfied primarily with results (and commercializing results) rather than understanding. So for a problem like Depression (which has now been defined as a chemical imbalance by the medical establishment), a treatment that reduces symptoms associated with Depression is regarded as successful despite the fact that the neurochemical role in human psychology is not well understood. So, it is unsurprising that unintended consequences have emerged, like suicidal ideation in teens who took anti-depressants or suicidal ideation in patients prescribed Chantix for smoking cessation, for example.

Suffice it to say that we have spent more time trying to understand the physical and neurochemical structure of the brain (the assembly / machine code) than we have the higher level processes, which could benefit from greater attention by researchers and theoreticians.

If you would like to find out your “type” you can use the following short personality test. I would be curious to know what you come out as.

Dec 07

I can’t really explain it

…but there is something fascinating about faux-reality shows like The Hills or Laguna Beach. If I’m ever channel surfing and happen across one of these shows, I’ll get sucked in. It has the approachable mundane-ness of a reality show with the story line of a high-production television drama. I have a hard time watching shows that don’t seem real enough. I just can’t forget that I’m watching something fake. I think this is why I also enjoy shows like Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm (although CYE has become more fake and unreal recently). All of these shows have realistic characters, realistic lighting and environments, realistic dialogue, and realistic wardrobes and makeup. If television taps into some evolved social interest, it stands to reason that the more real the simulation, the more effective it will be in evoking sympathy and interest. Look for the lines between life and entertainment to blur further.

Crucial Minutiae has a good take on it that is worth reading.

Dec 07

An adaptable nature

The next time you’re driving keep an eye on the light poles looming over the Interstate. You might notice a red-tailed hawk keeping his vigil. The first time I remember seeing this was in Austin about 10 years ago, although doubtless they have been doing it longer and I just never noticed.

On one winter drive out to my uncle’s house in Southlake (an exurb of Dallas and Fort Worth), I counted five hawks perched on light poles between the opposing flow of traffic in a span of about 5 miles. My guess is these poles make a great vantage point for hunting the rats and mice that live in the close-cropped grass perimeter of our highway system.

In the short history of human civilization, many animals have learned to adapt to our ways. Rats and mice being obvious examples, but also animals we might forget like raccoons, pigeons, coyotes, and hawks. You could even count dogs and cats as animals that have adapted to us. The main requirements for living closely with humans seem to be that you must either be able to live without attracting notice (nocturnal lifestyle) or you must be able to keep from being captured (flight). In the case of cats and dogs, they have adapted by engaging our sympathies and our innate sociability. When we look at a cat or dog, there is a moment of recognition. Maybe this is due to their forward-facing stereoscopic eyes. Or, maybe it is something deeper.

As we encroach further on the natural world, animals will have to get better at adapting to a human-dominated environment or they will have to move further and further out of reach.

Nov 07

Know your nerd

Great and funny piece on how nerds work over at Rands in Repose, The Nerd Handbook:

Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head. It’s the end of the day and you and your nerd are hanging out on the couch. The TV is off. There isn’t a computer anywhere nearby and you’re giving your nerd the daily debrief. “Spent an hour at the post office trying to ship that package to your mom, and then I went down to that bistro — you know — the one next the flower shop, and it’s closed. Can you believe that?”

And your nerd says, “Cool”.

Cool? What’s cool? The business closing? The package? How is any of it cool? None of it’s cool. Actually, all of it might be cool, but your nerd doesn’t believe any of what you’re saying is relevant. This is what he heard, “Spent an hour at the post office blah blah blah…”

Nov 07

Morning people vs. night people

(As I post this after midnight)

Being a morning person or a night owl doesn’t just determine when you start or end your workday; your internal clock may help define your psychology as well. A Spanish researcher found that our preference for engaging in activities earlier or later in the day shapes both our perceptions and our interactions. The author gave personality tests to 360 university students, whom he describes as a “proper sample,” noting that the circadian rhythms of students “are not much under the influence of time schedules and social patterns.” (Despite the occasional all-nighter, students presumably can follow their preferred sleep schedules more easily than working adults can.) His results offer new evidence that morning and evening types think differently. Early risers prefer to gather knowledge from concrete information. They reach conclusions through logic and analysis. Night owls are more imaginative and open to unconventional ideas, preferring the unknown and favoring intuitive leaps on their way to reaching conclusions. Social behavior diverges as well: Morning people are more likely to be self-controlled and exhibit “upstanding” conduct; they respect authority, are more formal, and take greater pains to make a good impression. (Earlier research also suggests that they are less likely to hold radical political opinions.) Evening people, by contrast, are “independent” and “nonconforming,” and more reluctant to listen to authority—which suggests that teachers may have several reasons to prefer those students who wake up in time for class.

—“Morning and Evening Types: Exploring Their Personality Styles,” Juan Francisco Díaz-Morales, Personality and Individual Differences

From Atlantic Monthly via Steve Sailer.

Nov 07

Book Notes: A Perfect Mess

As I related in the previous entry, I spent some time at the library reading. Most notably: A Perfect Mess. The basic premise of the book is that a certain amount of disorganization is actually adaptive, efficient and beneficial. And, organizing may actually be counter-productive in terms of the energy required to stay organized. What a relief this is for disorganized people. I have noticed that it takes a lot of energy to keep things neat when it would actually be better to just accept a nominal amount of disorder so you can focus on more important things.

I took a few notes you might find interesting:

  1. “Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience.”
  2. On the questionable value of Jack Welch-ian strategic planning: “Managers import a raft of poor assumptions into the planning process…” Which results in useless or unfounded ‘planning’.
  3. On comfort noise: Telephone engineers actually add a certain amount of background noise to telephone and especially cellphone conversations because people find total silence in conversation unnatural and confusing. Users hate the complete absence of background noise. “Adding background noise to telephone calls signifies presence.” Read more about ITU recommendation G.711.II.
  4. On randomness and noise as a fundamental concept of existence. Example Brownian motion.
  5. “Disorder creates connections.” Mess-driven invention.
  6. Rather than focus on terrorist leaders, FBI / CIA focus on the productive nodes: “In a disorganized network the nodes in the middle carry the greatest workload.”
  7. The cost of neatness: “Being neat requires constant expenditure of resources.”
  8. Robustness of disorder: “Messy systems are more resistant.” Loosely woven.
  9. The popular Noguchi file system is simply a pile shifted on its side. More frequently used items work their way to the front, just as in a pile. In other words, piles are intuitive expressions of higher order.
  10. Messy environments provide useful cues.

Sep 07

It’s not how much you burn

This article on weight and exercise in New York Magazine presents the argument that conventional science has it wrong on diet and exercise. How many models do we have for how things work that are just plain false?

To be sure, this is the same logic that leads to other unconventional ideas. As it turns out, it’s carbohydrates—particularly easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars—that primarily stimulate insulin secretion. “Carbohydrates is driving insulin is driving fat,” as George Cahill Jr., a retired Harvard professor of medicine and expert on insulin, recently phrased it for me. So maybe if we eat fewer carbohydrates—in particular the easily digestible simple carbohydrates and sugars—we might lose considerable fat or at least not gain any more, whether we exercise or not. This would explain the slew of recent clinical trials demonstrating that dieters who restrict carbohydrates but not calories invariably lose more weight than dieters who restrict calories but not necessarily carbohydrates. Put simply, it’s quite possible that the foods—potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, pastries, sweets, soda, and beer—that our parents always thought were fattening (back when the medical specialists treating obesity believed that exercise made us hungry) really are fattening. And so if we avoid these foods specifically, we may find our weights more in line with our desires.

The prescription seems to be: dump the sugar and junk carbs. Eat high quality, less processed food.

Aug 07

MySpace is for dating. Period.

myspace.jpgI’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get so-called social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, etc. I don’t use them to find music, hang out, send messages, or whatever it is people do. I don’t use them period. I have signed up to try them out and to see if I could stalk find people from high school, etc., but after that what else do you do? Just leave notes on people’s pages? Why not just send an email, instant message, or make a call? Whenever I go to the library it seems like all the people on the library computers are using MySpace. I don’t understand it. Is it basically asynchronous, public instant messaging?

My working theory is that social networking sites are the successors to online dating websites. In effect, MySpace reintegrates online dating into some semblance of a normal, social life, albeit one that is semi-virtual and online rather than physical and actual.

Rather than cruise for connections with strangers (the normal online dating paradigm), social networking sites facilitate lively echosystems where people can potentially pair off. In fact, I believe this is the whole point of MySpace-type sites. According to this theory, I would expect the people who are most active in MySpace/Facebook to be single and looking. Or cynically, in a relationship and looking. In simple terms, dating sites are the online equivalent of a singles’ bar, whereas MySpace is a party. Even though the goal in both often comes down to romance/sexual gratification, they both go about it in very different ways.

Social networking sites will eventually replace dating sites because they perform one very important function: they erase the stigma of meeting people online.

This is just an idea because I am clueless about it. I’d be curious to know what the appeal is. If you participate in social networking, how do you use it? What purpose does it serve for you?

Jul 07

Are you human?

birds_in_tree.jpgRight now juvenile birds all over the northern hemisphere are fledging, growing their flight feathers and learning to fly. You may have noticed some birds looking particularly clumsy, patchy, loud, and awkward. These are likely fledglings, the bird equivalent of a human teenager. Just like teenagers, they are testing their wings, preparing to leave their parents for the world beyond. Also like teenagers, they are obnoxiously dependent, ungainly, and even ugly in a half-baked sort of way.

You will often see fledglings chasing their parents around begging for food. Most young birds make distinct “feed me” calls their parents find impossible to ignore. In a study involving the cagey wild turkey (I can’t remember where I read about this), scientists created a decoy polecat with a tape recorder inside that would play the cheep-cheep call of the wild turkey chicks. As the polecat is one of the turkey’s mortal enemies, the turkey would predictably attack the polecat decoy on sight unless the decoy played the cheep-cheep call. In this case the turkey would hover protectively over the polecat as if it were part of its brood rather than a potential predator. The fact that this behavior is automatic and triggered solely by the cheep-cheep call shows how nature uses instinct as an effective mental shortcut to produce good parenting behavior. From the parent bird’s perspective, they probably don’t realize that their need to feed their offspring is triggered by a particular sound and behavior. In their tiny bird brain, they are probably thinking something like, “Gotta find food now and give it to the baby.” Repeat.

It makes you wonder how much of our own behavior and thoughts are dictated by instincts undetectable to our conscious minds. Why do we really feel and think the things that we do? Do we overestimate the power and control of our own consciousness? What behaviors and feelings do we indulge because of some hidden, instinctual motive? I think about this on the highway where it seems like everyone is talking on a cellphone as they return to their homes. Many people feel this strong desire to stay in constant contact. There has to be some reason we feel the need to socialize in this way.

Maybe depression and anxiety are caused, in large part, by behaving against instinct. Maybe happiness itself is the emotional payoff from acting in accord with Nature. If that is the case, are there any cases where nature/happiness is suspect? In other words, are there times when we should act against Nature to achieve a better long-term dividend of happiness? I think this conflict between what we want and what we think we want is ever present and is responsible for many problems like crime, poverty, violence, and addiction.

It is possible that to achieve larger ends we must act against instinct even to the point of suffering.

From a scene in Frank Hebert’s Dune:

“What’s in the box?”
He felt increased tingling in his hand, pressed his lips tightly together.
How could this be a test? he wondered. The tingling became an itch.
The old woman said; “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a
trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure
the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to
his kind.”
The itch became the faintest burning. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”