Trust an algorithm with your business?

Douglas Heingartner in the International Herald Tribune:

Do you think your high-paid managers really know best? A Dutch sociology professor has doubts.

The professor, Chris Snijders of the Eindhoven University of Technology, has been studying the routine decisions that managers make and is convinced that computer models, by and large, can do it better. He even issued a challenge late last year to any company willing to pit its humans against his algorithms.

“As long as you have some history and some quantifiable data from past experiences,” Snijders said, a simple formula will soon outperform a professional’s decision-making skills.

“It’s not just pie in the sky,” Snijders said. “I have the data to support this.”

More here.

Silence of the City

Dan Schulman in the Village Voice:

SchulmanRejection, of course, is simply a rite of passage for most writers. For Montandon, though, it formed the seed of an idea. Since there was no shortage of writers like him who’d tried and failed to make The New Yorker‘s pages, he figured there was an abundance of unpublished Talk stories lying around New York City. About a year ago he set out to provide a home for the orphan submissions, quietly launching, where he resurrects the unpublished contributions of Talk of the Town rejectees. Montandon insists the site is every bit a tribute to The New Yorker, not a parody of it. It maintains the look and feel of the magazine’s signature section down to the font and, in the top left corner, the profile of Eustace Tilly, the aristocratic fellow who appeared on the cover of The New Yorker‘s first issue in February 1925 (and on many others since). On Silence, however, Tilly trades his monocle for an eye patch to reinforce the theme of the site—work that under other circumstances wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

More here.

The strange case of l’affaire Zidane

Mick Hume in Spiked:

_41882168_zinedinezidane203In the week since Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, l’affaire Zidane appears to have taken over the world (especially the media world). It was certainly a jaw-dropping moment. But still, it was only a flare-up in a football match – and a bloodless one at that, with the other big shock being, as Duleep Allirajah argues elsewhere on spiked, that he bizarrely butted the Italian in the chest. (Zidane is clearly not the player he once was – last time he butted an opponent, the German player in question ended up with a fractured cheekbone and concussion.) Nobody was killed, as Boris Becker once reminded the hysterical press corps after losing a Wimbledon final. In normal times the storm should have subsidised soon enough, or at least retreated to the sports section of the media.

But these are not ‘normal’ times for news. If anything the story and the heated debates about what Zidane did and why have grown in intensity since the actual event, to the point where his Wednesday press conference was reported as if it were a presidential statement on the declaration of war or peace. Indeed, it has completely overshadowed the actual French President’s traditional Bastille Day address on Friday.

More here.

Starting Exercise Later in Life Still Helps Heart

From Scientific American:

Excercise Exercise has been shown to help the heart, whereas a lazy lifestyle can be a major risk factor for heart disease. But few studies have examined how exercise impacts health at different ages. Now researchers have shown in a small study that even those who take up exercise after age 40 derive significant health effects. Epidemiologist Dietrich Rothenbacher of the University of Heidelberg and his colleagues surveyed 312 patients–mostly men–between the ages of 40 and 68 who suffered from coronary heart disease and 479 volunteers matching the patients in age and sex. The scientists asked them to detail their physical activity from the ages of 20 to 39, 40 to 49 and 50 years and older. More than 10 percent of patients and 6 percent of the controls admitted to lifetimes devoid of physical activity.    

Compared to these inactive counterparts, those who were active throughout their lives enjoyed more than a 60 percent less chance of developing heart disease. But even those who became active only after the age of 40 enjoyed a 55 percent less chance of cardiovascular trouble, and those who went from being inactive to very active saw the greatest benefits.

More here.

The importance of not being earnest

Christopher Sylvester reviews Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, in the London Times:

These letters were never intended for publication. Indeed, when asked late in the correspondence whether he would want them returned, Hugh Trevor-Roper even contemplated burning them. For apart from being wonderfully wise and witty, they are vicious about Oxford colleagues, and at least one of them contained such a heinous libel (of the royal physician attending George VI, see panel, below right) that it might have cost Trevor-Roper dear if it had fallen into the wrong hands. Although their context is Oxford university life, they afford an invaluable and entertaining insight into our national intellectual life in the 1950s.

Bernard Berenson was an intellectual and social celebrity. An American-born, Lithuanian Jew, whose parents had immigrated to Boston but who himself had gravitated towards European civilisation, he had become a ground-breaking art critic, but had also sullied his reputation in some quarters by deriving a substantial income from certificating works of art for dealers selling to wealthy Americans (he made $80,000 in 1909 alone). Nonetheless, he was considered a sage, to whose homes in Italy numerous intellectual and social figures made pilgrimage.

More here.

‘Yo, Blair!’: Overheard at the G8

From The Independent:

Bush: Yo, Blair. How are you doing? (Does he regard Mr Blair as an equal? What about ‘Yo, Tony’?)

Blair: I’m just…

Bush: You’re leaving?

Bush: Who is introducing the trade?

Blair: Angela (The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will lead the trade discussion. That is good for Mr Blair. She is on his side.)

Bush: Tell her to call ’em.

Blair: Yes.

Bush: Tell her to put him on, them on the spot. Thanks for the sweater it’s awfully thoughtful of you.

Blair: It’s a pleasure.

Bush: I know you picked it out yourself.

Blair: Oh, absolutely, in fact (inaudible)

More here.  [Thanks to Maniza Naqvi.]

Save the Lebanese Civilians Petition


To The Concerned Citizen of The World:

“Killing innocent civilians is NOT an act of self-defense. Destroying a sovereign nation is NOT a measured response.”

Lebanese civilians have been under the constant attack of the state of Israel for several days. The State of Israel, in disregard to international law and the Geneva Convention, is launching a maritime and air siege targeting the entire population of the country. Innocent civilians are being collectively punished in Lebanon by the state of Israel in deliberate acts of terrorism as described in Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.

Go here to sign the petition.  [Thanks to Feras Samad.]

Modern Iraqi Manners

Timothy Noah in Slate:

060711iraqsmartcard6_o_1For the last two and a half years, the Marine Corps has been equipping troops with a sort of abbreviated Emily Post-style guide to etiquette in Iraq. The laminated “Iraq Culture Smart Card” consists of 16 panels and can fold down into something you can slip into your breast pocket. “It seems late in the day for such niceties,” observed Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News, a Web log maintained by the Federation of American Scientists, which posted the Smart Card online. That may be so. But if one is going to occupy a country, surely we’d rather that soldiers had some sort of primer than not about local sensitivities, and how to avoid setting them aflame.

More here.

love was a dangerous game for tyrannosaurs

From the Houston Chronicle:

Tyrannosaurus_1Even the powerful tyrannosaurs seem to have encountered a midlife crisis.

Once they made it to about age 2 they could take on just about any other predator and had very little mortality until they reached sexual maturity in their teens, researchers reported in the current issue of the journal Science.

“Survivorship stabilized at between 2 (percent) and 4 percent per year until midlife, at which point they went through an honest-to-God midlife crisis,” said Gregory Erickson, who teaches comparative anatomy at Florida State University.

His team studied the remains of several species of North American tyrannosaur, including Albertosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Daspletosaurus.

They concluded that mortality could be high for youngsters, both because some didn’t have much resistance to disease and because of predators.

But after about age 2, some 70 percent survived to reach sexual maturity between 13 and 16, when mortality increased to 23 percent a year. Their potential lifespan reached to the late 20s and early 30s.

“I think love was a dangerous game for tyrannosaurs,” said Erickson.

More here.

Censorship: 3 Quarks Daily and millions of other blogs no longer available in India!

From The Guardian:

A couple of years ago, the government of India decided to ban a Yahoo newsgroup allegedly run by Naga insurgents. In the process, all Yahoo newsgroups were inadvertently blocked, leading to a furore among internet users in India. After about a week, matters were rectified, but the lessons seem not to have been learnt.

Now, internet users across India have been unable since this weekend to access any sites hosted on Blogspot or Typepad, two popular domains for India-based blogs. (Geocities is also blocked.) Again, it seems that there isn’t a blanket ban on these blogs, merely a government order to block of couple of blogs that has gone awry.

When I first heard from a friend on Saturday that he couldn’t access either his blog or mine, both of which are hosted on Blogspot, I assumed that it was just a temporary blip. The Indian government does not have a history of internet censorship, and bloggers have never faced the kind of issues with free speech that their Pakistani and Chinese colleagues have had to deal with. However, it soon became evident that the blocks were due to a government order. As it spread across the internet providers, a process that took a couple of days, bloggers monitored the situation, and set up a wiki against censorship and a public-access newsgroup to discuss the matter.

More here.  [Thanks to Aditya Dev Sood and Tony Cobitz.]

And here is one way to bypass the censorship. A more comprehensive list of workarounds is available here at Wikipedia.

We encourage blogs which are not on Blogspot or Typepad to publicize this information so that people in India can see it.

Brooklyn By Name

My friends Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss have written a new book about the history of Brooklyn place names, entitled Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names. Last week there was an excellent reading at the Brooklyn Historical Society. From the NY Sun:

“This is not a completist book,” Leonard Benardo, co-author with his wife, Jennifer Weiss, of “Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names”(New York University Press), said. Speaking at a book launch at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Park Slope resident said jazz aficionados often talk of “completism,” as in, “having the entire John Coltrane discography at their fingertips.” By contrast, their Brooklyn reference book doesn’t cover every street, place, and name in the borough. Rather, it focuses on what the authors felt to be the culturally curious and historically interesting.

The reading was held on Pierrepont Street, and the authors started off the evening by first reading the entry about that street. Mr. Benardo, who is also author of several chapters to “The Big Onion Guide To Brooklyn: Ten Historic Walking Tours” (New York University Press), noted that the street’s name comes from Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, a businessman who helped develop Brooklyn Heights into a residential area.

Mr. Pierrepont, who lived in France where he witnessed Robespierre’s beheading, helped back Robert Fulton’s ferry. His grandfather, Reverend James Pierrepont, a founder of Yale College, anglicized the family name to “Pierpo but, as Mr. Benardo noted, “Hezekiah returned the surname to its original spelling for his own family, though he kept ‘Pierpont’ for business purposes.”

Local protests over Brick Lane film

From The Guardian:Bricklaneguardian128x2

A community action group in Tower Hamlets has launched a campaign to stop production of a film based on Monica Ali’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Brick Lane. In an echo of the controversy which surrounded the initial publication of the book, set partly in the east London borough, the novel is accused of reinforcing “pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes” and of containing “a most explicit, politically calculated violation of the human rights of the community”.

Community leaders attacked the book on its publication in 2003, claiming that it portrayed Bangladeshis living in the area as backward, uneducated and unsophisticated, and that this amounted to a “despicable insult”.

More here.

The pressure to hoax

From BBC News:

Face_6 One of the biggest responses to my pieces I’ve received so far came when I wrote about experimental science – about the way science tries to arrive at the best fit between a general principle and the experimental evidence. The pressure to be first to reach a particular scientific goal has always been intense. The rewards in terms of personal fame and financial profit can be considerable. Consequently, some scientists have not been above falsifying the evidence in order to claim an important scientific “breakthrough”. There are several notorious hoaxes in the history of science.

In 1912, at a meeting of the Geological Society in London, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward produced fragments of the skull of so-called Piltdown Man, allegedly discovered by workmen in gravel pits in Sussex. They proposed that Piltdown man represented an evolutionary missing link between ape and man, and that it confirmed the current cutting-edge theory that a recognisably human brain developed early on in mankind’s evolution.

Over 40 years later, Piltdown Man was shown to be a composite forgery, put together out of a medieval human skull, the 500-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth.

More here.

monday musing: a possible levant

I’ve never been to Beirut but I’ve always held a few romantic, probably somewhat naive, notions about it as the kind of cosmopolitan and complicated city toward which I’ve always been most attracted. The practice of labeling various cities around the world “The Paris of X” has always struck me as distasteful for all the obvious reasons, but calling Beirut the Paris of the Levant sounds more appropriate than many of them. Certainly, given the cosmopolitan ideal that Beirut has represented for some, the traumas suffered by the place in recent decades were all the more heart rending. One wants Beirut to do well. It is a place to root for and the recent attempt’s to find a way for Lebanon to stand on its own two feet, outside the smothering arms of Syria, sounded a note of hope even as they were laced with the dangers that bubble just below the surface of Lebanese life.

Beirut is fragile in the same way that the cosmopolitan mode of life is fragile. It hangs in a precarious balance between mutually coexistent beliefs that must both be robust enough to mean something to people, and flexible enough to give way in the name of tolerance. The glue of this mode of life is that most difficult to define of quasi-institutions: civil society. That’s the transcendental ground, the condition of possibility, and without it the competing sets of traditions and beliefs that somehow manage to negotiate the social space fly apart into the very opposite of the cosmopolitan mode of life. At the heart of urban cosmopolitanism is always that powder keg. It can always go off, as Beirut reminds us. The work of the cosmopolitan mode of life is never over and it never gets any easier. It can’t be solved, it simply has to be lived, day after day, year after year, generation after generation.

Which is why the objection to the current Israeli incursion into Lebanon can step to the side of the political debate about causes and blame. I’m not interested, for the moment, in claims about Israel’s territorial ambitions or the politics of Kadima, about Iran and Syria and the power axis that wields Hezbollah. These are perfectly important things to understand, but they don’t drive to the heart of this particular problem.

And the problem, right now, is that the tenuous fabric of Lebanese civil society is currently caught in a crossfire. There are things that can be accomplished through military force and sometimes military force is necessary. But civil society has never been created or sustained through military force. And the problem, even from the standpoint of Israel’s self-interest, is that a Lebanon without a functioning and reasonably stable civil society teeters toward becoming a failed state once again. And failed states are breeding grounds for further violence, strife, regional instability, political extremism, etc. And thus the terrible cycle renews itself.

The question for Israel is whether its day to day security concerns and military struggles with armed factions in Lebanon and elsewhere are to be waged at the expense of Beirut and its fragile cosmopolitan space. Israel may win this battle in one sense and lose it another. Hezbollah may be suppressed, but Israel will continue to live as an island surrounded by failed states.

It is easy, perhaps, for me to say this but it continues to strike me that there is a road not taken here. It is a difficult road, no doubt, and the political realities on the ground make it difficult to fathom how it would be traversed. But so what. There is a place for imagination in politics, too. In this possible world, Israel would declare itself the avowed ally to the fragile civil spaces of the Levant. We are strong enough, and powerful enough, and confident enough, Israel would declare, not to be goaded into the abandonment of that dream. We do so out of genuine idealism about what the Levant can be, but we also do so out of genuine self-interest. States that can sustain a thriving civil society are states that are naturally less threatening to their neighbors and, by definition, more stable.

And this would not be an acquiescence to the worst aspects of Hamas or Hezbollah, but an attempt to outflank them completely. For extremists in general will suffer in precisely the degree to which the civil society of the cosmopolitan mode of life can thrive.

The one overriding principle of this approach would be a simple motto: “The Levant Must Flourish.” From that perspective, what Israel is doing in Lebanon can only tear apart the fragile fabric that is the very material from which flourishing societies are constructed. And at this moment in particular, I think it is important to take this concept of flourishing very seriously. A flourishing Levant would be a better Lebanon, a better Palestine, and a better Israel too. Israel has shown time and again that it is a strong and powerful state, but that power and strength has begun to feel petty and mean in the paucity of its vision. I think Israel can do better. The little dream that lays nestled in the bruised up body of Beirut deserves at least that much.

Sojourns: What’s on TV

Television_1_1This has been an interminably bad summer for movies. Not one of the blockbusters has been interesting or diverting: X-Men 3 was a lackluster addition to the franchise; MI3 was, well, too Tom Cruisey to get me in the theater; and Superman Returns just seems dull. And so in a reversal of the normal order of things, my attention has been drawn lately to the small screen, where the action has indeed been heating up. Back when original programming was limited to the major networks, summer was the worst of all times for television—the season of reruns and never aired pilots. Now that we are fully in the post-Sopranos era, and original programming is a permanent feature of the premium channels and extended tier (HBO, Showtime, FX, and the like), we do not have to wait for the fall for new shows or episodes to appear. While Jack Bauer takes time off to recover from yet another bad day or the team at CSI or House goes on hiatus, we can change channels to catch up with Vinny Chase and his Entourage, or see how the suburban soccer mom-cum-pot dealer is doing on Weeds, or (on my newest favorite) look in on the Irish politico-mobster Road Islanders on Brotherhood.

Ep27_01_1_1Of the three I’ve mentioned, Entourage (HBO, Sunday, 9:00 pm) has the largest claim on the zeitgeist. The trick of the series is to blur what is on the show and what is outside the show. Nominally about the exploits of a freshly minted celebrity and his cronies from back-in-the-day, Entourage is “about” the very industry that makes the show itself. And so the real world subject matter of the show is constantly intruding into the fictional world it creates: “real” celebrities play themselves mixing with the “fake” celebrities on the sets of made-up movies shot by real directors. We’ve seen this before, of course, in movies by Robert Altman for example. The difference here is the complete absence of satire. Entourage takes as a given our love of celebrity culture and its industry of images; it just finds nothing in that love to criticize. Rather, it makes celebrity culture all the more alluring for being turned into an aesthetic artifact. After all, what we watch on Entourage is not the tedium of reality itself. Even the “real” celebrities are playing themselves as characters in delicately crafted narratives. Rather, we watch artfully done 24-minute nuggets that serve us our favorite object of interest.

Weeds05_sofa_1_2Like many others, I’m sure, I’ve been waiting anxiously for the return of Weeds (Showtime, Sunday, 9:00 pm) for a second season on August 15th. The premise is simple: a recently widowed mother of two from the wealthy “community” of Agrestic California, Nancy Botwin has turned to selling pot in order to maintain the lifestyle to which she and her family have grown accustomed. According to Showtime’s inevitable “behind the scenes” documentary, the creative minds who brought us this series seem to think their insight is to expose the “dark underbelly” of the American suburbs, as if that underbelly hasn’t been exposed time and again (even before the much over-rated and overwrought film American Beauty). What is brilliant about Weeds, in fact, is precisely the opposite. The show takes all the threatening or counter-cultural implications out of dealing and smoking pot. Marijuana blends seamlessly into the give and take of suburban life, with its failing marriages, anxious parents, over-achieving children, and slacker adolescents. The ostensibly outré activity of being a drug dealer is not so much a contrast to the staid and conformist culture of Agrestic as something easy to assimilate to that culture. The result is a very nicely turned comedy of manners, in which selling pot looks a lot like running the PTA.

Brotherhoodgroup_1_2I was happy to discover last week that Showtime’s new crime drama, Brotherhood (Sunday, 10:00 pm), is as good as suggested by its advance hype and previews. Here setting is everything. Few places seem more provincial on TV than medium-sized American cities: large enough for anomie and crime, small enough for gossip and tradition. Brotherhood is set in a white working class neighborhood of Providence RI, the kind of moldering, forgotten place that is littered with exposed tar paper roofs and detached lonely bars, where everyone knows not only you but your grandfather, where “mom-n-pop” stores are run by consumptive alcoholics, etc. etc. The show has as its backdrop, in other words, the melodrama of Irish New-England culture on the skids, in Boston’s smaller and less storied neighbor. It would be unfair to call the show an Irish Sopranos, though the comparison is inevitable. To the ordinary stuff of mobster theatrics Brotherhood adds the interesting element of local politics. The show follows the parallel and overlapping stories of two brothers, one an ambitious state assemblyman, the other a ruthless gangster. The point is not just to show that local politics is bound up with the mob (a theme explored to a lesser degree by the Sopranos); it is also to show that local politics is not so far from a gangland activity itself, with deals made through force and money, lives threatened and ruined, coffers plundered. Providence is of course a notoriously corrupt city whose notoriously corrupt mayor now lies in Federal custody. But that only serves to underscore what seems so perfect about the setting. Larger cities and more cosmopolitan locales tend to swallow crime narratives of this type— the vastness of the canvas dwarfs what are ultimately small minds. The not so big city on the decline, however, provides in Brotherhood both an image and context of organized crime and organized politics in the petty provincialism of their sleaze.

Rx: Stephen Wolfram’s New Kind of Science

For Mother’s Day in May 2002, my husband Harvey ordered Stephen Wolfram’s book A New Kind Of Science for me. Harvey died a few days later and the book arrived after his memorial service. That summer I read the 1200-plus pages of this self-published tome, and I felt grateful to Mr. Wolfram as the book proved to be engaging, exciting, and helped to carry me through the aftermath of losing Harvey.

Screenhunter_1_11The British-born Mr. Wolfram has been educated at Eton, Oxford and Caltech, published his first scientific paper at 15, received his PhD in Theoretical Physics at 20 (a student of the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman), won a MacArthur genius grant at 21 and then became independently wealthy through his software “Mathematica”. A New Kind of Science may have been the first science book since Darwin’s The Origin of Species to sell out its first printing on its first day. It took him ten years to complete the book, during which Mr. Wolfram lived as a recluse, working all night long and running his software company for several hours during the day. Mr. Wolfram estimates that while writing the book, he typed 100 million keystrokes and moved his computer mouse more than 100 miles.

The reason this book’s message represents a paradigm shift is because of its potential for filling the gap in science related to the limitations of conventional mathematical equations which are unable to predict issues such as the shape that smoke from a cigarette is likely to take or the manner in which a forest fire will burn. At the heart of A New Kind of Science is Wolfram’s revolutionary idea to replace mathematical equations with algorithms and his assertion that the Universe is better explained on the basis of simple computer programs.

Screenhunter_2_4This is from The Economist: “Mr. Wolfram unashamedly compares the potential impact of his work to that of Sir Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”, and suggests that his discoveries can answer long-standing puzzles in mathematics, physics, biology and philosophy, from the fundamental laws of nature to the question of free will.”

Wolfram’s work has its origin in cellular automata invented by the Hungarian physicist John von Neumann. Briefly, a complex system can be represented by using squares on graph paper that can be colored either black or white. Starting with one initial black square, a rule can be written which determines how its neighbors will be colored in each succeeding step forward. The properties of cellular automata are best explored using a computer which can generate thousands of iterations instantaneously. Wolfram found that with repeated iterations, complexity can arise out of simple rules.

From Forbes:

At the center of Wolfram’s research was a quest for a new level of simplicity. To do this, he moved from a two-dimensional grid to the one-dimensional world of the line. Why one dimension? Because, like the Universe itself in the beginning, it is cellular automata in their most elemental form. If Wolfram could find complexity in one-Screenhunter_3_4 dimensional cellular automata, the simplest construction imaginable, then he could find it anywhere. For years Wolfram worked through the night to determine the unfolding of hundreds of thousands of possible rules, typically going to bed around 5:00 a.m. and getting up in time for lunch. Most of the rules quickly devolved into predictable, endless patterns. He began to fear that he had been lured into one of science’s many dead ends. But then one night in May 1984, an epiphany: Wolfram realized his mistake. He had entered into the project with a predetermined idea of how nature worked, assuming that natural systems begin with randomness and move toward order. But, now, he asked himself, what if you turned the whole idea upside down? What if you began with ordered conditions and looked at which rules spun out greater complexity? Through a long night, Wolfram tore through all his past work, papers flying, looking for examples that would prove his new model. Finally, close to dawn, he found it: Rule 30, a pattern that grew more intricate and unpredictable with each step. It was stuffed with what mathematicians call “emergent effects”: events that cannot be predicted in advance. From the simplest of parts, Wolfram had created infinite complexity. The aha! moment had arrived. “The Rule 30 automaton is the most surprising thing I’ve ever seen in science,” Wolfram told London’s Daily Telegraph. “‘Even though it starts off from just one black cell, applying the same simple rule over and over again makes Rule 30 produce [an] amazingly complex pattern.

And again, from The Economist:

Screenhunter_4_5This was Mr. Wolfram’s Eurekamoment: it suggested to him that complex systems in nature—be they weather systems, turbid fluid flow, a zebra’s stripes or the human mind—might all be governed by small and simple sets of rules”. Wolfram’s critical realization was that “many very simple programs produce great complexity” leading to his “Principle of Computational Equivalence: that whenever one sees behavior that is not obviously simple—in essentially any system—it can be thought of as corresponding to a computation of equivalent sophistication.

With repeated iterations, cellular automata can produce pictures of great complexity (such as the one shown here).

Many critical problems are not solvable by conventional mathematics, for example, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation which only applies to two bodies in space, but dissolves into chaos with three bodies when the method of first integrals is applied. Wolfram’s “new” idea is that the Universe functions on the basis of an algorithm and not on the basis of mathematical equations. In fact, he confidently predicts, “Within 50 years, more pieces of technology will be created on the basis of my science than on the basis of traditional science. People will learn about cellular automata before they learn about algebra.”

Implications for Biology: Theseus was able to slaughter the Minotaur because Ariadne gave him a golden thread that allowed him to retrace his steps out of the labyrinth. Wolfram has provided us with the means to solve many complex problems by retracing steps from complexity to simple algorithms. Since I am a cancer researcher, the sections in the book which deal with the implications of this new science for the highly complex biologic systems are the most fascinating for me, particularly Wolfram’s challenge to natural selection as the defining force in evolution. Darwin was able to collect an enormous amount of physical evidence to convince his contemporaries that all living organisms can be traced back to a single origin of life; that species evolve gradually through an accumulation of small changes; and that evolution occurs because there is genetic variation in every generation, and relatively few individuals survive and pass on their favorable genetic characteristics to the next generation. Even if certain genes confer only a very slight advantage, they gradually become more common over a long period of time. Thus, natural selection of favorable traits leads to both survival of the fittest and causes the species to adapt to natural environments. The neo-Darwinists like Dawkins, Maynard Smith and Dennett believe that natural selection is the only driving force in evolution, which occurs gradually over a long period of time. Gould and Eldridge who consider themselves as pluralists (as opposed to the neo-Darwinists who are reductionists) on the other hand, suggest that evolving species should be viewed as complex systems and that evolution is not a slow, gradual process but occurs in short bursts when new species appear, followed by a long period of stasis (punctuated equilibrium). Finally, they also maintain that organisms can often have traits which have no apparent useful purpose, but appear as a mere by-product of evolutionary changes (“spandrels”). In fact, many very important characteristics of humans such as reading and writing are examples of such “emergent properties” since the brain had become large prior to existence of written language. In this debate, Wolfram’s new science supports neither Darwin nor Gould:

One of the most esteemed documents of modern paleontology is Stephen Jay Gould’s doctoral thesis on shells. According to Gould, the fact that there are thousands of potential shell shapes in the world, but only a half dozen actual shell forms, is evidence of natural selection. Not so, says Wolfram. He’s discovered a mathematical error in Gould’s argument, and that, in fact, there are only six possible shell shapes, and all of them exist in the world. In other words, you don’t need natural selection to pare down evolution to a few robust forms. Rather, organisms evolve outward to fill all the possible forms available to them by the rules of cellular automata. Complexity is destiny—and Darwin becomes a footnote. “I’ve come to believe,” says Wolfram, “that natural selection is not all that important.” The more sciences he probes, the more Wolfram senses a deeper pattern—an underlying force that defines not only the cosmos but living things as well: “Biologists,” he says, “have never been able to really explain how things get made, how they develop, and where complicated forms come from. This is my answer.” He points at the shell, “This mollusk is essentially running a biological software program. That program appears to be very complex. But once you understand it, it’s actually very simple. —Forbes

In order to illustrate how complexity in biology arose from simple programs, I will summarize a few of the salient findings from the book here. (ANKS pp383-428)

  • In the past, the idea of optimization for some sophisticated purpose seemed the only conceivable explanation for the level of complexity in biology. Take the example of fish which manifest so many beautiful colors. One Darwinian explanation would be that these colors improved survival through either allowing the creatures to evade being hunted by blending with the environment or shocking the predator with their brilliant, contrasting colors. In other words, every one of these colors and patterns evolved for a purpose. But then why do all the multi-colored fish have the same exact internal structures while having such radically different patterns on the outside? Wolfram’s beguilingly simple explanation is that the most visually striking color differences have almost nothing to do with natural selection, but are reflections of completely random changes in underlying genetic programs. On the other hand, the vital features such as the internal organs have changed only quite slowly and gradually in the course of evolution because those are precisely the ones molded by natural selection.
  • Screenhunter_5_3“The range of pigmentation patterns on mollusc shells (picture) correspond remarkably closely with the range of patterns that are produced by simple randomly chosen programs based on cellular automata. There are already indications that such programs are quite short. One of the consequences of a program being short is that there is little room for inessential elements and any mutation or change in the program, however small, will tend to have a significant effect on at least the details of patterns it produces. Or biologic systems should be capable of generating essentially arbitrary complexity by using short programs formed by just a few mutations” (ANKS).
  • “But if complexity is this easy to get, why is it not even more widespread in biology? The answer is natural selection, which can achieve little when confronted with complex behavior. There are several reasons for this. First, with more complex behavior, there are huge numbers of possible variations. Second, complex behavior inevitably involves many elaborate details, and since different ones of these details may happen to be the deciding factors in the fates of individual organisms, it becomes very difficult for natural selection to act in a consistent and definitive way. Third, whenever the overall behavior of a system is more complex than its underlying program, almost any mutation in the program will lead to a whole collection of detailed changes in the behavior, so that natural selection has no opportunity to pick out changes which are beneficial from those which are not” (ANKS).
  • Screenhunter_7_1In the picture here, one can see the shell shapes generated by the simple model and those actually found in nature. The computerized array shows systematic variations of just two parameters.

Progress in science occurs when a new order is discovered which can unite seemingly unrelated facts. ANKS has achieved just that by showing that it is possible to get complexity from simple programs in any system. The job of a scientist in the conventional sense is to understand how things work and not why. Wolfram has combined the two by asking not only how evolution occurs, but also the meaning of it all. And the answer is terribly disturbing. No meaning at all. “So why do higher organisms exist at all? My guess is that it has almost nothing to do with optimality, and that instead it is essentially just a consequence of strings of random mutations that happened to add more and more features without introducing fatal flaws” (ANKS p398).

Richard Dawkins observed, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. But for the theists, Wolfram has changed the concept of God from being a mathematician to being a software engineer.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram will be the honored guest speaker at the 4th Harvey Preisler Memorial Lecture to be held at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester on July 28, 2006.

To ensorcell with an enigmatic gaze

Judith Thurman in The New Yorker:

Rampling_charlotteIf you had an hour in a hotel suite, alone with Charlotte Rampling, to talk about sex, what would you ask her? For forty years, the British actress, whose name has become a verb (“to rample”—ensorcell with an enigmatic gaze) and the title of a rock song by Kinky Machine (“I always wanted to be your trampoline,” they sing to her), has specialized in fatally obsessed, perverse, smoldering, reckless, and unmoored women. She has played the survivor of a concentration camp who engages in sadomasochistic sex with her former torturer, in “The Night Porter”; a waifish “basket case,” in “Stardust Memories”; and a widow in pathological denial of her husband’s death—a probable suicide—in “Under the Sand.” “I generally don’t make films to entertain people,” Rampling said. “I choose the parts that challenge me to break through my own barriers. A need to devour, punish, humiliate, or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature, and it’s certainly a big part of sex. To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.”

More here.

Rock Star

Richard Greenberg reviews The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets by Kathy Sawyer, in American Scientist:

Fullimage_2006531125744_307When it comes to telling stories, science writers and scientists are at a disadvantage in that, unlike novelists (who are free to create their own reality), they must reconstruct events accurately. But once in a great while, science offers up a tale as compelling as any found in fiction and someone comes along who is equipped to tell it well. In The Rock from Mars, journalist Kathy Sawyer realizes the full potential of a great science story in all its multidimensional complexity and richness.

The rock here is meteorite ALH84001, named for the place in Antarctica (Allan Hills) and the year (1984) it was found. Sawyer’s account encompasses the details of the rock’s discovery, the painstaking analysis that revealed its Martian origins, the surprising suggestion that it might contain evidence of past (fossil) life on Mars, the high-level political ramifications of that revelation, and the media frenzy and scientific firestorm that ensued. The book doesn’t focus exclusively on the hot topics of extraterrestrial life and the origin of life on Earth; Sawyer manages to work in crucial information on geology, planetary science, meteoritics, biochemistry, microbiology, geochemistry and microscopy.

More here.