Tuesday, June 18, 2013

More candy vs. the greater good: detachment in decision-making

I recently watched a great documentary called Ape Genius, and then saw this interesting article . Here are some thoughts on the intersection of the two.


In Ape Genius, they describe a test which measures impulse control in primates:
There are two apes, A & B. Ape A is shown a large pile of candy, and a small pile. It's up to A to decide who gets which pile. But the catch is, A has to select the pile that *B* gets, and A gets the remainder.
...Poor A always selects the big pile of candy, and always has to watch as it gets handed over to B. On the surface, we might conclude that the apes just aren't smart enough to figure out that if they select the small pile, they'll get rewarded with the big pile in the end...right?

Where it becomes fascinating is when the tangible objects are replaced with symbols: the piles of candy are replaced by numbered cards representing how many pieces of candy are at stake ("6" and "2", and the ape has previously learned about numbers)
Again, A has to choose one of the options; that chosen candy goes to B, and A gets the remainder.
Amazingly, A will now select the small reward for B and collect the large reward for themselves!

The takeaway from all this is that the Apes can reason-out "if I point to the small reward, I get the big reward." But they struggle with impulse control: they want the big reward so badly, it trumps their reasoning over & over again and they keep trying to take it directly. The use of symbols to represent the payoff provides a layer of detachment which lets their logical mind assert itself against the pull of their emotions.

Ha ha, stupid apes.  Right?


This article discusses research which found that humans are angered by the injustice of decision-makers who make a choice based on case-by-case influences when these contradict the data.
No surprises there - but here's the catch: yes we're angry about it when the deciders are far away (as in, spatially...) but we're suddenly more-okay with it when the decider is nearby!

I find this hilarious because it shows how easily our reasoning can get short-circuited into selfish & hypocritical behaviour:
- if X is happening close to me, it affects me more directly so I'm ready to believe that the emotional specifics of the situation can trump the evidence
- if X is happening far away from me, it affects me less directly so I want reason & facts to trump any bleeding-heart concessions to the emotion of the situation

Apes & Humans Agree: More Candy is Good! (As long as it's for me)

I see all this as humans failing the candy test too. Physical distance in human decision-making is like number-cards for the apes: a cooling layer of detachment which allows reason to assert itself against emotion. Take away the distance between us & the subject, and suddenly we're down on par with the apes...

Ha ha, stupid humans

Fascinating Tangents

  • Different primate species have evolved different levels of impulse control, apparently based on whether their food tends to run away or sit still for days.
  • Similar to the candy test in apes, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment tested impulse control in preschoolers. Briefly, "how long can a kid avoid gobbling up a marshmallow, in order to receive two marshmallows later instead." The kids were then reviewed decades later, and it was found that the longer they had resisted the impulse to eat the marshmallow, the better they performed in basically every aspect of life throughout the years!
  • One way to short-circuit reason and get somebody's emotion to take over: preoccupy them. The idea behind Shiv's Cake experiment was to have people choose either chocolate cake or fruit salad as a snack. If you give someone an intellectual challenge (memorize a 7-digit number) at the same time as this choice, then all their reasoning about what's a better snack (calories, cholesterol, fat, sugar, etc.) gets short-circuited, and lusty emotion takes over instead (CAKE!!!) In other words, when carrying a lighter cognitive load, people have more brain power left to resist the lure of emotion.
    Breaking news II: Scientists confirm what poets have known for years! Our independent, free-thinking minds are so easily tempted away from logic to passion.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wealth never survives three generations

It's late at night, and I am in a philosophical mood. I shall inflict the result upon you.

Chinese proverb: Wealth never survives three generations.
...And today, the lessons the US "learned" in Vietnam strike me as a form of Wealth...


Friday, May 1, 2009

Secret adventures

Hi there, I just wanted to say thanks to the folks who have posted comments here in the last few months. I'm amazed that anybody out there has stumbled across my blog, and now I feel guilty for not updating in a while (but there is a good reason for it...)

I haven't been doing as much reading/learning lately, but this is because I've been working on a software project that is inspired by those very attempts to absorb information across the multidisciplinary world of CAS. I have a long way to go on the project, but maybe at some point I'll be able to post up some info about the project. If you enjoy gathering diverse thoughts & facts & information about the world, you might be interested in the software as well...

I will try to put up the occasional interesting thought in the meantime, I just can't do it as regularly as before.

Thanks, seeya soon!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Nursery words

Here's an article about a study of why "nursery words" exist in so many languages. Nursery words are things like mama (English), papa (Italian), baba (Ukrainian), and titi (Hungarian).

The study examined brain scans of babies as they listened to various words: "Brain activity increased in the babies' temporal and left frontal areas whenever the repetitious words [baba or nana] were played. Words with non-adjacent repetitions ('bamuba' or 'napena') elicited no distinctive responses from the brain."

The experiments showed that "The brain areas that are responsible for language in an adult do not 'learn' how to process language during development, but rather, they are specialized — at least in part — to process language from the start."

My own $0.02 here is that this is just one aspect of the mind's penchant for pattern recognition. As we evolved, our minds were selected for their ability to recognize patterns in whatever we perceive. This study is a wonderful example of why - the newborn brain can recognize a pattern of repeated syllables (baba) but isn't yet sophisticated enough to recognize the repetition when there is noise in the signal (bamuba).

The infant brain is flooded with new inputs as it adapts to life outside the womb. With no context for any of it - with no existing mental model of the world - all of the sights, sounds, smells etc are essentially random noise. The baby has no frame of reference to distinguish one perception from another: at first, the mother and the father aren't any more noteworthy to a newborn than the janitor or photographer. The babe's brain takes its best shot at building symbols for all the things it sees, but as various symbols fail to re-occur, they wither and fade out. It is only the repetition of seeing the mother over and over again that reinforces that symbol in the brain and allows the baby's mind to say "this is not a random image I keep seeing".

Similarly, the baby has no instinctive way to know that a conversation between its parents is a type of sound any more relevant than the sound of a door closing or window opening. But the repetition of "parents talking" especially in concert with the repetition of seeing the parents over and over again lets the baby's brain start to recognize that the sounds are not random. From there, it's a short step to assigning meaning to some of those sounds - how natural that the first words a baby learns feature both the repetition of syllables ('mama') and an association to a highly non-random image (the mother's face.)

I wonder if you repeated the study, but instead of using repeated syllables (nursery words) you used repeated sound effects (a drum roll, maybe?) the same areas in the brain would fire. I don't know if there's anything magic about the fact that it is a word that the babies heard that matters - after all, baby animals learn to assign meaning to the sound of their parents (screeches, roars, hisses, etc) without speaking Italian.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The future doesn't need universities

Easyrider made an interesting comment in response to my last post. He says that the internet basically allows any given amateur - if determined enough - to rival any given academic on a particular topic.
I'm sure academics would tear into this with gusto (in which case, please use the comments section of this blog :) but the idea reminds me (as many things do lately) of Clay Shirky's talk on TED about distributed organization versus hierarchy.

Shirky made the point that when communication costs were prohibitive, you'd tackle a problem by founding an organization, raising resources, incurring overhead, and directing the people involved. He also suggests that as soon as you create an organization, its primary goal becomes self-preservation, and whatever goal you were trying to meet becomes its secondary (or worse) objective.

In one of his articles, Shirky talks about how blogging has enabled the mass-amateurization of writing. In other words, if you wanted to be a writer, you used to have to get a job at a newspaper/magazine or convince a publisher to publish your novel. Nowadays, any hack with a keyboard and an internet connection can put something out there for the whole world to see (c.f. this page...)

When I ponder Shirky's two points in relation to Easy's comment, I have to wonder: what is it about a university campus that makes it so special? There's no denying that it's nice to be in the same general area as a bunch of other people who share your interests. But there are a whole lot more people out there in the world who share your interests than can possibly fit onto a single campus - why exclude them from the group of people with whom you study subject X?

Basically, a university is one of those old-world insitutions that was created to solve a problem of communication and coordination: how do we preserve, pass on, and add to the body of knowledge in subject X (economics, biology, politics, etc.) The answer in the past was necessarily: rent a building, pay some experts to hang around in it, and charge admission to the rest of the world...

Now, though, you might wonder: do we still need universities? Certainly the many courses that are already offered in a "Distance Education" format suggest that we don't. But just as certainly, there are many courses with experimental components that can't be replaced by reading a page on your laptop (...not looking forward to having surgery done by the guy who got his certification online...) And at a bare minimum, a university is a probably-trustworthy source for identifying experts; on the internet, it can be hard to verify someone's credentials (Wikipedia, for example, has suffered from this...)

So I think the answer is: we will always need experts, and we still need physical resources for certain types of learning (physical sciences, medicine, etc.) But what we maybe don't need is (to paraphrase the Shirky quote in my last article) to be "genuflecting to the idea of a university degree."

How can we enable the 90% of the world who may be interested in subject X (but don't attend a university for whatever reason) to contribute to X? Rather than settle for a 1-in-a-billion Einstein to break through the walls of academia and contribute -- how can we make it easier for the other 999,999,999 amateurs to participate?

Here's one way to start: every professor in the world could publish to the web a set of "open questions", with forum responses enabled. To paraphrase yet another quote: "with enough eyes, every problem is shallow." How long would it be before people start chipping in answers to the open questions of subject X?

PS: this can only work if the system guarantees that people who participate in answering a question are forever associated to the answer. The thing would fail instantly if a prof could delete any post responding to his questions, and so delete the winning answer to publish it for himself...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Are you kidding me??

I read an article today by Nicholas Carr called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The gist of it is that we're transitioning from a thoughtful, deep-thinking society (i.e. one that reads books) to one which demands instant gratification and mere soundbites of surface-level knowledge gleaned from skimming our favorite websites as fast as possible. We're somehow losing an important ability to concentrate on and/or appreciate good writing.

My own view is that the internet lets you learn as quickly as you're able; to focus on the things that matter to you and skip the noise. But I'll come back to my own thoughts in a minute.

The article generated some activity on the website for Edge magazine, where extremely smart people discuss thorny issues. I was very happy to see my new hero Clay Shirky there, tearing into Carr's article.

Shirky makes a wonderful point: "The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to *the idea* of reading War and Peace."

George Dyson adds, "We will certainly lose some treasured ways of thinking but the next generation will replace them with something new...Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few."

My own take is this: I have learned an awful lot, very quickly, from the internet. In the last year alone, I stumbled onto and become very interested in (and enlightened by) the world of Complex Adaptive Systems and some of the thinking adjacent to it (such as Edge.com and TED.com). Without the internet, I'd never have heard about any of this because I wasn't lucky enough to get into it at University. Without the internet, even if I *were* aware of the field, I wouldn't have any way to dig into it because I have a full-time job and a family, which together don't leave me with endless days to spend in the library, hunting for relevant texts and then reading them in one sitting.

The problem is not that the internet makes information available to us too conveniently - that's a feature, not a bug! The problem is that we're missing good tools to organize, retain, and leverage the flood of useful info. More and better information is available to each of us than ever before. It's no surprise that we each eventually hit a limit of what our brains can handle - the need to enlist tools to ride the storm isn't something to be ashamed of, it's something to welcome.

To come full circle, I suppose my bottom line question is this: If Carr thinks that our use of the internet is making us stupid -- why did he put his article there?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Amazing talk about distributed groups vs. hierarchies

Please watch this - a very thought-provoking 20 minutes:


The lecturer, Clay Shirky, discusses distributed organizations and how they are different/better/worse than traditional top-down or hierarchical organizations.

One of the advantages Shirky points out with a distributed organization is that many of the costs of a traditional command & control structure are avoided (such as paying for an office to house your workers and hiring a supervisor to monitor them). Because the cost-per-worker goes way down, the number of workers who can participate goes way up. This means that there's much less risk in letting amateurs & hobbyists participate; if they aren't very productive, well you haven't lost anything because you didn't pay for them in the first place. The distributed organization gains access to a much larger pool of resources: no corporation could afford the cost to hire every amateur out there in a traditional sense, and yet these people have the potential to contribute something of real value to the project.

One of the drawbacks Shirky identifies with a distributed organization is that while you gain access to many more participants, you surrender control over their efforts. If somebody is volunteering their time to work on a project, nobody can really boss them around because they aren't beholden to a boss!

The challenge, I suppose, is figuring out how to take existing problems or efforts such as "let's make a product and sell it for lots of money" or "lets feed all of the starving people in the world" and re-frame them in a distributed manner.

Or put another way: how do you incent masses of people to participate in your project?
The answer (as Shirky points out) is that you can't: it is too costly to provide incentives for all of the individuals who may want to work on your project.

So, for example, Wikipedia and Flickr work because people are self-motivated to publish facts and photos in which they are interested. What has to happen so that large numbers of middle class North Americans become self-motivated to send a meal-a-day to starving people in Third World countries? Problems which are based in the physical realities of manufacturing & logistics seem opposed to distributed solutions.

So it seems to me that a distributed organization of workers will only arise when the individuals have their own incentives to participate. And the unfortunate truth is that most people are *not* self-motivated to work on your project (such as eliminating starvation or developing a product that you can then turn around and sell for profit.)

Do you have any ideas or examples of real-world, distributed problem-solving? Put 'em in the comments section! (Here's one to get you started!)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Ant Colony Algorithm

This is so interesting I had to copy it right over from Wikipedia (the rest of this post is a copy-and-paste):

The ant colony optimization algorithm, introduced by Marco Dorigo in 1992 in his PhD thesis, is a probabilistic technique for solving computational problems which can be reduced to finding good paths through graphs. They are inspired by the behaviour of ants in finding paths from the colony to food.

In the real world, ants (initially) wander randomly, and upon finding food return to their colony while laying down pheromone trails. If other ants find such a path, they are likely not to keep traveling at random, but to instead follow the trail, returning and reinforcing it if they eventually find food.

Over time, however, the pheromone trail starts to evaporate, thus reducing its attractive strength. The more time it takes for an ant to travel down the path and back again, the more time the pheromones have to evaporate. A short path, by comparison, gets marched over faster, and thus the pheromone density remains high as it is laid on the path as fast as it can evaporate. Pheromone evaporation has also the advantage of avoiding the convergence to a locally optimal solution. If there were no evaporation at all, the paths chosen by the first ants would tend to be excessively attractive to the following ones. In that case, the exploration of the solution space would be constrained.

Thus, when one ant finds a good (i.e. short) path from the colony to a food source, other ants are more likely to follow that path, and positive feedback eventually leads all the ants following a single path. The idea of the ant colony algorithm is to mimic this behavior with "simulated ants" walking around the graph representing the problem to solve.

Ant colony optimization algorithms have been used to produce near-optimal solutions to the traveling salesman problem. They have an advantage over simulated annealing and genetic algorithm approaches when the graph may change dynamically; the ant colony algorithm can be run continuously and adapt to changes in real time. This is of interest in network routing and urban transportation systems.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wright & Wright on the cooperation arms race

Well this couldn't come at a better time - the great Will Wright says that Cooperation & Competition are a big part of his motivation for working on Spore. Spore is a simulation coming out this fall which looks to re-invent the definition of computer "game" for all of us. Here's Will:

Quotes from this video which are most pertinent to stuff I've talked about before:

"You'll have little cells competing, then at some point, some of them decide to group together and cooperate & become specialized - and you get multicellular creatures. You see a similar pattern when individuals group together, forming very simple societies and out-competing the individuals."

"I see evolution as...this interplay of competition driving cooperation, driving specialization which then brings the competition to the next level."

In other words, competitive pressure drives organizational structures towards ever-greater complexity as previously unrelated entities are forced to either stand together or fall apart.

This is very similar to what Nonzero calls the "logic of human destiny": the reason why sentient life, societies, and world wars were inevitable from the time the first single-celled organisms appeared. I think Robert Wright (author of Nonzero, no relation to Will Wright that I know of) also refers to this as the "arms race" of cooperation: stubborn individualists are eventually dominated by coalitions of their enemies, whether we're talking about cells, species, or societies.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Support for cooperation over competition

Here's an article about a recent study that shows individuals prefer cooperation over competition.

The scenario is that players are grouped into 2 teams, and then each player has 2 options:
  1. Produce 1 point for each ally and remove a point from the other team.
  2. Produce 1 point for each ally without affecting the other team.

The study concludes that people seem to prefer intra-group cooperation over inter-group competition. (Players tended to use option #2 instead of hurting the other team.)

I recently updated my program "The Rise of Cooperation" which you can download here (or from the bar on the right-side of your screen.) It tries to look at a similar theme - whether we can say which of cooperation or competition is a dominant strategy.

If cooperation tends to be a better strategy than competition, then it makes sense that natural selection would have shaped us into beings that prefer cooperation as the study above suggests. If we had an innate preference for an inferior strategy, then natural selection would likely have phased our species out long before certain unnamed hacks could blog about it on the web...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What is complex thinking?

"Complexity refers to the extent to which an individual or organization differentiates and integrates an event.

Differentiation is the number of distinctions or separate elements (i.e., factors, variables) into which an event is analyzed. Integration refers to the connections or relationships among these elements.

Persons who are high in cognitive complexity are able to analyze (i.e., differentiate) a situation into many constituent elements, and then explore connections and potential relationships among the elements; they are multidimensional in their thinking. Complexity theory assumes that the more an event can be differentiated and the parts considered in novel relationships, the more refined the response and successful the solution. While less complex people can be taught a complex set of detailed distinctions for a specific context, high complexity people are very flexible in creating new distinctions in new situations."

From here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cross-cultural study of cooperation and freeloaders

Here's a neat study that investigates how cultural background impacts social behavior. It looks at some of the same themes as my "Rise of Cooperation" toy you can download from the toolbar.

For the sake of readability (and controversy), I'm going to label a society that is democratic with a strong rule of law "advanced", while a less-democratic society with a perceived weak government is "primitive".

In advanced societies, the average person cooperated with strangers for the greater good. When a freeloader is revealed, the average person was willing to give up a small amount of their own resources to ensure that the freeloader was punished.

In primitive societies, the average person was willing to free-load; if punished, the freeloader would "revenge punish" whoever chose to punish them previously.

After repeated plays, the net accumulation of resources was much higher in the advanced societies as freeloading was reined-in.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

It’s simulations all the way down!

My buddy RT told me about something called The Simulation Argument. It's a simple argument consisting of a few reasonable statements which – when taken together – basically guarantee something that you probably won’t like.

It isn’t a proof – it’s just something to think about:

The Simluation Argument*
A) It’s possible to create a computer simulation of individuals with artificial intelligence.
B) An A.I. individual inside the simulation wouldn’t know that it’s inside a simulation – it would just be going about its daily business in what it considers the “real world”.
C) A civilization that did develop such a simulation would run it many – say millions – of times (for fun; for research, etc.)

That's it, that's all there is to it. What do you think - is any one of these statements totally unreasonable?

Well if they sound even somewhat plausible to you, then ask yourself this: which of the following is more likely?

  • That we are the one civilization mentioned in C) which happens to develop the ability to run A.I. simulations? Or,
  • That we are one of the millions of simulations that civilization C) has run?

Remember: we wouldn't know if we were in a simulation (point B); and there have been way more A.I. civilizations simulated than there have been "real" civilizations in the "real" universe (point C).

To put it another way, suppose there are 1,000,000 intelligent, self-aware civilizations in the universe…But only 1 of them is “real” while 999,999 are A.I.’s. Every one of them feels like it is “real” and lives in a “real” universe.

Are we the one in a million? Or just one of millions? Well, are you a betting man/woman/simulation?

If so, let's play a game. The game gives you just as good a chance of winning as we have of being the one "real" civilization mentioned in point C:

You and the Simulation Argument will both pick a number between 1 and 1,000,000. If the numbers match, then you win and we are the “real” civilization. But if the numbers don’t match, then the Simulation Argument wins and we’re just one of the many A.I. civilizations being run by the “real” civilization on their fancy computers.

Ready? Remember, the fate of humanity rests on your shoulders, here. Are you sure you’re ready?
If you are, then pick your number between 1 – 1,000,000 and click to see what number the Simulation Argument chose:


Good try!! Too bad about the fate of humanity…
...Do you feel any different? Are we any less “real”?

Switching gears for a moment, here’s an argument which isn’t quite as credible. I stole it from Stephen Hawking:

The Old Lady’s Argument
A well-known scientist (some say it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell
) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"
"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles
all the way down!"

I like that little anecdote (clearly the old lady's position is ridiculous, but I’m curious as to why she chose turtles…)

Anyway, if you're wondering why I brought up both of these arguments in the same post…there’s a subtlety to the Simulation argument that really comes across as a kick in the, er, teeth:

Suppose that you accepted the Simlulation argument (or lost the number-matching game!), and we are just one of the millions of simulations that have been run by civilization C. Then at least we’re just one step away from the “real” universe, right?

…But when you accepted point A ('it’s possible to create a computer simulation of individuals with artificial intelligence'), you probably did so because we’re pretty close to developing such A.I. for ourselves…But remember - we've already figured out that we ourselves are just a simulation...which means that any A.I. entity we someday create won’t just be a simulation – it’ll be a simulation inside a simulation!

Sucks to be them!

But…this actually reveals the truly awful truth: odds are, we’re not just one of the simulations run by “civilization C”, after all. Odds are, we’re just one of the simulations run by a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation (go ahead and repeat “run by a simulation” as many times as you like here) run by a simulation run by the “real” civilization C.


A well-known scientist (some say it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The universe is really an A.I. simulation running inside another civilization’s computer."
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is
civilization’s universe like?"
"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's simulations all the way down!”

The End.

PS: I suppose at this point I’d better say, “Thank goodness the old lady is crazy, the Simulation argument is ridiculous, and even if it weren't then clearly we are the one lucky civilization in a million million million million million which actually lives in the real universe.”
…But then again, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics#Overview.

* The Simulation Argument was
invented by Nick Bostrom.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Zombie Ants from Outer Space

I promised myself that I wouldn’t do another post with a biological example of the viral model so soon, but Mike the Boyfriend (my sister’s boyfriend, not mine) just told me about this and it’s too cool to delay.

Ok, I admit it, the heading’s a tad misleading: the ant isn’t actually undead, nor is it from outer space. But “Dicrocoelium dendriticum” just wasn’t a very compelling title.

Anyway, there’s a parasite out there that can sneak inside the still-living body of an ant; take control of it; and force it to behave in a suicidal manner. The parasite is called a Lancet Fluke, and it sure jumps through some hoops in order to achieve its purpose; a wonderful example of very specialized adaptation.

The Fluke’s ultimate target is the belly of a herbivore such as a cow or sheep.

This is how it gets there:

Thousands of fluke larvae snuggle into a nice big pile of herbivore poop*
A snail comes along and eats the poop (accidentally ingesting a bunch of fluke larvae).
The snail wanders around, leaving a trail of ooze riddled with now-juvenile flukes.
An ant comes along and eats the snail-ooze. No, really!**
When it eats the snail-ooze, the ant unwittingly eats hundreds of juvenile flukes.
One lucky fluke navigates inside the ant to its brain, nestling in to the area that controls movement and mandibles:

  • While the temperature is warm – daytime – the fluke does nothing. This allows the ant to act normally during the day when all the other ants are active.
  • When the temperature drops below 10C – nightfall – the fluke takes over. It makes the ant climb a blade of grass and latch onto it with its mandibles. The ant remains suspended from the grass all night.

  • When the temperature rises above 10C again – daytime – the fluke relaxes control and the ant resumes its normal activity.

This cycle continues until a herbivore who is out for a stroll one evening happens to eat the blade of grass – ant, flukes and all.
The herbivore digests the hapless ant, releasing the flukes who spread out into its stomach where they can meet like-minded individuals.
Pairs of the now-adult flukes perform a special hug which results in the creation of a fluke egg.
The unlucky host of the party stops eating; it weakens and eventually dies. But before passing on, the herbivore – you guessed it – poops out the fluke eggs, taking us all the way back to step 1.

As I mentioned up top, this is another example of the viral model:

The fluke spreads to ever more sites by hitching a ride on snails then herbivores then snails etc, occasionally getting carried by one of them to a new place it's never been before.

I know this whole process sounds like it comes from a bad ’60’s movie, but it’s real and actually pretty neat. Makes you wonder, how on earth did the fluke evolve in such a specialized manner..?

...And are there any other mind-controlling parasites out there? (Hint: yes.)

(I learned most of this from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancet_fluke and some of it from Behavioral and Morphological Changes in Carpenter Ants Harboring Dicrocoeliid Metacercariae, Carney 1969.)

* I’m sorry that 2 out of 3 posts involve the wonders of poop as a transport mechanism. I’m not obsessed with the idea; apparently excrement is just far more useful to the parasites of the world then I ever knew***!

** If you think eating snail-ooze is gross, then why didn’t you complain about the part where the snail ate the herbivore crap?? Maybe you’re just more open-minded than I…although I think that this would show rather conclusively that open-minded people contain fluke worms…

*** By the way, this is why you’re supposed to wash your hands after going to the bathroom! Who knows, if too many people ignore this rule, maybe a similar parasite will evolve that causes people to leave the norms of human society and stay up all night consuming grass…Wait a second: are we too late?? Is it
already among us…?

(picture found randomly at http://i57.photobucket.com/albums/g231/adresaklumea/funny%20pictures/big-joint.jpg)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Viral model giveth, and it taketh away

So the last post showed one way in which a species improved its odds of success in the world by harnessing the power of the viral model. Here's a look at another organism which uses the model to deadly effect, simultaenously strengthening its species while devastating another.

Behold the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog!

Doesn't look very threatening, does it?
...And actually, it isn't. But this is:

That is a picture of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bad End, if you will) - a fungus which is lethal to various amphibian species such as frogs, toads, and salamanders. In this picture, the fungus has taken up living under the skin of some hapless mountain frog. The frog won't survive this encounter - it's headed for a bad end.

The fungus reproduces by firing a spore (a fungus seed) out into the world. The Bad End spore lives in water, mud, and dirt; it is very tough and has been shown to survive up to 10 years in a site without a host.

Nobody knows exactly how Bad End kills its host, but we do know that it has spread - fast. The spores are skilled at catching a ride on the feet of passing animals - including the people who are actually out there researching the Bad End! This allows the spore to hitchhike out of the immediate area and spread the species to more and more sites.

Does that ring any bells? How about this?

Why do we care? Well, to quote somebody smarter than me*:
"Over the past 30 years, [the frog] has disappeared from up to 95 percent of its historic range, and its absence is impacting other organisms. Garter snakes that used to prey on these frogs are now declining. The frog's decline is leading to an unraveling of a high-elevation ecosystem."

Unraveling ecosystems are A Bad Thing. Even if you have zero ounces of pity, or (correctly) consider this just another case of natural selection determining which organisms deserve to survive, you may well enjoy the predictability of your daily life as a human being in an affluent society. The destruction of entire ecosystems can have unpredictable effects: the world is a complex system, and the obliteration of a big chunk of it can really come back to hurt us and our way of life in ways we can't predict.

So you don't even have to be nice to want to help the frogs - you just have to be selfish!

*I learned about chytridiomycosis here and here.
(frog image from this site, where it is credited to David Liittschwager.)
(fungus image lifted from this site, where it is credited to A. Pessier, University of Illinois.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Poop - relieving the pressure of natural selection!!

One of the purposes of this blog is to gather together some of the neat things I come across while studying complex adaptive systems. Here is an example:

Endozoochory is the dispersal of seeds through animal ingestion and excretion. This is a strategy used by some plants to improve the odds of their species surviving: get yourself eaten by a creature, but make sure your seeds resist being digested by that creature. When the creature has its next poop, it returns your seeds to the earth along with their own personal pile of fertilizer!!

This is neat because it shows how the creature and the plant really help each other out. The more the creature eats, the more the plant flourishes; the more it flourishes, the more the creature *can* eat next year, and so on.

The immediate result is that the plant should thrive around the creature's home - call it site A.

But going a step further, suppose the creature is migratory: then the plant also gets the chance to colonize sites along the creature's migratory paths. Let's say that the plant starts out only at site A, but there are also sites B & C which are inaccessible to the plant (maybe because it's too far away for a random gust of wind to blow the seed over from A.) Over time, as the creature migrates from A to B, it carries the seeds of the plant and poops them out along its path (essentially planting its own lunch for next year's migration...) The result of this process is that the plant is able to spread to B.

And finally, the really big payoff is that the plant gets the chance to colonize areas visited by *other* creatures who happen to pass through site B - creatures it never would have met in site A! Such a creature never visits site A but does visit sites B & C: once it finds the plant growing in B and eats it, the creature can spread the plant to C.

And now realize that at each previously-inaccessible site, there's probably a few more creatures which can eat the plant, and that they each have their own set of sites that they visit...You can see what a powerful means of reproduction endozoochory is.

PS: This spread of a seed through the world via excrement reminds me an awful lot of Facebook gimmicks (and contagious diseases; and catchy tunes; and parasites; and fashion trends; etc...): Suppose a group "A" is all the people who routinely check out brand new Facebook gimmicks - this is just a tiny subset of all the people out there who use Facebook. But if just one person from group A adds a new Facebook gimmick to their page, all of their friends (group B) suddenly see it; when someone from group B adopts the gimmick, all of her friends (group C) suddenly see it; etc. In the end, the gimmick propagates far beyond just the people in group A.

The point of all this is that if you are like my sister's boyfriend and loathe Facebook, then at last you can point to this blog and say that people who use Facebook are simply shovelling crap from one person to another.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why do we care??

One of the key concepts in CAS is that the behaviour of the system isn't easy to predict. So if you reach in and poke some element of a complex adaptive system, you can't know for sure what the eventual outcome will be (remember the monkeys around the campfire - was the difference between an opposable thumb and a prehensile tail really so significant??)

And yet every action humanity takes - a single person writing a blog, or a company accidentally spilling oil into the ocean - is poking a CAS on some level. So there are billions of people out there interacting with many levels of CAS every second of every day...And yet by the definition of a complex system, the outcome of all these interactions is difficult to predict.

Giving a monkey a thumb didn't change the world overnight, but over millenia, the ripple effect has been huge. How could anyone have predicted this? Between the monkey and an octopus, I probably would have bet on the octopus being the one to take over the world...After all, it's got eight bloody arms to figure out how to make a good cup of coffee!

Our problem is that in complex adaptive systems, changes are constantly occurring - how do you know which one will have a significant impact? Especially when the impact can take a long time to become apparent?

The evolution of the thumb is a perfect example of a lever point: a small change with a big impact.

Figuring out how to identify the lever points in a given system is a huge motivation for the general study of CAS. I would almost define "self-preservation" as identifying the lever points in the systems with which you interact, then doing your best to push the good ones and prevent the bad ones.

What are CAS??!

A single person
Bee hives
The Earth and everything in it.

All of these are CAS - complex adaptive systems.
"System" because the whole is made up of many smaller parts (for example, all the businesses in a market; but don't forget their suppliers; and their consumers; and their employees; and...)
"Adaptive" because the smaller parts change over time depending on their situation (which organisms evolve to prosper in a particular ecosystem over time...and which die out?)
"Complex" because...well...the behaviour of these systems isn't always easy to understand or predict. If you sat down around a campfire a bazillion years ago with all of the primates in the jungle and asked, "what would happen if I gave one of these guys an opposable thumb instead of a prehensile tail?" your answer probably wouldn't have been "Well, that one guy would become the most dominant species on the planet, and along the way develop self-awareness, technology, language, etc."
And yet that very thing happened because our ancestral primate existed in a system made up of many independant, evolving parts. The interactions between all the parts of that system range from the obvious (the guy with the thumb got better at killing animals for food once he figured out how to throw a spear) to the obscure (when a single-celled organism called Phaeocystis globosa is eaten by bigger creatures, it helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; but when it is eaten by smaller creatures, it doesn't...)

The whole point is that the universe is full of complex interactions, and yet by their nature we have trouble connecting the dots. By studying CAS, we're trying to understand some general rules about how these complex interactions work, whether we're looking at an ecosystem, a market, or the blood cells in your body. Hopefully we can get to a point where every time we learn more about one particular system, we learn more about all the other, unrelated systems too.

We're trying to connect the dots.

Hello world!

Hi there, welcome to my blog about complex adaptive systems and related concepts.

I'm no kind of expert about anything - I'm a computer and games nerd. But I've started looking into complex adaptive systems - CAS - since reading John Holland's book Hidden Order. This blog is a place to organize the stuff I've found most interesting; to hopefully distill some of the more difficult concepts into something easier for other newbies to manage; and to eventually share some computer programs I've written to help explore the behaviour of CAS.

Remember - I'll probably get a lot of this stuff wrong. I'm not qualified to "lecture" about any of this. But I occasionally come to my own conclusions after reading work by the people actually defining this field, and I plan to share them. So take me with a grain of salt!!!