Thursday, May 31, 2007

Brownback on faith and reason

During the Republican presidential debate a few weeks ago, Senator Brownback was one of three candidates who raised their hands when asked whether they did not believe in evolution. In this NYTimes Op-ed piece he attempts to redeem himself.

He starts off reasonably well, asserting that science and faith focus on different aspects of conceptualization.
The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions … .
But when it comes to applying that perspective to evolution, he loses it.
If [evolution] means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
If anything evolution is not deterministic. At its heart it is a stochastic process. But I doubt that saying that will make Brownback happy. He would probably also reject a materialistic, random vision of the world.

Furthermore, it's not clear what Brownback is rejecting when he rejects a materialistic vision of the world. Science is all about the material (i.e., natural, observable) world. If by calling the version of evolution that he rejects materialistic, Brownback is characterizing it as a scientific theory, then he is apparently rejecting evolution simply because it is a scientific theory. So if Brownback is rejecting evolution because it is a scientific theory, he has not at all redeemed himself with respect to his denial of evolution.

Furthermore, what does Brownback have in mind when he speaks of a guiding intelligence? Is this something that is observable as an empirical fact? If so, then it is the subject matter of science. But I doubt that Brownback has that in mind. If he instead is talking about something beyond empirical verification, i.e., the subject matter of faith, then it has nothing to do with either science or evolution. So again, if Brownback rejects evolution if it has no place for faith, then he again fails to redeem himself with respect to his denial of evolution.

The bottom line seems to be that Brownback says he rejects evolution unless it includes an element of faith. If by writing this op-ed piece he was attempting to make his position acceptable to people who respect science, he has failed.

Like all the rest of science, evolution is a theory of how the natural (i.e., material, observable) world works. The question is whether Brownback rejects a scientific theory if that theory doesn't include an element of faith.

The problem for Brownback is that science doesn't consider faith when making its theories. Science is quite simple. It observes the world and attempts to understand and explain what it sees. Of course it's not easy to do that. As Richard Feynman said, "Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is." But science is not about faith one way or the other. There is no such thing as faith-based science, much as Brownback would like there to be. (Similarly there is no such thing as ideology-based science, much as Bush would like there to be.)

If Brownback attempts to impose criteria on which scientific theories he will accept or reject based on something beyond the science itself — e.g., on whether or not it has room for a guiding intelligence — he will continue to get himself into intellectual trouble. Yet in attempting to sound like he accepts science without at the same time alienating his base of non-thinking faithful, that's just what he seems to be doing. It doesn't work.

Brownback failed live up to the separation of science and faith that he defined early in his essay. As he wrote
[Science] seeks to discover truths about [nature] and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions.
Science keeps its end of this bargain; it doesn't attempt to talk about spiritual truths. Brownback's version of faith fails to keep its end. According to Brownback, science is not acceptable unless it conforms to rules that his faith imposes. If Brownback were more vigilant in keeping his faith from interfering in the truths of science, we would all be much better off.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Word of the day: crowdsourcing

Apparently this word is about a year old — and I'm amazed that I hadn't heard it before now. I came across it in Tapscott and Williams (2006) Wikinomics, which I mentioned in my list of new cooperation books. This May 27, 2006 article from Jeff Howe's blog documents the word's origin. It starts out by saying that 9 days earlier Google returned only 3 hits for crowdsourcing. At the time of the writing Google returned 182,000 hits! From 3 to 182,000 in a little more than a week! (This was a year ago, and it was only a year later that I first heard the word.) This follow-up article completes the history of the term.

Wikipedia's Crowdsourcing article (appropriately) captures the meaning.
Crowdsourcing is a neologism for a business model in which a company or institution takes a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsources it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call over the Internet. The work is compensated with little or no pay in most cases. However, in a few examples the labor is well-compensated. In almost every case crowdsourcing relies on amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time to create content, solve problems, or even do corporate R&D.
When Debora and I talked about it she raised the issue of prize money offered for accomplishment. Are the various DARPA Grand Challenges crowdsourcing? Was the reward offered for the first one-person non-stop flight over the Atlantic crowdsourcing?

Some of the uses of the term seem to include those cases as when a corporation offers money for the solution of a problem. The more general and intuitive use doesn't. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia produced by an entire crowd and not just by one individual or team from a crowd. Like Wikipedia, prediction markets are a crowd-based way of producing a result — in this case evaluating an issue. The entire crowd participates.

In some work that I'm doing, I claim that distillation mechanisms will become increasingly important. By this I mean mechanisms that filter out the essence or value from crowd generated raw material. Wikipedia has one distillation mechanism. In fact, its distillation review mechanisms is also crowd sourced. So Wikipedia is doubly crowdsourced: both in the generation and distillation of information. The academic peer review process is a less crowd sourced variant of this. The original input is crowdsourced. The distillation process is more formal — although also dependent on a crowd of reviewers.

Prediction markets are another distillation mechanism. The market mechanism itself is the distillation process, which is not crowdsourced. It is a way of extracting a single essence from the opinion of many people. Of course markets have been around for a very long time.

A third form of distillation mechanism is the offering of a reward as in the DARPA grand challenge or when a corporation offers a reward for solving a problem. Many people are encouraged to participate and produce a result that satisfies the stated need. Only one of these gets the prize. The decision about which participant gets the prize is made by the offerer, not by a crowd.

One of the oldest distillation mechanisms is the marketplace, both economic and more generic. Like Wikipedia most marketplaces use a two-level crowdsourcing mechanism. At the generation level, anyone has the ability to create and market a new product or service. At the distillation level, the crowd itself is the arbiter of what succeeds. The same is true for the Internet. Anyone can create a new website; the crowd decides which websites develop a following. What's different about the Internet is that the long tail effect allows sites with relatively minimal followings to prosper.

Another distillation mechanism is used in the ESP Game and PeekaBoom in which games are used to get people to contribute knowldge. These were created by Luis van Ahn.

Yet another distillation mechanism isn't really a distillation mechanism. Linus Torvalds talked about his GIT source control management system. It is a distributed system in that there is no central branch. Everyone has his own branch. The important branches are the ones that people decide are important. The SCM system doesn't tell you. It is agnostic with respect to which branch is the main branch. There is no main branch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


A couple of posts down I pointed to Bill Richardson's ad and the fact that the seemed more like a normal person than the other candidates. John Dickerson's review of his Meet The Press performance makes me wonder if he isn't too average.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Turing test passed

From Wired Blogs
A web-based 'expert system' that helped users prepare bankruptcy filings for a fee made too many decisions to be considered a clerical tool, an appeals court said last week, ruling that the software was effectively practicing law without a license.

When he was young and naive

From Think Progress.
Flashback to 1999, when George W. Bush was governor of Texas. Then, Bush criticized President Clinton for not setting a timetable for exiting Kosovo.

George W. Bush, 4/9/99, Houston Chronicle:

“Victory means exit strategy, and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is.”

And on the specific need for a timetable:

George W. Bush, 6/5/99, Scripps Howard/Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

“I think it’s also important for the president to lay out a timetable as to how long they will be involved and when they will be withdrawn.”

Bill Richardson: Job Interview

He may just be the best Democratic candidate. He's more like a normal person than any of the others, Republican or Democrat. The rest are all such rarified personalities.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Flood of books and articles on the new cooperation

Here are a few.

Benkler, Yochai (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (pdf), Yale University Press.

Atkinson, Simon Reay and James Moffat (2005) The Agile Organization.

Brafman, Ori and Rod Bechstrom (2006) The Starfish and the Spider, Portfolio Hardcover.

Brynjolfsson, Erik and Andrew McAfee (2007) "Beyond Enterprise 2.0" (Interview) Sloan Management Review.

Cooperation Commons, bibliography.

Hagel, John III and John Seely Brown (2005) The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization.

Johns Hopkins (2005 - 2006) "Rethinking the Future Nature of Competition & Conflict".

Leadbeater, Charlie (2007) We Think: The Power of Mass Creativity.

MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

Ostrom, Elinor (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity, Princeton University Press.

Page, Scott (2007) The Difference: How The Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Teams, Schools, and Societies, Princeton University Press.

John Robb (2007) Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, Wiley.

Sunstein, Cass (2006) Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, Oxford University Press.

Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams (2006) Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Penguin Portfolio.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

IFTF's Future Now

The Institute for the Future has a daily blog of interesting links. A recent entry recommended an editorial in The Economist. The Economist cover picture is to the right.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I've started to read Tapscott and Williams Wikinomics. It's a somewhat breathlessly enthusiastic account of Web 2.0. Their explanation of the difference between the "old web" and the "new web" is that the old web was like an online newspaper whereas the new web is like an online coffee shop. In other words (and this certainly isn't new with Tapscott and Williams), the new web is about user participation. The primary point of their book seems to be that user participation can [be used to] produce new value.

Perhaps they make this point later in the book, but if that's the real power of the new web, the critical skill will be distillation: how can one distill wisdom and vision from a mass of contributions? Open source software has developed one way. Companies that open their resources to user input are another. Google's page rand is another form of distillation as is eBay's reputation system. Perhaps that will be an important research area.

In many ways this is like the information fusion problem: how do you put a lot of information together to get a broader sense of what's going on? One can probably make use of public participation here also. This is all about applying collective intelligence to the task of sense making.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Prisons' budget to trump colleges

From the San Francisco Chronicle.
As the costs for fixing the state's troubled corrections system rocket higher, California is headed for a dubious milestone — for the first time the state will spend more on incarcerating inmates than on educating students in its public universities.

Based on current spending trends, California's prison budget will overtake spending on the state's universities in five years. No other big state in the country spends close to as much on its prisons compared with universities.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Identifying entities

In a previous post, I asked how one identifies groups — or really how one identifies entities in general. Here's the answer.

There are two kinds of entities: static entities and dynamic entities. (See "Putting Complex Systems to Work" for an introduction to entities. See "Emergence Explained: Abstractions" preprint/Complexity for a discussion of emergence in general.)

In both cases (static and dynamic entities) we will assume that an entity is a composite of component entities. In doing this we ignore some important questions such as what are the primitive entities?

Static entities are created when existing static entities combine to form a compound static entity in a reduced energy state according to the laws of physics. That is, the compound entity is in an energy well. Typical examples are atomic nuclei (which combine nucleons under the strong nuclear force), atoms (which combine nuclei and electrons under the electromagnetic force), molecules (which combine atoms and molecules under the electromagnetic force), and mass aggregations (which combine other masses under the gravitational force). Given any attractive primitive force, that force can be the impetus for the creation of a static entity. Of course this is a recursive process. Once an entity has been created, it can participate with other entities in the creation of still larger entities — and as the examples above show through the influence of other forces than those that created it.

Dynamic entities are a bit more subtle. They are created when entities adopt behaviors that lead them to act in particular ways and that cause them to recognize other entities as being part of the dynamic entity identified with that behavior. For any set of behaviors that characterize a dynamic entity, the entities that interact according to those behaviors become a dynamic entity.

Since this sounds a bit self-referential. Some examples will help. In the early days of agent-based modeling, flocks were modeled by defining "rules" whereby flock members adjusted their speed and direction of motion depending on the other members of the flock. Who the other members of the flock were was built into the model. The point of the model was to illustrate how simple local rules could produce "emergent" global effects.

In our definition, we are turning the "rules" upside down and using them to define what a flock consists of. In particular, a flock is any group of agents whose rules cause them to adjust their speed and direction on the basis of the other agents with which they are interacting according to those rules. Thus if one agent is adjusting its speed and direction according to a set of other agents, then the original agent along with the set of agents it observes are part of a flock. Furthermore, if any of the agents in that flock are observing still other agents not yet identified as being in the flock, then they too are included in the flock. This process of counting new agents as part of the flock continues until all the agents in the flock are adjusting their speed and direction by consulting no agents not in the flock. In this example, we start with one agent and build a flock by constructing the transitive closure of the other agents it consults according to its rules of operation.

The rules in the appendix of Emergence Explained that identify patterns in the Game of Life can be understood as simple versions of this transitive closure approach to forming agents. In the Game of Life a pattern was defined as the transitive closure of a group of on-cells that were mutually connected. As the system changed from state to state, some cells would be drawn into the pattern and others would leave.

That's basically it. The flocking rule (independently of any agent) characterizes the behavior of members of the flock. An agent who operates according to that rule along with the transitive closure of other agents it consults make up a flock. As in the game of life example, agents can enter a flock and agents can leave a flock. The flock itself persists.

This rule of entity formation allows for the existence of multiple flocks. If two flocks are sufficiently far apart, no agent in either one consults an agent in the other. Hence each one is closed, and the two form separate flocks. When the two flocks approach each other, the closure rule causes them to form a combined larger flock.

The preceding was a very simple example. We can extend it to ask about that part of the standard flocking rule that tells an agent to avoid bumping into things (like light poles).

The simplest approach is to allow the rules themselves to determine which of the things with which the agent interacts are taken to be in the flock. Thus the rule that tells an agent not to bump into fixed objects marks those fixed objects as not in the flock. The rule that tells an agent to adjust its speed and direction according to other agents marks those other agents as being in the same flock as the agent which is obeying that rule.

So the more general case is that a rule identifies other entities that it recognizes in its environment as being either part of the same larger entity or not part of the same larger entity. The transitive closure of all entities that interact according to a particular set of rules forms a group.

We do not require that all entities in a group obey the same set of rules, only that the rules determine which of the elements with which the entity interacts are in the group. For example, in a bee colony, there are a number of categories of bees: drone, worker bees, the queen bee, etc. Each of these obeys a certain set of rules. These rules identify which of the entities with which the bees interact are part of the colony. The transitive closure of all bees belonging to the colony form the colony.

This approach to defining dynamic entities can be seen as a generalization of how static entities are defined. The "behaviors/rules" we used in defining static entities are simply the laws of physics. The difference is that the laws of physics cause entities to behave in particular ways without external energy. Entities that follow behavioral rules that define groups depend on an external source of energy to allow them to follow those rules. Furthermore, entities that can be "programmed" either genetically or by learning — such as biological entities — are far more flexible in the sorts of rules that can be created for them — and therefore in the kinds of higher level entities that can be created.

Word of the day: biobreak

A short intermission during an event, usually a meeting, during which participants are offered the opportunity to attend to some of their biological needs.

Word of the day: professional

An individual who does a job that is not normally considered one of the professions*. Examples include office professional, janitorial professional, and cosmetic professional.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines (definition 1b) profession as
An occupation, such as law, medicine, or engineering, that requires considerable training and specialized study.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Extra hotel fees

Dale suggests that this series be expanded into a formal study of hotels. In a previous post I complained about hypocrisy. That same hotel (the Radisson in Culver City) earned two other black marks, which I might as well document here.
  1. Our entire condominium community is being fumigated for termites. The owners association arranged a special price of $99/night with the Radisson. But when we arrived we were told that the price didn't include parking, which was $15/night — for each car. Since we had two cars, the total was $130/night (plus tax).
  2. I went to the hotel website to complain. It had a fine "contact us" page in which I was invited to write my name, email address, phone number, etc., and comment. The problem was that the phone number field was both required and locked. I couldn't enter anything into it (on either Internet Explorer or Firefox), and the page wouldn't submit if the field was empty!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Implementing structure

Debora recently commented that structure implies bureaucracy. In thinking about that it occurred to me that there are (at least) two ways to implement structure: physically and procedurally. Structure implemented physically simply fixes in place — "hard wires" — whatever structure it defines. Structure implemented procedurally relies on processes to ensure that the intended structure is maintained. It's probably more expensive to implement structure procedurally. But it's probably easier to change procedures when appropriate.

An example that brought all this to mind are the hangers in my hotel room. They are the sort of hanger that have a little knob at the top instead of a loop to hang over a bar. The knob fits into a little hook, which in turn hangs from the bar. These are called ball-top hangers. The hooks are called security rings.) The point, of course, is that hangers with knobs are unusual enough that people won't want to take them home — because most people don't have the hooks into which the knobs fit. This is a physical implementation of the structure that prevents (or at least discourages) people from stealing hangers from hotel rooms. The procedural method would rely on inspections and perhaps entreaties to hotel guests not to steal the hangers. These approaches are unlikely to make much of a difference.

In this example, the physical implementation is almost certainly both much more effective and much cheaper than the procedural approach. But it is also much more hard-wired into the hotel's way of operating. Once a hotel has adopted ball hangers, it would be much more difficult for it to change its policy and encourage guests to take hangers home as a gift from the hotel. They could, of course, give away the security hooks. But those hooks are harder to install at home. One must take the rail out of the closet and slip the hooks on at the end. Besides, the underlying assumption is that most people don't want that sort of hanger in their closets. If a hotel really wanted to give hangers away, its best bet would be to throw out its ball hangers and change its hardware implementation of the no-theft policy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Starfish and the Spider

This book, by Ori Brafman and Rod Bechstrom, subtitled "The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" lauds decentralization and discusses how it is able to accomplish what hierarchical structures cannot.

The book discusses many examples of decentralization and makes a good case that decentralization offers many advantages. Among them are flexibility, creativity, and with enough decentralization immunity from death by decapitation — since there is no head to decapitate.

Having just finished David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone, I was hoping for a book about decentralization with a similar crispness. Unfortunately, this isn't it. Brafman and Bechstrom are relatively charming writers, but they aren't scientists. They are MBAs. And like MBAs they think in terms of case studies. Although examples and anecdotes are pleasant reading, and they are often informative and memorable, they don't provide solid guidelines about how nature works.

Nonetheless, the book is worth one's time. It's very easy reading — approximately 200 pages of very easy prose. Because I'm currently working in this area, I'll be writing additional blog pieces as I go through it a second time and attempt to make some of what they have to say a bit more rigorous.

Irrational exuberance?

Seems like it, but I just came across this chart which suggests it may not be. Colin Twiggs writes a (free) weekly stock market letter. This week he included this graph. The light blue line shows that the S&P earnings/share has been growing rapidly. More importantly, the magenta line shows that the earnings yield (earnings per share divided by price, which is the inverse of the PE ratio) is at a reasonable level in historical terms. The current earnings yield of nearly 6% is a PE ratio of approximately 17, which according to the chart is where it was before the bubble of the late 90s. Apparently companies are just making lots of money.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hypocrisy of the day

Wordnet defines hypocrisy as
an expression of agreement that is not supported by real conviction

insincerity by virtue of pretending to have qualities or beliefs that you do not really have
Either way, the word was brought to mind by the card left in the bathroom of the Radisson hotel where we're staying. (In fact, it seems to be ubiquitous in hotels.)
Dear Valued Guest,

To minimize the impact on our natural resources, you have the choice of re-using your towels, or having freshly laundered towels provided daily. If you prefer to not re-use towels, please place them in the tub, and we will gladly provide you with fresh towels.
Does anyone seriously believe that the Radisson management cares one bit about its impact on our natural resources? It seems to me that there are two reasons hotels leave these cards in guest rooms.

The first is cost savings. It almost certainly costs less to print the cards than the savings the cards yield in reduced laundry and towel replacement expenses.

The second is a failed attempt at public relations. They may foolishly imagine that some of their guests might actually be naive enough to believe that the hotel is concerned about the environment and might therefore feel better about the hotel.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Implementing groups

In the next post down, I discuss the use of genetic programming to breed ants that forage for food as a colony. That post was inspired by reading David Sloan Wilson's, Evolution for Everyone. (Click here for all my posts about Evolution for Everyone, which I liked a lot.) The primary issue Wilson raises is group selection.

The question of group selection can be seen as subordinate to the question of whether groups exist as an entity. Certainly if groups exist as an entity, then the processes of evolution will inescapably apply to them. Wilson makes a good case that selection and adaptation do apply at the group level. What struck me about much of his writing was how his groups reflected properties of my dynamic entities. (See "Putting Complex Systems to Work".)

The genetic programming examples discussed below are a good illustration of how a dynamic entity can be implemented by lower level elements. Every entity, static or dynamic, is implemented by its components. Static entities are implemented by their components in fixed relationships and at an energy equilibrium; dynamic entities are implemented by their components in dynamic relationships — relationships that depend on an external source of energy to maintain. The GP ant colony is a nice example of a dynamic entity that is implemented by explicit rules of operation which are built into the ants. Because the ants operate according to the rules that are built into them, they implement an ant colony as an entity.

This raises the question: how can one identify the entity that the collection of ants creates? Clearly it is an intuitive entity. One can even subject it to natural selection (as explained below) against similar entities. But if one had to point to it and say, "that is the entity I'm talking about" how would one do it other than the ants that are part of it any time? In the case of the GP experiment, one might associate the entity with the nest and the ants that use it to deliver food. In general, how does one do it? I claim that dynamic entities have more mass (but only by a negligible amount because their components tend to be in motion) than the components taken separately. But that would be a very difficult way to pick an entity out of a background.

So how do we do it? Or better yet, how would we program a computer to do it? A fundamental issue with programming a computer has to do with the input the computer starts with. What is its scale? Assuming the computer has access to elementary particles, then what? How, in fact would it even have access to elementary particles since they are probabilistic waves? So what does it start with? But assuming it could start somewhere (which presumably means that it has some sort of sensing device, which means …) then how would you program it to pick out the entities?

I argue that there are entities. And I'm not attempting to refute that argument. This is more an epistemological question. Even if one starts by assuming that entities exist, how do you discover and identify them?

The answer has to be by recognizing the reduced entropy that characterizes them. Dynamic entities (like static entities) have reduced entropy with respect to their surroundings. If one can recognize that, one can recognize dynamic entities. Human beings, of course, are particularly good at recognizing patterns, i.e., areas of reduced entropy. One might even argue that our very ability to do that is a result of the fact that group entities are as important as they are. Perhaps it is fortunate for us that we are so good at noticing patterns. That seems to be a very powerful intellectual capability in general, even when the patterns are not reflective of group entities.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Simulating group selection

Wilson's approach to group selection is nicely illustrated by some of the early experiments in genetic programming. (Click here for all my posts about Evolution for Everyone, which I liked a lot.) For example, in an ant "food foraging" experiment, simulated ants were bred (through a simulated evolutionary process) to release simulated pheromones when they found simulated food. (See, for example, this paper by Liviu A. Panait and Sean Luke.) Other simulated ants follow the simulated pheromone trail to retrieve more of the simulated food. The simulated ant colony as a whole works as a cooperative unit to retrieve more simulated food (or at least to retrieve the simulated food faster) than would have been retrieved had there been no communication via simulated pheromones.

From an evolutionary perspective, one might ask why such pheromone releasing behavior began. Since the release of pheromones (like the dance of bees) is costly to the ant (or the bee), the argument must be that it evolved because those groups in which it occurred did better than those groups in which it didn't occur — and hence individuals in those groups had a better chance of surviving and reproducing notwithstanding the cost to themselves as individuals of releasing pheromones (or of dancing).

As far as I know, these sorts of questions have not been investigated with GP. In the GP experiments, the ants didn't pay a price for releasing pheromones. In fact the ants didn't pay a price for anything. The only question was how much food was brought home. Ant survival and individual ant reproduction weren't considered.

It would be interesting to see what happens if ants are charged for the generation of pheromones. Suppose that all food is shared equally at the nest, but that it requires energy to generate pheromones and to go out and forage for food. Would free rider ants evolve?

What if one had multiple colonies competing with each other? And what if ants were able to interfere with each other's access to food? And what if ants were marked as having released pheromones or as having brought food to the nest? Would a colony policing mechanism evolve that restricted access to the common food source for ants that didn't do their share of the work? Since this sort of evolution is a purely random process (especially in GP) the only way this would happen is if an ant's "program" included the operation to interfere with another ant if that other ant didn't "smell" like it had done its share of the work. But once that happened, would that colony be more productive? If so, that mutation would survive. It sounds plausible. It would be interesting to do the experiment. It would also be interesting to play with the parameters that made releasing food and going out and bringing food back to the nest costly to ants. How much should that cost? What are the break points at which it makes a difference? Lots of interesting experiments could be done.

Group selection and merit pay at the CSU

Wilson's perspective on group selection illustrates why the continual pressure by the administration of the California State University (CSU) system to institute a "merit-pay" plan is wrong-headed. (Click here for all my posts about Evolution for Everyone, which I liked a lot.) Such a plan may select for "the best professors" — if best professors can even be defined — but it is not likely to produce "the best" University.

Although I'm not recommending this approach, a group selection perspective might suggest the following. For any academic discipline, e.g., Computer Science, compare Computer Science departments across different campuses and "reward" those that did better against some specified metrics. Eventually, the successful departments would take over more of the Computer Science education work in the CSU system as the unsuccessful departments were allowed to wither and die. This would lead to concentrating disciplines at specific campuses rather than spreading them across the state, but it might produce departments that scored higher on given metrics. Although I'm not urging this approach, it would be interesting to see what sort of results it produced.

Of course, one might also apply this approach to the campuses with the system. Reward the successful campuses and penalize the unsuccessful ones. Eventually the successful ones will take over more of the work of the system. The unsuccessful ones will be closed.

There are (at least) two problems with this approach.
  1. We want (by public policy or political need) to have campuses distributed across the state.
  2. There may be an optimum size for organizations. If they are too successful they will grow past their optimal size. By that time, however, the other ones may have been so weakened that they cannot compete. So one will wind up with unsuccessful oversize organizations.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wilson talks about Evolution for Everyone

I just came across a video of a presentation entitled "Evolution and Religion: Two sideshows and the main event" by David Sloan Wilson. It was part of Hampshire college's Science and Religion series. In it Wilson rejects Dawkins's "demonic meme" hypothesis and explains his view of religion as a group survival adaptation.

The talk provides very nice (and fast paced) discussions of individual vs. group selection and within-group vs. between-group selection. The talk was given this past March, a month or so before Evolution for Everyone was published. It's a very nice summary of the book and does not limit itself to "Science and Religion" topics. (Click here for all my posts about Evolution for Everyone, which I liked a lot.)

Successful group structures

In an email about Wilson's book, I summarized it's basic message about groups as follows. (Click here for all my posts about this book.)

The fundamental idea sounds trivial. To create a successful group create a group structure that
  1. encourages individual behaviors that provide benefits to both the individual and the group
  2. limits behaviors — at both the individual and group levels — that benefit one side at the expense of the other. (Religious cults tend to promote activities that benefit the group at the expense of the individual. Monopolistic practices tend to benefit the individual at the expense of the group.)
That's the fundamental trick of innovative environments — such as the free market system, the scientific research community, and the internet. (Not all successful groups are innovative. Innovative environments also include structures that encourage innovation as well as behaviors that benefit both the group and the individual. The Amish are a successful group that doesn't encourage innovation.) Innovative environments are not always perfect, but to an important extent, they are structured so that individual and group good coincide.

To say that one wants activities that benefit both the individual and the group is not the same thing as the laissez-faire doctrine that an "invisible hand" will always make everything come out right. Wilson has a chapter on Ayn Rand in which he likens unbridled selfishness (the underlying value of the invisible hand philosophy) to a cancer, which ultimately kills the host on which it relies. Successful groups have mechanisms that contain cancers just as they have mechanisms that encourage behaviors that yield both private and public gains. The challenge, of course, is to find ways to identify and suppress cancers without stifling innovation and healthy individual growth. Every successful group/environment has mechanisms to limit runaway selfish interests. Healthy individual growth is important. Cancer is deadly. (Democrats should use the cancer metaphor when criticizing Republican-backed greed in the name of free markets.)

The fundamental underlying problem is that within a group, selfishness will beat altruism, but between groups, groups with more altruists will beat groups with more selfish individuals. So producing group goods will be good for the individual to the extent that the group benefit overcomes the within-group disadvantage one pays for it. But even then, the group must deal with internal free-riders — or those who contribute to the group good will eventually be outnumbered by free-riders, destroying the group as a value-producing unit.

This raises the question of what benefits a group. From an evolutionary perspective that question is answered by asking whether the group survives. In a social context, we can't wait that long. So we are ultimately thrown back to asking the group members — or the group decision-making process, whatever it is — what they think benefits the group. Of course whenever such a question is asked, the group members also consider how a proposed group effect will affect them individually. So this is not an easy question to answer.

Any group that has the ability to make decisions about its own operational structure, i.e., any human group, will be forced to struggle with this fundamental question.
  1. Since a group's operational structure is (and must be) flexible so that it can change with changing conditions,
  2. but since decisions about how to change the group's structure must be made by some process that involves individual decisions made by individual members of the group,
  3. and since in making those decisions the individual group members can't be expected to ignore how their decisions will affect them directly,
  4. how should the group decision making process be set up so that it makes the best decisions about the group?
And by the way, what are the best decisions about a group? Perhaps there are situations in which it would be best for a group to dissolve itself. The sorts of groups that Wilson discusses (e.g., hunter-gatherer villages) are essential for their members' survival. But many of our modern groups are conveniences — created for the benefit of their members but not at all necessary for the survival of their members. When a group is no longer valued by its members (e.g., a bowling league in which most of the members have lost interest in bowling), it may be time to let it die.

Friday, May 04, 2007

David Sloan Wilson

I just finished his Evolution for Everyone. (It's the kind of book I had a hard time putting down. (Click here for all my posts about the book.) It's a very personal book. The last couple of chapters especially are autobiographical — and not always self-flattering. He describes himself as a mediocre student — who didn't do well in math and science (at his "safety" school no less) even though he wanted to be a scientist. He also failed socially — overly prolonging an unfortunate relationship and marriage into which he was apparently driven primarily by loneliness.

Throughout the book Wilson talks about how belief systems succeed or fail depending on the practical actions they invoke in their followers. Throughout the book also, he talks about how anyone can be an evolutionist. It's easy, he says, to understand how to think from an evolutionary perspective. All one needs is a basic course — or this book. He speaks of the evolutionary perspective as if it opens one's eyes to how the world really is. He doesn't use these term, but one might imagine him saying that the scales have fallen from his eyes.

In fact, if one applies Wilson's method to himself, thinking like an evolutionist has led him to behave in a way that has resulted in his own success. He met and married the woman he loves. He has become a very successful scientist. He teaches at a University which has adopted his EvolS program — which is something like evolution through the curriculum. The book ends with these words.
It is awesome and humbling to contemplate that we are the product of that same sculpting action [that formed the creatures around us], not only our bodies but also our minds and the very thoughts that run through our minds. I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to be present during the early days of Darwin's theory, when the idea was so new and so much remained to be discovered. Then I realize that I am present during the early days of Darwin's theory. The intellectual events taking place right now are as foundational as the events of 150 years ago. How amazing that virtually anyone can partake in the excitement, as an observer or a participant, as I hope you have seen on the basis of this book. Evolution theory is not the kind of belief system that hurls you like an arrow in a previously chosen direction. It is more like a sailboat or kayak bobbing by the shore, inviting you to take your own voyage of discovery.
Compare that to his discussion of the practical benefits of religion.
I have spoken with many religious believers who feel that my focus on practical benefits misses the sense of the religious experience, which is a deeply felt relationship with God. I agree with them as far as the psychological religious experience is concerned, but that is exactly what the proximate/ultimate distinction leads us to expect. I could be right that religion is all about practical benefits in terms of what religious belief causes people to do (the ultimate explanation, which corresponds to the horizontal dimension of religion), and they could be right that their own religious experience is based far more on their relationship with God than on practical benefits for themselves or anyone else (the proximate explanation, which corresponds to the vertical dimension of religion). The proximate explanation need not bear any relationship to the ultimate explanation other than reliably causing the right behavior, as we have seen with our example of the flowering plant. By the same token, people fall in love in part of have children (an ultimate explanation), but that doesn't remotely describe the subjective experience of falling in love (the proximate explanation).
Seeing the light of the scientific theory of evolution seems to have saved Wilson's life. He argues for it with much of the same zeal as a religious convert. (It's important to note that Wilson proselytizes as much for science as he does for evolution. His notion of "turning the crank of science" appears repeatedly in the book. Scientific facts, once arrived at by the difficult work of science are durable. They are the bricks of which the explanatory edifices of scientific theories are built.)

Wilson makes the point that most religions — at least initially — develop belief systems that merge what he calls practical realism (successful behaviors that result from their beliefs) with factual realism (accurate perceptions of the way nature works). In his own case, since his belief system is scientific evolutionary theory (which is factually realistic) and since he lives in a world which favors good scientists (which makes it practically realistic), that's not hard to do.

The scientific evolutionary perspective is the right way to understand much of how the world works — whether or not it saved his life, and notwithstanding the fact that he was open, honest, and courageous enough to tell us so. In Evolution for Everyone Wilson invites everyone to join him in this happy confluence.

Bush Warns of Vetoes Over Ending Human Life

Bob Park noted (item #3) that Bush has apparently had a change of heart regarding the war. He referred to an article in the New York Times which reported as follows.
In a two-page letter sent to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Mr. Bush said [that he would veto] any measures that “allow taxpayer dollars to be used for the destruction of human life.”
And he was good to his word. Bush vetoed the most recent war funding bill, which was passed by Democrats who clearly have no reverence for human life.

Simulation as AoP

In a recent discussion with Jeff Steinman of WarpIV it occurred to me that one might usefully conceptualize simulation as a big AoP application. The primary (only?) main line in the computation is the passage of time. Everything else is an aspect, which is triggered by either the passage of time or some other change in the simulation state. In fact, isn't that how we think about science? At the quantum level, time results in unpredictable quantum events. Everywhere else one thing leads to another.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The most famous number on the Internet

From the New York Times
Sophisticated Internet users have banded together over the last two days to publish and widely distribute a [formerly] secret code [a string of 32 hex digits] used by the technology and movie industries to prevent piracy of high-definition movies. …

The number is being enshrined in some creative ways. Keith Burgon, a 24-year-old musician in Goldens Bridge, N.Y., grabbed his acoustic guitar on Tuesday and improvised a melody while soulfully singing the code. He posted the song to YouTube, where it was played more than 45,000 times. …

The campaign to remove the number from circulation [by the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS-LA), which controls the encryption system known as A.A.C.S., which is backed by technology companies like I.B.M., Intel, Microsoft and Sony and movie studios like Disney and Warner Brothers, which is owned by Time Warner] went largely unnoticed until news of [a series of cease-and-desist] letters hit Digg. The 25-employee company in San Francisco, acting on the advice of its lawyers, removed posting submissions about the secret number from its database earlier this week, then explained the move to its readers on Tuesday afternoon.

The removals were seen by many Digg users as a capitulation to corporate interests and an assault on free speech. Some also said that the trade group that promotes the HD-DVD format, which uses A.A.C.S. protection, had advertised on a weekly Digg-related video podcast.

On Tuesday afternoon and into the evening, stories about or including the code swamped Digg’s main page, which the company says gets 16 million readers each month. At 9 p.m. West Coast time, the company surrendered to mob sentiment.

“You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company,” wrote Kevin Rose, Digg’s founder, in a blog post. “We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.” If Digg loses, he wrote, “at least we died trying.”
A Los Angeles Times story had this to say.
One Digg member, Grant Robertson, said the incident reminded him of a quote from "NewsRadio," the 1990s TV show: "You can't take something off the Internet. That's like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool."
To check that out, try Googling "09 F9", the first four digits of the number. I got nearly 1,000,000 hits.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which typically sides with (and defends) against this sort of corporate limitations seems to think that if the case were brought to court the DCMA supports the AACS-LA's position and that the defendants would lose.

The Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator strikes back.
Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator, LLC (“AACS LA”) announces that it has taken action, in cooperation with relevant manufacturers, to expire the encryption keys associated with the specific implementations of AACS-enabled software.

Consumers can continue to enjoy content that is protected by the AACS technology by refreshing the encryption keys associated with their HD DVD and Blu-ray software players. This refresh process is accomplished via a straightforward online update.

Through this online update process, manufacturers are also able to see that consumers update their player implementations prior to distribution of encryption key expiration information via new movie discs.

Consumers are advised to check with the manufacturer of their AACS-enabled Blu-ray or HD DVD PC-based player to make sure you have installed the latest version. The following manufacturers have provided links to provide relevant information and facilitate consumer updating of their players:

InterVideo – publishers of WinDVD products

CyberLink – publishers of PowerDVD products