A Master Equation for All Life Processes?

If you are curious about how interesting the world turns out to be, here are two great articles to add to your reading list.

A Master Equation for All Life Processes?. In “Life on the Scales,” Science News
recently wrote that some simple mathematical equations, known as
quarter-power scaling laws, can explain the metabolic rates of living
organisms. For example, “an animal's metabolic rate appears to be
proportional to mass to the 3/4 power.” And this “3/4-power law appears
to hold sway from microbes to whales, creatures of sizes ranging over a
mind-boggling 21 orders of magnitude.” The ecologists, physicists and
chemists behind this research are now successfully applying this
equation to plants, fish, full ecosystems and even biology and
genetics, by adding a new key parameter: temperature. Please read this
fascinating article for many more details and references. But save some
time to read another long article, “Ecology's Big, Hot Idea,” published by PLoS Biology,
which states that “the way life uses energy is a unifying principle for
ecology in the same way that genetics underpins evolutionary biology.”
Read more… [Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends]

Not so intelligent designer

Fantastic and fascinating editorial turning the purported 'logic' of
intelligent design against itself. The only drawback, of course, is
that ID is only superficially about logic, so this isn't an argument
that will carry any weight with anyone who finds ID appealing.

Intelligent Design's idiotic designer. Cory Doctorow:
A fantastic editorial in this weekend's NYT shreds the idea of
“Intelligent Design” (a pseudo-scientific,
crypto-Christian-fundamentalist way of talking about Creationism
without mentioning God) by taking apart the incompetence and
foolishness of the supposedly intelligent designer.

In mammals, for instance, the
recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the
larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead,
it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and
then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a
20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is
evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural
order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died
out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will
inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of
designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their
environments that they were doomed to extinction?

The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones.
Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by
pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain
mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to
protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases —
cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis — the signal comes too
late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is
completely useless.

And why should the human reproductive system be so shoddily
designed? Fewer than one-third of conceptions culminate in live births.
The rest end prematurely, either in early gestation or by miscarriage.
Nature appears to be an avid abortionist…

Contracting, clarity, and requirements

I’ve certainly been guilty of this kind of approach at multiple points throughout my career. The best techniques I’ve encountered for dealing with these challenges are the “contracting” conversations that Peter Block advocates so strongly in his excellent Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used. Regardless of which side of the table you are on, you had better become more adept at Block’s contracting or you will be building or paying for
entirely too many custom-made drywall saws.

Clarity, Junior Engineers, Requirements, and Frustration.

There’s an amazing essay at The Spurious Pundit on “Picture Hanging.” It’s an allegory that explores how simple requirements in software aren’t that obvious to folks who may not have context. The writing is wonderful, do check it out, it’s worth your time. Subscribed.

A highlight:

You tell him to hang the photo of your pet dog, and he comes back a week later,asking if you could “just double-check” his design for a drywall saw. “Why are you designing a drywall saw?”
“Well, the wood saw in the office toolbox isn’t good for cutting drywall.”
“What, you think you’re the first person on earth to try and cut drywall? You can buy a saw for that at Home Depot.”
“Okay, cool, I’ll go get one.”
“Wait, why are you cutting drywall in the first place?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure what the best practices for hanging pictures were, so I went online and found a newsgroup for gallery designers. And they said that the right way to do it was to cut through the wall, and build the frame into it. That way, you put the picture in from the back, and you can make the glass much more secure since you don’t have to move it. It’s a much more elegant solution than that whole nail thing.”

This metaphor may be starting to sound particularly fuzzy, but trust me – there
are very real parallels to draw here. If you haven’t seen them yet in your professional
life, you will. [Spurious Pundit]

[ComputerZen.com – Scott Hanselman’s Weblog]

Edward Tufte on presenting evidence

More insights from Tufte on how to be an intelligent consumer of data.
At the same time, you would do well to take Tufte's observations with
at least a grain of salt.

The tools of rhetoric precede those of data analysis by more than a few
centuries and Tufte is a master of both. Tufte appears to see malice
and venality in settings where I see predictable organizational
pressures of time and cost. With the luxury of tenure, Tufte can find
the all too real flaws in analyses prepared in the face of these

Tufte's guidelines and analyses are all worth contemplating. What would
be intriguing is to understand what tools he would substitute for those
(such as PowerPoint and Excel) he criticizes so harshly. Further, once
we've learned to recognize the analytical flaws he identifies, what do
we do next in order to learn to commit them less frequently?

Tufte's new chapter, Corrupt Techniques in Evidence Presentations, from his forthcoming book Beautiful Evidence, is now online for a month.

“Here is the first of
several chapters on consuming presentations, on what alert members of
an audience or readers of a report should look for in assessing the
credibility of the presenter.”

Risking curiosity

This struck a chord. I make no secret of being cursed with curiosity and it has come close to killing me a few times both metaphorically and literally (there was that high voltage probe on a Hewlett Packard scintillometer back in high school that wasn’t quite properly grounded).

Curiosity is not something greatly respected in our culture today and that is a dangerous thing. It makes you easier to manipulate. Hemingway’s advice on crap detectors applies to more than writers and appears to be in desparately short supply these days.

My only caveat here is that while I agree that “the pursuit of knowledge is never done,” that does not imply for me that there are no objective truths in the world. If I let go of this laptop in the TSA security line, it will hit the floor. That does complicate things because “agreeing to disagree” isn’t always an out in all conversations. There are “facts” that can be agreed on, but that doesn’t finish the conversation or the deeper search for truth.

Children are our best guides here. None of them need to be trained in the techniques of 7 whys (would that toddlers would stop at 7). After formal schooling, however, most of us need to rediscover what we naturally know how to do.

Can we teach the joy of thinking?. I have been blessed – and cursed – with a curious mind. I say cursed not simply because curiosity killed the cat, but because it makes it very difficult for me to understand people who seem to lack curiosity about themselves and the world around them. This difficulty causes me the most grief when, every fall, I am faced with students who appear to utterly lack curiosity. When I am in a good mood, I ask myself how that is even possible. When I am in poor humour, I wonder why they’ve bothered to go to university at all.

Sound harsh? Well, it probably is. And no doubt oversimplified. But here’s the thing: in a world where people are not equal in terms of interest, how can we teach wonder?

You see, I wonder all the time. Actually, I would need several lifetimes to understand all the things I wonder about. I don’t know how not to wonder. I keep a notebook that contains only questions – hundreds of them – which I share with my students whenever they say that can’t think of anything to research or write about. Colleagues have warned me that I am “giving away” my ideas for future research and, presumably, some sort of future glory. But for me, the beauty and the reward is in our ever-changing understandings – and it sure won’t be me who definitively sorts the world. I only hope there are enough people who keep asking hard questions.

I genuinely believe that the pursuit of knowledge is never done. This is, in part, related to my understanding that there is no absolute, determining, objective truth in the world – a position which obligates me to continue asking questions and forces me to acknowledge that no knowledge is neutral or impartial.

If the best we can offer is subjective, multiple, and partial truths, then learning and understanding requires critical thinking, the questioning of assumptions, self-reflection and self-awareness. In a world that doesn’t want to “waste time” with things other than “the facts,” it turns out that these inter-related practices are, by far, the hardest ones to teach. And I can’t help but to believe they are the most important. [Purse Lip Square Jaw]

Traffic and traffic jams

One driver can vastly improve Traffic.

Traffic Waves [via Marc’s Voice, Smart Mobs, Werblog]

Science hobbyist William Beaty claims: “Sometimes one driver can vastly improve Traffic”

The basic principle is to “bring space into congested traffic” by slowing down and maintaining a large safety gap in front of you. Not only is this much safer for everyone, but it reduces the bunching up that causes the standing waves as shown in the animation above. Slowing down ahead of a traffic jam smooths the slow-then-go pattern. Further, leaving a large gap in front of you allows cars to merge into your lane. While aggressive drivers can’t stand the idea of someone “cutting in” on them, allowing merging can eliminate the traffic jams caused by lane reductions.

Especially entertaining is the FAQ, including, “Are you still alive? Haven’t the road-ragers beaten you up yet? ”

Note the subtle coupling that’s occurring in these traffic situations. Aggressive drivers contribute to traffic jams by causing the bunching up that creates standing wave jams. According to William Beaty, even individual drivers can prevent traffic jams because their slowing slowing down will affect other drivers and slow enough of them down to “bring space” to the congestion.

[Gary Boone’s Blogun]

A fascinating example of how people and systems interact in unexpected ways. If this kind of result interests you beyond its own merits you might want to look into Jay Forrester’s work on systems dynamics, starting with Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems (pdf). You might also want to take a look at Mitch Resnick’s Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds