Monday, June 29, 2009

the mystery of life

Since reading The Blind Watchmaker, evolution and human thought about evolution has been on my mind pretty frequently. One of the things I've been trying to wrap my head around is that life is really truly just one end of a spectrum of complexity found on earth, with rocks and sand on one end, natural bridges and stone arches farther towards the middle, crystals farther over, viruses farther over, prokaryotic cells farther over, and eventually you get to macrobiotic formations including their insanely complicated systems of organs. All just because physical forces act on inert molecules in non-random ways, and natural selection acts on the result in favor of durable and/or self-replicating entities.**

But we don't see this spectrum clearly. We separate it into a spectrum of non-living things, and a spectrum of living things. I am awestruck and baffled by the existence of such things as Old Faithful, and the Landscape Arch, and the Grand Canyon, and Pangaea. I don't give much thought to how vastly more complicated a virus is than any of those things, and we only barely consider viruses to be living at all. Clearly through history we've thought that humans occupy a very special place in the universe, as some sort of false pinnacle of creation, or the special single creature that deserves human rights, or the very image of God, etc. But it's something else to extend a special mental designation to everything from viruses to the right on the spectrum of complexity.

I think it's because self-replication (as a naturally arising thing out of inert molecules being selected for survival) at some point on the spectrum of complexity, very quickly and steeply takes over for durability as the means of survival. Durability is what determines the sliver of inorganic existence that we observe in the world (we see beaches and mountains, not homogenous mixtures of sand and boulders; we see big chunks of carbon, not uranium; we see planets in exact stable orbits around the sun, not planets that are on a trajectory out of the solar system or into the sun). This very fast tradeoff therefore marks a rather clear transition from non-living to living, and somewhere in that vicinity is where the complexity is too much to imagine as arising naturally, so we put everything living in a special mental compartment that we treat with different standards for plausibility.

Honestly I think that's a pretty useful construct for functioning on a day to day level. It's not only not possible to fit the explanation for life in a human brain, when we begin to approach a realization for how ridiculous it is, we're just left debilitated by wonder and confusion too much to make scientific progress. Just as with cosmology and particle physics, we jadedly refer to things in scientific notation with orders of magnitude corresponding to numbers we can't POSSIBLY fathom in order to make distinctions between things we can equally not understand, it's ok to separate the complexity of life from the complexity of geology from the complexity of everyday objects in our mental approach. But once in awhile it's nice to try to unify it all, to get a sense of the bigger picture, and not lose sight of how truly baffling the world is. It's kind of an ego boost how far we've gotten with understanding it at all.

**Side note: Dawkins in his book tries to make the case that any life anywhere in the universe must arise through the same mechanisms of mutation and natural selection that Darwin explained Earth-bound life with. To this end I think he should have actually been much more forceful in the point that natural selection is not a magical thing that happens on Earth. It is an inevitable attribute of anything in existence, living or not. He does describe 'natural selection' of inorganic clays and streams that may have been the foundation of life on Earth, in contrast to the primordial soup theory, but should point out that anywhere in the universe, the things we see existing more frequently are the things that are better suited for existence. That's all natural selection is. It can't HELP but be a true phenomenon. The only problem is to show that this process is sufficient to explain life as we observe it, which he does very well considering it's a non-mathematical pop-science book.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Africa's Turn, by Edward Miguel and William Easterly. This was a very interesting discussion of possible influences that may or may not lead to an economic boom (and the accompanying rise in standards of living) in this century. While it is overall inconclusive, it points out a whole host of things to keep an eye on, (everything from drought insurance to trade with China) and great historical context and comparisons from Africa, Central America, and Asia. It's very short, in the format of main essay + responses from other authorities, and I highly recommend spending an hour to read it if you're interested in third-world development at all.

Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, by Noam Chomsky. This was a lecture Chomsky gave shortly after the invasion of Panama. It's similar to a lot of his commentary on foreign policy, but I haven't read much of it, so I enjoyed it. The fact that it's a little outdated actually made it more interesting, because the shift in the rhetoric of foreign policy that went on when the Soviet Union was no longer the scapegoat for everything has been completely forgotten in the last decade, and we now take national unprovoked aggression almost for granted. Especially for those of my generation who don't remember Vietnam and the cold war, this is interesting to read for historical perspective.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, by Richard Dawkins. This was the best popular science book I've read in years. Richard Dawkins is my new favorite writer. He's extremely precise in every point he makes, and every time (of many) I had the thought "but wait a minute, what about..." within a few pages he was addressing that exact concern. Even though 80% of the book was not new to me, it was so well written I devoured it. And the last few chapters, especially the discussions of taxonomy, species evolution, sexual selection, and historically 'alternate' theories, which were mostly new to me, were extremely fascinating. I'll definitely be reading The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion soon.

Friday, June 26, 2009

the bluegrass gender gap

After my first experience at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, there about a thousand angles I could ramble at length about. And I certainly can't help advertising as a sidenote that if you ever have a chance to go, do. It was astonishingly great.

But for now my brain is stuck on the gender gap in Bluegrass music. Gender gaps always intrigue me, partly because they're genuinely interesting from a purely scientific evolutionary/sociological standpoint, partly because they're taboo to mention or even study, and partly because I seem to frequently find myself in extreme cases of them.

Most of these situations I chalk up to different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. Women have more social intelligence. Men have more analytical intelligence. Women are better with words, landmark based directions, and colors. Men are better with numbers, map/cardinal direction based directions, and spatial reasoning/memory. The explanation for most of these things are obvious evolutionary responses to their respective specialized roles (raising young, hunting).

This bluegrass thing is something else though. Rather than a difference in mental processes, this is a difference in behavior. Of course I'm intellectually aware of the testosterone driven arbitrarily competitive and/or violent tendencies of the male of the species, but as a female who is most definitely not in that category, I'm still shocked to find myself in a situation where that is the norm. It's very different to acknowledge it from the outside and to be expected to join. But if there is any genre of music that has that aura, it's bluegrass.

The most obvious place to see it is at a jam. The way it works is everyone plays a simple chord progression with a well-known melody, and then they go around the circle and every person takes a turn soloing on that melody. It's pretty cool to watch, enjoyable to listen to, and very fun to play in the background with, but is fundamentally based on a "look what I can do, no look what I can do, no look what I can do" dynamic. I for one am completely at odds with this spotlight grabbing and striving for the most virtuoistic display of technical instrumental skill, even if it's a subtle background attitude and everyone is also extremely friendly, respectful, and encouraging.

It seems to me only natural that if this is the setting in which bluegrass musicians are born, of course a gender gap will emerge. Very few amazing female bluegrass stars exist, and when they do they are often primarily singers, adding a beautiful layer independent from the instrumental fray. I don't have statistics to prove it but it sure seems like the same extreme gender gap does not hold in folk, country, classical, indie, or any other genre I'm familiar with. Maybe rock electric guitar. I'm not sure.

Anyway. This sure doesnt impinge on the enjoyability of bluegrass, nor is it even a critique of the attitude. It's just surprising to me and so I thought noteworthy. And as a side note, the fiddlist for Crooked Still, Sarah Jarosz on mandolin and claw-hammer banjo, and the Lovell sisters, are wonderful exceptions that you should listen to.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

probabilistic intuition

It often surprises me how badly humans naturally think about math, and specifically probability. Many of these instinctive mistakes are so frequently applicable to everyday life that I can't fathom how our brains did not evolve to immediately see them.

For example, basic logic. If A implies B, it's not true that not-A implies not-B. It's also not true that B implies A. Yet people more frequently make these false claims than they claim that not-B implies not-A, which IS true. (For example: rain implies wet streets. Wet streets do not imply rain. A lack of rain does not mean the streets are dry. But if the streets are dry, it definitely isn't raining.) Luckily, I've found that habitual analytical exercise (ie lots of math proofs) very quickly eliminates logical mistakes. Or at least, makes the ones you instinctively make much more arcane than contraposition.

Then there's basic probability. Easy statements about probabilities are in fact so unintuitive that even with years and years of practice and experience with math, I constantly have to formally check things in my head when it just sounds wrong. Probably the most common mistake involves adding independent probabilities. Say every time you get on a motorcycle you have a 1% chance of dying. It is NOT true that if you get on a motorcycle twice, you have a 2% chance of dying. It's like flipping a coin until you get a heads. Each time you flip, you have a 50% chance of succeeding. But doing it twice does not mean you have a 100% chance of succeeding. The expected number of heads you will flip in total does double, but not the chance of succeeding at all. This is probably mind-numbingly obvious to anyone who read this, but if you start paying attention to TV scripts, books, casual dialogue of any kind, the mistake is astoundingly ubiquitous. (Noticing them, and giggling at them, is one of my favorite nerdy pet pleasures. [Venturing into double parentheses territory, is pet pleasure actually an antonym for pet peeve? I declare it so.])

Of course, if we can't even intuitively add probabilities correctly, we have no chance at all when Bayes law is involved. If there's a 1 in 10,000 chance I have AIDS, and a 1 in 100 chance of a false positive on an AIDS test, you can be darn sure I'll be terrified if I test positive, even though that only gives me a 1 in 100 chance of actually having AIDS.

Another mistake I always found a little comical involves ignoring information that the answer depends on. Back in junior high when I was a big Carl Sagan fan, I always cringed when hearing believers in extraterrestrial life make the following argument: "If life is so rare as to only occur once in the universe, what are the chances we would end up on that exact planet? Clearly, life must be more common." While I agree that life is probably much more common than once per universe, even if it is that rare, there is no other planet we could possibly have ended up on than the right one, by the mere fact that we ARE alive!

Of course, more severe limitations to our probabilistic intuitions occur not with these examples that apply every day, but to situations that we, for obvious reasons, did not evolve to be able to handle mentally. For example, the scale of the universe, both on the large and small ends, and the timescales involves to create it. I'm reading a fantastic book by Richard Dawkins right now (The Blind Watchmaker) and he does well to explain our view of probability as a subset of an entire spectrum of likely events. Since we are only alive for less than a century, things that only happen once every million years seem completely miraculous to us. Not so to someone who lives to be a billion. It's no wonder young-earth creationists think us scientists are off our rockers. 6000 years is about all I can fit in my brain comfortably, too.

It's a wonderful thing about science that we can step outside of our human limitations (maybe not all of them, but many) and make objective observations of the universe. It may seem insane to our feeble minds to propose that a stone archway formed over thousands of years of slow water erosion. But as scientists, we can carefully study the process and calculate its actual probability. Whoever said that science kills the sense of beauty and mystery in nature had it completely backwards: only science reveals the astonishing nature of the universe we're part of.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

introverted traveling

Awhile ago marginalrevolution posted two fun links, how introverts travel and how introverts should travel. They were nice to read in their vindication of my view that traveling is not just about meeting people and getting into crazy (often drunken) circumstances that will make a nice On the Road style short story when you get home. I generally prefer traveling alone, and observing new people and situations, rather than making a slew of best-friends-of-the-moment.

(Although when I serendipitously land in a hostel with a French girl desperate to distract herself from her personal problems and a Russian pianist overly enthralled with someone who is overly enthralled with his accent, or a campsite with an overzealous Abalone fisherman, lonely German 20-something road traveler, and boy+uncle who traded mechanical advice to a Mexican for something they never quite established was not oregano but damnit they were going to smoke it out of a tin foil pipe all night and cook a BBQ for the rest of the campground anyway, I go along for the ride for awhile. And then go hide in my tent.)

Anyway, I'm about to attempt motorcycle road-tripping with one of those baffling people (unlike my best friend, previous boyfriends, and family, ie all former travel companions) who says hi to a stranger and five minutes later they know each others' life stories and are trading email addresses because lo and behold they both love the same hole in the wall bar in Dar es Salaam. This should be exciting.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Language and Thought, by Noam Chomsky: I've always been curious about Chomsky, but hadn't gotten around to reading him since most of it seems to be about rather technical linguistic theory that is over my head or otherwise historical foreign policy debates that didn't grab me as amazingly interesting. But this was just a short lecture given about language, thought, philosophy of mind, etc, for cheap at Moe's so of course I picked it up. And it was so densely thought-provoking and interesting I'm an instant Chomsky fan. Although I will have to read more of his stuff and learn about linguistics and then re-read this to fully absorb it.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexei: This is one of those books I read for my book club that I would never in a million years pick up on my own volition (young adult fiction, need I say more?). I guess I can appreciate it for what it is trying to do. While indian reservation life is not such a universally relatable theme, struggling to make your way in an antagonistic world is, and certainly exposure to reservation life is always worthwhile. But I sense that even if I had read this at an appropriate age, I would have guffawed and said "You really think I don't see what you're trying to pound into my head with this? Nice try." Hard to say. I'm glad it exists if I'm wrong. Even if the trying-to-hard-to-be-natural slangish teenager language really got under my skin. And it had one of the most cringingly melodramatic endings I've ever read.

King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild: This book is the reason it's taken so ridiculously long to get another set of three books to post about, after reading the last two in three days. I've never read such a slow-moving book. I don't want to be too hard on it, since it was very interesting for its factual historical content, and I highly recommend anyone read up on the history of the Congo (perhaps from wikipedia rather than this book, however...) but the author was desperately trying to pull off a novelesque narrative style that spent most of its time expounding on hypothetical psychological motives for all the characters, and he really didn't succeed. Every couple pages I stopped and said, "Wait a second, am I reading bad literary pseudopsychoanalysis based in plausible speculation, or a serious historical account of mass murder?" I just really wasn't the intended audience for the book, as an empirically driven scientist with little regard for story telling.