Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Matt Ridley vs Bill Gates - Debate

Check out the review by Bill Gates on Matt Ridley's book 'The Rational Optimist' in Wall Street Journal


Friday, November 26, 2010

Designer Genes - A new era in the evolution of man by Steven Potter

Our Genetic Destiny?

Sometimes potent things come in small packages. In this short book of 175 pages, Steven Potter takes us through the fields of DNA sequencing, genetic modification, stem cells and embryo manipulation. We have seen numerous books come out in recent times on these subjects, but this tome differs from them through its simplicity, lucidity and clarity of vision.

Steven Potter shows us why it would be impossible to stop human beings from changing their genetic code - initially it would be to cure diseases and then to prevent them - but sooner or later to improve it. The ethical and moral dilemma involved in these are discussed in a very balanced manner and it would be highly beneficial if our politicians and so called leaders spend some time in understanding the basic science behind the issues, through reading books like these.

Towards the end of the book, Dr.Potter springs a surprise by a Kurzweilic play of hypothesizing the potential of smarter than human machines and how humans might be forced to make themselves better (quite drastically by changing their genes) to stay ahead of the machines.

This is a an interesting and thought provoking book and a very easy read.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

Learn from the ants, bees, fish, termites and locusts!

Through a very insightful book, Peter Miller turns to Nature to explain crowd behavior. Leveraging upon numerous scientific studies, Peter elaborates the principles through which even insects with low individual intelligence perform extraordinary feats of brilliance as a group. That too without hierarchy or elaborate rules!

Peter Miller calls this intelligent group behavior - the smart swarm. He then explains how the smart swarm works - using biology to unlock the secrets of collective behavior. The dangers of group behavior are also brought out through the examples of locusts - which is useful to understand how human groups also sometimes turn violent.

What are the principles of smart swarms?

The first principle of a smart swarm is self organization. Through the basic mechanisms of decentralized control, distributed problem solving and multiple interactions, members of a group without being told can transform simple rules of thumb into meaningful patterns of collective behavior. This is explained through the functioning of ant colonies - that is "Though Ant's aren't smart, why Ant colonies are?"

The second principle of a smart swarm is 'diversity of knowledge' - which is basically achieved through a broad sampling of the swarm's options, followed by a friendly competition of ideas. Then using an effective mechanism to narrow down the choices, swarms can achieve 'wisdom of crowds'. The honeybees example of choosing a new nest illustrates this very clearly - and Peter shows how communities and businesses can build trust and make better decisions by adapting this.

The third principle is indirect collaboration. If individuals in a group are prompted to make small changes to a shared structure that inspires others to improve it even further, the structure becomes an active player in the creative process. This is explained beautifully with the example of how termites build huge structures. We also see this in our internet world through Wikis!!!

The fourth principle is adaptive mimicking. With the example of flight behavior of starlings, Peter shows how the basic mechanisms of coordination, communication and copying can unleash powerful waves of energy or awareness that race across a population evoking a feeling of mental telepathy.

The author explains how the above principles will give businesses powerful tools to untangle some of the knottiest problems they face. With examples ranging from Oil, Aircraft manufacturing to Movies, very useful practical situations are given throughout the book.

I would strongly recommend this book all interested in Science & Business.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What on Earth evolved? 100 species that changed the world by Christopher Lloyd

Great theme, but surprising errors!!

The book talks in detail about 100 species - 50 before human and 50 that came after the human and influenced by him. It is very much a reference book with lot of scientific detail and a great layout.

But on a quick review of a couple of chapters, I saw two errors which made me lose confidence in the book.

On Page 13, "Even more shocking was that of the 25,000 human genes at least 95 per cent turn out to have no apparent function at all." Ouch! I guess the author meant 95% of the DNA has no apparent function - but what an error!

On Page 170, "Elephants have no less an impact....... most popularly by Indian chief Chandragupta Maurya. His 9000 elephants were according to Greek historian Plutarch, instrumental in deterring invasion by Greek adventurer Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC" Sounds well researched and impressive? But unfortunately it is wrong. Chandragupta Maurya was a teenager when Alexander invaded India. Alexander did beat King Poros and his elephant troops, but turned back before proceeding much further into India since his troops wanted to return. They might have been influenced by rumors of the strength of King Nanda of Magadha who would have been Alexander's next adversary if he had moved further into India. After Alexander left India, there was a power vacuum which Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of. But he had to fight many battles and it took many years for him to establish the Mauryan empire and its powerful army. Alexander was long dead by then!. However there is evidence of Chandragupta Maurya supplying elephants to one of Alexander's successors - Selecus, whose daughter Helen was given to Chandragupta in marriage - but that is another story.

Everybody makes errors, but there is no excuse for these type of errors in a book of this nature. After spending $45, I feel disappointed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mount Merapi Volcano - Indonesia

It is sad to see the damage caused by Mount Merapi Volcano in Indonesia. I was in Yogayakarta about 25 Km from Mount Merapi in April this year and had visited the Mountain. See some photos below of the mountain then:

You can see the tracks left by flow of lava in previous eruptions.

Yougyakrta has some beautiful temples and I hope they have not been much affected by the volcanic ash. See slide show below of some of the photos of the temples

Friday, November 5, 2010

Evolution of Political Complexity - A lesson for the U.S

In an interesting article in Nature (Oct 14, 2010) titled ‘Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific’, authors Currie et al explain their study of the development human political organizations. They evaluated six models for the evolution of political organizations in Austronesian speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Austronesian speakers spread from the island of Taiwan around 3200 BC through the Philippines into Indonesia, west to coastal south east Asia and Madagascar and east through the Pacific Ocean to evolve into Polynesians and colonize every habitable Pacific island from Hawaii to New Zealand. Based on ethnographic and linguistic data they studied 84 austronesian societies.

They defined levels of political complexity by the number of hierarchical decision making levels: societies lacking permanent leadership beyond the local community are labelled ‘acephalous’; those with a single level beyond the local community are labelled ‘simple chiefdoms’ ; those with two levels represent ‘complex chiefdoms’ and societies with more than two levels are ‘states’. I do not want to go too much into detail of the study - But what was their conclusion?

Let me quote Jared Diamond who wrote a review of the article in the same issue “The results are clear. First, political evolution increases only in small steps: states and complex chiefdoms don’t form directly from leaderless societies. Second, political complexity can decrease as well as increase, in agreement with the abundant evidence of the disintegration of states and chiefdoms. Finally, unlike increases of complexity, declines can plunge a society politically several stages backwards ....”

Why is this relevant now?

Imagine the ostensible goal of the U.S to install democracies in tribal Afghanistan and Iraq!!

Look at the plunge of the society taking place in Pakistan!!

Not that we need to look at an arcane study to prove these points but if our political leaders had some sense to look at history and evolution of societies it would enable them to take better decisions.

As Winston Churchill once sald ‘Americans can be expected to take the right decisions - after they have exhausted all other options’

So let us hope that the U.S will get it right soon :)