Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wallace over Darwin: The Workin' Man's Biologist

Some people have it tougher than others when it comes to gaining and using an education in order to pursue their life's passion.

Many know the name of Darwin, but there is another young man, one who was poor and hungry, and who worked like a dog to enter into the famous circles of the biologists of that day: Alfred Russel Wallace. Here's a guy, not born of privilege, and not with a free shot at medical school, but one who had to leave school at 14 years old, and who was pretty lucky to land a few courses at the Working Men's Institutes in London. He ends up being a humble surveyor's apprentice. And yet, through butt-busting effort, and a right assessment of his hero, Charles Darwin, he achieves insight into the fundamental principle of nature: evolution. And, what's more, he is still realistic, even humble, about his own origins:
"Had my father been a moderately rich man [...] my whole life would have been differently shaped, and though I should, no doubt, have given some attention to science, it seems very unlikely that I should have ever undertaken [...] a journey to the almost unknown forests of the Amazon in order to observe nature and make a living by collecting."[1]
I like that last part of the above quote: "...make a living by collecting." Here is no high Victorian view of finding Truth, or noting the beauty of God's handwork -- and Wallace would have affirmed all those things if asked -- but a working man's, what we'd now call 'blue-collar' view of science: a guy's got to make a living, and this is what I like to do.

Wallace wasn't given a lot of opportunity to pursue what he loved when young, but when given exposure to the joys of field collecting specimens, he finds his life's career passion. And, as these things often do, he's introduced to this activity by his buddy, Henry Bates, a guy who later became famous for work with insects. Bates and Wallace were taking part in beetle collecting, a rage among the English at that time, and Bates said he had a collection of several hundred beetles. Wallace could hardly believe it:
"If I had been asked before how many different kinds of beetles were to be found in any small district near a town, I should probably have guessed fifty [...] I now lernt [...] that there were probably a thousand different kinds within ten miles."[2]
As were many kids, I was quite interested in bug collecting as a child, and the variation of insects was always something to behold. Even today, when I travel to other states, I try to keep an eye out for the different kinds of plants and insects I can see during casual walks from place to place. This summer, I plan on going to Hawaii for the first (and, because of finances, probably last) time in my life. I'm sure there will be an overwhelming amount of new plants and insects to observe. Later, during his work as a railroad surveyor, Wallace would get a day off, and set out for collection journeys:
"Even when we were busy I had Sundays perfectly free, and used to take long walks over the mountains with my collecting box, which I brought home full of treasures [...] At such times I experienced the joy which every discovery of a new form of life gives to the lover of nature, almost equal to those raptures which I afterwards felt at every capture of new butterflies on the Amazon."[3]
This was all practice for the big act -- quitting his safe and secure railway job and pursuing the real passion of his life: field biology, and in the exotic wilds of South America. This is the risk-assessment "hump" that many people, even college student's, can't make: choose against the prudence of comfortable, low-risk job security, and towards the passion of what one really wants to do. Darwin had it easy, for his wealthy father was able to finance him at every step of the way. Admittedly, Darwin, being of good character, didn't squander that opportunity; but, Wallace was the more courageous of the two, for he had no real financial safety net. It's easy to fail with daddy's money backing you; yet, it's quite a different outcome when there's only one's backside to catch failure. (I've seen this difference in attitude and performance in many college students over the years.)

Happily, Wallace pulled it off: he was eventually able to support himself as a naturalist (though only in Spartan fashion). He collected specimens in the far-away South American jungles and sent them back for sale to both private collectors and public museums.

Wallace was the workin' man's biologist, and with care and insight, he was able to see the same pattern in nature that rich boy Charlie saw, and ask the essential question: Where did all this subtle difference in variety come from? Good question, workin' man. You weren't the first to ask it, but you were the first brave enough to ask it publically. Lucky for you, Darwin was a gentleman of high ethics and a collegial scholar, so he shared credit where credit was due.


[image] J. Bronowski The Ascent of Man (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1973), p. 292.

[1] Ibid., 293-294.

[2] Ibid., 294.


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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Robot hand development

Wired magazine has been running a special on robotic hand developments.[1] The video above is one component of the Wired story, but I think it is the most revealing. Such developments strike me as not only advantageous for paraplegics, but for robotics generally. The feedback, grip, and range of motion of such robotic hand-arm combinations could just as well work for space exploration vehicles. The interface to such vehicles could present a virtual presentation of an environment, for instance on another planet, which would be comfortable to the intuitions of humans interacting with such technology. Generally, material handling and demolition robots are much more claw-like, and very bulky. On the other hand, since it is robot hand, the materials science could be scaled up to very huge proportions, as have other claw-like robots. On the other side of bigger, comes more graceful, but I think there are probably aesthetic limits to what are acceptable robot hand tasks.


"Robot hands get a grip on the future" Wired (Accessed Sept. 21, 2008)

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Existential Billy and the Modern Age

Billy sometimes felt vaguely ill-at-ease about his part in midwifing the modern age.


[image] Oklahoma Star Archives (click image above for larger version)

[aphorism] Special guest writer, David "The Beatnik" Spindle.


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Monday, September 08, 2008

Petabyte management

A gigabyte means nothing today, and storage technology is now being thought of in terms of terabyte units. Recent advances in harddrive technology have made such adjustments in thinking possible. But I recently ran across a quote which gives some indication of just how big a management problem Petabyte database storage would present. (A petabye is 10 to 15th bytes, equaling a quadrillion bytes.) Apparently, the advance of scientific instruments for measuring and collecting data far outstrip our ability to store such data. Alex Szalay, writing a commentary for Science News, gives a good sketch of the problem:
"Today, you can scan one gigabyte of data or download it with a good computer system in a minute. But with current technologies, storing a petabyte would require about 1,500 hard disks, each holding 750 gigabytes. That means it would take almost three years to copy a petabyte database -- and cost about $1 million"[1]
Of course if you have a moderate system, with standard U.S. broadband, you could actually send a petabyte to Hong Kong by sailboat faster than you could move it over the internet. Jonathan Schwartz makes just this kind of claim, giving his explanation in the following:
"So if you had a half megabit per second internet connection, which is relatively high in the US (relatively low compared to residential bandwidth available in, say, Korea), it'd take you 16 billion seconds, or 266 million minutes, or 507 years to transmit the data. Can you sail to Hong Kong faster than that? At a full megabit, just divide the time in half. Even at a hundred megabits (about the highest, generally available, of any carrier I've seen), it's a few years. [....] So yes, at least for now, it's faster to send a petabyte of data via a sailboat than the internet (at least defined by the bandwidth to which most of us have access)."[2]
There's probably good reason to think that sending a petabyte of data is a temporary problem, as increases in the technology of storage capacity and bandwidth move along at quite a clip. So transmitting a petabyte of data probably won't be much of an issue. However, as sensor technology will also be advancing, so we're probably in the permanent position of always being able to collect more data than we can comfortably transmit and store. This is probably some sort of corollary to a personal computer purchasing rule I read about some years ago, but which is still true today: The computer you want is always $5,000 more than you can afford.


[image] "Magnetic Data Storage: Bits per dollar in constant yr. 2000 dollars" (Accessed Sept. 8, 2008)

[1]Alex Szalay, "Preserving digital data for the future of eScience" Science News August 30, 2008.

[2] Jonathan Schwartz "Moving A Petabyte of Data" Jonathan's Blog Mar 12, 2007 (Accessed Sept. 8, 2008)


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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Credit, debit, and the tiny bit of irrationality of using plastic cards.

Slate magazine is running an interesting story on how credit cards are being forced to change their practices, and how such changes are forcing new lifestyle choices on people who in the past have been too quick to use such cards. From the article, here's a nice observation and thought experiment:
"Writing a check or deducting the price of a pair of shoes directly from your bank account packs a much more potent emotional punch than charging the pair of Allen Edmonds loafers on your American Express platinum card. Chalk it up to a concept called "the pain of paying," said Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational. (It's a concept the parents of his students at Duke University feel every semester.) Imagine that a restaurant, rather than charging $30 per meal, charged 50 cents per bite, with a waiter standing tableside collecting after each chomp. That would be an extremely unpleasant meal. But credit puts a safe distance between the ecstasy of consumption and the agony of payment, and thus makes us feel better."[1]
Recent surveys show that thirty-five percent of people carry a balance on their cards, and fifteen percent of people with credit cards said they have experienced at least “some” difficulty making the minimum payments.[2] I would speculate that, as gas climbs, this number also climbs, and probably proportionally. The whole psychology of personal credit card use is interesting, and there's been a lot of research on just how people use them -- not in the least because of how credit companies want to maximize their profit margin off of fees. For instance, some research shows that 35% of people who owe money on their card (all the while paying interest) also save "because it makes them 'feel better'."[4] Of course, that doesn't make a lot of sense, since return on savings rates are going to be WAY lower than any interest penalties for carrying a balance. But habits of spending and rationalizing money usage are anything but easy to self-monitor.

I admit to catching certain odd habits in myself. I run virtually all of my spending through credit cards, but I pay them off every month, using them something like debit cards, but with the added protection that comes with credit cards. Still, there are some malfunctions of the apparatus (i.e. I don't think rationally) when I look over my spending.

For example, it became too easy and pleasurable to drive through Starbucks every morning and pay $4.17 (or so) for a drink. That's a lot of money over the month, as I'd learn to my chagrin on each monthly statement. I've read a bit about addictions, and I knew quitting cold turkey probably wouldn't work. So my first deflection was simply to drive through McDonalds instead, and buy their cheaper coffee, which, fortunately, I found to be surprisingly good. But that was still around $1.68, plus the added cost of the gas for diversion and for idling in line. Making it at home would have been most cost effective, but I have to match the quality of "retail" coffee. Thus, my next deflection would work far better.

Was there any other drink that I liked equally well? I happened to be in a Walgreens store, and they sell Arizona Green Tea's in a big bottle, all jazzed up with Honey. But they were selling cases of them, and the unit cost of each bottle in the case was well under a dollar. I bought a couple of cases, stuck them out in the garage 'fridge, and now live happily ever after on the morning grab-n-go routine. Furthermore, I get to experience the new-found pleasure of not seeing a spreadsheet-like column of Starbucks or McDonalds rows snaking down my card statement.

Using plastic as the default mode for purchasing -- whether as credit or even merely as debit -- probably introduces all sorts of psychological pitfalls that carrying around cash would allow me to avoid. This might be the real power behind Dave Ramsey's system, a well-received popularizer of financial planing. He writes, "I found out that Grandma's way to handle money still works. People used to always use cash envelopes to control their monthly spending, but very few do in today's card swiping culture."[3] One can see that this is not much different than the waiter scenario above, for one gets to see the chomp taken out of the money at each envelope draw. As a psychological matter, swiping is fast, easy, and very UN-distracting; hence, it's just as fast and easy to loose track of the item-by-item cumulative damage to the wallet. But as far as credit card companies are concerned, isn't that the whole point?


[1] "The Death of the Credit Card Economy" Slate August 30, 2008 (Accessed September 1, 2008)

[2] Humberto Cruz "Credit card debt is still a plague" Kansas (Accessed September 1, 2008)

[3] "Dave Ramsey's Envelope System" Dave Ramsey Website (Accessed September 1, 2008)

[4] Nic Cicutti "Jekyll and Hyde savers" (Accessed September 1, 2008)


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