Space: The final frontier?

So much great media today, it’s a real difficulty to choose, but I have to say the idea that’s stuck with me most today is Ian Morris’ talk to the Long Now Foundation ‘Why the West Rules – For Now.’

The Long Now Foundation puts on regular seminars called Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT), which is one of many reasons I’m looking forward to my upcoming move to San Francisco. They’ve had notables like Neil Ferguson, J Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil and others in the business of creating great ideas come and speak their piece, all under the hospitality of Stuart Brandt, 10,000 year planner.

Ian Morris focused his talk on his theory of why certain civilizations have become dominant and later fallen away. He starts the talk by contrasting the two primary camps in history: the ‘accident’ group, which believes that it is only random chance that moves some societies into and out of prominence; and the ‘determinism’ group, which believes the West has dominated due to the superiority of our ancestors, the ancient Greeks. As is standard these days, Morris tosses aside both ideas as wrong and suggests that it is geography that picks the winners, and then the winners that reshape meaningful geography thus restarting the cycle.

His examples do well to prove his point. Forgive me for paraphrasing here but…

Initial geography led to an ease of domestication by some cultures, while others like Mesopotamia were unable to take advantage of steady rains. Eventually though, Mesopotamians and Egyptians figured out irrigation which led to even greater growth and sophistication. As the world focused on these regions, the fringes of the world were able to leverage the transport possibility of rivers and later seas like the Mediterranean to create greater prosperity. As the Greeks and then Romans rose, power became focused on the Med and Europe, leaving obscure Britain and Spain out. But studies to improve sea travel continued until ocean-travel was possible, and being least-invested in status quo and most able to take advantage of the ocean, these powers found greater wealth in expanding trade. But as their manufacturing was being supplanted by slaves in other countries, Britain focused on improving productivity leading to the Industrial Revolution. As America adopted these new technologies with its natural wealth, they became able to take advantage of the Pacific Ocean’s potential for trade, surpassing the European powers in trade abilities. This opening of the Pacific has pulled the East back into the equation, allowing them to adopt the best commercial and industrial practices of the world with none of the associated baggage, to begin its move to eclipse the West.

In short, at every stage, it is the group at the fringe, with the least invested in the current power-generating strategy, that turns a geographical barrier into a bonus (often a trade route). Whether it be learning to navigate open waters or using rivers as highways, these fringe societies quickly become the new centers of the world.

In my opinion, he does a poor job contrasting the parallel evolution of East and West. Why did China reach a zenith during the river/sea navigation and not increase scientific study to create ocean travel? Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel did a much better job of both explaining the origin of these societies but explaining the importance of small barriers that allow trade but prevent united societies. Further along this criticism, why did Britain and not Spain remain committed to its ocean empire, is that just random? Why did Germany upgrade their industry to surpass the British instead of Italy or the Ottoman Empire? All of three were out of the spotlight, what barrier favored German ingenuity?

This is not to say that I did not enjoy or do not agree with Morris’ thesis, merely that I find it wanting for answering the very questions he asks. In one sense, he is correct that technology rapidly spreads and creates a destabilizing force, allowing forgotten groups to turn obstacle into stepping stone. His prediction that the East’s ability to adopt the good parts of Western capitalism/industrialization and surge ahead seem realistic as most nations when left with nothing but the will to modernize make staggering leaps given the lack of established interests (witness Germany and Japan’s triumphs after WWII devastated the countries).

I was sad nobody brought up the internet, an astonishing new mode of commerce and idea exchange! America’s dominance of this information frontier surely was driven by the same forces that drove British industrialization: a need for greater productivity in light of cheaper, outside entities.

It all leads me to wonder what’s really next. There are no more physical oceans. In the Q&A of the talk Morris responds to thoughts on adjusting to climate change and dodges a space question. It is my opinion that space is our next ocean in this context. The forgotten nation with no interest in defending the status quo will ultimately take advantage of the great resources. The resources are everything from mining rights on asteroids to technological advances that come with increased experience navigating this realm. Five or ten years ago I would’ve thought China the leading candidate, but increasingly they are seeking not to redefine the world but merely to claw their way to the top of the status quo. Perhaps an energy-rich and resource-conscious power like Brazil or Australia will start reaching out to mine the closest asteroids. An offer of a tax-free yield to the first company that mines ore from a near earth object within X years would certainly be a huge incentive as many of these asteroids contain more gold than currently in circulation (as well as other minerals).

Media type: Podcast
From: Seminars About Long-term Thinking
Title: “Why the West Rules – For Now”
Hear it at:

AT&T keeps taking it

A week or so ago I talked about the Economist running full-page AT&T ads in the very same issue in which they bashed the announced AT&T purchase of AT&T.  (For anyone keeping track, I’ve yet to find any more AT&T ads there)  Tonight, while watching Traffic Lights (there’s literally nothing else in my TiVo) I caught one of those ubiquitous T-mobile ads mocking AT&T’s service on the oh-so-trendy iPhone.

Chances are you’ve seen the ad, they’ve been running for months, and I have to admit raised my interest enough to get me to look into their service.  In an homage to Apple, they star two people who declare themselves either an iPhone (a young, good-looking guy with a balding accountant-looking companion) or a T-mobile myTouch 4G (a fetching, girl-next-door, purple-dress wearing Carly Foulkes) in front of a plain white background, who then go on and dialogue about the failings of the former and the superiority of the latter.  The ads vary, but the theme is always that everything you love about the iPhone is weighed down by AT&T (and Verizon in one ad).  T-Mobile is smart in not attacking Apple, cultishly adored for their products’ abilities, but instead the reviled telecoms.  Given T-mobile’s history of winning awards for customer service and customer satisfaction, it’s a good strategy.

Which makes me wonder, why exactly are these ads still running?  The buyout is not a hostile takeover bid, T-Mobile seems to be accepting it (rather Deutsche Telekom, their parent, is eager to offload its poorly placed subsidiary and focus on stronger markets).  If I’m a T-mobile customer, the ad seems to tell me to start looking at Sprint or Verizon, which is bad no matter whether the buyout succeeds.  If I’m a savvy consumer looking for a new phone and carrier (which I am), this ad only cements that it won’t be AT&T and thus it won’t be T-mobile, again lose-lose.

My only idea is that the ads were produced, airtime purchased, and placement approved well before the merger talk.  With nothing else in the stable to replace it with, T-mobile might have thought that the airtime is a sunk cost and the ads might boost their image (and thus the eventual combined value of the AT&T).  The ad certainly isn’t new, so it’s not like this is a new strategy or even an update.  Or maybe there still is internal struggle to remain independent and this is one internal faction’s move to signal the non-inevitableness of the deal.  But maybe it’s just a hedge that the deal will ultimately be blocked by regulators.  Either way, it’ll be interesting to see just how long the ads stay on air.

Media type: TV commercial
From: T-mobile (watched originally on FOX)
Title: not sure
Watch it: 

The lovable archvillain

I have to confess I haven’t consumed too much media today, so my pick of “Krusty Gets Busted” is a little out of left field.

This is the first Sideshow Bob caper in the Simpsons’ universe and despite the early animation and lack of history in many of the characters (Apu and Chief Wiggum seem so generic!) it has all the lovable elements from a Sideshow Bob episode.  Kelsey Grammar’s voice-acting is superb, putting the snobbish lilt to well-written dialogue in sharp contrast to the outlandish clown outfit.  While the crime is not overly-complicated like later (“Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” being my personal favorite), the Simpson children are characteristically overly-astute (House anyone?).

Villains are always much more interesting characters in most stories, think Darth Vader or Ben Linus and Charles Widmore on ‘LOST’, but rarely is a villain both intriguing and flat-out humorous.  Apparently the writers purposely molded Sideshow Bob’s later exploits and themes on Wile E. Coyote (of Road Runner fame), so the absurdity only heightens the fun.

While some of the joy in this episode draws from knowing the later adventures, on its own “Krusty Gets Busted” is a decent watch.  Fans of the show will enjoy seeing major characters before their personalities were built up and the well-worn pattern of a Simpsons mystery.  Casual watchers may not find as many funny moments in the show, but a Yale-educated, devious clown sidekick is always good for a few laughs; throw in the typical oafishness of Homer that defines the first few seasons and you’ll have yourselves a great 20+ minutes.

Media type: TV show
From: The Simpson
Title: “Krusty Gets Busted”
Watch it at:

The power of hype

First, a quick nod to Nigeria which has begun its relatively successful elections this week. Here’s hoping that the term “relatively” will be dropped over time. Also, I’m keeping an eye on developments in Yemen, to see which way the army breaks as the GCC seeks to peacefully remove Saleh. As I mentioned previously, it looks like elements of the army are lining up for reform so we may see more-or-less peaceable transition. Finally, it appears Gbagbo is captured and the democratically elected leader of the Ivory Coast can start governing fully. And all without a single NATO no-fly zone.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Instead, I’d like to call your attention to Steven Pinker’s My Genome, my self article from the New York Times Magazine. I came across it in the book I’m currently reading: The Best American Science Writing of 2010. The article is by no means succinct but it is an immensely readable detailing of the current state of human genomic research.

He lays out the potential and limits of current understandings as well as the hype surrounding the “personal genomics” movement over the past decade. As a genomics researcher these past few years, I came in right when grand ideas were becoming actual projects and have watched as they stumbled across the always-unexpected hurdles. It is a pleasure to read Pinker’s layman’s guide to narrow band that is actually revealed from current academic and commercial testing.

Basically, the big labs and companies can tell you with decent accuracy whether you have certain known, popular mutations. Of course, you may realize this means they can’t reveal whether you have less common mutations or even unique ones! The companies will also quickly let you know that this mutation (really a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP) is associated with this disease/trait/ethnic group. But what they fail to mention is that the strength of that association is almost always extremely weak.
Pinker’s example is height. Long discussed at academic conferences, height is the perfect trait: quantitative and highly heritable. Looking for common SNPs in tall or short people has revealed a host of associations. But when you look at all the known ones, they account for only 2% of the heritability! This means that while it’s almost automatic that tall couples make tall kids, tall kids don’t always inherit the known “tall” mutations from their parents. Since it’s easier to find SNPs with strong effects (think Huntingdon’s disease, where the SNP explains 100% of the heritability), and we’ve found dozens of SNPs associated to height, that means there are at least hundreds other SNPs that are contributing. So maybe tall kids inherit 50 from one parent and 50 from another, but we only are looking at 2.

What’s worse is that different studies don’t always find the same SNPs. Studies looking for associations in thousands of papers often come up with different, non-overlapping lists of SNPs. So which ones are right? Well, right now, we just say they’re all correct. But of course the studies are done in different ethnicities, and given that genes are highly interactive, what may be height-enhancing in Scandinavians is meaningless in Japanese.

We “finished” the human genome project a decade ago but really are not much closer to that heralded age of personalized medicine. It’s my opinion that we’re never going to get to that predicted moment where you submit a DNA sample and get an ideal drug-cocktail and health-warning. There’s simply too much genetic individuality that will never be understandable. Sure, we’ll be able to sequence genomes for pennies soon, but if you’re the only person in the history of the world with a set of specific mutations who can possibly predict whether that makes you more or less susceptible to statins or HIV or skin cancer or poor inhibition control.

That’s not to say this research is useless. It would be better applied to things like agriculture and biotech. Herds of cattle and rows of corn have less genetic differences so we can make conclusive findings that tie SNPs with trait differences. Indeed companies like Monsanto are gobbling up the biotechs that make just these finds. These natural polymorphisms should calm those afraid of genetically-modified crops as they can just be bred into the next generation and are entirely native.

Media type: Book
From: The Best American Science Writing 2010
Title: My Genome, My Self
Read it at:

Triumphant Women

Sorry for the drought of postings, I’ve been tied up watching the NCAA finals for basketball. Per usual I’m in a pool for both the men’s and women’s brackets, and though I had no shot at winning the men, I could’ve won the women (and the combined score pool) if my alma mater, Notre Dame, had triumphed over Texas A&M. Spoiler alert: they did not.

It was a great game, including a come-from-behind run at the bottom of the first half where the Irish clawed their way back from double digit deficit to ending with the lead. Back-and-forths through the second half saw the Aggies end up on top when it counted.

I bring this up because both the Notre Dame men’s and women’s teams were two-seeds in their respective tournaments, yet while the women made it to the championship game, the men were embarrassingly upset in the second round. I’m not a fan of Mike Brey (men’s coach) but a big fan of Muffet McGraw (women’s coach), so this wasn’t surprising.

While those outcomes made me appreciate our women more, I was doubly surprised by the entertainment difference in the championship games. Butler/UConn was like watching a middle school pick up game on a slow day: shooting percentages were abysmal and defense was not exactly stifling. Both teams seemed off their game, and it was one of the more boring games of the tournament, lacking passion. Considering the buildup of this Cinderella taking on one of the hottest teams in basketball of the past decade (especially after the miracle run of VCU), the game was anticlimatic. As I mentioned, the women’s game was much more watchable with all the elements of sports drama including larger-than-life leaders on both sides and a spirited audience that had every reason to get into the game (unlike the men’s fans who were quite calm as UConn built an ever-wider lead the whole night). The talent was greater, the enthusiasm more evident.

While I’m sure the men’s game drew a larger audience, they missed the real action. I’m not saying WNBA season ticket sales will skyrocket, I used to regularly attend our lady Irish games and can attest they lack some of the emotional adrenaline of a well-matched men’s game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the gradual gain of women’s basketball starts to pick up and let the sport stand on its own soon. While most major women’s programs are add-ons to successful men’s programs, we should start to see some schools build an independent program soon. Small schools with successful programs could place them at the center of their athletics’ portfolio much as lacrosse dominates John Hopkins or hockey at Minnesota-Duluth. Students will flock to successful programs when the main sports aren’t present or compete on a lower level, so now’s the time for the sport to expand outside into the mid-majors.

Media type: Sporting event
Title: Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship