Evolution in a nutshell

Natural selection is a mechanism that can be proven in a very simple argument.

We know that mutations happen, because they cause genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis in humans, or hip dysplasia in dogs. We also know that the rate at which such mutations occur is not slowing down appreciably. We do know, however, that genetic diseases cause much suffering, often make it difficult to lead a normal life, and are fatal in some cases. Given that we know that genetic mutations keep occuring, and that they inherit faithfully when rare, we must ask ourselves why we haven’t all died from genetic disease yet. The only possible answer is that those individuals who carry genetic diseases are not able to reproduce to quite the same extent as healthy individuals. And that is natural selection.

This can also be phrased as an argument from contradiction for those who like mathematical proofs. It basically goes like this: assuming that natural selection is absent, and genetic mutations keep occurring, the human species should have vanished soon after its emergence; ditto for all other species. Yet, after 200,000 (for humans) to 3.5 billion years (for life itself, and little less for many ancient species), we are still here. Which is a contradiction.

Favourite piece of trivia: Did you know that “evolution” written backwards spells noitulove?

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The big hint that Steve really means it

A lot of the discussion about what Steve Jobs should really do, and whether he is being genuine or just passing the buck in an attempt to placate Norwegian consumer protection, has ignored the fact that he gave away important information that most consumers would have been unaware of:

While we have had a few breaches in FairPlay, we have been able to successfully repair them through updating the iTunes store software, the iTunes jukebox software and software in the iPods themselves.

I have a feeling he could have made his point without giving away this much detail; he could, for instance, have referred to “our software” and left us in doubt; but no, he deliberately shared the fact that if we refuse to upgrade our iTunes and the iPod firmware, we can ultimately avoid the DRM treadmill. Food for thought?

Keywords: DRM, digital rights management, iTunes, iTunes Store

Prisoner’s dilemma, or, why should I mark messages as spam or non-spam?

I recently attended a discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma, and someone brought up the fact that when you play this on a two-dimensional lattice, you can get situations where tit-for-tatters defend herds of cooperators against defectors. However, when you introduce a small frequency of long-range interactions, this defence breaks down, and defectors start feeding off the cooperators until they have displaced them entirely. In the medium term, you’re left with a world of defectors and tit-for-tatters, who for all intents and purposes act exactly like defectors (because we’re now well into the game and all tfts have played their first rounds against defectors) until tft starts doing well again in the few places where they can play together; since tit for tat is never first to defect, tfts can cooperate and gain in frequency locally.

The exact result obviously depend on the parameters of the game, but just as epidemiologists like to ponder the consequences of long-haul flights, so do those who’ve studied the prisoner’s dilemma.

The reason I am blogging this is because it tangentially relates to something else that happened to me this week. In Yahoo email, I was confronted with the “not spam” button on a legitimate email. I reasoned that if I pressed the button, it would cause similar messages to appear in other people’s inboxes in the current or future (as opposed to their spam boxes). So while I would have paid the cost of pressing a button, everybody else would get a benefit (except myself, because due to Yahoo’s stupid interface, I still had to move the email back into my inbox in a second, manual step). So I’m punished twice for my good deed. It didn’t seem a good bargain, so I just moved the email to my inbox without telling Yahoo that it was not spam. Yahoo should know anyway that I wouldn’t move proper spam to my inbox (maybe if the contents really caused me fits of laughter, I might do it…) But why should I rub other people’s backs on the web, when they have no way of knowing I did it, and probably wouldn’t feel inclined to thank me anyway?! My conclusion is that providers have to make sure that the morally right way is always the easiest way to perform an operation (preferably, the only way), but you may have different thoughts on this. Let’s hear them!

Keywords: Yahoo! mail, Yahoo mail, spam mail, spam, junk mail, prisoner’s dilemma

Firefox extensions, broadband speed, and why software should be modular

I remember blogging some time ago about how the browser was becoming the new platform, in effect being the only part of the operating system that the user should have to see. I have for some time been using Scrapbook, and now the advent of Zotero has convinced me that “build it and they will come” really works, and the developers are taking on the browser as the new platform. What I am very pleased to note is that after years of different GUI applications doing things in isolation (and notwithstanding Apple’s very clever, if underused, Automator), there are finally some interaction effects emerging, where several extensions in combination are allowing you to do things that none of the developers would have foreseen. To give an example, I can capture a page in Scrapbook, stripping off most of the JavaScript while maintaining the layout, and then edit the source. This has countless applications that I shan’t go into here.

This is very similar to an idea that Jef Raskin presented many years ago in his book, namely to create an operating system that allowed users to add commands. If I remember correctly, Jef envisaged these commands to be purchased rather than downloaded for free, not foreseeing that open source software would replace much of the commercial market of this kind. I remember wondering at the time how this was any different from Unix, where you can string together commands using pipes to gain additional functionality. From my recollection of reading the book, I don’t recall that Jef explained in detail why users should extend the command set themselves. Having used Firefox for a while now, I think I understand what was intended

I use about a dozen extensions in Firefox (and it remains stable, touch wood!), but if you’d put me in front of a machine that had all of these extensions available to start with, I would not have known what to do. This is why I can’t bear to use Opera: it has a lot of nice features, but they aren’t very accessible. If Opera were modular, I might like it better. So the message is to allow people to extend functionality themselves, because that way, they grow with the technology and can better adapt to it.

Web applications are often limited by current broadband speed and availability, as well as server response times; Firefox extensions are helping to fill this temporary lag.

Incidentally, has anyone tried Onspeed? Their proprietary compression technologies sound impressive, but I wonder whether they have the bandwidth and processing power to match their claims that they can speed up even 8Mb/s broadband.