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Geoffrey West on Scaling Laws in Biology and Other Complex Systems…406426776765294


Randomly came across this video of a lecture given at Google by Geoffrey West on how biological “laws” scale. For example, flow through capillaries and metabolic rate scale from small to large organisms. What is mind-boggling is how metabolic rate scales “over 27 orders of magnitude.” The video is almost an hour long and is pretty dense, but the first 20 minutes or so explain the metabolic scaling, which is incredible. The last ten minutes apply the idea to social organizations (starting around 47 minutes in). Apparently, human organizations actually scale at 1.05 (versus 3/4).

The big takeaways for me: simply, for complex systems to work, they must scale. On a more complicated level, evolution is a blind process of trial and error that nonetheless created fantastically scalable, complex, decentralized systems that aren’t given to catastrophic failures. Therefore, it’s reasonable to postulate that, as opposed to using central, pointed, monopolistic planning (Think: few iterations) to design systems that scale without catastrophic loss, perhaps we should default to decentralized, immensely iterative trial and error as our basis for system design. The former is unnatural, the latter organic. The former is monarchistic, the latter anarchistic. The latter provably works whereas the former has failed over and over and over again.

Geoffrey West’s takeaway: “One, that inevitably [for biological systems] the bigger you are, the slower the pace of life—your heart rate decreases, your life span is longer and so on. In social organizations the bigger you are, cities in particular, the faster life is.”

Final note, I’m reminded of Gilbert’s super-replicator idea in Stumbling on Happiness.

The abstract on the video:

Life is very likely the most complex phenomenon in the Universe manifesting an extraordinary diversity of form and function over an enormous range. Yet, many of its most fundamental and complex attributes scale with size in a surprisingly simple fashion. For example, metabolic rate (the power required to sustain the system) scales as approximately the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude from molecular levels up to the largest multicellular organisms. Similarly, time-scales, such as lifespans and growth-rates, increase with exponents which are typically simple powers of 1/4. It will be shown how these universal quarter-power scaling laws follow from fundamental generic principles embedded in the dynamics and geometry of underlying networks, leading to a general quantitative theory that captures essential features of many diverse biological systems. Examples will include animal and plant vascular systems, growth, cancer, aging and mortality, sleep, DNA nucleotide substitution rates. These ideas will be extended to discuss social organisations such as cities and firms: to what extent, if at all, can we think of these as very large organisms and therefore as an extension of biology? Analogues to metabolic rate and behavioral times in cities scale counter to their behaviour in biology. Driven by innovation and the creation of wealth this has dramatic implications for their growth, development, sustainability and pace of life which, left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their collapse.


The Power of Blogging (On why I blog)

March 13
photo credit: the name is Josh

Blogging, which I define as published informal writing, makes me happy. I blog because I enjoy it. Why do I find blogging so fulfilling? Briefly, blogging provides me with a creative outlet to focus my thinking and share my ideas and interests with others. Even as these are sufficient reasons to blog, there are certain particulars of blogging that make it absurdly powerful, and this post attempts to get at these reasons.

What is so powerful about blogging?

Blogging enables me to write about whatever I want. I can write about the particulars of property rights, ideas for workout routines, the consequences of holding a certain belief, or how best to apply an understanding of human evolution to modern life. I can blog about my personal doings or the book I just finished reading. The informality of blogging provides an enormous amount of creative freedom to speak my mind. This freedom caters to my tendency towards boredom with overspecialization. It allows me to jump from subject to subject as often as I choose.

Seth Roberts described this purpose of blogging wonderfully in a recent comment: “[blogging] allows us to talk about whatever we want without fear of boring our listeners.” With blogging there is little fear of rejection and an empowering feeling of control. Label it “narcisistic” if you want, does it really matter? Blogging provides such a fantastic creative outlet that it is a worthwhile pursuit for this reason alone.

Blogging focuses my curiosity and clarifies my thinking. Putting my thoughts into writing requires a “good enough” understanding of a concept for my written explanation to successfully transfer the idea to others (including me at future date). This put-it-in-writing induced constraint helps clarify my thinking and can also aid my memory. Somewhat related to clarified thought, blogging provides an end-product for my curiosity. Whereas a random interest in parkour may mean running any number of Google queries on the subject only to be done with it, the add-on of blogging creates a deliverable: I can jot down my findings for future reference and produce something tangible and useful from what would otherwise be a passing curiosity.

Blogging results in the mass production of ideas. Creating a blog is cheap, which means that anyone can do it (See below for how). Since bloggers have the power to write whatever they want, an enormous amount of writing is generated. Of course, most of these blog posts will be quickly written and forgotten. And many (if not most) of the ideas generated by bloggers will be duds. Regardless, the raw abundance of ideas presented through blogs is one of the prevailing strengths of the medium. This is because the ideas captured in blog posts are public.

Blogs, whether written anonymously or otherwise, are a means for publishing writing. Whatever I blog about is almost instantly assimilated into the vast bounty of information that is the Internet. Once published, blog posts can be searched and linked. Thanks to search, similarly interested individuals can find my writings and I can find theirs. The public nature of blogging thereby prevents both good and bad ideas from obscurity. Bad ideas are subject to correction from reader feedback. Good ideas are made better by the same. Public discourse on blogs occurs via two pathways. The more basic of the two is that readers are allowed to comment on my blog directly. The alternative, and potentially more powerful pathway is by indirect feedback on a fellow blogger’s site that is hyperlinked to my site.

The resultant combination of blogging and linking is volatile: hyperlinks are the oxygen off which the best blogs thrive. Whether it is simply another blogger sending readers to my site via a blogroll link (a sort of blanket “seal of approval”), linking to a specific post, or through submission of blog posts to the virtual watercooler, social bookmarking sites like reddit, twitter, digg, stumbleupon, or facebook, hyperlinks can provide an immense amount of exposure. Of course, the more linked a blog becomes, the more likely it is to be linked: hyperlinks tend to follow a power law distribution. This means that a blog post containing a good idea (or a good blog generally) has the potential to spread virally. It is through being linked that an idea can go from obscurity to widespread consideration in a very brief time.

Perhaps one of the greatest powers of blogging is how all of the above characteristics provide me with a “home” in the Blogosphere. When I write, even as I do it for my own benefits, the writing is done within a community. Random ideas no longer need to stagnate within my mind: I can publish them on my blog and share them with others who are want to hear what I have to say. I contribute to this community in my own peculiar way, blogging on whatever strikes my fancy. I keep tabs on my neighbors by visiting their sites and subscribing to their feeds. Through this community ideas are freed to germinate, mutate, evolve, or cross-fertilize with each other, producing results that can scarcely be predicted but are almost always eye-opening and sometimes even world-changing.

Indeed, that is the benefit of living in any community, in real space or online. Communities provide the potential for fortuitous opportunities — luck, in other words. That’s why we choose to live with and near other human beings. Its why civilization exists. To share, trade, create, and profit from the resulting opportunities. The main difference between communities in real space and those online is that real space communities tend to be set up based on geographical proximity to your neighbors. In a way, proximity still reigns supreme in the blogosphere; however, it’s the proximity of minds, ideas, and intellect. Blogging eliminates physical barriers to intellectual commerce; as a result, more transactions occur and better ideas and communities are created.

It is for all of these reasons that blogging is one of the most dynamic aspects of the Internet. It is changing the way we learn and the speed at which we create and record knowledge. Despite this immense power, most don’t realize the huge upside potential to maintaining little more than a public journal. The reality is that they don’t have to — like me, most bloggers start blogging because they think they’ll enjoy it, and of course, most do. That the practice results in countless other benefits? Bonus.

Do you have a blog? If not, consider setting one up.

Blogging is nothing more than writing down your thoughts and publishing them. Yet doing so can change your life for the better in ways that you can’t currently predict. Anyone can set up a blog for free using services like blogger, livejournal, or wordpress dot com. If you’re feeling more industrious, you can secure your own webhosting, buy a domain name, and work through setting up a wordpress dot org or b2evolution installation. It’s really not all that hard and probably worth the effort if you want to make the most off your productive efforts. However, if you’re a bit intimidated to go this route, just pursue the free versions — you’ve got very little to lose by starting up a blog, and as I’ve illustrated above, a great deal to gain.