The Joys of Extrapolation

At technology review they have an article discussing the work of two scientists:

These guys argue that it’s possible to measure the complexity of life and the rate at which it has increased from prokaryotes to eukaryotes to more complex creatures such as worms, fish and finally mammals. That produces a clear exponential increase identical to that behind Moore’s Law although in this case the doubling time is 376 million years rather than two years.

Interesting, so what happens to punctuated equilibrium or does that still fit into this idea?  It’s not clear from the article.  The Cambrian explosion appears to fit in nicely.  The article states that if you extrapolate back to single base pair, life is older than the earth.  Then they write:

For example, is it reasonable to think that the complexity of life has increased at the same rate throughout Earth’s history? Perhaps the early steps in the origin of life created complexity much more quickly than evolution does now, which will allow the timescale to be squeezed into the lifespan of the Earth.

Sharov and Gorden reject this argument saying that it is suspiciously similar to arguments that squeeze the origin of life into the timespan (sic) outlined in the biblical Book of Genesis.

So Sharov and Gorden reject the argument because it sounds like arguments used by creationists.  So rather than take the criticism head on they attempt to paint their critics as creationists.  In case you are not in the know, calling a critic a creationist or borrowing from the creationist line of reasoning is heresy punishable by ostracism from the cool scientists club which is dominated by the Westboro branch of evolutionists.  This line of reasoning completely ignores the risks of extrapolation which are well known.  I commented about that a bit here.

One of the implications of their work they claim is that intelligent life may just now be forming in the universe.  Mankind may be the first and be alone.  A little fact and lot of conjecture but it makes for interesting party talk (well maybe only for geeks like me).

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Cliff Diving

I wrote previously the inevitable overreach of large corporations and their tendency to become controlling and eventually disappear.  In this business cliché riddled article by Brad Peters, he gives some lessons about what happens inside a corporation that prevents them from adapting to market changes.  In this case it’s about Oracle who is famous for their high pressure salesmen and arrogance.  They have initially failed to adapt well to cloud based software it appears.  They still have time with all that capital to turn things around but if they disappear, I won’t miss them either.  Uncle Larry brought SQL into the marketplace after he left IBM and because he was too stupid to understand its serious flaws, set data management back twenty five years, but that’s a story for another time.

Extrapolation

I love ongoing debates which may never be resolved, such as Team Evolution versus the Intelligent Design crew.  I am hesitant to even post this since it tends to provoke apoplexy in people.  This quote from Jerry Coyne is quite clever which I got from this article.

When, after a Christmas visit, we watch grandma leave on the train to Miami, we assume that the rest of her journey will be an extrapolation of that first quarter-mile. A creationist unwilling to extrapolate from micro- to macroevolution is as irrational as an observer who assumes that, after grandma’s train disappears around the bend, it is seized by divine forces and instantly transported to Florida. (Nature 412:587, 19 August 2001.)

Of course, there are big risks to extrapolation which any one who has ever traded in the markets has learned.  As legendary trader Ed Seykota put it, “The trend is your friend except at the end when it bends.”

Then there is Mark Twain’s masterpiece from Life on the Mississippi.

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

I suppose the debate could end when a single observation is made which no longer requires extrapolation.  Let’s say it does I doubt that will change the minds of many.  Conversely, if it is shown at some point that it’s completely impossible to go from micro –> macro I doubt that will change many minds on the other side either.  Beliefs persist.