(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Growth

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”*…

… something that nature seems to know. The population of the world, now roughly 8.1 billion, seems poised to shrink. To some, this is good news; to others, a cause for alarm. Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield and Anvar Sarygulov, co-founders of Boom, fall into that latter camp. But their provocative analysis of the dynamics of the Baby Boom is relevant to anyone concerned with the future of population on earth…

… In the countries that it touched, the Baby Boom created generations massive in size. In the US alone, 76 million babies were born in its peak 18 years, 30 million more than were born in the previous 18, a demographic difference bigger than the 1960 population of Egypt, the Philippines, or Ethiopia. By 1965, people born during the Baby Boom made up 40 percent of America’s population.

Today, a fifth of both the UK’s and the USA’s population are baby boomers and we live in the world they created. Despite that, as mentioned above, the most widely known piece of information about the Boom is its most pervasive myth, that it was caused by the end of World War Two.

The Baby Boom was not the result of people making up for lost time during the war: it saw total lifetime fertility rates rise, meaning that people did not simply shift when they had their children but had more of them overall. And in many countries, including the US, UK, Sweden and France, the rise in birth rates began years before the war had even started, while neutral Ireland and Switzerland experienced Booms that began during the war, in 1940.

Instead, to explain the Baby Boom, we must consider why it was that the iron law of fertility – that as incomes go up, births must come down – was suspended for this extraordinary period of time…

Fascinating and important: “Understanding the Baby Boom,” from @PMArslanagic and @ASarygulov.

By way of further background on our current situation: “Population bomb, bust – or boon? New UNFPA report debunks 8 myths about a world of 8 billion.

[image above: source]

Kenneth E. Boulding

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As we grapple with growth, we might send hygienic birthday greetings to Melville Bissell; he was born on this date in 1843. An inventor and entrepreneur, he created and marketed the first modern carpet sweeper… which, as explained in the article featured above, was a seminal contribution to the advances in household technology that helped fuel the Baby Boom.

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“Nature is full for us of seeming inconsistencies and glad surprises”*…

George Musser talks with biologist Michael Levin about his practice of uncovering the incredible, latent abilities of living things…

Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University, has a knack for taking an unassuming organism and showing it’s capable of the darnedest things. He and his team once extracted skin cells from a frog embryo and cultivated them on their own. With no other cell types around, they were not “bullied,” as he put it, into forming skin tissue. Instead, they reassembled into a new organism of sorts, a “xenobot,” a coinage based on the Latin name of the frog species, Xenopus laevis. It zipped around like a paramecium in pond water. Sometimes it swept up loose skin cells and piled them until they formed their own xenobot—a type of self-replication. For Levin, it demonstrated how all living things have latent abilities. Having evolved to do one thing, they might do something completely different under the right circumstances.

Not long ago I met Levin at a workshop on science, technology, and Buddhism in Kathmandu. He hates flying but said this event was worth it. Even without the backdrop of the Himalayas, his scientific talk was one of the most captivating I’ve ever heard. Every slide introduced some bizarre new experiment. Butterflies retain memories from when they were caterpillars, even though their brains turned to mush in the chrysalis. Cut off the head and tail of a planarian, or flatworm, and it can grow two new heads; if you amputate again, the worm will regrow both heads. Levin argues the worm stores the new shape in its body as an electrical pattern. In fact, he thinks electrical signaling is pervasive in nature; it is not limited to neurons. Recently, Levin and colleagues found that some diseases might be cured by retraining the gene and protein networks as one might train a neural network. But when I sat down to talk to the audacious biologist on the hotel patio, I mostly wanted to hear about slime mold…

Read on for a fascinating conversation: “The Biologist Blowing Our Minds,” @drmichaellevin and @gmusser in @NautilusMag.

* Margaret E. Barber

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As we’re amazed, we might send tidy birthday greetings to Irwin Rose; he was born on this date in 1926. A biologist and biochemist, he shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.

Ubiquitin is a small protein molecule that attaches to other proteins, tagging them for removal, which are thus recognized by the cell’s proteasomes. These structures are the cell’s waste-disposal units, allowing the proteins to be broken down into tiny pieces for reuse; this ubiquitin-mediated process cleans up unwanted proteins resulting during cell division, and performs quality control on newly synthesized proteins… which matters, as faulty protein-breakdown processes lead to such conditions as cystic fibrosis, several neurodegenerative diseases, and certain types of cancer.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

“To overcome a desperate situation, make a complete turn in one sudden burst”*…

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent, on the riddle of Japan…

This is the world’s third-largest economy. It’s a peaceful, prosperous country with the longest life expectancy in the world, the lowest murder rate, little political conflict, a powerful passport, and the sublime Shinkansen, the world’s best high-speed rail network.

America and Europe once feared the Japanese economic juggernaut much the same way they fear China’s growing economic might today. But the Japan the world expected never arrived. In the late 1980s, Japanese people were richer than Americans. Now they earn less than Britons.

For decades Japan has been struggling with a sluggish economy, held back by a deep resistance to change and a stubborn attachment to the past. Now, its population is both ageing and shrinking.

Japan is stuck…

His diagnosis and his prognosis: “Japan was the future but it’s stuck in the past,” @wingcommander1 in @BBCWorld.

* Japanese proverb

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded and released radioactivity into the atmosphere a day after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The radiation releases forced the evacuation of 83,000 residents from towns around the plant.  The meltdown caused concerns about contamination of food and water supplies, including the 2011 rice harvest, and also the health effects of radiation on workers at the plant.  Scientists estimate that the accident released 18 quadrillion becquerels of caesium-137 into the Pacific Ocean, contaminating 150 square miles of the ocean floor.

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“There must be some other way out of here, said the joker to the thief / There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”*…

The dangers of rapid scaling: Praveen Seshadri on what ails Google and how it can turn things around…

I joined Google just before the pandemic when the company I had co-founded, AppSheet, was acquired by Google Cloud. The acquiring team and executives welcomed us and treated us well. We joined with great enthusiasm and commitment to integrate AppSheet into Google and make it a success. Yet, now at the expiry of my three year mandatory retention period, I have left Google understanding how a once-great company has slowly ceased to function.

Google has 175,000+ capable and well-compensated employees who get very little done quarter over quarter, year over year. Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, exec reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-hands summits, and inevitable reorgs. The mice are regularly fed their “cheese” (promotions, bonuses, fancy food, fancier perks) and despite many wanting to experience personal satisfaction and impact from their work, the system trains them to quell these inappropriate desires and learn what it actually means to be “Googley” — just don’t rock the boat. As Deepak Malhotra put it in his excellent business fable, at some point the problem is no longer that the mouse is in a maze. The problem is that “the maze is in the mouse.”

It is a fragile moment for Google with the pressure from OpenAI + Microsoft. Most people view this challenge along the technology axis, although there is now the gnawing suspicion that it might be a symptom of some deeper malaise. The recent layoffs have caused angst within the company as many employees view this as a failure of management or a surrender to activist investors. In a way, this reflects a general lack of self-awareness across both management and employees. Google’s fundamental problems are along the culture axis and everything else is a reflection of it. Of course, I’m not the only person to observe these issues (see the post by Noam Bardin, Waze founder and ex-Googler).

The way I see it, Google has four core cultural problems. They are all the natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called “Ads” that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins.

(1) no mission, (2) no urgency, (3) delusions of exceptionalism, (4) mismanagement…

A provocative diagnosis: “The maze is in the mouse.” Eminently worth reading in full.

* Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”

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As we go back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that a boy was born to University of Wisconsin graduate students Joanne Simpson and Abdulfattah Jandali. He was given up for adoption and taken in by a machinist and his wife in Mountain View, California. They named him Steve Jobs.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Life is a whim of several billion cells to be you for a while”*…

An AI-designed xenobot (parent organism, C shape, red) sweeping up stem cells that have been compressed into a ball (incipient offspring, green)

The more we understand how cells produce shape and form, Philip Ball explains, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks…

Where in the embryo does the person reside? Morphogenesis – the formation of the body from an embryo – once seemed so mystifying that scholars presumed the body must somehow already exist in tiny form at conception. In the 17th century, the Dutch microscopist Nicolaas Hartsoeker illustrated this ‘preformationist’ theory by drawing a foetal homunculus tucked into the head of a sperm.

This idea finds modern expression in the notion that the body plan is encoded in our DNA. But the more we come to understand how cells produce shape and form, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks, too. What cells follow is not a blueprint; if they can be considered programmed at all, it’s not with a plan of what to make, but with a set of rules to guide construction. One implication is that humans and other complex organisms are not the unique result of cells’ behaviour, but only one of many possible outcomes.

This view of the cell as a contingent, constructional entity challenges our traditional idea of what a body is, and what it can be. It also opens up some remarkable and even disconcerting possibilities about the prospects of redirecting biology into new shapes and structures. Life suddenly seems more plastic and amenable to being reconfigured by design. Understanding the contingency and malleability of multicellular form also connects us to our deep evolutionary past, when single-celled organisms first discovered the potential benefits of becoming multicellular. ‘The cell may be the focus of evolution, more than genes or even than the organism,’ says Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Far from the pinnacle of the tree of life, humans become just one of the many things our cells are capable of doing.

In one of the most dramatic demonstrations to date that cells are capable of more than we had imagined, the biologist Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts and his colleagues have shown that frog cells liberated from their normal developmental path can organise themselves in distinctly un-froglike ways. The researchers separated cells from frog embryos that were developing into skin cells, and simply watched what the free cells did.

Culturing cells – growing them in a dish where they are fed the nutrients they need – is a mature technology. In general, such cells will form an expanding colony as they divide. But the frog skin cells had other plans. They clustered into roughly spherical clumps of up to several thousand cells each, and the surface cells developed little hairlike protrusions called cilia (also present on normal frog skin). The cilia waved in coordinated fashion to propel the clusters through the solution, much like rowing oars. These cell clumps behaved like tiny organisms in their own right, surviving for a week or more – sometimes several months – if supplied with food. The researchers called them xenobots, derived from Xenopus laevis, the Latin name of the African clawed frog from which the cells were taken.

Levin and colleagues have recently found a new type of behaviour that xenobots can exhibit. They discovered that these pseudo-organisms can even replicate, after a fashion. Xenobots placed in a dish of cells will move to marshal those loose cells into piles that, over the course of a few days, cluster into new xenobots that then take off through the liquid themselves. Left to their own devices, the xenobots typically manage to produce only a single generation of offspring. But the researchers wondered if they could do better. They made computer simulations to search for xenobot shapes that were better at making new xenobots, using an AI program devised by their team member Josh Bongard of the University of Vermont. The simulations suggested that structures like C-shaped half-doughnuts could sweep up cells more efficiently than the spheroidal xenobots could, making larger (spherical) clusters of ‘offspring’.

The work shows that, by combining biological xenobots with the exploratory power of AI, it’s possible to make a kind of ‘living machine’ devised for a purpose. ‘AI can be brought in to exaggerate an innate capability,’ says Bongard. ‘The AI can “program” new behaviours into organisms by rearranging their morphology rather than their genes.’ The researchers wonder if the simulations might identify other shapes that can assemble different structures, or perhaps perform other tasks entirely. ‘One of my primary interests in this project is exactly how ‘far’ from the wild type [the natural, spontaneously arising form of xenobots] an AI can push things,’ says Bongard. ‘We’re now working on incorporating several new behaviours into xenobots via AI-driven design.’

This perspective entails a new way of thinking about cells: not as building blocks assembled according to a blueprint, but as autonomous entities with skills that can be leveraged to make all manner of organisms and living structures. You might conceive of them as smart, reprogrammable, shapeshifting robots that can move, stick together, and signal to one another – and, by those means, build themselves into elaborate artifacts.

This might also be a better way to conceptualise how our own bodies are built during embryogenesis…

The generative potential of cells equipped for multicellular construction was evident almost as soon as this became a lifestyle option, in evolutionary terms. In the Cambrian explosion around 540 million years ago, all manner of strange body shapes appeared, many of which are no longer exhibited by any creatures on Earth. Perhaps we should regard those forgotten ‘endless forms most beautiful’, to borrow Charles Darwin’s resonant phrase, as an illustration of the constructive potential of the metazoan cell – an exuberant expression of the palette of solutions to the problem of cell assembly, which natural selection then stringently pruned.

Acknowledging that the human form is a contingent outcome of the way our cells are programmed for construction raises some mind-bending questions. Are there, for example, human xenobots (perhaps we might call them anthrobots)? If so, are they truly ‘human’? Might there be a kind of organ or tissue that our cells could make but don’t normally get the chance to? Might our still cells ‘remember’ older evolutionary body shapes?…

How our understanding of genetics is changing– a fascinating dispatch from the frontiers of experimental biology: “What on earth is a xenobot?,” from @philipcball in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Groucho Marx

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As we ponder possibility, we might spare a thought for Hans Spemann; he died on this date in 1941. An embryologist, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1935 for his discovery of embryonic induction, an effect involving several parts of the embryo in directing the development of the early group of cells into specific tissues and organs.

In a way that can be said to have foreshadowed the work described above, Spemann showed that the in the earliest stage, tissue may be transplanted to different areas of the embryo, where it then develops based on the new location and not from where it came. (For example, early tissue cut from an area of nervous tissue might be moved to an area of skin tissue where it then grows into the same form as the surrounding skin.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2022 at 1:00 am

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