Critical Section

Archive: September 1, 2003

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Blind Watchmakings

Monday,  09/01/03  09:33 PM

long-horned beetles
from the Insect Company
(click for larger view)

blind watchmakings
Blind Watchmakings
from Richard Dawkins
(click for larger view)

I recently discovered The Insect Company website, which has fascinating photo galleries of beautiful and interesting insects.  [ via Boing Boing ]  An example is shown at right; Cerambycidae are long-horned beetles, and this gallery shows the variations from different countries.  I was awestruck by these wonderful examples of Darwinism in action; for me this was a religious experience.

In paging through these photos, I was reminded of the amazing software Richard Dawkins wrote to accompany his 1986 classic, "The Blind Watchmaker".  (If you have not read this book, then STOP, do not pass go, and immediately order it.  You will thank me.)

Chapter 3, Accumulating Small Change, is an in-depth exploration of a synthetic organism-producer Dawkins developed to try out the ideas behind the book.  This is a Macintosh application which generated "biomorphs", 2D black and white organism-like configurations of pixels which were generated algorithmically from a set of variables ("genes").  From any biomorph "children" are generated by mutating the variables.  You then select which children survive to generate children themselves, and thereby "breed" generation after generation of evolving biomorphs.

BTW, I just ran the Mac application again.  This 17-year-old program still runs!  (OSX emulating OSn and PowerPC emulating 68000.)  Pretty nice GUI, despite being black and white, and awesome functionality.

An example of biomorphic evolution is shown at right.  Each of these "organisms" differs from the previous by a single mutation in one of the "genes".  The visual similarity to the beetles is profound, and to my mind not coincidental.

There is one big qualitative difference between the beetles and the biomorphs; the beetles are naturally selected, while the biomorphs are not.  In each generation of beetles the fittest survive to have offspring.  The variation among beetles from different countries presumably reflects different environments (food, predators, habitat, weather, etc.).  In each generation of biomorphs the program user performs the selection, using morphological similarity to actual organisms as a measure of "fitness".

Or based on visual similarity to some other target; when the book was first published Dawkins offered a $1,000 prize for anyone who could "breed" an image of a chalice, "the Holy Grail".  To his surprise, a Caltech student claimed the prize within a year.  Subsequently a new prize of $1,000 was offered for breeding an image of a human, but this has not to my knowledge been claimed.

Biomorphs are generated from sixteen variables ("genes"), each with a range of 20 values ("alleles").  There are thus 16^20 possible biomorphs.  Mimicking biology, one of the genes controls the magnitude of mutation which can occur in one generation (variation in alleles), and another the range (number of genes which mutate).  These genes can of course themselves mutate, so that some biomorph populations are relatively stable from one generation to the next, while another might vary wildly.  The capacity of the program to surprise you from one generation to the next will, er, surprise you.  Fans of Stephen Gould will also note the "hopeful monster" mode, in which an entirely new biomorph is randomly generated!

Great stuff.  What is most amazing is that evolution has resulted in creatures sophisticated enough to generate algorithmic models that mimic evolution!


Monday,  09/01/03  11:31 PM

International Space StationI kind of forgot about this, but the International Space Station is still up there, and still manned with one U.S. and one Russian Astronaut.  Since we're not flying shuttles right now, the Russians have been flying up supplies.  Amazing how this went from big news to no news.

Wired: Why Apple is so Tempting.  "Why doesn't some ambitious company with deep pockets and distribution muscle adopt Apple and hold it aloft as the trophy it really is?"  I sure hope someone doesn't buy Apple, despite the temptations; it is a great company the way it is, profitable, innovative, and fun!

Magink billboard"Digital ink" is getting real.  Magink billboards can hold their images for up to 12 years without power.  Wow.  And the mechanism sounds like something from science fiction, "Magink uses tiny helix structures, which don't actually contain any color.  Instead, the helixes, functioning like microscopic machines, can be controlled with electrical currents to make them longer or shorter, acting like tiny prisms, reflecting the bands of the spectrum needed to render the required colors.  When black is needed, the helix is instructed to change its pitch and lie down, allowing light to enter it and reflect the black backing of the display."  Great time to be alive, eh?  [ via Gizmodo ]

Panasonic camcorderCheck out this new camcorder from Panasonic.  Man, is that tiny!  (Perfect for putting in a backpack, and recording from a helmet-cam while mountain biking!)  [ via Gizmodo ]

New Scientist reports Origami Helps Cellphone Camera to Focus.  Great, now we'll have zoomed blurry pictures on everyone's blogs :)

Toyota self-parking PriusOh, and this is cool - Toyota has come out with a self-parking car!  This sounds like science fiction.  "Toyota's new hybrid gasoline-electric Prius sedan uses electrically operated power steering and sensors that help guide the car when reversing into parking spaces."  So if they can do that, they could certainly build a caravan feature, right?

This looks like a great book:  In the Blink of an Eye, by Dr. Andrew Parker.  The Age published an article which reviews the book.  The main idea seems to be that the evolution of the eye triggered the Cambrian explosion.  I've ordered it, stay tuned for my review...  [ via razib ]

Interestingly, the development of the eye is often cited by critics of evolution by natural selection; the argument being, essentially, "of what use is half an eye".  (Richard Dawkins answers this objection convincingly in Climbing Mount Improbable.)  So here we have another good answer - any light sensitivity at all would have been such a selective advantage in the early Cambrian period that it was immediately adopted!  (Literally "in the blink of an eye"; less than 400,000 generations.)

TidBITS notes:

"Virtual PC 6.1 for Mac will not work on Apple's new Power Mac G5.  Unlike the PowerPC G3 and G4 chips, the PowerPC G5 processor does not support a feature known as pseudo little-endian mode, which Virtual PC uses to emulate a Pentium processor. Microsoft is reportedly working on a fix, but it requires significant engineering work, and no time frame has been given."

Ha!  Back in a previous life I coded a simulator for the IBM Series/1, which was big-endian, to run on the DEC VAX, a little-endian machine.  Handling the cross-endian data representation was a major difficulty which we finally evolved an elegant solution to handle.  Ironically the simulator ended up running on the IBM PowerPC, which was also big-endian, but the simulator could have been compiled to run on anything.  Perhaps I should offer my services to Microsoft :)

P.S. Somehow a version I compiled for the Mac got out onto the 'net.  I love the description :)

Can you image the reaction someone from fifty years ago would have to reading my 'blog?  Every day there's all this amazing stuff, and it all feels like stuff from the future, but it is here now!  Heck, even someone from ten years ago would be amazed!  (Makes you wonder what a 'blog from ten years into the future would look like :)


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Correlation vs. Causality
The Tyranny of Email
Unnatural Selection
On Blame
Try, or Try Not
Books and Wine
Emergent Properties
God and Beauty
Moving Mount Fuji
The Nest
Rock 'n Roll
IQ and Populations
Are You a Bright?
Adding Value
The Joy of Craftsmanship
The Emperor's New Code
Toy Story
The Return of the King
Religion vs IQ
In the Wet
solving bongard problems
visiting Titan
unintelligent design
the nuclear option
estimating in meatspace
second gear
On the Persistence of Bad Design...
Texas chili cookoff
almost famous design and stochastic debugging
may I take your order?
universal healthcare
triple double
New Yorker covers
Death Rider! (da da dum)
how did I get here (Mt.Whitney)?
the Law of Significance
Holiday Inn
Daniel Jacoby's photographs
the first bird
Gödel Escher Bach: Birthday Cantatatata
Father's Day (in pictures)
your cat for my car
Jobsnotes of note
world population map
no joy in Baker
vote smart
exact nonsense
introducing eyesFinder
to space
where are the desktop apps?
still the first bird
electoral fail
progress ratches
2020 explained