Science Science, writing
If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.
I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.
Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:
Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.
The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’
Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”
And finally this intriguing thought:
If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.
Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.
Random, Technology future
One of the common themes of life today is that it’s getting faster. It’s not that time has actually sped up, rather the rate of change in society has sped up.
This is really happening; it’s not just crotchety old men pining for the days of martini lunches. One way to measure this trend is through technology adoption rates.
This chart from somewhere on the Internet shows how long it took for different technologies to reach the same portion of America’s population:
You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s getting faster.
If you’re a science fiction fan, the acceleration continues inexorably until it’s infinite and we hit something called The Singularity. Who knows what happens then; perhaps we turn into pure energy (Didn’t realize Powder was a documentary) or we all upload our brains to computers and colonize the stars. Or maybe the rate of change stabilizes and we just end up in a period of constant – but not accelerating – change (I’ll bet on that).
This trend has some unique implications. We see, for instance, that it’s harder to stay successful. How many overnight Internet celebrities have appeared over the past few years? Similarly, the Fortune 500 lost is turning over faster then ever. Glory is increasingly fleeting.
Some more evidence of this:
- ebooks-a category that basically didn’t exist six years ago-have almost stopped growing. We went from no one having them to saturation in the blink of an eye
- Apple’s iPad sales are flat; they’re selling tons but the rate’s not accelerating. It may be that everyone who needs a super high end tablet has one-and it only took 3 years
I find this fascinating. You’d think the iPad is a growth hit that you could take to the bank for 10 years; now it looks like some dramatic rework is required. Ditto if you’re Amazon with your Kindles.
What I take away is that we’re in an era where we can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll have to constantly adopt new ideas and learn a lot of new things. In fact, resistance to new ideas (or at least technology) could potentially become a leading indicator of future o failure.
I’ve given up trying to predict what I’ll be doing in five years time and instead focus on learning lots of new things and meeting interesting people. We’ll see where the journey goes.
Random, Technology futurism
When I was a kid, there was this elusive thing called The Future. It was this beacon visible just over the horizon where things would be different. Technology would bring knowledge and power to the masses. Poverty would disappear. We’d have lots of leisure time. Or maybe the world would collapse into a dystopian nightmare powered by that same technology.
But there was no date when this would arrive. Authors and actors provided the imagery (a lot of white and robots) but there was no ETA or it was so far in the future that it was laughable.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that we’re living in The Future.
I’m writing this blog post on a wireless keyboard that’s communicating with a tablet that’s connected to billions. If I desired, I could reach out to most of those people. I can order a near infinite number of physical goods to my house from any connected place on the planet; and I can get an update on where the good is every step of its journey to me. If I didn’t want to wait, I could order a design instead and print or mill the good myself with only the push of a few buttons. If I hunt around, I can watch or listen to almost any popular music or video ever created.
I can turn the lights of my house on and off from this tablet; ditto for adjusting the temperature. If I wanted, I could connect multiple cameras to watch live what’s happening in my backyard. Or I could use a $200 robot controlled by this tablet to be my camera instead.
I can go to work in a fully electric, zero emission car. I can pull out my phone and, with one tap, summon several different types of cars to my current location and not have to pull out cash or card to pay. Several billionaires are competing to get me into space at an affordable price. I can purchase a kit that lets me build a basic brain-controlled robot. And there’s a revolution in biology underway that could redefine how we think of the living world (think heartier crops that use less water and personalized medicine).
Plus this world isn’t restricted solely to the rich West. The recent rise of Indian and China has brought The Future to literally billions (and done more to alleviate poverty than anything else in history). And they’re building their own version of The Future.
But this blog post isn’t meant to be some hagiography of technology and capitalism. The combination of pollution, inexorable warming and increasing wealth inequality (despite rising absolute standards of living for everyone) means that The Future is not guaranteed to be all unicorns and rainbows. I worry about governments spying on everyone and armed drones are truly terrifying; it’s also not clear what social compact we’ve created by trading entertainment for privacy with large corporations.
In fact, The Future is a lot messier than what was promised by those actors and authors mentioned earlier. Their future was a beacon that shone because it had emerged from a world that did not exist. There was no path from the then-world to that future; it was more like a schism had occurred and a new, shinier, better future had emerged from some void.
But real life doesn’t work like that. We’re surrounded by 500 year old buildings and crappy condos just went up and be antiquated in 25 years. We have wireless broadband but can’t always get the physical kind. Regulations can mean that inventions stop at a an artificially created physical border. The Future emerges from what exists today; it evolves.
The Chinese never actually had a curse that said “may you live in interesting times” but we really do. I, for one, relish it. I love living in The Future even if I don’t fully know what it’s going to bring. In fact, I know that as I write this more of it’s arriving; I just don’t know what it is yet. And I can’t wait to see it.
We’ve spent the past few weeks in temporary accommodation in an anonymous condo. After nearly a month of its bland tastefulness we’ve finally found a place to stay and on Monday we moved in. Our movers did a good job but they squirreled boxes and packing materials away throughout our place; today I gathered it up for disposal.
Now I could have waited for recycling day, but I’m (more than) a little type A and wanted this stuff out of my house now. Consequently I decided to take it all to one of Seattle’s two garbage transfer stations – basically dumps in the city.
The one I chose is conveniently located near the popular Gasworks Park and just down the street from a cute bakery/cafe. You drive up, pay a fee, slowly wind down a road alongside a warehouse while passing aesthetically planted trees. You loop about, pause outside the warehouse for your turn and then enter the bowels of hell.
The building is barely lit and its insides are stained black from the exhaust of a never-ending flow of trucks and their gift of garbage. Light streams in through grimy windows mounted high on the walls, bringing to mind a medieval dungeon with a tiny barred window at the top. Beeps and honks come from constantly moving trucks; machines grind and compact; the sound of Diesel engines is everywhere.
An entire half of the building is devoted to the disposal of non-recyclable waste. Trucks back up to a concrete pit and crews heave their wares downwards. An old sofa sits between building waste and what appears to be a hundred copies of an old record. Shredded garbage bags all ooze something gray, a bouillabaisse of slime. Pigeons flit about, pecking at any rotting gifts and a lone worker drives a bulldozer through it all.
What makes it all the more surreal is the mist. Falling from the ceiling like a thinly veiled waterfall. Millions of droplets gleaming individually as they pass through the grimy light, falling earthwards to trap dust and odor.
And then you pack up, drive out into a bring summer’s day, turn left and look at all the people having fun in the park. A uniquely bizarre experience.
Travel environment, trees
One of the reasons Wen and I moved to the West Coast is that the outdoors here are superlative.
Mountains! Ocean! Rainforest!
We’re happiest putting Cam in a backpack and hiking into the bush or exploring somewhere new.
Being from out East, we’re still pretty amazed by how large the trees can grow to be out here, so we decided to go on vacation to try and see a few of Canada’s biggest trees. Conveniently, a remarkable number of them can be found in a triangle between Port Alberni (A), Bamfield (B) and Port Renfrew (R):
We headed out for a few days making our home base in Port Alberni (which elicited confused reactions from our friends; nobody ever goes on vacation to Port Alberni).
The warmup act occurred just outside Port Alberni at Cathedral Grove. Once logging land owned by the H.R. McMillan – and now a park bearing his name – it’s a copse of old growth trees, some of which date up to 800 years.
Beautiful – yes; but just a tease for the casual tourist on their way to Tofino and a clue that if you’re willing to go a little bit further, you might find something much, much better.
The much, much better stuff is found in and around Carmanah Walbran provincial park.
This park is both really close to civilization and incredibly remote. It’s only 90 kilometres or so from Port Alberni; similarly far from Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew (there’s only one entrance to the park; you have to drive all the way around it from Port Renfrew to enter it). It’s also only accessible via logging roads.
That means that you’re driving with your headlights on so you can see through the clouds of dust raised by passing trucks. That means that unpredictably, trucks hauling logs will just appear around a corner; they have the right of way-and momentum. That means one lane bridges without railings.
That also meant that our little Prius probably wasn’t going to make it. Especially up the last 30 kilometres or so, which consisted of a tire-eating climb up a mountain, suddenly appearing potholes that were a foot deep and finally roads that were so overgrown that alder slap both sides of your vehicle.
I needed something more powerful. Fortunately, there was a Budget Rent-A-Car in Port Alberni and they were able to rent me that most red-blooded of vehicles, the Ford F-150 with a crew cab.
For comparison purposes, I took a photo of it next to the Prius:
I’d never driven a pickup before. It was like floating on air. I hit a speed bump and it felt like a crack in pavement; as we ploughed ahead on logging roads, potholes were the equivalent of a fly hitting the Prius’ windshield. The car was a masterpiece of over-engineered convenience; but Cinderalla’s carriage was also a pumpkin – it cost $88 to fill up the half a tank required for driving about 360 km (what a tax you pay in return for owning truck…).
With the F-150 I felt comfortable heading into the land-not-known-by-Google-Maps and we eventually found our way to the park:
There’s only one way into the park. Ironically, it passed through a clear cut. Apparently this area was unprotected until the 1990s when public protest and uproar led to the creation of Carmanah Walbran and an increase in size to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (for anyone who protested – thank you).
As I mentioned, the road was so lightly travelled that alder trees completely cover the road at points and slap your car as it passes. Consequently, it’s strange when you enter the park and suddenly find yourself surrounded by the infrastructure of the province. There was a formal sign. Outhouses. And free trail maps that give you an idea of how unexplored the area is:
The part consisted of three valleys and only part of one is actually open. There were a few kilometres (an easy days worth) of trails; the rest was backcountry for the truly hardy to explore.
Perhaps the best indicator of the park’s remoteness is how empty it was. We arrived after noon on a Saturday and were the only people in the parking lot; one more car showed up later in the day. As we hiked my face accumulated cobwebs; we literally had a rainforest to ourselves.
Much of the hiking was along a boardwalk; we were there on a bluebird day but it was still moist and humid. There are so many large trees that we started taking them for granted (hah! – that one’s only five feet wide) and only noticed the small ones as a sort of natural disappointment.
The park had some standout trees. The “Heaven” tree was a sitka that lorded over you. The Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove (Randy was a young conservationist integral in establishing the park) was a perfectly silent grove of massive trees next to a little river; a fantastic place for lunch:
Further up the valley were The Three Sisters: three giant trees right next to one another; there was a platform in the middle where you could hang out and look straight up.
A few more shots of the park; alas the biggest tree was a supergiant that fell across the tracks a long time ago:
It was a spectacular park – one day I hope to come back and explore the Walbran Valley – but not home to Canada’s largest tree. Fortunately, that tree – the Cheewhat Giant – was nearby, just down the road near Cheewhat lake.
The next day we came back to find it.
This proved to be a little tough.
It’s no secret that it’s near Cheewhat Lake, but nobody’s encouraging you to go; keeping visitor traffic low is part of what’s enabled this tree to survive for 2,500 years.
There’s a trail, but it’s very casually marked. You slowly drive along the road and look for a cairn. It’s the only cairn, but then it’s also a 29km road; you need to know roughly where you are (i.e., have a GPS or preload your smartphone) or you’re going to be in for a long day.
Once you find the cairn you start on what’s initially a pretty rough trail.
The tree is safe in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, but sadly the valleys surrounding the park are constantly being clearcut. However, since this is a rainforest the clearcuts don’t stay clear too long; alder quickly grows on them, meaning that the “trail through a clearcut” was actually more like this:
As you can see, at least it was flagged. The clearcut does get a little more open after a while and we started to see some signs of old growth. That’s a few hundred years of tree in this stump:
We then entered the remaining old growth forest (there are actually markers saying it’s a national park) and the atmosphere changed.
It got quieter; there were only a few birds.
The alder was mostly gone; this was an old forest of tall trees and ferns. For thousands, if not millions, of years, the forest has been collapsing on itself and regrowing. It oozed history.
We rappelled down some ropes and saw the first clue that this was a different type of forest from what we were used to. This massive tree fell over and pulled the forest floor up with it; ferns now grow on the underside of its old roots:
As we went deeper, the trees got bigger. Finally, we arrived at some truly spectacular giant trees that defied proportion; we could sense that the Cheewhat Giant must be nearby:
And just a few minutes later, there it was. A Parks Canada plaque officially confirmed it:
For comparison, that blue blur in the photo above is Wendy. The tree was about 20 feet in diameter; it was a living wall of wood that dates back to just a few hundred years after the founding of Rome.
It was fairly awe-inspiring to sit underneath it; instead of waiting, our son insisted on being walking in front of it dozens of times:
From below, the tree wood stretched well beyond what we could see:
It was only by hiking below it that we could get a fuller sense of its true size:
It was a special place and a unique one in Canada; I’ve been to several rainforests but this is the most ancient living place I’ve ever visited.
A great trip tree-hunting; next time I’ll have to look out for these.