Matt Ridley — deep optimism at the Long Now

Matt Ridley explains why he is such an optimist at the Long Now.

Humanity’s lot has been improving for the last 10,000 years and he sees no reason this will stop, despite everyone’s claim that the world/civilization is going to heck in a handbasket.

He was a pessimist when he graduated college. He marks his conversion to the day he realized acid rain was not a problem.

Trade as the key thing which separates man from beast, and which powers all of our cultural growth.

His greatest concern is that religious fundamentalism will shut down trade and innovation. He is an athiest, though raised as an anglican. He considers this the mildest form of the virus, practically a vaccine.


The world’s oldest living organisms — Rachel Sussman

jomon sugi japanese cedar, the tree that launched the project. Photo by Sussman.

Rachel Sussman gives her talk at the long now. It might be easier to get the graphics from the TED version, then go to the LN version for the questions, which start from minute 41:15.

She finds three stratifications of organisms, by age. 2-5K, 10-20K, and 40K+ years.

Long-lived organisms tend to be extremophiles. Plants are heavily represented.

Ms. Sussman sells her prints via her website. I think she is also on kickstarter, but haven’t searched yet

The remarkable, yet not extraordinary, human brain as a scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost

Large brains appear several times in the mammalian radiation. Example species are illustrated for each major mammalian group. The mammalian radiation is based on the findings of Murphy et al. (18) and Kaas (19). Brain images are from the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections (

Herculano-Houzel S. The remarkable, yet not extraordinary, human brain as a
scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost
. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012
Jun 26;109 Suppl 1:10661-8.

She review allometric scaling in mammals, noting first that it is more fine-grained than size alone by giving examples of animals with similar sized brains but different cognitive abilities. “The human cerebral cortex is 75.5% of the entire brain mass, other animals, primate and nonprimate, are not far behind: The cerebral cortex represents 73.0% of the entire brain mass in the chimpanzee (7), 74.5% in the horse, and 73.4% in the short-finned whale (3).” Both cows and chimps have brain mas of ~400g, and rhesus monkey and capybara have 70-80g.

She measures the proportionality between brain mass and number of brain neurons, for the whole brain and the cerebral cortex.
Brain mass to number of neurons:

  • rodents: exponential (1.5)
  • primates/insectivors: linear

i.e. 10x more neurons in a rat brain gives a 35x more massive brain.
Cerebral cortex to num neurons:

  • rodents: exponential (1.7)
  • insectivores: exponential (1.6)
  • primates: linear.

All species had linear scaling between both cerebellar and  for nonneuronal cell counts as a function of brain cell count.

The upshoot?
“A decrease in long-range connectivity, favoring local connectivity, in larger primate brains is expected from the nearly linear increase in cortical size as the brain gains neurons …
Neuronal connectivity in the cerebral cortex has properties of a small-world network, with mostly local connectivity and only a relatively small number of long-range connections”

And finally, the human brain is not an outlier in terms of num neurons/size, but rather what one would expect from a primate.


Neuroscientists have become used to a number of “facts” about the human brain: It has 100 billion neurons and 10- to 50-fold more glial cells; it is the largest-than-expected for its body among primates and mammals in general, and therefore the most cognitively able; it consumes an outstanding 20% of the total body energy budget despite representing only 2% of body mass because of an increased metabolic need of its neurons; and it is endowed with an overdeveloped cerebral cortex, the largest compared with brain size. These facts led to the widespread notion that the human brain is literally extraordinary: an outlier among mammalian brains, defying evolutionary rules that apply to other species, with a uniqueness seemingly necessary to justify the superior cognitive abilities of humans over mammals with even larger brains. These facts, with deep implications for neurophysiology and evolutionary biology, are not grounded on solid evidence or sound assumptions, however. Our recent development of a method that allows rapid and reliable quantification of the numbers of cells that compose the whole brain has provided a means to verify these facts. Here, I review this recent evidence and argue that, with 86 billion neurons and just as many nonneuronal cells, the human brain is a scaled-up primate brain in its cellular composition and metabolic cost, with a relatively enlarged cerebral cortex that does not have a relatively larger number of brain neurons yet is remarkable in its cognitive abilities and metabolism simply because of its extremely large number of neurons.

It isn’t just China…

A response to the article on corruption in China.

Business Insider penned this opening: “[Other articles have described the] widespread fraud that has become apparent, both in mainland and US listed Chinese companies… extraordinary number of the Communist Party and the military cadre had massive unexplained wealth …”

Let’s take a different approach. I have rewritten his sentence into a different context. Suppose you were an honest Chinese observer, reading the following sentences about the United States.

“Widespread fraud has become apparent in the Mainland US and among US-listed financial firms. Extraordinary numbers of political figures and public appointees have massive wealth. Examples include (1) Dick Fuld, who was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of NY until his firm, Lehman Brothers, went into bankruptcy. He has not been charged with any crime. He denied knowledge of any accounting irregularities. (2) Former US Senator Jon Corzine’s firm was a Federal Reserve primary dealer before it failed. Huge balances of client funds are unaccounted for at MF Global. Corzine says he does not know what happened. (3) No one knows the counterparties of the transactions that cost JPM billions. (4) Members of Congress and their staffs trade on insider information and are not violating US law because of the congressional exemption that Congress legislated for itself.”

Steve, I could lengthen this but you get my point.

The LIBOR rigging is systemic. For evidence see a Bloomberg report from May 29, 2008, under the headline, “Libor Banks Misstated Rates, Bond at Barclays Says.” (Yes, the article ran more than four years before Barclays’s $453 million settlement last month with U.S. and U.K. authorities for manipulating Libor.)

The insiders on that board know the facts. Watch out for what is coming. It may dwarf allegations about Chinese corruption.

The US and UK systems were once the models for the world. They are now sick and corrupt. We are five years into a financial crisis and nothing has changed. Who are we to throw stones at others?

From David Kotok, via The Big Picture

The middle class homeless

Clipped from the Rolling Stone article

When floodwaters cover our homes, we expect that FEMA workers with emergency checks and blankets will find us. There is no moral or substantive difference between a hundred-year flood and the near-destruction of the global financial system by speculators immune from consequence. But if you and your spouse both lose your jobs and assets because of an unprecedented economic cataclysm having nothing to do with you, you quickly discover that your society expects you and your children to live malnourished on the streets indefinitely. That kind of truth, says Nancy Kapp, “really screws with people’s heads.”

The current political leadership of China represents the greatest looting of a country by the political class ever seen in history

My headline is a quote from The Looting of China by the Kleptokapitalist Bourgeoisie Roaders

The article mentions standard business practices such as

it has been common (apparently) for steel traders to secure loans to buy steel then use this same steel as collateral to borrow funds to invest in property development and the stock market

In the Hurun Report released in March 2012—the richest 70 members of the government have a net worth of $89.8 billion, an average of over $1B each. This compares to $7.5 billion for the 660 for the US government, an average of $11M each. Furthermore, this does not take into account the wealth held by the families of these politicians.

Spatial dynamics of airborne infectious diseases

the model predicts the formation of two infectious traveling pulses, propagating in opposite directions. Accordingly, the density of susceptibles evolves into a wave front slowly infiltrating the completely susceptible population ahead of the front

The authors investigate the spatial dynamics of airborne disease transmission, which requires fine aerosol droplets small enough to remain suspended in air, yet large enough to contain non-neglibible pathogen load.

In an unventilated environment, diffusion depends on movement of people (a droplet will only diffuse 5.7mm)

Ventilation allows more rapid droplet diffusion, which can lead to secondary outbreaks. Above a critical level of ventilation, however, disease transmission is impared as droplets are transported out of the domain before they can cause infection.

Disease outbreaks, such as those of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 and the 2009 pandemic A(H1N1) influenza, have highlighted the potential for airborne transmission in indoor environments. Respirable pathogen-carrying droplets provide a vector for the spatial spread of infection with droplet transport determined by diffusive and convective processes. An epidemiological model describing the spatial dynamics of disease transmission is presented. The effects of an ambient airflow, as an infection control, are incorporated leading to a delay equation, with droplet density dependent on the infectious density at a previous time. It is found that small droplets ($\sim 0.4\ \mu$m) generate a negligible infectious force due to the small viral load and the associated duration they require to transmit infection. In contrast, larger droplets ($\sim 4\ \mu$m) can lead to an infectious wave propagating through a fully susceptible population or a secondary infection outbreak for a localised susceptible population. Droplet diffusion is found to be an inefficient mode of droplet transport leading to minimal spatial spread of infection. A threshold air velocity is derived, above which disease transmission is impaired even when the basic reproduction number R_{0} exceeds unity.

How Language Shapes Thought — Lera Boroditsky

Lera Borodistsky gives a fun talk with illustrations of how language shapes thought. Fundamental thesis: language is how we make sense of our sensory impressions; of course the form we give them changes the way we deal with them.

I am always surprised that this is a debate. Maybe it is because “how we think” is so completely undefined. I also note that the debate is very western, and suggests that the individual is the key element, as if the thinking does not take place in the context of a culture. Thinking is only a part of communicating, i.e. HELLO, LANGUAGE!!

Too busy to list examples in detail, only some subjects:

  1. verb conjugation
  2. color perception
  3. gender
  4. flow/direction of time
  5. agency

And of course the famous example of the Guugu Yimithirr aboriginies, who continually track orientation. Instead of “Hi, how are you,” the opener is
“Hi, where are you going?”
“Oh, north-northwest a half days walk. And you?”
No surprise, these people are extremely good navigators. Interestingly, to them, the landscape is the central element, not themselves. They have no concept of “left” or “right”, but rather place things on the compass. “A mosquito bit my southeast leg” (I wonder how the canonical example always involves and ant). Even time flows east to west, following the sun.
side note- these are the people who gave us the word Kangaroo.

Stray Thoughts on social change

Some quotables from the Long Now conversations

The problem isn’t with journalism per se, but rather that media has become the ecosystem and journalism is only a small part, getting lost in the pornographic amplification of emotional response.

You can be part of the steamroller or part of the road.

Do things by the book, but be the author.

Game theory does not include a theory on how to change the rules of the game.

If we are an addictive culture (we are), and if checking in to Twitter/Facebook releases oxytocin, then in what way are we changing our neural chemistry?

Can you see the writing on the wall?

Jose Antonio Vargas, ‘We Are Americans’

In response to the June 25th Time Magazine cover article:

I am a Son of the American Revolution, with both lines of ancestors present in the United States since before there was a United States. My family has always stood for the core values of the US, as expressed in the words of our founding fathers. We have also bled and died for these values. I have a claim, then, to be the voice of the spirit of the United States of America.

And I say that any law which declares a person “illegal” is itself unamerican.

I hear many people saying “This is the (current) law, and it must be enforced”. Their ignorance is so painful! The purpose of our legal system is to allow the people to overturn unjust law. The law itself is and should remain on trial, at every trial. The Revolutionary War, the Civil war, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, all of these were fought to change unjust laws (and I here only name the big conflicts that every American should know).

The United States is the Mother of Exiles, and should extend from her beacon hand a world-wide welcome, inviting all who would come and build there life here the opportunity to do so.

Perhaps a minimum of bureaucratic hassle is needed, perhaps a verification of identity, I can concede that (though grudgingly). But the current mess? No. The green card did not even exist before 1940 (“Alien registration act”). I wonder how many of those who want to deport undocumented immigrants had parents who passed through Ellis Island, receiving their citizenship upon arrival? Would your opponents be here today if they applied the same standards to their parents as they would apply to you? What would the world be today if we had turned back the huddled masses?

We need to re-open the golden door, and re-light the lamp.

Thank you, Mr. Vargas, for coming out. You have my full support.