Outsourcing Humanity

A cooking pot is an outsourced stomach. It shifts much of the burden of digesting food from inside to outside your body. Because of this, your real stomach doesn’t have to work so hard. This was a big deal for early humans, allowing them to make more effective use of available food.

Consider the shift that followed. Over millions of years, animals slowly evolved stomachs that could digest their preferred diet. This internal stomach is encoded in DNA, in the genome. Then, one fine day, fire-savvy, cook-capable humans came along. The job of the stomach could now be shared between the pot and the belly, which means that the combined “big stomach” is now a joint venture encoded by both genetic and cultural DNA. Across many generations, the biological stomach can now “relax”. Not only does it do less work, it can even give up some its ability to do the hard work of digesting raw food. Why bother, as long as you have a microwave handy? In this sense, you become a hybrid biological-cultural construct, as dependent on the cultural knowledge of cooking and pot-making as on your own self-constructing DNA. How long would you survive naked in the wilderness?

What’s true for cooking is true for many things. Knives outsource teeth. Clothes outsource skin. Glasses outsource vision. We make our tools and our tools make us. It’s an obvious statement and a profound one, particularly when you consider medicine.

Across the millennia, pathogens have sculpted our genome. Traits that have helped previous generations survive the ravages of malaria, plague, and tuberculosis get built into our genes. We have the tracks of thousands of pandemics etched into our genetic memory. But now, just as with our stomachs and our teeth, we are outsourcing, externalizing our immune system. This modern plague is reshaping not so much our genetics as our global cultural medical apparatus. Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca can do in one year what a deadly plague might have needed a hundred years and fifty million lives to impart to our genes. Our genes don’t need to improve so long as our medical care does. Put another way, our biological immune system is now free to get weaker, so long as biotechnology can carry its load. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see us, across several hundred years, fading into our sustaining machinery. With it, we are gods. Without it, we are shrieking infants.

But the coming world will also give us the ability to upgrade not only our machines, but also our genes. Here’s one simple example of what that might look like.

As noted, traits that are not needed for survival tend to fade. This is why you can’t smell as well as a dog. You share with dogs a lot of the same DNA for sensing specific odors, but in humans, much of this DNA has been damaged and rendered inert. If a few bulbs burn out in your smell-o-nator, who cares? You can still have healthy kids. Over time, humans have lost the cunning of the canine nose. But that doesn’t have to be true forever. We can not only build outsourced spectrometers and mechanical noses, we will also be able to retrofit our DNA. This will be a dangerous and subtle skill to learn, but be certain it will come. In the future, wealthy parents will be able to endow their offspring with, among other things, the smelling capabilities of dog. I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but I’m telling you, it’s coming.

Would you pay to give your children a superhuman sense of smell? Or the ability to see colors no human ever saw?

Strava Heatmaps on the Cheap

Strava has been wildly successful at getting people to surrender their privacy in the name of bragging about fitness. You log your activity on the Strava website, and from this you can make personalized maps. You can even share this information up into a global heatmap database, from which Strava can show you where EVERYBODY has been running and biking and snowshoeing and paragliding and dolphin-riding and so on.

It’s a lot of fun to play around with. Shown below, we’re zoomed in on Cambridge and Boston. It’s no surprise that busy streets are busy, but I like how you can see exactly where the gaps are under the Harvard Bridge. The Charles River looks like a highway. Which, for the purposes of sport (and fish), it is.

I was jealous of these personal activity maps, but not jealous enough to spend the money on Strava. That was when I remembered something important, something that I try to remind myself on a regular basis: whenever you imagine a potential app or web service, you cause somebody to retroactively make it for you. That is to say, your idea isn’t original, so someone has already done it for you. All you have to do is say “All-seeing Google, show me the thing that does X.”

As in the sentence: “Show me the site that will let me make my own Strava-like heatmaps for free.”

I know this is kind of obvious, but sometimes I forget to actually make a pointed request for something that is vaguely floating around in my mind. I’m kind of thinking about it (“gee, that Strava heatmap is cool…”), but I don’t articulate the specific question. This means that the app never gets retroactively created by internet elves on my behalf. You see how it works? The magic never happens.

Anyway, I was not disappointed. I was led very quickly t0 dérive by Erik Price. It’s free! It’s open source (MIT license)! It’s very good, and it works like a charm. Huzzah! How I love the new millennium. And thank you, Erik.

You just bring your own GPX files to the dérive website, and then drag them onto the browser. All the work happens in the browser, so you’re not actually sending any of the files back up to the site.

This pandemic has given me a lot of time to walk around my hometown, and my completionist tendencies coupled with a nice route-planning app (Footpath) have given me the motivation to explore.

How it started:

How it’s going:

You’d be amazed how many roads are close to you that you’ve never been on.

Washing Machines Large and Small

Here is a picture of two different factories that do the same thing: turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia.

The one on the left is a gigantic Haber process plant. It requires fantastic amounts of heat and pressure to do its work. Plants like this consume 3-5% of the entire world’s natural gas output. The one on the right is an enzyme: nitrogenase. It can do its work in the roots of the clover growing in your front yard, all with very little risk of an explosive industrial accident.

This vignette shows one of the biggest lessons that biology has to teach us: how to do useful chemistry with much less effort. Which has all kinds of benefits, as you can imagine.

People hear the terms “biotech” and “synthetic biology” and it’s no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry is what springs to mind. After all, we live in the shadow of The Virus. I don’t want to diminish the miracles being worked by the mRNA hackers at Moderna and Pfizer, but I do want to point how much synthetic biology is already doing for us in non-medical settings. This article about Frances Arnold provides a couple of real world examples.

Here’s a laundry-related story.

Up to 80% of your washing machine’s energy use comes from heating the water. But cold water wash is the way to go these days, thanks to engineered enzymes. Your laundry detergent contains eight or more enzymes, all designed to do the work that hot water used to. So do yourself and the planet a favor: set your wash cycle to “cold” and let engineered enzymes save energy and expense with every load.

I like this example because it highlights the same big machine/small machine dichotomy I described above. You can do a lot of work at high heat with a big machine (the washer), or you can do much less work in cold water with many small machines (enzymatic molecules). It seems like a cute example, but it’s real and it matters. There are many more stories like it.

So set that cycle to cold! One day we’ll look back and laugh at how profligate we were with our energy. Or maybe we’ll cry. Or maybe we won’t be here because we played with fire for too long.

Oooh, that got dark. Let’s go with laugh.

The Virtues of Incrementalism

I came across a cartoon the other day. Maybe you’ve seen it too. This is my re-drawn version of it, to give you the general idea. A guy pulls up to a burger place in a big gas-guzzling car. Smoke pours from the tailpipe. He’s about to take his order, but then he draws back: “No plastic bags for me. I care about the environment!”

Big Car Burger Guy is such a dope! He’s an easy target for ridicule. But ultimately I think making fun of him is unhelpful. I want Big Car Burger Guy to swear off plastic. Good for you, Big Car Burger Guy! If that’s all he can do today, then that’s okay with me. He’s moving in the right direction. I hope he’ll do more tomorrow, but I guarantee you that if I make fun of him today, it won’t lead to a better outcome tomorrow.

Let’s go back to the cartoon. It’s funny because if Big Car Burger Guy really cared about the environment, he would… what? Well, let’s see. He wouldn’t drive a car powered with fossil fuels. Actually, he wouldn’t drive a car at all. He’d be on a bike. No, he’d be walking. And he wouldn’t eat burgers. He would eat only locally-sourced vegan food. That he grew himself. Without fertilizers.

Where does it stop? How much change is enough? Who gets to decide who is virtuous and who is ridiculous?

I think of this as all-or-nothing reasoning vs. incrementalism. I know we’re just talking about a cartoon here, but it’s important, because snarky hot-take ridicule is a serious cultural problem. All-or-nothing reasoning says that you either make a great big change or you’re a fraud. But it leads to an unstable situation. We know what lameness is, but it’s hard to say where virtue begins. If I do X, will I still be shamed? All-or-nothing reasoning stops people in their tracks. And it drives away the very people you need to recruit.

Incrementalism, by contrast, is a recipe for action. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, you can always do something. Incrementalism tells you that every little bit helps. Because manifestly, it does! Make a small improvement today. And tomorrow make another one. And then another one the day after that. I’m often mystified as to why we discount incrementalism so ferociously, given that it’s essentially the only way things ever do change. It seems like a flaw in the human operating system.

This tweet is a good comment on what I’m describing.

All I’m asking is that you give incrementalism a little bit of a chance. See if you like it. Maybe you’ll come back for more tomorrow.

Source: ncse.ngo

What Do You Do About Unhappiversaries?

My wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on the day before Thanksgiving in 2018. It made for a somber meal the next day. In the two years since then, my stomach has tightened just before Thanksgiving. I call occasions like this unhappiversaries. Anniversaries of trauma. Maybe it’s the death of a parent. Or the motorcycle accident. Or the day the divorce became final.

We all have unhappiversaries. My question is: what do you do about them?

One answer might be to ignore them. If you can forget them entirely, my hat is off to you. But that’s generally not an option. The memory will push its way in, so the options become to either reject or acknowledge.

I once knew a woman who, along with a friend, was in a terrible motorcycle accident. She spent months in and out of hospitals, her face held in place with pins and plates of steel. We spoke after the anniversary of the crash. I asked her, had she wanted to revisit the site? There was no question. Yes. Something drew her back. She and her friend went to the spot where it happened, were there at the very moment that it happened. And they sat on the side of the road, and they just looked at it. After some time had passed, and without exchanging a word, they drove away. She couldn’t explain why it made sense to go there or why it helped. It hadn’t removed the pain, but it helped to see, to contemplate this spot in her personal geography, this mighty bend in the river of her life.

You might be tempted, instead, to spend the day thinking about anything else, crowding out the memory with noisy distractions. But I’m on the side of acknowledging the darkness. It won’t be ignored. I sometimes personify it with a question: Have I learned what you would teach me? Nothing teaches sympathy like suffering. But you have to listen.

Tragedy shapes us more than joy. Our scars are what distinguish us, after all. My father, a psychiatrist, once put it like this: we are the sum of our imperfections. If you are to be a compassionate friend to your own lonely self, then you must appreciate the landscape after the storm has passed. It tells the story of the storm. It tells the story of you.

How do you observe your unhappiversaries?