Tomato Puzzle

Did you know that supermarket tomatoes taste bland because their growers have been selecting for uniform color? Yeah, there is a link between the gene that promotes uniformity in color and the deterioration in taste apparent in these tomatoes, as found by the studies discussed in this LA Times article.

This fact would be so darn interesting, if not for the fact that it’s missing the point: supermarket tomatoes have lost their taste because their growers are not selecting for taste. And where is this much more important note? Nowhere in the article.

“The results could lead breeders to slightly change the way they select tomatoes for production”, says a certain Mr Giovannoni, plant biologist at Cornell University, who is apparently part of this discovery. He then goes on to add that “now that it’s known that this mutation has negative consequences, you may find that growers begin selecting for fruit that is uniformly darker green, rather than uniformly lighter green.”

Obviously “selecting for taste” and “tasting a sample of your tomatoes” are not concepts indigenous to these growers, scientists, or even the journalist. Imagine a car manufacturer changing the design of a car every year to make it more appealing until, one decade later, a scientist realizes that these changes have compromised the car’s safety. We then go on to put forth the inescapable conclusion “now that these car manufacturers have realized what is compromising the safety of their cars, they will redesign the car in different ways from now on”.

Who is piloting the vessel and what have they been smoking?

Fault of Our Society

What is all this ranting about the faults of society? I know full well that it’s easy to complain about society. Don’t all the losers complain about it, for having lost something, whether in reality or only in their mind? What a well deserved reprimand for me to have heard (yup, I’ve been admonished too). I’m a lucky chap, no doubt about that. So where does this apparent lament come from?

I look for truth. I want to understand what makes things tick. Science is a good place to find truth, but of course science ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Today, the penetration of science in our lives is like never before. Scientific ideas like Darwin’s theory of natural selection offer endless breeding ground for opinion, debate, interpretation, and other such activities of the mind for our fellow citizen, providing a good complement to the Cabernet and the small talk. But the citizen had better linger on the wine for a second to avoid rash conclusions through simplification of what are after all pretty complicated matters. Theories are not to be interpreted simplistically, abused, shoehorned into reality, like people all too easily do. Doesn’t every geek read, as if possessed by the spirit of clairvoyance, the workings of Evolution in every little crawling animal spotted on some stone wall? Doesn’t every little trait seen in it immediately summon Evolution with a requisite explanation of how the trait gave it an edge? Like one who has some fluency in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, might he not conclude, perhaps in concert with Darwin, that evolution proceeds to ever more complex forms of life and that man is therefore a necessary, no, inevitable conclusion in the tree of life?

May I suggest referring to Stephen Jay Gould on the theory of punctuated equilibria for an interpretation of evolution that debunks a majority of our interpretations of Darwin, Man’s place in nature included. The fortuity and precariousness of life’s positions on the echelons of our ecosystem would become all too apparent. Where Darwin saw imperfections in the fossil record, Gould saw the signs of a very different reality of species dynamics.

Or, widely embraced in economics, the belief that selfishness is as ubiquitous as life itself and the conclusion that it is a justifiable premise for the economic machinery put to work by our society. People live entire lives by this belief picked up from their environment, imposed by them by a society poised on defending itself through your ostracization, should you not play ball. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

I guess the message here is a warning against allegiance to one or another theory in the sciences for frivolous reasons like its beauty, its simplicity, or its prestige. Take it with a grain of salt, for Man has been wrong before and He is likely wrong still.

But this essay is about the faults of our society (not about your superficiality), and one can’t possibly hope to successfully debate society’s faults without agreeing on what constitutes good life. My current criterion is happiness “n. state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. But wait. Put your brain in a Matrix-like vat and feed it signals that trigger happiness. Or, remove all want from your brain to remove all reason for discontentment. (For example, get in a routine so you work 40 hours per week for the better part of your life.) You would be happy. But that’s not agreeable. I want happiness as a human being. I have nothing against bettering myself per se, but I have no intent to evolve into a non-human. I am content of being and joyous to be human (and therefore happy). So there you have it, happiness as a human is my business requirement, my raison d’être, my intrigue.

So what story does science tell about happiness? Per my as yet superficial immersion in anthropology, it would appear that even in the last 10,000 years man has not necessarily been improving his life. It is true that man has been improving his life since 10,000 years ago, when signs of famine are readable in geological record, but apparently not so compared to the time before that, when man lived as a forager. It would seem that in its small numbers and nimbleness, in prehistory, man was eating more healthy foods, was less prone to disease, was working less, enjoying life more – living better. I can’t claim to have enough of a basis to form a belief on the subject, but I am willing to believe it a possibility. I won’t just take for granted what I’m spoonfed by my society.

If this premise were true – and the exercise is worth doing – then the faults of society are, at its core, few but crass. First, the turning of its back on the ways of life of the genus Homo starting 2.4 million years ago and of Homo Sapiens starting 200,000 years ago. Second, its expansiveness to the point of engulfing the earth in its single-minded dogma. Third, its reduction of the individual to a mere part in its machinery – and what a huge machinery, and what a minuscule individual. Finally, its disrespect for any way of life that does not rhyme, brought about by selfish ignorance and the narcissistic belief that we are carriers of evolution’s destiny. To sum it up, our society is a self-infatuated little brat!

That is the fault of our society. I speak of it not thinking that I’m that bad off, or that I expect society to fix its faults within my lifetime. No, that cannot possibly happen for my generation, or for the next few generations. But maybe we can plant the seed of change in our children, tell them about the lost ways of man so that they can tell it to their children, and so forth, and maybe one day man will find a way to slow down this pointless gallop that has engulfed us and start living his life again. You can bet I won’t forget to mention it to my daughter when she’s ready to hear it.

Moral Impasse

Seeing Martin Lee Anderson’s death on video really struck a cord with me. Those involved are obviously guilty of gross negligence, and they passed their exam at the trial by what amounts to an apology and a pointed hand at the system. For if the law allowed these employees to force youths to physical exertion and use of ammonia, the apology goes, how could it be their fault. It took a jury 90 minutes to eat the apology and find them not guilty. By the same token, if the law allowed people to carry loaded and cocked guns casually about the place, I presume there would be no penury of accidents to blame on the system and of souls to exonerate.

We’ve got no moral impasse here, just rules mandated by a higher force (point your finger at the system for me) and that we all abide by; and why not, don’t we have to? Jolly good, then. Moving on.

Not so fast. You, my friend, are a member of a corrupt, expansive society that has mandated its own moral code on us all, a juggernaut moving inexorably in relentless growth, engulfing the planet and stampeding those who cannot keep pace with its Game. You are ignorant and comfortable in being so, for, as long as you can play the game and can look around and see that there are still less fortunate souls crawling this meek Earth, you get sort of a warm and fuzzy feeling in your heart and life looks nice. And you don’t owe any apologies to anyone either, you epitome of verticality! Your moral code saves you from it, tucks you away in your shroud of bred ignorance so that you can continue to function, a piece in the mechanism of a clock that has to pointlessly tick, tick, tick to its own measure. You’re not above that mandated code of morality, you poor fish in the ocean, cause nobody told you that you could evolve to live outside the sea and reach the land.

You make this society.

In those rare moments in which your mind tells you that something about this place is amiss, you must no doubt wonder what you could do to change things. Your fear of different ways of living notwithstanding, you are vexed by the impotence you experience in trying to answer this millennium question. Where would you even start changing things? And this conundrum serves to tame your thoughts and reassure you that this heretic preaching you’re reading must be just malformed thoughts sprung from a foul, lamenting mouth, and that everything is just fine.

I don’t know the best place to start changing things. Surprisingly, the act of noticing a problem does not always offer a solution. That said, I believe a society as polarized as ours cannot change its bad ways in less than generations. So you can start to defeat your nature-given shortsightedness and taught ignorance by teaching your children that this is not the Époque d’Or of man’s life on earth, but a society with many, many faults. Teach your children less competition and more harmony with nature. Not too much, lest they risk shunning the ways of society entirely and compromising their place in an organism they will need for lack of any other, and not too little, like now, lest we all risk another millennium of ignorance or a precipitous doom to our species. Plant in them a different meme than that which you’re tending to now.

When the Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake, its agents felt entitled to do so as instruments of God. And they acted within the confines of a moral code that seemed fullproof at the time. But history showed them and their moral code wrong and self-serving. Theirs was an act of murder. In this the apex of our life thus far, our agents continue to murder innocent people because our moral codes allow them to. After all, those dead misfits have got it coming to them for their inability to keep pace with the Game. No more. You are guilty of first degree ignorance and history will judge you in absentia, in part or in bulk, for this sacrilegious act. Do not let yourself be just another part in the mechanism of society. Stop caring about yourself and invest more interested thoughts in your children’s future. Put that in your mind for a todo, for if there’s a way anything can happen, well by God it must begin with people putting it in their mind.

And of course, a sincere apology for my vicarious participation in this society’s darker deeds goes to all the Martin Lee Andersons of this world.

On Occupy Wall Street

It looks like the Occupy movement is starting to fade. It’s no secret that I’ve passively supported them, not with donations or blog posts, but rather with polemics with my work colleagues.

What does it mean to support or sympathize with the Occupy movement? It’s not like those people have much of a cohesive message; so, what am I supporting after all? Is it their hippie like rebellion? Or perhaps their anarchistic rhetoric?

I liked the things I learned about the hippies. I liked Hair, the movie. I liked the hippies. They knew a thing or two about life, not like our peers, who are more like robots working inside cubes, getting their soul food from their TV and their friends online.

I like anarchistic rhetoric too. Rebellion against systems which ultimately restrain the individual is not only ingrained in our nature, but also a good reminder that you’ve not become complacent. And to become complacent is as much a crime as to be ignorant, if not more.

No, it’s not the hippie message, nor is it the rhetoric. It’s something else, something that I deeply believe in, driving me to support these poor confused individuals.

Lemme tell you a story. It took Nature some 2.5 million years, since the appearance of the genus Homo, to evolve man. For the longest time, man lived in harmony with Nature, hunting and gathering. Then, some 5000 years ago, man learned that he could exploit Nature to grow and engulf the Earth. Man discovered agriculture. Agriculture per se is not that dangerous to that way of life. But at just the right moment, the power of agriculture was catalyzed by a dangerous culture of self-centered expansionism. This culture quickly dismissed the history of man prior, calling it pre-history, and proclaimed the history of our culture to be the history of man instead.

Our culture ravaged the Earth. We were so infatuated with ourselves that we regarded man as the pinnacle of evolution, asserting that the Earth was meant for us to rule and that, no matter what or how much we consumed, Earth, like the Eden that it was, would replenish its supplies and forever give. No evolution tree charts will show you the simple saddening truth that we’re here due to many strokes of luck and not inevitable perfection, or that bacteria are in fact the most successful beings on Earth, having been here since inception. Ah, those pesky bacteria, and our never ending fight against them.

With our culture, we were able to outgrow our naturally set limits, and, as we grew in numbers to the point where Nature could no longer sustain us, we built us cities to live in. A majority of humans today live in cities, these huge concrete concoctions where we’ve all but banned nature. Your plant in the house or random tree is the only vestige that remains of nature. I didn’t count the rats.

Now I haven’t even started with the evils of our modern culture, systems which act as black holes for money and limit your happiness in subtle yet profound ways. Things in nature don’t always self-regulate. Starting from the physical realm of the black holes, and into the abstract abyss of mathematics, we can find examples of tendencies that can ultimately corrupt systems and set the stage for their demise. Our economy is no exception in that it has unchecked tendencies damaging to our well being. As an example, unchecked lending with interest together with the power of having money create a vicious cycle in which my mortgage interest goes to pay some rich person elsewhere, and, in being paid, that rich person amasses more and more power. In the meantime, I spend my life and health working my ass off. No matter how I try to sum it up, I can only interpret this to mean that my work pays someone else. Of course, that I need a place to live kind of goes without saying, since I can’t move in a wooden area and start hunting without obtaining permits and in general paying my dues to the enforcers of our culture. This is an economic black hole of the most sadistic kind. But unlike true black holes, conducive to awe and nothing else, or mathematical black holes, mere curiosities, we can actually control and limit the impact of black holes in our man-made systems. We don’t have to live with this.

You see, that’s why I sympathize with this ill-formed, weak rebellion, which I know already is doomed to failure.

But where does this story lead? This is about more than Occupy.

Our life today is a joke. Nature has given us beautiful gifts and we’re squandering them. You want to live more than your ancestors – and you do. But tell me, are you really better off living 100 years, with a third of your life spent away from your family, with your children raised by nannies, your food prepared by strangers, the natural tendencies of your body repressed by a system of your peers? Or, were your ancestors better off, living 50 years in their close circle of friends, call it tribe, and family. I have put this on the table before, during one of my past debates, and was told that it’s the same shit at the end of the day. But it’s not. Because we’re not shaped by Nature to live in cubicles, sit down for eight hours per day, walk on concrete, live in pairs, repress our feelings. We were shaped to live off the earth, hunter gatherers, listening to the voice of nature. And that means that you are more stressed and unhappy than the aboriginal who goes hunting every few days, climbs trees and lives in the embrace of Nature.

The road to redemption is long and strenuous. I don’t expect you or I to turn into hunter gatherers, or anything close. But I would like for you and I to take a small hit now, rearrange this system, so that our children can live a little closer to nature. And no rhetoric that doesn’t blame the current culture for its egregious faults will get us anywhere close to that goal.

That’s why I’m for rebellion, however faint or misguided. That’s why I sympathize with Occupy Wall Street.

Got something you want to say? Forget the comments – e-mail me at the address in the header. I’m really good at flame wars.

Prolog random permutation

Permuting a given list comes up as a subroutine of the REVERSE game. I’ve seen a pretty crazy implementation of shuffle which involves extracting a random element from the source list and putting it in the result. Pretty heavy on the Prolog engine. I think I got a slightly better one: iterate the given list, appending or prepending each element to the initially empty result, with a probability of 50%. Same shit.

permute([H|T], [H|R]) :-
random(X), X < 0.5, !,
permute(T, R).
permute([H|T], R) :-
permute(T, Q),
append(Q, [H], R).
permute([], []).

If append isn’t fast enough, you can always go crazy with difference lists.

The second cut is meant to avoid an extra unneeded unification attempt with the third predicate. Things work just as well without it.

GNU Prolog doesn’t seem to have a very good random number generator, so I gave it some slack:

permute_on_steroids(L, R) :-
permute(L, P),
permute(P, Q),
permute(Q, R).