Weeks after Elon Musk took possession of Twitter and proceeded to tweet fast and break things, this Scientific American article by Joe Bak-Coleman offers a general theory of why it’s going so badly: social networks are complex systems rather than complicated ones.
On a social network, interactions between individuals create dizzying feedback loops and chaotic interactions that render simple mathematical models next-to-useless for predicting the future, let alone controlling it. Musk’s gamble is that applying his tinkering philosophy to Twitter will take him where no one has gone before: ownership of a large, healthy and profitable social network. The problem is that, unlike the moon or Mars, we have no idea how to get there—and that’s a challenge that engineering fixes cannot solve.
I saw this linked from Mastodon, where I (and now a pretty large fraction of my former Twitter network) have taken refuge. People there are generally passing it around in the spirit of schadenfreude that imbues most discussion of Twitter in the “Fediverse” distributed social network. However, I don’t see much awareness that what Bak-Coleman identifies as a problem for Musk running Twitter is also a problem for a network of mostly volunteer admins running Fediverse-connected Mastodon instances: we don’t actually know how design and moderation decisions will ultimately add up to create the decentralized social network we’re all using now.
The science fiction novel Ender’s Game is best remembered for its primary plot, about a genius child who leads Earth’s forces to genocidal victory against aliens; but it also has a secondary plot line that seems, in retrospect, terrifyingly prescient. While the protagonist Ender is learning to become the greatest space-general in history, his near-equally-gifted pre-teen brother and sister, left behind on Earth, take up politics. Peter and Valentine set up pseudonyms on a global online message board and spar theatrically, building competing followings and eventually real-world political influence. By the novel’s end Peter has leveraged his online clout into the leadership of a worldwide government.
I read Ender’s Game in the mid-1990s, when it was truly science fictional to imagine the whole world connected in a single messaging system, much less using devices portable enough to carry in a backpack. By 2004, my final year of undergrad, I acquired a bulky Dell laptop which was, most excitingly, capable of using the wifi network that had just been installed in my campus apartment complex — and I’d already gone from a hand-coded HTML personal website to a series of blogs hosted on the most obvious choice, Blogger.com. Multiple of those blogs were social affairs, shared with friends, but their connection to people elsewhere on the Internet was entirely mediated by individual “<a href=” hyperlinks. Midway through graduate school, I accepted responsibility for building a website for a conference to be hosted by my home department, and decided to try embedding a new messaging platform I’d heard about: Twitter.
Shaun O’Boyle and Alfredo Carpineti have spent the last two years interviewing LGBTQ+ folks working in the sciences, and the result is now available today on the website of Pride in STEM: an e-book compilation of 40 edited interviews, The Queer Variable. I’m very glad to have been included, as just one voice in an impressively international (if necessarily Anglophone) chorus. The book is something of an oral history, not of a single event or project, but of the career trajectories of the interviewees and how their queer identities have intersected and shaped their work — a topic addressed in a more systematic (dry) manner in the second Queer in STEM paper [PDF]:
Three key processes emerged from our analysis of participant experiences and provide an explanatory framework for how queer STEM workplace identities are shaped by a combination of internal and external influences (see Figure 1). Defining explains how these individuals come to understand and name themselves as queer in terms of gender and/or sexuality; Forming refers to their construction of specific STEM identities; and Navigating describes how the interplay of professional and personal influences impacts expression of identity in places of work and study.
The Queer Variable effectively samples the wide range of ways LGBTQ folks have defined their queer identities, formed their place in a STEM field, and navigated the challenges of a career that incorporates both. Go download the free e-book and have a look.
My review of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, a not-unsympathetic exploration of timber poaching on the margins of Redwood National and State Parks, is online (and in print) in this week’s Science.
It’s a good book, following a small group of “outlaws” in the depressed logging community of Orick and the park rangers trying to prevent and prosecute their thefts of valuable old-growth coast redwood from park property. The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, blends that true-crime narrative with bigger-picture perspective on the history of forest management and the global trade in illegally harvested timber. Maybe not surprisingly, it ends up being more a critique of global capitalism than an indictment of the tree thieves, and my review follows it all the way to Full Space Communist:
The book’s unavoidable conclusion is that the problem manifest in timber poaching is not the destruction of a particular tree or the failure of a conservation plan but rather a social and economic system that roots personal identity in wage-earning work (or lack thereof) and that describes a tree by its value as board feet in a lumberyard. Tree Thieves thus suggests that the theft of a tree may be a category error … so pervasive that we don’t know we’re standing in its shade.
The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.
We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.
I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.
Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating. (Flickr: Lisa Brown)
Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.
The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.
Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.
It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek:First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)
But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.