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Note to Newbie Jack

We’re here in London now, Jack; will introduce ourselves as soon as hospital rules allow. Strange as it’ll seem to you, your mother was once a baby, too. Here’s what I wrote about her when she was a newbie.

A few weeks ago my daughter Katy was born. She started out terribly; grey, streaked with blood, and with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Central Vermont Hospital took care of all that very well and now she is less the worse for wear than I am.

But she is helpless, incredibly helpless. It’s been a few years since I’ve had an infant to watch and I’d forgotten. She can’t hold her huge head up; she can’t use her hands; and her eyes discover the world piece by piece at random.

No other mammal has babies nearly as helpless as ours. Even blind puppies walk to their first nursing.  And the reflexive curling of Katy’s toes reminds me that, if she were a monkey, she’d already be able to hold onto a branch.

One theory is that the head is the problem. For better or for worse, humans have brains proportional1y far bigger than those of other species. The head built to contain this giant brain has run into an evolutionary trap. It’s almost too big to be born.

That is why humans have more trouble with childbirth than other species. And so, the theory goes, in order to be born at all, humans must be born prematurely. In other words, human babies are so helpless because they are still in an advanced state of fetal development. If they waited until they were as developed as other mammal babies, their heads would be too large for delivery.

I think there is another reason in the grand scheme of things why our babies are born with so much to learn.

The babies of other species come preprogrammed. They already have most basic motor skills. In general, the lower down the evolutionary ladder a species is, the more adult skills its babies have built in.

Our babies know how to nurse. Everything else they have to learn. It seems very inefficient that we have to learn to lift our heads, then learn to roll over, then creep, then walk. But I think this inefficiency serves a purpose.

While my daughter Katy is learning the simple task of making her hand touch what her eye sees, she will also be learning how to learn. As she tries and fails and tries again, her mind will learn how to retain experience. As her left hand learns what her right hand knows, her mind will learn to reason and extrapolate.

As Katy takes a year to learn the motor skills a monkey is born with, she will be preparing herself for the great task of mastering a spoken language. As she struggles pitifully to make a rattle work right, she will he learning to learn to read and write.

Above all, we are nature’s best learners. We have very dull eyes, puny teeth, a weak sense of smell, and we don’t hear very well. Our physical prowess is probably the laughingstock of the animal kingdom. But we can learn. We learn how to learn while we learn how to walk.

Welcome, Katy, to a genuine learning experience. And good luck.

And welcome, Jack, from Grandpa Bear and Grandma Mimi.

Atkins and Ethanol

All us Atkins guys understand why it’s easy to make fuel out of corn kernels and sugar and hard to make it out of the rest of the corn stalk, sawgrass, sawdust, and other fibers.  When we drive our spouses crazy by reading the label of every can and box to check for poisonous carbs, we’re allowed to disregard all carb grams for fiber. We can’t digest the carbs out of the fiber so they do us no harm; trouble is that current ethanol plants can’t digest them either.

Moonshiners know how to make alcohol from anything with sugar or starch in it; today’s ethanol plants are just stills on a large scale. Because so much energy has to go into growing an acre of corn, transporting it, and then distilling it, the net gain in either energy independence or reduction of co2 emissions from substituting ethanol for gasoline is small; some people even dispute whether there is any gain at all although evidence seems to be that there is.  There is also a cost in higher food prices as kernels that might have become high fructose corn starch become motor fuel instead.

The problem is one that an article in Science Magazine calls by the wonderful name of “biological intransigence”. Seems that plants have stubbornly evolved in a way that makes their key parts indigestible by most other species and most enzymes. The plants are willing to give up the fruit around the seed to get the seed dispersed. They have to pack some starch somewhere both for seeds and for themselves. But they don’t want their fiber to be a tempting snack so they’ve locked it in tight chemical bonds.  Currently it costs us more energy to break these bonds than we get back out – sort of like pistachios with a completely closed shell.

Some animals have evolved to digest fiber.  Cows are a good example although it takes them four stomachs in a row to make the process work. Every dairy or beef farmer knows that cows are marvelous machines for converting grass into methane – trouble is most of that methane ends up in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas much more potent than co2. There are beginning to be manure powered electrical plants, however.

I’m optimistic that the chemical crackers for fiber’ll be found. This is just an engineering problem and engineering problems get solved. At that point most of the agricultural waste stream becomes a source of transport fuel – less net carbon emissions and less need to import Mideast oil. All goodness.  Note that using the inedible byproducts of farming for energy production helps decrease pressure on food prices and involves little incremental expenditure of energy since the food crops are being planted, fertilized, and harvested anyway.

In the short-term until biological intransigence is overcome, I have a suggestion from an Atkins POV: make all the high fructose corn syrup into ethanol instead of adding it every conceivable product and rendering those products inedible for us carb-shunners.

Related posts:

Ethanol: Boon or Boondoggle

Corn’s Day in the Sun

Tax Gasoline Imports, Not Ethanol

Web 2.0 is Stuck at a Local Optimum

Sketch of a fitness landscape. The arrows indicate the preferred flow of a population on the landscape, and the points A, B, and C are local optima. The red ball indicates a population that moves from a very low fitness value to the top of a peak. Illustration by C.O. Wilke, 2001.

Sketch of a fitness landscape. The arrows indicate the preferred flow of a population on the landscape, and the points A, B, and C are local optima. The red ball indicates a population that moves from a very low fitness value to the top of a peak. Illustration by C.O. Wilke, 2001.

Tim O’Reilly blogs: “What really needs to be done is not just to connect the various social networks that do exist in internet network-of-networks style, but also to social-network enable our real social network apps: our IM, our email, our phone. Where, I keep asking vendors, is the Web 2.0 address book?... When one of the big communications vendors (email, IM OR phone) gets this right, simply by instrumenting our communications so that the social network becomes visible (and under the control of the user), it seems to me that they could blow away a lot of the existing social network froth.”

When his happens, we’ll have gotten past the local optimum which Web 2.0 is stuck on (which ironically, is that Web 2.0 is optimized for GLOBAL rather than local groups). Implicitly Tim is saying this because he is looking for the vendors of INTERNET apps – email, IM, Phone – rather than vendors of Web apps to be the source of the needed innovation.

[If you already know all about fitness landscapes and local optima as these terms are used in evolution, skip the next paragraph.]

Visualize a landscape pimpled by peaks of various sizes. Visualize a population in which random mutations occur and are heritable or copyable. In this case the population is a bunch of web entrepreneurs so we’re not getting into any creationism debates (today). Height represents the number of unique daily visitors to a web site. Mutations which lead up are rewarded by more capital; mutations which lead down are punished by loss of access to capital just when it’s needed.  Standing on a peak can get you acquired.  The problem comes once a population is on a peak. It is very difficult to get to a higher peak across a fitness landscape because you have to go down to go up. And mutations which take you down are punished.

For very good reasons Web 2.0 services optimized themselves for the global communities which the Internet enabled; this was a good peak to climb and totally unoccupied because, before the Internet, it was impossible to knit global communities together without regard to distance.  Web 2.0 services also optimized for low initial costs of entry and viral marketing; as I’ve posted before, that’s a great strategy for the first social networking service and maybe even the tenth; it doesn’t work for the hundredth because everybody else is doing it.

The great environmental change affecting web businesses today (evolution is a mechanism for coping with change) is that we’ve passed a tipping point for use of the web by local organizations – organizations which already exist. Since it is now more likely than not that the majority of members of most local groups in the US have some sort of broadband access, these groups are ready to go beyond IM and email and even cheap phone calls in their use of the Web.

Web 2.0 entrepreneurs know this. In an excellent taxonomy of social networks, Liz Gannes blogs on GigaOM: “Everyone and their mother wants to build white-label social network to serve an existing interest or community these days, but most of the stuff I’ve tried using is pretty crappy.”

Why is what they build so crappy? Because they’re trying to use the stuff they so successfully developed to serve global groups to meet the needs of local groups. Trouble is local groups have different needs.

Local groups (unlike the global groups formed by the social networks) already exist. This is not about forming groups; it’s about serving them. Some may not even want new members.  Few of them will see the Web as their primary means for getting new members.

Access control may be much more important to local groups than global groups.

Most local groups are not populated by us nerds. They want easy more than cool.

Local groups may not care much about free. Those that have web sites are paying too much for design and hosting and getting too little usability in return.  They could pay something substantial (compared to what Web 2.0 services charge) and still come out way ahead.

From a marketing POV, the decision to use a web provider to meet the needs of the existing group in NOT an individual decision like using del.icio.us or digg; it’s a decision made by whomever or whatever committee is already in charge of communication for the group.

Please feel free to use comments to add to the list of differences.

The great Web application(s) for existing groups will come. My guess is that few if any these applications of them will come from those who have been successful with Web 2.0; they’re trapped on local optima by their prior success when the market was a different place.

The Local Web won’t be Web 2.0+ or Web 3.0; it won’t be the semantic web; it’ll be its own unique self, a branch from lower on the evolutionary tree. And it’ll be huge.

Related posts: (note that it took me awhile to realize that the Local Web is NOT Web x.0)

For Web 2.0 Success - Think Local, Act Local

Web 2.0 – The Global Opportunities in Local

Local – The First Life Opportunity

The Newbies are Coming

Evolution’s Not Religion and Vice Versa

You can’t disprove Intelligent Design.  Don’t feel bad about that; no one else can either.  That’s why the “Theory of Intelligent Design” is not science.  Doesn’t mean it’s not “true”, just means it isn’t science.  You also can’t prove that the whole universe wasn’t created the minute you started to read this sentence completely populated with your memories and evidence of a much longer history.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, on the other hand, can be disproved.  That’s because it IS a scientific theory.  All we need is evidence of a complex species arising spontaneously or even from significantly different antecedents and our current version of the theory is history.  Such evidence hasn’t shown up so the theory, in broad terms, still stands.  Doesn’t mean it’s true, just means it is a scientific theory and that it has yet to be disproved.

The problem with the current debate is that Intelligent Design advocates claim that Intelligent Design is science AND that scientists and others are acting as if Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a religion. The latter is as much a mistake and as much a hindrance to good education as the former.

Science teaching in most American primary and secondary schools is already pretty terrible. To generalize grossly, most high schools science consists of a few facts, some half-baked environmental theories, and as little math and logic as possible.  The consequence are possibly tragic since the young citizens who aren’t being educated in the scientific method or logical thinking are going to be required to make democratic decisions on things like nuclear power, cloning, and genetic engineering.

Larding the science curriculum with non-scientific explanations won’t help.  On the other hand, teaching young people that any theory is beyond questioning is at least as harmful. It’s the way of most theories to eventually be replaced by something more comprehensive.  Good quote from wikipedia:

Thus, Aristotelian mechanics explained observations of objects in everyday situations, but was falsified by Galileo’s experiments, and was itself replaced by Newtonian mechanics which accounted for the phenomena noted by Galileo (and others). Newtonian mechanics' reach included the observed motion of the planets and the mechanics of gases. Or at least most of them; the size of the precession of the orbit of Mercury wasn't predicted by Newtonian mechanics, but was by Einstein's general relativity.”

The Theory of Evolution has itself evolved since Darwin’s original great insights.  He thought that species evolved at a constant rate.  The relative absence of transitional species in the fossil record and other observations make Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium seem a better explanation. We now theorize that mitochondria and other organelles evolved separately from the cells which host them.  We know what Darwin didn’t: mitochondria are inherited only from our mothers.

Progress towards better understanding of evolution is inhibited it if we attack everyone who questions the current version of the theory or pretend that a theory is a fact.  Children don’t learn to think better by being exposed to ad hominem attacks on those who question the current orthodoxy.

It IS legitimate to question the probability of life arising spontaneously; the math’s not intuitive as Chris Anderson mentions in a post on hard-to-swallow numbers here.  It IS legitimate to question anything presented in science; that’s an important lesson.  And it’s legitimate to object to adding unfalsifiable  beliefs – including the versions of Intelligent Design I’ve seen – to a science curriculum.  It’s not legitimate and it’s not helpful to claim that a theory is a fact in order to protect it from politically incorrect attacks.

The great lesson of science is that ideas have to stand and fall on their own – theories evolve as surely as species do.

Entrepreneurs Are Predators

Predators are smarter than prey.  Hare-brained is an insult; sharp as a fox is a compliment.

I have an evolutionary theory to explain this (full disclosure: except for reading voraciously on the subject, I am totally unqualified to have evolutionary theories).  A leopard chasing an impala can make a mistake, lose the quarry, learn from the mistake, and hunt more wisely on another day.  If the impala makes a mistake, it becomes the leopard’s lunch.  Predators fail often; prey fail only once.

So it would be a waste of energy for prey to have a large analytical brain or to divert any resources into learning while running away.  Better just to have long legs, good ears, and a healthy paranoia.  Thinking could be fatal.  It also doesn’t take a lot of smarts to eat grass.

Predators learn terrain; they can learn the habits of prey they’ve never seen before.  They learn where to wait patiently and when to pounce.  The play of kittens and cubs is as important to the development of their brains as it is to their muscles and their reflexes.  And the play is full of stumbles and pratfalls – learning experiences, in other words.

I’ll bet tyrannosaurus rex was a genius compared to brontosaurus.

If you’re starting a new company, especially a new company that’s going to do something new, you have no idea what you’re getting into.  OK, you’re prepared for the long hours, the lack of a steady salary, the need to raise capital; but are you ready for all the mistakes you’re going to make?

There is no way to tell in advance what’ll  happen when a new product or service is introduced.  Disruptive products are all the rage – and they’re the most fun – but the buffeting of disruption is felt most acutely by the disrupter.  You will only succeed as an entrepreneur if you can learn from your mistakes!  You’ll have plenty of learning opportunities.

Before you can learn from mistakes, you have to be able to admit that you made them.  The culture of large organizations encourages “executing flawlessly” which really means either not taking risks and/or covering up mistakes when they’re made.  The culture of the successful entrepreneurial organization is to realize that most decisions will be wrong at least in part, to look for mistakes, to admit them readily, to learn from them, and move on to the next mistake.

The ultimate sin in the entrepreneurial organization is not making a mistake, it’s hiding a mistake.  Saying “I was wrong” is the first step towards getting something right.  The greatest weakness of the imperial CEO is that no one will tell him that he is wrong.  A CEO has to insist on hard work, fast decisions, risk taking, and mistake recognition – especially recognition of the CEO’s own mistakes.  A CEO who rewards those who tell her when she’s wrong can quickly correct her mistakes.

A corollary of the thesis that you WILL make mistakes is that you need sufficient funding to allow for mistakes both in direction and timing.  Once you can’t afford mistakes, you become prey.  Fred Wilson touches on that here in a post about the bleeding edge from a VC’s point of view.

If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will be someone else’s lunch.

I blogged about AT&T’s “execute flawlessly” mantra here.

Fractals of Evolution

For a story of change, nothing beats evolution.  Richard Dawkins tells his versions of the story very well in The Ancestor’s Tale.  The form of the book is very loosely based on Canterbury Tales; it is an imagined pilgrimage backwards in evolutionary time.  On this journey, we meet various concestors (common ancestors) whose “tales” are taking off points for updates on evolutionary theory  and Dawkins’ speculations.  The book is a engrossing intellectual smorgasbord with just a few inedible plates.

We humans evolved discontinuous thinking; we like clear dichotomies: left or right, wrong or right, male or female, alive or dead, human or non-human etc. etc.   This is a useful adaptation in a world where we have to make binary decisions like fight or flight, invest or divest, and startup or don’t.  But, as Dawkins demonstrates over and over in this book,  discontinuous thinking is scientifically inappropriate.

Let’s talk about the concept of species.  We all know that the boundaries around species are defined by the inability to interbreed across those boundaries.  Not so fast; a simple thought experiment that Dawkins performs reveals that this definition contains a paradox:  “By the interbreeding criterion every individual is a member of the same species as its parents… In the Devonian Period our direct ancestors were fish.  Yet, although we couldn’t interbreed with them, we are linked by an unbroken chain of ancestral generations, every one of which could have interbred with their immediate predecessors and immediate successors in the chain.”

He is not saying that there aren’t different species, just that they exist as segments in a continuum with no clear demarcations at the boundaries.  A contemporary challenge to discontinuous thinking about speciation is the existence of ring species.  In Camp Wolahi at the south end of California’s Central Valley there are two distinct species of salamander which do not interbreed.  Salamanders don’t live on the valley floor.  One species dominates the east rim of the valley and the other the west and they meet but don’t mingle here in the south.  At the north end, however, there is only one species of salamander whose physical traits are a mix of the two species at the other end of the valley. In fact, as you go north along either rim of the valley, each of the species which is so distinct at the south end begins to look more like the other until, at the north end, there is just one homogenous population.

Similar continuities arise when we try to distinguish between multicell individuals and colonies.  Coral and jellyfish make interesting examples at the non-discontinuous boundary line.  Ant and termite hives can be tough to categorize.  Even our own bodies pose some paradox despite our strong belief that we are individuals.  What about the mitochondria which apparently sneaked into our cells from outside at some point in the evolutionary process and follow their own chain of descent from mother’s egg to mother’s egg and have their own DNA?  Are they us or are they hitchhikers?

This is mental calisthenics at its best.  There is no answer to these paradoxes.  Dawkins’ genius, once he limbers our minds, is to point out that the paradoxes arise from discontinuous thinking and can’t be resolved in that context.  In a world which is supposed to be only black and white, there is no explanation for gray. I won’t draw the obvious parallel to many of our political arguments, at least in this post.

Because I am a change addict, I was delighted to read Dawkins speculation that evolvability itself may be undergoing evolution.   It is reasonable to think that there is survival value to being able to change in either a stable or a changing environment.  In fact, evolving species create a changing environment for each other even if the air, water, and earth weren’t changing.  The ability to change also increases the ability to colonize new environments.  Some of the watershed events in the evolution of evolution could be the formation of DNA molecules (earliest life may have been RNA-based), the development of the cell membrane, multicellular organisms, and the segmented (modular, to nerds like me) body plan.  Stretching a little further, selective breeding by humans is another step in the acceleration of evolution.  Now we have genetic engineering which is a consequence of a mind which evolved to be able to invent forced-pace evolution.

The indigestible parts of this smorgasbord are mainly a result of political correctness.  There are a few, apparently mandatory, cracks at President Bush.  I don’t care about Dawkins’ political views and they seem intrusive and small in such a large canvas as the history of evolution.  More serious is his vitriolic feuding with and gratuitous insults to creationists.  It is unscientific to treat Darwin’s theory of evolution as if it were a religion and all who question it as heretics. The evidence is overwhelming (to me) that Darwin was correct at the fifty-thousand foot level.  So was Newton.  So was Einstein.  Theories evolve, too; and they evolve when they are questioned, not when they are unconditionally accepted.  I think progress in understanding evolution may be retarded by a politically correct suppression of questions.  Stephen J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, for example, is not given the respect I think it deserves because Gould posited it as an answer to creationists’ questions about gaps in the fossil record.  In respect to the feud between creationists and Darwinist, Dawkins is guilty of discontinuous thinking.

In previous posts, I blogged my own unqualified theories about why humans are born helpless and the fate of complex ecosystems.

Antique Blogs – Learning to Learn

Smallkate I wrote this in 1979 just after our daughter Katrina was born. As you can see, she’s now grown up and may not forgive me for posting this.

A few weeks ago my daughter Katy was born. She started out terribly; grey, streaked with blood, and with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Central Vermont Hospital took care of all that very well and now she is less the worse for wear than I am.

But she is helpless, incredibly helpless. It’s been a few years since I’ve had an infant to watch and I’d forgotten. She can’t hold her huge head up; she can’t use her hands; and her eyes discover the world piece by piece at random.

No other mammal has babies nearly as helpless as ours. Even blind puppies walk to their first nursing.  And the reflexive curling of Katy’s toes reminds me that, if she were a monkey, she’d already he able to hold onto a branch.

One theory is that the head is the problem. For better or for worse, humans have brains proportional1y far bigger than those of other species. The head built to contain this giant brain has run into an evolutionary trap. It’s almost too big to be born.

That is why humans have more trouble with childbirth than other species. And so, the theory goes, in order to be born at all, humans must be born prematurely. In other words, human babies are so helpless because they are still in an advanced state of fetal development. If they waited until they were as developed as other mammal babies, their heads would he too large for delivery.

I think there is another reason in the grand scheme of things why our babies are born with so much to learn.

The babies of other species come preprogrammed. They already have most basic motor skills. In general, the lower down the evolutionary ladder a species is, the more adult skills its babies have built in.

Our babies know how to nurse. Everything else they have to learn. It seems very inefficient that we have to learn to lift our heads, then learn to roll over, then creep, then walk. But I think this inefficiency serves a purpose.

While my daughter Katy is learning the simple task of making her hand touch what her eye sees, she will also he learning how to learn. As she tries and fails and tries again, her mind will learn how to retain experience. As her left hand learns what her right hand knows, her mind will learn to reason and extrapolate.

As Katy takes a year to learn the motor skills a monkey is born with, she will be preparing herself for the great task of mastering a spoken language. As she struggles pitifully to make a rattle work right, she will he learning to learn to read and write.

Above all, we are nature’s best learners. We have very dull eyes, puny teeth, a weak sense of smell, and we don’t hear very well. Our physical prowess is probably the laughingstock of the animal kingdom. But we can learn. We learn how to learn while we learn how to walk.

Welcome, Katy, to a genuine learning experience. And good luck.

Complex Ecosystems and the End of the Dinosaurs

I have a theory about why the dinosaurs disappeared:  basically, it’s because they were too successful for too long.  I know a big comet or an asteroid or something hit near the Yucatan and led to drastic climate change for a while, and that was probably the proximate cause of the extinctions which opened up a bunch of pretty big niches for mammals and eventually us.  But the root cause was success.

In fact, the history of life on earth is punctuated by mass extinctions at more or less even intervals of 65 million years or so.  Each of these almost certainly has a proximate cause.  My theory seeks to explain the periodicity.  The intervals look too regular to be explained by galactic catastrophes which one would expect to be unevenly spaced or even to cluster.  By the way, there is nothing in either my education or experience that qualifies me to have a theory about extinctions – I just like to think about evolution.  Later in this post, I’ll even draw a business conclusion from my unqualified speculation.

Let’s suppose we’re at the time just after a mass extinction which followed some catastrophe.  By definition, there aren’t a lot of species around compared to the good old days.  Each of the few remaining species was lucky: it had some accidental attributes which lent themselves to survival when the stuff hit the fan.  Maybe the species was in the second year of a seventeen-year hibernation;  maybe it lives around vents in the sea floor; maybe it is a cockroach.

These surviving species probably were marginal players in the epoch which just ended.  If they had been at the top of the food chain; they would have disappeared because the food chain has been disrupted.  If they were an important part of a complex ecosystem, they’d be toast because complexity doesn’t survive comets.  So they were probably pretty much loners living in some isolated niche with few dependencies on other species.  They weren’t dependent on warmth and sunshine and all the things that the species in good neighborhoods depend on because all of that is gone.  If they lived in a tough neighborhood with a simple ecosystem like a sea vent or under an ice cap, they may not have even noticed how lousy the weather got.

But now all the niches are open and the climate starts to get better.  The survivors are free to fill every niche and move into the good neighborhoods.  Next thing you know, they are not only reproducing prodigiously, they are also evolving.  And, because there are so many open niches and, initially, so few species, a relatively large number of these mutations result in new species better adapted for a particular niche than their ancestors.  We move over ten million years or so from a relative paucity of species to an abundance of them. (That’s a fact.  I read it in a book.)

So the total amount of specialization is increasing – generalists are out!  Now surrounding species rather than surrounding terrain or raw minerals or sunshine become the environment which species must adapt to.  The earth is getting pretty full again so there are lots of plants to eat if that’s your thing and there are lots of other species that want to eat you.  In localities, despite chaotic swings through cycles of feat and famine, rough balances of populations develop which, as entire ecosystems, are well-adapted to exploiting the local resources.  Almost no species is an island.  A complex interdependency evolves because it is efficient during periods of relative stability.  Now we have a lot of species which are specialists in ecosystem living. They are highly interdependent.

But, the more complex the ecosystem, the more dependent it is on relative stability.  The amount of disruption required to upset the apple cart gets to be smaller and smaller.  Since large or small potential disruptions from voracious viruses to sun spots to galactic clouds to chaotic changes in sea currents and even comets are always happening,  once the ecosystem gets complex enough, it is only a matter of time before it will be disrupted. Bang! There’s another mass extinction of what are now overly specialized and overly-interdependent species.

And the cycle starts again.  Evolution doesn’t read history books and whatever works today works so the few surviving species that used to be loners start the 65 million year evolution towards a vulnerably complex and fragile ecosystem.

It has become fashionable to talk about business in terms of ecosystems.  Frankly, the parallels are frightening.  In periods of relative stability, complex business ecosystems evolve.  They evolve because they are efficient for the time.  They evolve because they work.  Some of these ecosystem used to be almost self-contained (except for some customers somewhere) in giant vertically integrated companies.  But the ecosystems can and usually are made up of lots of companies.

Now along comes a disruptive something – often a technology.  The more complex and perfectly adapted the ecosystem was to the former environment, the more difficult it will be for it to adapt to the new environment.  It isn’t just individual businesses that were threatened by steam power, by the railroads, by the automobile, the semiconductor, software, the Internet, whatever – it’s entire business ecosystems!

It happened to the hand-loom ecosystem, to the horse ecosystem, to the monolithic computer ecosystem, and to the old telecommunications ecosystem.  It wasn’t just phone companies which defaulted on massive amounts of debt, laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, and erased zillions in stock market value; the same thing happened to the manufacturers who supplied the service companies. The unions which supplied the workers are shadow of their former powerful selves.

This isn’t a moral judgment.  It’s not even a cautionary tale. If you’re building a successful business, you MUST adapt to the ecosystem which exists – or is forming – at the time.  You can’t build a business for an environment that doesn’t exist yet (I’ve tried that; I know).  Just to make things more frightening, the pace of technological change – unlike the frequency of comet crashes – is increasing exponentially.  Disruptive technologies like steam or the printing press used to happen every couple of centuries.  Now they happen every couple of years.  And the only thing which is predictable is the certainty that there WILL be a technology that disrupts whatever you earn your living at.  You can predict that something will happen but you can’t predict what.

The only guidance I can give is the gamblers adage “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”  It also turns out that some generalized skills like curiosity, perseverance, and the ability to work hard are useful in moving from one ecosystem to its successor.

Now on Kindle!

hackoff.com: An historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble

CEO Tom Evslin's insider account of the Internet bubble and its aftermath. "This novel is a surveillance video of the seeds of the current economic collapse."

The Interpreter's Tale

Hacker Dom Montain is in Barcelona in Evslin's Kindle-edition long short story. Why? and why are the pickpockets stealing mobile phones?

Need A Kindle?

Kindle: Amazon's Wireless Reading Device

Not quite as good as a real book IMHO but a lot lighter than a trip worth of books. Also better than a cell phone for mobile web access - and that's free!

Recent Reads - Click title to order from Amazon


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