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The Founder Principle: A Wonderful Idea from Biology

We've all been taught natural selection; the mechanism by which species evolve through differential reproductive success. Most of us are familiar with the idea that random mutations in DNA cause variances in offspring, some of which survive more frequently than others. However, this is only part of the story.

Sometimes other situations cause massive changes in species populations, and they're often more nuanced and tough to spot.

One such concept comes from one of the most influential biologists in history, Ernst Mayr. He called it The Founder Principle, a mechanism by which new species are created by a splintered population; often with lower genetic diversity and an increased risk of extinction.

In the brilliant The Song of the Dodo: Island Biography in an Age of ExtinctionDavid Quammen gives us not only the stories of many brilliant biological naturalists including Mayr, but we also get a deep dive into the core concepts of evolution and extinction, including the founder principle.

Quammen begins by outlining the basic idea:

When a new population is founded in an isolated place, the founders usually constitute a numerically tiny group – a handful of lonely pioneers, or just a pair, or maybe no more than one pregnant female. Descending from such a small number of founders, the new population will carry only a minuscule and to some extent random sample of the gene pool of the base population. The sample will most likely be unrepresentative, encompassing less genetic diversity than the larger pool. This effect shows itself whenever a small sample is taken from a large aggregation of diversity; whether the aggregation consists of genes, colored gum balls, M&M’s, the cards of a deck, or any other collection of varied items, a small sample will usually contain less diversity than the whole.

Why does the founder principle happen? It's basically applied probability. Perhaps an example will help illuminate the concept.

Think of yourself playing a game of poker (five card draw) with a friend. The deck of cards is separated into four suits: Diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades, each suit having 13 cards for a total of 52 cards.

Now look at your hand of five cards. Do you have one card from each suit? Maybe. Are all five cards from the same suit? Probably not, but it is possible. Will you get the ace of spades? Maybe, but not likely.

This is a good metaphor for how the founder principle works. The gene pool carried by a small group of founders is unlikely to be precisely representative of the gene pool of the larger group. In some rare cases it will be very unrepresentative, like you getting dealt a straight flush.

It starts to get interesting when this founder population starts to reproduce, and genetic drift causes the new population to diverge significantly from its ancestors. Quammen explains:

Already isolated geographically from its base population, the pioneer population now starts drifting away genetically. Over the course of generations, its gene pool becomes more and more different from the gene pool of the base population – different both as to the array of alleles (that is, the variant forms of a given gene) and as to the commonness of each allele.

The founder population, in some cases, will become so different that it can no longer mate with the original population. This new species may even be a competitor for resources if the two populations are ever reintroduced. (Say, if a land bridge is created between two islands, or humans bring two species back in contact.)

Going back to our card metaphor, let’s pretend that you and your friend are playing with four decks of cards — 208 total cards. Say we randomly pulled out forty cards from those decks. If there are absolutely no kings in the forty cards you are playing with, you will never be able to create a royal flush (ace+king+queen+jack+10 of the same suit). It doesn’t matter how the cards are dealt, you can never make a royal flush with no kings.

Thus it is with species: If a splintered-off population isn’t carrying a specific gene variant (allele), that variant can never be represented in the newly created population, no matter how prolific that gene may have been in the original population. It's gone. And as the rarest variants disappear, the new population becomes increasingly unlike the old one, especially if the new population is small.

Some alleles are common within a population, some are rare. If the population is large, with thousands or millions of parents producing thousands or millions of offspring, the rare alleles as well as the common ones will usually be passed along. Chance operation at high numbers tends to produce stable results, and the proportions of rarity and commonness will hold steady. If the population is small, though, the rare alleles will most likely disappear […] As it loses its rare alleles by the wayside, a small pioneer population will become increasingly unlike the base population from which it derived.

Some of this genetic loss may be positive (a gene that causes a rare disease may be missing), some may be negative (a gene for a useful attribute may be missing) and some may be neutral.

The neutral ones are the most interesting: A neutral gene at one point in time may become a useful gene at another point. It's like playing a round of poker where 8’s are suddenly declared “wild,” and that card suddenly becomes much more important than it was the hand before. The same goes for animal traits.

Take a mammal population living on an island, having lost all of its ability to swim. That won’t mean much if all is well and it is never required to swim. But the moment there is a natural disaster such as a fire, having the ability to swim the short distance to the mainland could be the difference between survival or extinction.

That's why the founder principle is so dangerous: The loss of genetic diversity often means losing valuable survival traits. Quammen explains:

Genetic drift compounds the founder-effect problem, stripping a small population of the genetic variation that it needs to continue evolving. Without that variation, the population stiffens toward uniformity. It becomes less capable of adaptive response. There may be no manifest disadvantages in uniformity so long as environmental circumstances remain stable; but when circumstances are disrupted, the population won’t be capable of evolutionary adjustment. If the disruption is drastic, the population may go extinct.

This loss of adaptability is one of the two major issues caused by the founder principle, the second being inbreeding depression. A founder population may have no choice but to only breed within its population and a symptom of too much inbreeding is the manifestation of harmful genetic variants among inbred individuals. (One reason humans consider incest a dangerous activity.) This too increases the fragility of species and decreases their ability to evolve.

The founder principle is just one of many amazing ideas in The Song of the Dodo. In fact, we at Farnam Street feel the book is so important that it made our list of books we recommend to improve your general knowledge of the world and it was the first book we picked for our learning community reading group.

If you have already read this book and want more we suggest Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin or his equally thought provoking Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Another wonderful and readable book on species evolution is The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner.

What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

“Obesity is a disease of the environment.” — Richard Jackson

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at the University of California Los Angeles, believes that her fellow human physicians have much to learn from their veterinary counterparts. These are not separate fields, she argues in her book, coauthored with science writer Kathryn Bowers, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.

Did you know that animals get cancer? heart disease? They also faint. Even diseases we think of as uniquely human, like depression, sexual performance, and addiction are found in the animal world. A lot of animals even self-injure when faced with stress or boredom.

When asked, “why should doctors listen to veterinarians,” in a recent interview she responded:

I can speak from my own personal experience. I had spent almost a couple decades being a human doctor, a cardiologist, and I had very little awareness about veterinary medicine. I, like most physicians, only interacted with veterinarians when my own animals got sick….I had this wonderful opportunity to help out at the Los Angeles Zoo, and through that experience I began seeing, both through the patients I was helping with and listening to the veterinarians on their rounds, that they were dealing with heart failure, and cancer, and behavioral disturbances, and infectious diseases, and really essentially the same diseases that I was taking care of in human patients.

Some excerpts from Zoobiquity

Only a century or two ago, many humans and animals were treated by the same practitioner.

However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split around the turn of the twentieth century. Increasing urbanization meant fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of our daily life. With them went a primary revenue stream for many veterinarians. And in the United States, federal legislation called the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the late 1800s relegated veterinary schools to rural communities while academic medical centers rapidly rose to prominence in wealthier cities.

Most physicians would never dream of consulting a veterinarian about human diseases.

Most physicians see animals and their illnesses as somehow “different.” We humans have our diseases. Animals have theirs.


Well that and the undeniable, and unspoken, medical establishments bias against veterinary medicine. Like all humans, doctors can be snobs. The unwritten hierarchy is based on a combination of factors but it's pretty safe to bet that a veterinarian is below general practitioner.

“We do not like to consider [animals] our equals,” Charles Darwin once remarked. And yet we are animals. In fact, we share most of our genetic makeup with other creatures. Of course, we do learn from animals. Mice are commonly used to better understand human conditions.

Zoobiquity isn't about animal testing. It's about the fact that “animals in jungles, oceans, forests, and our homes sometimes get sick—just as we do. Veterinarians see and treat these illnesses among a wide variety of species. And yet physicians largely ignore this. That's a major blind spot, because we could improve the health of all species by learning how animals live, die, get sick, and heal in their animal settings.”

One example of where we can learn from is why animals get fat and how they get thin.

Fattening in the animal world has enormous potential lessons for humans—including dieters looking to shed a few pounds and doctors grappling with obesity, one of the most serious and devastating health challenges of our time.

Millions cope with this life-threatening epidemic. Millions of domestic animals that is. These pets are “fatter than ever before, and steadily gaining more weight.” While hard to determine, studies put the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. In case you're wondering, that's still, at least for now, well below the proportion of U.S. human adults who are now either overweight or obese, which is closer to 70 percent.

What sets domestic animals apart from their wild cousins? We feed them.

They are mostly or completely dependent on humans for every meal, and we regulate both the quality and the quantity of everything that passes their lips and beaks. Consequently, we can't really blame them for their weight problems. … And so we're left with one conclusion: we, the species that both manipulates food to make it more unhealthful and has the intelligence to understand that we shouldn't eat so much of it, are to blame. We're responsible not only for our own expanding waistlines but for those of our animal charges as well.

It's easy and pleasing to assume that animals in their native environments effortlessly stay lean and healthy. That's not the case.

Abundance plus access—the twin downfalls of many a human dieter—can challenge wild animals, too.

Although we may think of food in the wild as hard to come by, at certain times of the year and under certain conditions, the supply may be unlimited.

So wild animals get fat the same way we humans do: access to abundant food.

Of course, animals also fatten normally—and healthily—in response to seasonal and life cycles. But what's key is that an animal's weight can fluctuate depending on the landscape around it.

Learning from animals, call it the zoobiquitous approach, we learn that “weight is not just a static number on a chart. Rather, it's a dynamic, ever-changing reaction to a huge variety of external and internal processes ranging from the cosmic to the microscopic.”

Richard Jackson says “Obesity is a disease of the environment.” In 2010 he explained what he meant:

One of the problems with the obesity epidemic is we too often blame the victim. And yes, every one of us ought to have more self-control and ought to exert more willpower. But when everyone begins to develop the same set of symptoms, it's not something in their mind, it's something in our environment that is changing our health. And what's changing in our environment is that we have made dangerous food, sugar-laden food, high-fat food, high-salt food … and we've made it absolutely the easiest thing to buy, the cheapest thing to buy, and yes, it tastes good, but it's not what we should be eating.

In a 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler made a similar point: excess sugar, fat, and salt “hijack our brains and bodies and drive cycles of appetite and desire that make it nearly impossible to resist certain fattening foods.” In a new book I've just started reading, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss makes the same point. (In case you're wondering, the calories in calories out argument is bunk.)

One of the lessons we can take away

If you want to lose weight the wild animal way, decrease the abundance of food around yourself and interrupt your access to it. And expend lots of energy in the daily hunt for food. In other words: change your environment.

Nassim Taleb makes a similar point in his book Anti-Fragile:

Perhaps what we mostly need to remove is a few meals at random, or at least avoid steadiness in food consumption. The error of missing nonlinearities is found in two places, in the mixture and the frequency of food intake.

The problem with the mixture is as follows. We humans are said to be omnivorous, compared to more specialized mammals, such as cows and elephants and lions. But such ability to be omnivorous had to come in response to more variegated environments with unplanned, haphazard, and, what is key, serial availability of sources—specialization is the response to a very stable habitat free of abrupt changes, redundancy of pathways the response to a more variegated one. Diversification of function had to come in response to variety. And a variety of certain structure.

Note a subtly in the way we are built: the cow and the other herbivores are subjected to much less randomness than the lion in their food intake; they eat steadily but need to work extremely hard in order to metabolize all these nutrients, spending several hours a day just eating. … The lion, on the other hand, needs to rely on more luck; it succeeds in a small percentage of the kills, less than 20 percent, but when it eats, it gets in a quick and easy way all these nutrients produced thanks to very hard and boring work by the prey. So take the following principles derived from the random structure of the environment: when we are herbivores, we eat steadily; but when we are predators we eat more randomly. Hence our proteins need to be consumed randomly for statistical reasons.

So if you agree that we need “balanced” nutrition of a certain combination, it is wrong to immediately assume that we need such balance at every meal rather than serially so. … There is a big difference between getting them together at every meal … or having them separately, serially.

Why? Because deprivation is a stressor—and we know what stressors do when allowed adequate recovery. Convexity effects at work here again: getting three times the daily dose of protein in one day and nothing the next two is certainly not biologically equivalent to “steady” moderate consumption if our metabolic reactions are nonlinear.

… I am convinced that we are antifragile to randomness in food delivery and composition—at least over a certain range or number of days.

We've all known that antibiotics are used to stop the spread of certain diseases. But, Zoobiquity, offers another explanation:

Antibiotics don't kill just the bugs that make animals sick. They also decimate beneficial gut flora. And these drugs are routinely administrated even when infection is not a concern. The reason may surprise you. Simply by giving antibiotics, farmers can fatten their animals using less feed. The scientific jury is still out on exactly why these antibiotics promote fattening, but a plausible hypothesis is that by changing the animals' gut microflora, antibiotics create an intestine dominated by colonies of microbes that are calorie-extraction experts. This may be why antibiotics act to fatten not just cattle, with their multistomached digestive systems, but also pigs and chicken, whose GI tracts are more similar to ours.

This is really a key point: antibiotic use can change the weight of farm animals. It's possible that something similar occurs in other animals—namely, us. Anything that alters gut flora, including but not limited to antibiotics, has implications not only for body weight but for other elements of our metabolism, such as glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol.

The diet and exercise dogma:

Even without an assist from 32-ounce sodas, the yellow-bellied marmots in the Rockies, blue whales off the coast of California and country rats in Maryland have gotten steadily chubbier in recent years. The explanation might lie in the disruption of circadian rhythms. Of the global dynamics controlling our biological clocks — including temperature, eating, sleeping and even socializing — no “zeitgeber” is more influential than light.

The cycle

Modern, affluent humans have created a continuous eating cycle, a kind of “uniseason.” … Sugar is abundant, whether in our processed foods or in beautiful whole fruits that have had their inconvenient seeds bread out of them and that “unzip” from easy-to-peel skins and pop open into ready to eat segments. Protein and fat are everywhere available—in eternal harvest the prey never grows up and learns to run away or fight us off. Our food is stripped of microbes, and we remove more while scrubbing off dirt and pesticides. Because we control it, the temperature is always a perfect 74 degrees. Because we’re in charge, we can safely dine at tables aglow in light long after the sun goes down. All year round, our days are lovely and long; our nights are short.

As animals, we find this single season an extremely comfortable place to be. But unless we want to remain in a state of continual fattening, with accompanying metabolic diseases, we will have to pry ourselves out of this delicious ease.

Buy the book

Talent Is Persistence

Kirby Ferguson is a New York based filmmaker who also writes. He's also the man behind the Everything is a Remix video series, which is about influence and appropriation in the creative process.

I was reading an interview with him and this part jumped out.

Before you can be an expert at something you generally copy others. This is ok and it makes a lot of sense. You take the work of others and tinker with it. Over and over — sometimes for thousands of hours.

What would your advice be to the 20-year-old version of you, who’s just starting their career?

I wish I had Everything Is A Remix when I was younger. I wish I knew that you can just start copying other people’s stuff and fiddling with it, and putting stuff into it, and just sort of build from there. It’s okay to be primitive. That’s a perfectly fine way to start making things.

I wish the earlier me understood work and practice more. Just the repeated concerted effort to get better at things. I wish I didn’t have the notions of talent and genius I had back then. I thought, “Oh, these other people, they just have something that I don’t have.” When really, they are just people who work more.

I wish I understood work. Work is the key to anything you want to do. If you want to play the guitar—anybody can learn to play the fucking guitar—you can be good at it. Maybe you won’t get to be a genius but you could be good.

You can be good enough to write good songs or make a good film or whatever. There’s no such thing as not having enough talent to get to that level. I mean, persistence is talent, really. Just sticking with it. Talent is not stopping.

When you see the work of others you see the end result and not the process that went into it. You see the sucess and not the thousands of failures.

The process is where all the work is. The process is where the meaning is.

Viktor Frankl — Why to Believe in Others

“If we take man as he is, we make him worse,
but if we take him as he should be,
we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”


In this rare clip from 1972, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl delivers a powerful message about the human search for meaning — and the most important gift we can give others.

Still curious? From Frank's book, Man's Search For Meaning, details his struggle to survive Auschwitz.

Would you choose to live or die?
What’s the one thing that can never be taken from you?

Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children

Parents are constantly looking around to beg, borrow, and steal ideas that work for others and apply them to their own lives. As such the rise of books like the

As such the rise of books like the Tiger mom and the French mother should come as no surprise. I have always wondered why no one applied ancient philosophy to parenting before as it offers

I have always wondered why no one applied ancient philosophy to parenting before as it offers time-tested wisdom. Enter Suzanne Evans, the Machiavellian mother.

Newly remarried, with four kids under the age of eight, Suzanne Evans is fed up with tantrums, misbehaving, and general household chaos. Desperate to get the upper hand, she turns to Machiavelli’s iconic political treatise, The Prince, and inspiration strikes. Maybe, she thinks, I can use his manipulative rules to bring order to my boisterous family.

Soon her experiment begins to play out in surprisingly effective ways. She starts off following Machiavelli’s maxim “It is dangerous to be overly generous” and soon realizes that for all its austerity, there is a kernel of truth in it. Her kids do behave when they are given clear limits. From there, she starts tackling other rules—“Tardiness robs us of opportunity” and “Study the actions of illustrious men”—and she is surprised at how quickly her brood falls in line once she starts adapting his advice to child rearing.

As she tries more and more of Machiavelli’s ideas on her family, Evans figures out this secret: You can get more out of your kids, with less fighting, if you figure out how to gently manipulate them to get what you want (and let them think it’s their own idea). But when events in her life start to spiral out of control and some of her earlier techniques are no longer working, she has to figure out her own answer to the ultimate Machiavellian question: Is it better to be feared than loved?

Hemingway’s Routine

daily rituals by mason currey

In his book, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey dug into Hemmingway's 1958 Paris Review interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

On how Hemingway composed his work, Currey writes:

He wrote standing up, facing a chest-high bookshelf with a typewriter on the top, and on top of that a wooden reading board. First drafts were composed in pencil on onionskin typewriter paper laid slantwise across the board; when the work was going well, Hemingway would remove the board and shift to the typewriter. He tracked his daily word output on a chart — “so as not to kid myself,” he said. When the writing wasn't going well, he would often knock off the fiction and answer letters, which gave him a welcome break from “the awful responsibility of writing” — or, as he sometimes called it, “the responsibility of awful writing.”

Simone de Beauvoir on The Ethics of Freedom

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1948. In many ways, it can be read as a reaction to World War 2, an attempt to make sense of all that war entailed, and therefore teach us what it means to be human in the face of the worst atrocities we can imagine.

Writer Maria Popova describes the book as “a difficult but enormously rewarding read, exploring the existentialist tension between absolute freedom of choice and the constraints of life’s givens.”

The book is concerned with freedom, what it means to be free. But also the ethics of that freedom, and so de Beauvoir works to give us an ethical system that we can use.

She places humans at the center of her philosophy, describing the role we have in our own freedom. “One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure.”

She explores not only this responsibility we have to ourselves to give our existence meaning but the responsibility we have to others in the actualization of their freedom. In doing so she defends humanity against the horrors it had just witnessed. She does not excuse them, but rather offers a path out. It is, in a sense, hopeful.

Turning away from the destruction of the War and the regimes that perpetrated it, she analyzes this space where we can continue to call ourselves human. A free man is one “whose end is the liberation of himself and others.”

She provides a powerful analysis of the types of men who are not free, and by doing so explains how we end up with war and oppression. She reveals the human condition to not be a universal. We all experience our being in this world differently depending on our engagement with it, and thus each type of man is categorized based on his treatment of others in the pursuit of his freedom.

First, there is the ‘sub-man’. A man who is far from freedom through the ongoing refusal to take ownership of his existence in the world.

The strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful spectres, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.

This passage reminds us that it is hard to be human. It is hard to embrace a precarious existence and find fulfillment in the transitory. But the description of the sub-man reminds us that it is important to try. To do otherwise, to avoid being, is to “manifest a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies.” The sub-man is the one who, to avoid disappointment, avoids in engaging. If he doesn’t try, he doesn’t fail.

Next, we have the ‘serious man’. This man is one who wraps the value of his existence in an external goal. Money, power, position, conquest – it is only by achieving these external objects that he feels his existence will be validated. And the result is that he never gets this validation because there is always someone with more. To pursue a life in this way is to be cursed to one of Dante’s rings of hell — a prescription for ensured perpetual unhappiness.

The serious man cannot ever admit to the subjectivity of his goals, that he himself identified them as such because to do so would be to acknowledge the subjectivity of his own existence.

Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.

Meaning has to come from within. But serious men wrap up the meaning of life in exterior constructs that they believe are universal. Money isn’t just important to him, it is important to everyone. De Beauvoir argues that this makes the serious man controlled by his goals, and therefore he sacrifices his freedom, and the freedom of others, to attain them. Achieving these goals is actually what breaks the serious man because he is then forced to acknowledge their subjectivity which undermines his understanding of his existence.

There is also ‘the adventurer’ a man who “throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only the conquest.” He asserts his freedom quite forcefully. The problem is that he often undermines the freedom of others in the process. And to have your freedom at the expense of others is to participate in oppression.

Adventurers either do not understand that “every undertaking unfolds in a human world affects men,” or they willfully ignore it. We call it selfish. Like Don Juan, breaking the hearts of women just so his desire for conquest is fulfilled, hurting others to achieve your own fulfillment, doesn’t work.

Finally, there is the ‘passionate man’, who, like the adventurer, treats other men as things on the way to achieving his freedom. Passionate men also want to attain external goals, but unlike the serious man they acknowledge the subjectivity of them. These goals are, similarly, things to be possessed and through this possession, the passionate man believes he will confirm his existence. “The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being.”

De Beauvoir advises that the passionate man, the closest of the four to freedom, must accept the eternal distance he has from the thing which he wants to possess. Love, happiness – freedom comes in recognizing there will always be a distance between us and these things yet aspiring to them anyway.

Her description of these different types of men is her way of trying to make sense of the behaviors of dictators and tyrants, the people who support them, and the people who carry out their orders.

Unlike many philosophers de Beauvoir does not assert that her description of ‘man’ is of all men. She acknowledges that not all humans have the same access to freedom.

Oppression is the result of fearful men trying to justify their existence. Unable to accept the ambiguities of being human they, as we have seen above, deny others freedom in order to validate their shallow attempts to give their life meaning. The reason these attempts are shallow is because they cannot embrace the transitory nature of existence. It is in trying to make existence concrete that the negative impact to other’s freedom manifests.

Why does the drive for freedom not ever die out completely in the oppressed?  She does not spend a lot of time on this, but offers this remarkable passage: “Yet, with all this sordid resignation, there were children who played and laughed; and their smile exposed the lie of their oppressors: it was an appeal and a promise; it projected a future before the child, a man’s future. If in all oppressed countries, a child’s face is so moving, it is not that the child is more moving or that he has more of a right to happiness than the others; it is that he is the living affirmation of human transcendence: he is on the watch, he is an eager hand held out to the world, he is a hope, a project.” It is this that tyranny can never fully eliminate.

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom. It is the process, not the outcome. This naturally leads to questions of ethics because if I want the freedom of others in pursuing my own freedom, I must have a system to evaluate conflicts. “To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given towards an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.”

Her ethics are not absolutes – she strives to give us something we can actually use. She says “ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”

To that end, we must constantly question our actions. “What distinguishes the tyrant from the man of good will is that the first rests in the certainty of his aims, whereas the second keeps asking himself, ‘Am I really working for the liberation of men? Isn’t this end contested by the sacrifices through which I aim at it?’” Rightness and goodness aren’t objective constructs that, once attained, we achieve forever. They do not exist independently in nature. They are concepts that evolve with the rest of it, with us, and so must we always evaluate our actions in light of the new knowledge and understanding we acquire along the way.

There are no perfect answers to ethical questions. In sacrificing one man to save many, de Beauvoir argues persuasively that sometimes this sacrifice will be justified and sometimes it will not. Sometimes temporary oppression of the minority will be the path to freedom for the majority. It is impossible to address all questions of morality in advance, and so “we can merely ask that such decisions be not taken hastily and lightly, and that, all things considered, the evil one inflicts be lesser than that which is being forestalled.”

Finally, we must also admit to humility. No one knows it all or has perfect understanding.

Oppressors are always opposed, for example, to the extension of universal suffrage by adducing the incompetence of the masses, of women, of the natives in the colonies; but this forgetting that man always has to decide by himself in the darkness, that he must want beyond what he knows.

The Ethics of Ambiguity is worth reading in its entirety.

Increasing The Productivity of Computer Programmers and Engineers

If you want to make your computer programmers and engineers more effective give them “privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Via Susain Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking:

To find out, DeMarco and his colleague Timothy Lister devised a study called the Coding War Games. The purpose of the games was to identify the characteristics of the best and worst computer programmers; more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10: 1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter— such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work— had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below— even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

Still curious? This is a follow-up to a previous post: Open-plan Offices Suck — Privacy Makes Us Productive. If you have to work in an open-plan office, here is how to survive.

Why it’s easier to describe “what makes us happy” than answer the question “what is happiness?”

what makes us happy

A passage from Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide explaining, in part, why it's easier to describe what makes us happy than answer the question what is happiness.

I can say that I’m happy when I find myself in the company of the people I love, when I listen to Bach or Mozart, when I’m making good progress with my work, when I’m stroking my cat near a nice open fire, when I’m helping someone come out of a period of sadness or misfortune, when I’m enjoying a seafood platter with friends in a small harbor by the sea, when I’m meditating in silence or making love, when I drink my first cup of tea in the morning, when I look at the face of a smiling child, when I’m out hiking in the mountains or strolling through a forest … All these experiences, as well as many others, make me happy. But is happiness simply the accumulation of such moments? And why do these moments give me happiness, when they wouldn’t necessarily make everyone else happy? I know people who hate nature and animals, Bach and seafood, tea and long periods of silence. So is happiness merely subjective, is it realized only through the satisfaction of our natural preferences? And why am I sometimes happy to be living through a particular experience when at other times I’m not—when my mind is preoccupied, my body ailing or my heart anxious? Is happiness to be found in our relations with other people and external objects, or rather within us, in a state of inner peace that nothing can disturb?

Of course, it is possible to live well, and even quite happily, without wondering what happiness is, or what can increase it. This is the case, for instance, when we live in a highly structured world where the question of individual happiness hardly arises, where we draw our happiness from the thousand-and-one experiences of daily life, occupying our places and playing our roles in the community to which we belong, and accepting our share of suffering without demur. Billions of people have lived this way and continue to live this way in traditional societies. You need only travel a bit to realize this. It’s quite different in our modern societies: our happiness is no longer immediately linked to the “immediate data” of everyday, social life; we pursue it through the exercise of our freedom; it depends more on us ourselves and the satisfaction of our numerous desires—such is the price of our insistence on autonomy.

True, we can also, in the modern world, be more or less happy without asking ourselves too many questions. We seek the maximum of things that give us pleasure, and avoid as far as possible the things that are tiresome or painful. But experience shows that there are sometimes things that are very pleasant for a while, but later produce negative effects, like drinking a glass or two too much, giving into an inappropriate sexual urge, taking drugs, etc. Conversely, disagreeable experiences sometimes enable us to grow, and turn out to be beneficial in the long term: making a sustained effort in our studies or in the practice of some artistic activity, undergoing an operation or taking a nasty medicine, breaking off with people we are emotionally tied to even though they make us unhappy and so on. The pursuit of the agreeable and the rejection of the disagreeable do not always give us accurate bearings when we are trying to lead a happy life.

Life also teaches us that we have within ourselves various brakes that check the realization of our deep aspirations: fears, doubts, desires, impulses, pride and ignorance and so on. Likewise, we cannot control many events that may well make us unhappy: a deadening emotional environment or relationship, the loss of a dear one, a health problem, a setback in our careers … While we aspire to being happy—whatever this adjective may mean for us—we realize that happiness is something subtle, complex and volatile, and seems totally random.

Richard Feynman, The Challenger Investigation, And One of History’s Greatest Speeches

The future doesn't belong to the faint hearted. It belongs to the brave.

On January 28th 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after blastoff.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Ronald Regan’s address to the nation could be one of the best pieces of communication in the wake of a disaster. Nancy Duarte, author of slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, calls it “one of the most well-crafted pieces of communication I’ve ever witnessed.”

In his book Great Speeches, Michel Eidenmuller described the situation:

In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster. As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster.

President Regan formed a special commission, The Rogers Commission, to investigate the incident. The investigation was led by William Rogers.

A key member of the Rogers Commission was Richard Feynman. Not only did Feynman discover what lead to the disaster, but he ensured the reasons were brought to light despite the pressure placed on him to acquiesce by the Commission.

Chairman Rogers and the other commissioners didn't want to include Feynman's thoughts because they believed his findings would be too damaging to NASA. In fact, Rogers threatened to throw them out of the final report.

Feynman, for his part, sent an angry letter to Rogers threatening not to sign the report as a matter of conscience. In the end they agreed to include a toned down version of Feynman's critique of NASA in an appendix to the report.

Feynman's conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

(h/t Kottke and Duarte)