Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reason and Social Darwinism

Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason is my weekend reading. After an initial burst of polemic that was perhaps too careless about the roles of new information technologies and games in modern idea formation, she settles into a detailed analysis of the history of reason, science, pseudoscience and anti-intellectualism in American life. Almost as soon as Huxley hit the lecture circuit with a discussion of Darwinian evolution, social and economic theorists began an expansive integration of the core algorithm into their theories, justifying racism, colonialism, laissez-faire capitalism and, later, eugenics from a loosely critical reading of Darwin.

It was the triumphalist laissez-faire notions that celebrated industrialists under the banner of Social Darwinism that I found the most interesting, since there remains a core of this in contemporary Republican/Conservative reasoning. Indeed, paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan routinely revive a weakened form of these notions when opposing social programs like affirmative action and justifying positions where individual and racial differences are not correctable by public policy.

And therein is the irony, I suppose, that Social Darwinism informs some of the most anti-Darwinist modern thinkers. Competition is good for you. Still, the most telling development to emerge from the same era is that ideas have a certain prolific vitality, mutating outward from basic scientific observations into new formulations that reengineer the scientific core into a series of quasi-scientific speculations. Then, over time, the speculations are whittled down and even completely discarded as the pseudoscience is ejected and only the core remains.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Craziness and Poop

My subscription to Psychiatric Times always has something interesting associated with it. Bottom line: the stereotype of the crazy, isolated cat lady may be dead-on true.

Environmental Factors in Schizophrenia Three epidemiological studies bolster the evidence for infectious and social influences on the development of schizophrenia. Swedish national registers show an association between psychotic illness and childhood viral, but not bacterial, infections of the central nervous system (CNS). Dalman et al. (p. 59) analyzed hospitalizations for CNS infections before age 13 and psychotic illnesses from age 14 onward in children born during 1973–1985. Psychosis risk was almost tripled by childhood mumps exposure and was over 16 times as high after cytomegalovirus exposure. Using blood samples collected routinely by the U.S. military, Niebuhr et al. (p. 99) confirmed a relationship between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis. IgG antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii were compared in service members medically discharged with schizophrenia between 1992 and 2001 and matched healthy subjects. The antibody level was nearly 25% higher for the subjects with schizophrenia in the 6 months preceding the diagnosis or after it. Dr. Alan Brown examines these two studies in an editorial on p. 7. Veling et al. (p. 66) identified social isolation as a risk factor for psychotic disorders among immigrants in The Hague. City records provided the ethnic backgrounds and locations of residents who received a first diagnosis of psychotic disorder over 7 years. Immigrants in neighborhoods with high densities of immigrants from the same country had a rate of psychotic illness similar to that of native Dutch residents, but those in neighborhoods with low densities of the same ethnic group had a rate more than double that for the Dutch.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Flat Worlds and Clouds

I’ve commented previously on the notion that web technologies are radically reducing the level of ambiguity that we once had to live with. Google, Wikipedia, IMDB and news archives have all replaced vague recollection with fast fact discovery. Only the efficient linking of knowledge technologies into our lives remains a problem for standards and standardization.

Another area that has rapidly advanced and structurally changed the way of doing business is the growth of cheap computing power and even cheaper software to tackle web and enterprise software challenges. Open source software in the form of MySQL and Linux effectively demolished the barriers to building web-grade technology stacks. Ten years ago, expensive Sun server farms and Oracle licenses were a prerequisite to doing business on the web, but now we can do it comparatively cheaply.

Still, there remained until recently one final barrier for large-scale web businesses: scaling from thousands to millions of users with huge bandwidth and content needs. That is changing too, though, with cloud computing efforts like Amazon’s EC2 and related projects. I’ve just embarked on a brand new effort that has the potential to reach huge audiences and am seriously looking at the Amazon model because it means that I no longer have to deal with racks of hardware and complex and expensive colocation plans.

In the cloud computing universe, you buy as much as you need and can buy more as your demand levels rise without having long hardware deployment and software imaging cycles. And thanks to the massive server farms, the capacity comes with certain guarantees concerning reliability. A remarkable feature of cloud computing is the ability to snapshot a given virtual computing instance and create new copies as needed to expand capacity.

The end result, though, is that the combination of cloud computing and open source software has flattened the world of technology to the point where creating world-class web technologies is purely a matter of brainpower and business models.