(2018) by Lisa Margonelli (@LisaMargonelli) (https://lisamargonelli.com/)


intro’d via vinay rt of this:

David Siegel (@PullNews) tweeted at 5:45 AM – 12 Oct 2018 :
What I’m reading: https://t.co/05rOUV1Ys4 (http://twitter.com/PullNews/status/1050714168838504450?s=17)


talk\k on book at bookstore: https://www.c-span.org/video/?451183-1/underbug 

27 min – what they discovered is that the termites were all diff.. not factory workers.. ie: mound of 5 mn termites w diff personalities gets very complex
33 min – termites as my mid life.. hopeful because termites are just nuts.. adaptable et al



1 – a termite safari – arizona


i’d stumbled into one of the big questions termites pose, which is, roughly, what is ‘one’ termite”..  it is one individual termite? it is one termite w its symbiotic gut microbes.. or is it a colony..

how many ness

termites have made the world by unmaking parts of it. they are the architects of negative space. the engineers of not..t


between 2000 and 2013 6373 papers about termites were published; 49% were about how to kill them

every story about termites mentions that they consume somewhere between 1.5 and 20 bn in us property every year.. termites’ offense is often described as the eating of ‘private’ property.. which makes the sound like anticapitalist anarchists..

they eat money – in 2011.. an indian ban & ate 220 000 in banknotes. in 2013 ate 65 000 that a women in guandong had wrapped in plastic and hidden in a wooden drawer

termites outweigh us ten to one. for every 132 lb human .. there are 1320 pounds of them..t

we may live in our own self title epoch – the anthropocene – but termites actually run the dirt.. they are our underappreciated underlords.. key players in a vast planetary conspiracy of disassembly and decay. if termites ants, and bees (termite not related to either of these. . related to cockroach) were to go on strike, the tropics’ pyramid of interdependence would collapse into infertility, the world’s most important rivers would silt up, and the oceans would become toxic. game over.

got 8000 termites.. killed them and froze them


that night in the lab we sat on the border between natural history and an unnatural future. we weren’t alone: all over the world, scientists are trying to find biology’s underlying rules and put them to use.. they’re doing it w genes, behaviors, metabolisms and ecosystems.. they’re seeing nature in new ways and at same time trying to reinvent it and put it to work for us

in the next future we will harness nature’s tiniest life forms – microbes and insects – both their systems of org and control, and their genes and chemical capabilities. this fits w our paradoxical desire to have a lighter footprint on the earth while having greater control over its processes

2 – riddles in the dirt – namibia


if you want to learn about ants.. bees.. you can read books by great scientists..   but when hunting books on termites..  marais’s the soul of the white ant.. his tale of the termite mound is part close observation, part poetic riddle, and art thumbnail guide to the universe, but it’s not exactly scientific. still, nobody since has gotten further into imagining the thoughts of the mound than marais, making his book an invaluable document.. of our mind more than theirs

3 – an inconvenient insect


termites are an inconvenient insect, scott said, over the past 30 yrs scientists have sketched out a grand mathematical theory of how social insects have evolved. while it works for ants and bees it does not work for termites..  the mounds ruin one beautiful intellectual theory after another.. leading him to a set of unwieldy and unconventional ideas..

4 – into the mound


termites are often compared to architects for the way they build their mounds, but that is misleading because they don’t have plans or a global vision. what they really have is an aesthetic, an innate sense of how things should feel..t


for scientists, the great danger of seeing social insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true bugginess..in the 70s and 80s.. when the ant scientist deborah gordon began studying massive ant colonies.. scientists described the ant colony as ‘a factory w assembly line workers each performing a single task over and over’.. gordon felt the factory model clouded what she actually saw in the colonies – a tremendous variation in the tasks that ants were doing.. rather than having intrinsic task assignments, she saw the ants changed their behavior based on clues they got from the environ and one another..  gordon suggested we should stop thinking of ants as factory workers and instead think of them as ‘the firing patterns of neuron in the brain’.. where simple environmental info gives cues that make the individuals work for the whole, w/o central regulation..t


meadows undisturbed ecosystem

and so, these days, one scientific metaphor for the inscrutable termite is a neuron in a giant crawling brain

5 – complexity is the essence


on (j. scott turner) going from studying alligators to studying termites.. scott: ‘there’s never been any plan here.. i’ve been led.. there’s an awful lot of structure not explained. but complexity is the essence and *if you don’t capture it you’re not going to have a hope of understanding it..t

complexity – can you capture it..? if you could.. wouldn’t that kill it..?

not long after he realized that lüscher’s idea that the mounds worked like chimneys was inaccurate, scott began to doubt one of the other big termite theories: ‘stigmergy’..


a french termite research named pierre-paul grassé had invented the term in 1959 to describe how the labor of each termite guides that of the next.  the smell of saliva possibly containing  a pheromone..

what makes stigmergy spectacular as a concept is that is doesn’t just describe how termites build; it also makes it *possible to predict what will be built..t

*how so..? i don’t see stigmergy as predictable

twitter exchange w lisa:

@monk51295 You’re pointing out something really interesting–different types of scientists observed stigmergy differently. The biologists tended to try to imagine themselves as termites, while the complexity scientists tended to see it as a system.

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/LisaMargonelli/status/1063959366402023424

a mechanical system?

Maybe a complex system of many agents? I’m generalizing, but the biologists tended to imagine themselves as the “agent”/bug while the complexity scientists see a system of multiple agents. I don’t know if that’s because the computer modeling work on systems (esp stigmergy)

And so, one scientist’s stigmergy wasn’t quite the same as another’s. It was a puzzle for me to work out how these different branches of biology saw the same bug.

[back to underbug]

researchers hope modeling process on computers could lead to understanding complicated and mysterious systems of bio org

if on computer.. (to me) – not stigmergy

computer not fractal to organism


in early 90s idea of stigmergy moved away from termites and into computer science as programmers created simulations featuring virtual termites

ah.. that’s not stigmergy – not alive..  not organism as fractal

that’s a pretty huge misunderstanding.. ie: that computers can fractal living things

following a simple ruleset, these computer termites built walls made of x’s instead of dirt, w/o a coordinator or plan

isn’t a rule set a plan..?

solve the heady termite problem, it seemed, and we could solve real problems like routine phone calls, fighting wars, and protecting computer networks from hacking

what if those aren’t real problems.. what if those are symptoms of us ie: thinking machines are fractal of living things.. of thinking we can mechanize us/life

swarm *intelligence, the name that stuck for this version of termite **think, had unique insights into the complexities of modern life..t

maybe so.. but perhaps sticking *intelligence on it – was our demise.. ie: rather more emerging instincts/feelings.. higashida’s outside of civilization ness ..   maybe they weren’t **thinking so much as being.. i don’t know..

instinct says – typically fixed innate pattern.. i don’t see it as fixed

eric bonabeau – 2003: ‘we’re reaching a stage in tech where you no longer have a choice: your mindset has to change or you’ll be screwed. it’s *no longer possible to use traditional, centralized hierarchical command and control techniques to deal w systems that have 1000s even millions of dynamically changing, communicating, heterogeneous entities’..t

*was it ever..?

(the change is in thinking we were ever centralized hierarchical.. mechanical..  the change is realizing that we never were fractal to a machine ie: organism as fractal)

the structure is fluid.. the hierarchy is ginorm small – ie: freeman structure law

the more scott compared the idea of stigmergy w what he actually saw the termite doing, the more confounded he was..  he had come to believe that stigmergy was only one of several mechs for building

ok.. that’s fine.. but i still think we’re missing the potential of a term like stigmergy.. to let go of misconceptions/assumptions.. that living things are mechanical.. can be predictable.. et al (if they are predictable.. we’ve already killed them)


ie: it didn’t explain why termite deconstructed some things they’d built, and why some tunnels were polished an others were rough.. as time went on he questioned whether the cement pheromone actually existed. and so stigmergy started to seem like another gorgeous idea, an abstraction that didn’t suit what was really going on in the mound

i thought the whole idea of stigmergy was that it was unpredictable.. alive..

the theory doesn’t fit. staring at a termite is reckoning w our brutish ignorance. how complicated can this little thing be

not complicated .. alive..

when he put termites in petri dishes, scott was trying to measure their behavior

stop measuring alive things


i asked him about superorganisms.. is the mound a body?.. t

i’m thinking only if we don’t define/predict/mechanize the mound.. just like the city.. once we plan/strategize it.. it’s no longer alive.. so can no longer be organism as fractal

he said he thought the link between the organization of bodies and of termite mounds was homeostasis: cells build bones and termites build mounds that create an environ suitable for their survival. ‘there are tough questions a scientist has to confront. why do we say the termite is alive but not the mound?.. the mound does things the termite can’t do.. you need to think about the organism extending outside itself thru the mound. *it’s impossible to be alive w/o changing the environ you live in’..t

and i’d say… *it’s impossible to be alive and predictable..

this is not a new idea: organisms create pools of dynamic orderliness – homeostasis – from the disorderly universe around them..t

i don’t know.. i think we do that too much.. to our demise.. ie: carhart-harris entropy law et al – that hard won order is a killer to aliveness

fabiana replies to this tweet:

@monk51295 @LisaMargonelli Have you read “The Nature of Order”? I’m reminded of the concept of “structure-preserving transformations.” Order does not mean at all that something is dead.

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/fabianacecin/status/1063605179704954881

i haven’t.. thanks i’ll take a look. and i don’t think i said order means something is dead.. if i did i didn’t mean to.. but i do think capturing/defining it kills its aliveness

phrase ‘hard won order’ from @RCarhartHarris‘ take on entropy [intro’d to him in @michaelpollan‘s how to change your mind]

nature of order (wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nature_of_Order

 In his earlier work, Alexander attempted to formulate the principles that lead to a good built environment as patterns, or recurring design solutions. However, he has come to believe that patterns themselves are not enough to generate life in buildings and cities, and that one needs a *morphogeneticunderstanding of the formation of the built environment as well as a deep understanding of how the makers get in touch with the creative process

*morphogenetic ness sets well w me

Complex systems do not spring into existence fully formed, but rather through a series of small, incremental changes. The process begins with a simple system and incrementally changes that system such that each change *preserves the structure of the previous step. Alexander calls these increments “structure-preserving transformations,” and they are essential to his process.

*preserving structure.. leaves me unsettled.. i don’t know

pattern language (wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_language

liveness is one placeholder term for “the quality that has no name”: a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable

verifiable..? seems like a killer

An important aspect of design patterns is to identify and document the key ideas that make a good system different from a poor system (that may be a house, a computer program or an object of daily use), and to assist in the design of future systems.

so key here (?).. he’s designing non living things to be morphable.. which is great.. but it’s not organism as fractal

patterns in Alexander’s book also vary in their level of scale – some describing how to build a town or neighbourhood, others dealing with individual buildings and the interior of rooms. Alexander sees the low-scale artifacts as constructive elements of the large-scale world, so they can be connected to a hierarchic network.

For Christopher Alexander, it is most important to think about the people who will come in contact with a piece of architecture. One of his key values is making these people feel more alive. He talks about the “quality without a name” (QWAN).

love the idea of making people feel more alive.. and quality w/o a name (since i see the defining/naming/labeling ness as a killer).. but am thinking unless we let go of the patterning/repetition/stasis ness.. the mound/city is not alive/a-tree/organism-as-fractal

Ward Cunningham, the inventor of wiki, coauthored a paper with Michael Mehaffy arguing that there are deep relationships between wikis and pattern languages, and that wikis “were in fact developed as tools to facilitate efficient sharing and modifying of patterns”

that’s all wonderful .. just as long as we don’t confuse all the ordering as alive ness – ie: wikis “were in fact developed as tools to facilitate efficient sharing and modifying of patterns”

efficiency not fractal to organsim


[back to underbug]:

but in the mound, scott sees the termites constructing not only a zone for homeostasis, but thru their dirt walls, a sort of external memory and a sense of where they stop and the outside world begins. this is profound and provocative..

yeah.. i don’t think we can see that line.. and i think looking for that line has turned us into ie: whales in sea world.. and now.. we need some way back to not seeing that line.. back/to our interconnectedness.. our undisturbed ecosystem

embodiment ness – anti cognition ness – maurice

for the past 50 years, biology has considered itself the study of genes, but scott believes this drive toward homeostasis is important and overlooked. ‘this is a fundamental philosophical question: what is life, is it genes.. or is it process’ he sided w process, w organisms changing their behavior and their environ.

process.. yes.. but not predictable process.. so.. saying ‘behavior’ seems irrelevant.. and/or detrimental/poisonous/cancerous

‘as a physiologist i see that organisms drag genes into the future – not the other way around’ as he talked he seems to be laying down cards in an unending game of solitaire, part of an ongoing discussion that he has w himself – and maybe w darwin – all day long..

the implications of his line of thinking have brought him to a funny point: if the termites in a mound ‘know’ where their boundaries are if they understand where they maintain homeostasis ..

can you be alive w homeostasis..? esp maintained homeostasis

the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.

i don’t think so.. i think stability is a killer of life

and where they do not, then the combo of termites, fungus, microbes, and mounds constitutes some kind of cognitive system.

why cognitive ness..

the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses…a result of this; a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition.

i don’t know.. i think intuition.. but it’s always.. ongoingly changing.. so to ‘acquire knowledge’ seems like a death sentence.. you stop listening/being

i don’t know


this cog system has some sort of desire – to stay hole – and, in some way very diff form our own, an outlook on life.. and so in a short convo we arrived at the strange prospect that a termite mound is a kind of filmy consciousness distributed thru the soil an echo of eugene marais’s soul or psyche.

scott wanted to build a better convo between the theory and the experiment, the grand purpose and the small details. now he had a new plan: understand what the mound is ‘doing’ and use that to understand what cues the termite used to build, and then try to find some programmers who could replicate these processes in a video game or a robot

ugh.. dang.. killer

‘the thing about living systems is that they have these essential qualities of ‘wanting’ to do something”

do they..? or is that part of our productivity.. busyness/consumer/capitalist compliance..?and not really us.. when we’re alive.. when anything is alive.. i don’t think we have any idea.. what alive ness is/could be

6 – because they are so sweet


being a termite looks like a lot of fun (transferring light thru kissing) and that fun may be the whole point: perhaps there is a mad party like vibe to termiteness.. there is an old canard about termites building civilization w/o reason, but watching them i wonder if there can be any civilization or org, w/o joy. back in 1920 william wheeler wondered something similar in king wee wee’s joke testimony ‘our ancestors did no start society because they thought they loved one another, but they loved one another because they were so sweet, and society supervened as a necessary and unforeseen by  product’

the role of joy in social organisms is not something we have a metric for, so it’s not anything that modern biology entertains seriously.. robots and virtual termites have rules, but the rules of socialness – these urges and possibly even intentions – are unknowable to us.. t

yeah.. imagining ie: eudaimonia as morphing infra

watching this party, we find it hard to separate the building imperative (that possible stigmergy) form the termites’ strange sticky social nature. maybe they build he mound because it’s fun to do it together.. maybe they transfer water because they’re thirsty and moving the stuff around feels fun and necessary..  and on this feeling of fun, perhaps, entire ecosystems are organized..  scott: ‘a termite is not is, a termite is more does’

? i don’t know


a termite is more does.. scott showed me what happened when he dropped 20 termites in a dish. at first they wandered aimlessly, as if admiring a flower garden.. termites’ togetherness is not merely an artifact of their evolution: what they are doing at any given moment is determined by how together they are.. by the time there are 40 termites .. they start circling and then run faster and faster until they’re thundering around the edges of the dish in a 240 legged herd..  *termite behavior is classically nonlinear – 40 termites are not like 2 groups of 20 termites

*that’s what aliveness does.. no? vs machine ness

what this means is that termites have at least two fundamentally diff ways of being termites: 1\ they wander around at random, maximizing their exploration  2\ they are a focused force running toward a hole in the mound or digging a new foraging tunnel

sounds like 1\ whimsical wandering ness facilitating the finding of 2\ art .. the thing(s) you can’t not do..

imagine doing that everyday .. in the city.. as the day.

as a system of work, the first phase allows them to explore all option w/o prejudice and the second allows them to change their environ rapidly..

rather perhaps (since the word work is so damaged).. a system of play.. first allows for curiosity.. and second allows for action/community/rabbit-holing/whatever on that curiosity.. for as long or little as you want

being a termite – never mind doing a termite- means being embedded in info that’s mediated, reflected, tuned, and regulated by the mound.

why info.. and why regulation..? i don’t know.. i think we focus too much on those..


the army was paying for these experiment because they wanted to understand this ‘thought’ process, whatever it was.. scott’s time tricking termites allowed him to mull bigger questions. ‘why do you need a brain for cognition to begin with?’.. there’s a metaphor of a brian as a computer, but i think cognition comes from the drive to homeostasis..

wow.. i think both cognition and homeostasis are not us.. not the drive of us ness

why does this system arise? partly it’s brain genetics, but partly it’s because the bio system builds itself. the brain starts to make sense as an ecosystem. and the computation that the brain does is an emergent property, it arise between the cells’



a convo between being and doing.. mud and cognition

7 – a black box w six legs


back to namibia to observe roboticist’s observing termites.. led by radhika nagpal

her 2016 tedx [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgVR0lzFJc]

2 min – intelligence only develops at group level.. what if we could build this way.. where individually don’t have to be intelligent

5 min – termites use environ rather than talking to communicate


global to local is the roboticists’ name for the way that termites build – coordinating thousands of individuals w a simple ruleset for every local termite but apparently no overarching plans as that global mound takes shape


to engineers a black box is a machine (or situation) where the content and capabilities of the interior of the box are unknown but the inputs and outputs are known..


in a perfect world he (nils napp) would reconstruct what termites do by ignoring them entirely.. termites, he said, were ‘noise’ a distraction


barry took a dim view of the roboticists: they weren’t ‘thinking like termites’ he said.. (bird guy)

as they talked i realized that they were desperate for a diff kind of data from scott’s they didn’t want termite tendencies, or stories about what the bugs liked and didn’t like and why they’d evolved the way they did. they wanted to record the termites doing the same tasks over and over again and then use those histories to make predictions about the way that termites behave..t.. anything less than this was failure

gray research law

black science of people/whales


1650.. rene desartes – all nonhuman animals are robots.. ‘soulless automata’..


we continue to look at termites (and biology in general) thru descartes’ eyes..  still, can termites be considered ‘stateless automata’ memoryless identical machines that only react..  the researchers were so bright. so jittery. i wanted them to will a stochastic termite truth into revealing itself and i hoped to see the world anew in their data

i suppose this is why some people meditate, to observe minutiae in a sort of fugue state..  it’s clearly one reason biologists are attracted to observation – that ability to stop being a giant human and attend to the small scale and fast time signature of the other.. what kept me coming back to termites – paying for tickets to these faraway places – was that watching them gave me a satisfying signal and hardly any noise


biology was starting to unsettle the roboticists. radhika: ‘i had forgotten that feeling of voodoo when you’re working w biology’. compared to engineers she said, biologists are like cooks or magicians who do experiments that no one else can duplicate.  during the year she spent in bio labs, it wasn’t just the methods that perplexed her, it was that the sensitivity of biological systems was so far from the linear sensibility of machines..t

yeah.. that

we keep trying to fractal nonliving things to living things


‘how does anyone spend a career doing experiments that can’t be replicated’ – radhika.. the endless weirdness of humans.. cracked her up..t

not living if replicated..

8 – waiting for carnot


the field of complex systems is still in the stage of gathering insights into bio while waiting form someone to appear w a unifying theory. come up w w a viable theory for the way termites build and it could change the way computer networks run, how wars are fought, and how disasters get responded to. the emergent equiv of thermodynamics could upend the world

but the reality like the play (godot never comes) is absurdist.

one evening radhika and justin huddled in the back room trying to figure out how to reduce the termite’s movements to probabilities..

they began to question every one of their original assumptions. they wondered if the termites were really stochastic..t

stochastic: randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.


radhika mused ‘should we worry that we’re just modeling our own assumptions..? ..t.. are the termites random, noisy or something else?’

science of people/whales


one of books i read was about namibian history.. which led me to dig more deeply.. i came to understand the central role of the machine gun in making the country i was now in..


i wondered about the ideology of the machine gun: if it was morally unsuited to europe, what made it an acceptable tool for ‘extermination’ in namibia?.. elites believe such weapons would never be used in europe because their wars, as they saw it, ran on honor and chivalry rather than rivers of blood.. so most of europe was unprepared for the machine guns, the poison gases and the bombs of ww1.


the termites stayed inscrutable.. but the scientists were changing..t

inscrutable: impossible to understand or interpret.

ie: now they (after spending more casual time together) trust each other and were getting more work done


(on justin still being perplexed by termites actions).. it would take the team years to understand it. in order to see it the researchers had to de rationalize themselves..they had to learn to see/hear what the termites were doing.. what the original *eugene marais had called ‘learning a new alphabet’ ..this would be hard for people used to working w machines. and it was esp hard for people who so strongly distrusted intuition..t

rowson mechanical law

mufleh humanity law

*from his wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne_Marais

His studies of termites led him to conclude that the colony ought to be considered as a single organism, a prescient insight that predated the elaboration of the idea by Richard Dawkins.

9 – the second termite safari – nevada


maybe he (phil) said our gut microbes are in charge of us.. fooling us into thinking we have free will.. he presented this as a joke, but it really wasn’t..  we no longer know who’s in charge..t


like scott, phil was using the termite to chase a much large evolutionary question.. termites he said, are a rosetta stone for how the world is org’d..t


shaomei didn’t say much but later she showed me that she’d org’d the four of us on a matrix w creative on one axis and excitable on the other. this odd symbiosis and the deep desire to org everyone and everything in categories was what i loved about the lab


marsh label law et al

10 – life in the firehouse – california


firehouse – phenom growth in genomic data.. (2008 to 2015 – output 1140x, and cost fallen from 20 mn to 1k) to verify this futuristic genetic data.. tried to match it up w reality f termites’ guts.. chasing dna, rna, and proteins thru the termite..

it was clear that the termite was no longer in the running to provide genes for grassoline – the bug was just too complex – but it had become a sort of mascot, biological proof that those cellulose sugar chains could, in fact, be cracked..  the termite could go to the moon, but scientists couldn’t yet..  phil’s team continued to comb termite guts in search of ideas, microbial strategies, and systems


but many of the scientists working on the field see themselves as trying to fix the world..t

rowson mechanical lawthe language of fixing is not helpful here.. because it’s not a mechanical problem.. – Jonathan Rowson

11 – jazz in the metagenome


playing jazz is what phil called the process of interpreting the dat from the termite guts.. more than the fact that both the room and the termite’s gut are mostly airless: members of the lab – lost their distinct id’s and merged into one being w multiple hands and brains..  beyond a mind meld among the scientists, it was also a free floating jam session between humans and multiple computer databases, crossing a technical boundary that i wouldn’t have thought possible before i entered the room


(while in the room and data is being scrolled) – while we leaned back and tried to absorb this info intuitively..  the process of finding some sort of gestalt amid this pile of interesting but scattered info was difficult. but the real issue was what the scientists couldn’t see: of the protein coding genes in the dataset, fewer than 40% had a predicted function. so we were missing 60% of the info..

we’re not being careful and we are missing it..

ie mufleh humanity law: we have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity – Luma Mufleh

ginorm small zoom dance


this exercise hit me as a shock. my experience of metagenomics so far had been reading published journal article, which seemed to provide hard evidence – even a godlike perspective – for conclusions i had assumed were grounded in data, if not fact. yet the database screes were inscrutable and the info seemed compromised form the start.. in order to do this work, the scientists had to be comfortable w knowing very little for certain.. i came to think that this was one of the biggest differences between being a scientist – this comfort w multiple unknowns – and being the rest of us, who rely on narratives that suggest we know much more than we do..t

often the opposite.. esp if a healthy 5 yr old..

i had to learn to enjoy not knowing because i often had no idea what the researchers were talking about.

what was really interesting (looking at termite guts from dung/wood eaters) was that despite the difference in the id’s of the bacteria they held, both termites’ guts contained genes that coded for strikingly similar functions..  this simple observation is revolutionary.. previously, scientists tended to think of genes as the property of specific organisms, but metgenomics allows us to look at communities and even whole ecosystems as essentially pools of genes and possibilities..


(on seeing spirochetes who’s defining characteristics are moving an sniffing).. what is a spirochete that can’t move or smell? it’s an absurdity and yet it is right there in the data.. phil.. announced this particular spirochet is living inside a protist which lived inside the termite.. protected inside 2 diff organisms, apparently it no longer needs to move or defend.. and so has lost those genes.. once you go symbiotic, you can never go back

symbiotic – involving interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association.. denoting a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

it’s here, in this stuffy room, that i can see for the first time what it means that the termite’s gut is another composite animalmade of millions of bacteria, who, like their termite hosts, have traded away eyes and wings for the advantages of living in numbers..

while competition has been part of the evolutionary process, at the microbial level it increasingly appear that cells compete to cooperate in communities – fitting in and helping out is essential to their survival

i don’t think competition is a part of an undisturbed ecosystem


to get ahead they’ve got to get along

i don’t see those as working together.. i don’t see a ‘get ahead’ ness as getting along

the massive redundancy in their genes, the ability to fine tune their metabolism to live on the crummies (or richest) foods, are survival strategies for any eventuality. we tend to think of evolution providing elegant minimalist solutions to problems, but in the case of the termite’s gut (as with the way termites overbuild their mounds) there is massive redundancy and duplication..  gene-wise, a termite’s gut is a factory w a thousand extra workers standing on the sidelines


the people in the room were merging into one, or, like the microbes, they were simply sharing functions and tasks..  as they moved form gene to gene anticipating w each other’s questions, natalia and phil began speaking alternately, as if one monologue was coming out of two mouths… phil searched for connections and natialia nixed them. sometimes they talked past each other and at other times they were in perfect sync..  this then was what phil meant by playing jazz


phil: ‘it’s an unsettling feeling the first time you do it..  feel like you’re walking around groping in the dark and out of that dark would emerge..something.. i reckon the ed system teaches you to think in a rut, so there’ s a certain activation energy to throw yourself out there.. and actually say something untested that might push the ideas’

databases are an unlikely spot for jazz, never mind anything fun, but – like sewage processing plants – they are one of the invisible foundation of our society..t

we’re focusing on data from ie: whale’s in sea world.. and those whales are analyzing all the other data.. so..non legit ness iterating on itself

why it’s to important to focus on deeper data.. ie: self-talk as data

we’ve got to get us back/to a natural state.. first.. what we need most is the energy of 7bn alive people

this molecular narrative – w all of its millions of years of evolutionary possibilities – was infinitely more satisfying than writing. it was real and it way psychedelic. i was a convert

change mindentropy law – et al

during these meetings i decided it was absolutely necessary for all well educated people to know how to read a phylogenetic tree – as core as say, knowing  a little shakespeare or some economics

dang.. i’m thinking that’s not what termites would model.. certainly not what we need to get back/to an undisturbed ecosystem..  thinking we need some core knowledge.. is a killer


patrick keeling (studying termites for 20 yrs): with microbes, genomes are esp misleading because they don’t reveal two important things: behavior and structure

at end of 3rd session.. the paper they would write – the tale of two termites w diff microbes but similar genes and functions..


2015 paper by nurdyan (dyana) abdul rahman) found that termite gut microbes coevolve w their termite carriers.. swapping functions among the diff organisms.. the termites didn’t pick up new organisms; the termite and the gut microbes change together..  when their diets changed, it appeared that the termites could rebalance their gut portfolio w/o changing the list of inhabitants, only their relative numbers..

so the answer to the rosetta stone questions (how had termites gotten their microbes and why did they stay)  was that termites and microbes lived in deep symbiosis over millions of years, becoming inseparable.. *the amazingly wide numbers of genes doing similar things in the gut seemed to allow the partners to adjust to whatever the world threw at them..t

that’s why we need 7bn curiosities facilitated.. everyday.. as our data..  beyond wide.. ginorm/small


on people doing ‘fecal transplants’ to help get rid of stubborn and sometimes deadly.. bacterial infections in their guts..

phil: microbial ecology will be in a golden age when it becomes a predictive discipline’.. it is far from that now

could it be..? i don’t know

héctor garcía martín – a physicist and he’s trying to drag microbial ecology kicking and screaming in to a predictive science..

12 – burning very slowly


héctor – told me he though phil’s ‘jazz’ sessions were ridiculous..  in early days.. sitting in those sessions drove him berserk.. ‘i made it my job to piss everyone off by showing them wrong on this account – (predictability)’


héctor .. wanted to de emphasize the study of individual genes and organisms to look at the big, underlying system enabling life: metabolism.. and metabolism to him is slow combustion..  as fire is a violent chemical process, metabolism is life’s very low flame. ‘we’re all basically burning very slowly’ (‘if physics had stopped where bio did we’d still be watching apples fall and exclaiming over gravity rather than harnessing the principles of physics to design things like cell phones, power plants, cars, and of course bombs – we’ve reached the limits of the reductionist approach’)

when i asked to see what he meant, he showed me a flowchart of how the termites’ gut breaks down wood that looked like a map of the tokyo subway system..  (work from the jazz sessions.. just two tiny nodes in a vast network)


and while the chart made these processes visible, héctor lamented the lack of laws – a sort of biological thermodynamics or basic set of rules – for how metabolism works..  i wondered how many other physicists were hanging around bio labs waiting for carnot, as justin described it..  in the mean time he was making biofuels..

when i asked him what he though about termites, he said it would take 20 yrs to understand them, and for now he needed to work on just a *single organism – a nice tame e coli say , or a yeast..  once scientists had a predictive grasp of the metabolism for *a single microbe then they could think about multi microbe environments like termite guts..  in order to become termites in the industrial sense, in other words, we’d have to abandon the idea of the real but for a few decades..

dang.. both (phys & bio) trying to take from *singular.. no..? and make a repetitive/pattern visible.. (whether or not there is one.. i’m guessing not)


thought i started w the assumption that i was watching scientists watch bugs, i came to understand that i had a ringside seat to a *much larger, multidisciplinary argument about what life is, and what its relevant units aret.. genes, individuals, superorganisms, or metabolisms..  i realized i was actually watching the great global termite mound of science – a collection of equipment, ambitions, ideologies, grudges, **blind spots, and insights – interacting and reshaping the way we think about life

*not large (ginorm/small) enough. . if only with ‘scientists’ ..  has to be all of us.. new everyday

ie: too many of **these

hector felt they were missing the point: they couldn’t predict what was really going on. he felt the biologists were looking at a dynamic system as a series of disconnected frozen moments

once you predict – don’t you freeze/kill the dynamic ness ( characterized by constant change, activity, or progress.).. the constant change ness?

hector ‘physics has evolved to deal w complexity and *self organizing system but bio still treats the subject as a parts list’

*not if self org.. if predictable

his slide to piss them off – (phys & chem): making a car w max speed of 200 mph.. predictable .. (bio): removing phosphorus from sewer sludge.. not predictable..

i have to interject – even though we don’t now how it works, most of the time it still gets the job done (sewage sludge regulating its microbial stew itself)..t

this is huge.. we have to trust us like this – or we won’t get back to meadows undisturbed ecosystem (aka: change the world):

‘in undisturbed ecosystems ..the average individual, species, or population, left to its own devices, behaves in ways that serve and stabilize the whole..’


while his fellow synthetic biologists wanted to make biology more lego like.. hector wanted to explore whether complexity and redundancy play a role we don’t yet understand in bio systems..  why does the termite gut have so many genes that can do the same thing?

this is irrelevant to changing the world – (which previous page said what hector – and others want to do)

watching termites.. counting/comparing genes.. measuring cell flow of molecules.. writing papers.. all lovely.. but first .. we need to unleash the energy of 7bn alive people.. in sync.. or the dance.. will never dance..

all this ‘science’ – is too  part\ial.. for (blank)’s sake.. there’s  a nother way (even have it phys/bio/chem ‘d)


hector’s other self imposed task was to design ways for the lab work to be more quantitative and systematic..

matters little if wrong data

venture capitalists estimate that only half of biology experiments can be reproduced..



the more i thought about this, the more i wondered if we focus too much on the *inventions – the fertilizer, the biofuel, and even the wellhead itself – rather than the system of power that grow around them

yeah that

as in *reproductions/predictable-outcomes/et-al

13 – restless streams

14 – crossing the abstraction barrier – massachusetts


so kirstin created predictability by doggedly applying rationality: this was no place for intuition or educated guesses.. she didn’t believe anything but data, and to get better data she’d apply more abstraction..reliability was the goal: everything else could be given up


i have lazily thought of robots as ‘smart’.. but no one wants a robot that really thinks. we want *reliable ones that can do complicated jobs thousands of times w/o any mistakes.. for that robot you have to do a lost of unthinking

need to get ourselves back to natural state first.. do a lot of unthinking.. more listening..  because even if we do want *reliable robots doing complicated jobs.. until we quit being whales in sea world.. aka: not-us.. we’re having them/us do irrelevant jobs

this reliability carries w it a paradox: the more ‘reliable’ the robots are in their arena, the less they can relate to the real world.. t


the stereotypical robot follows the same sequence of motions over an over.. but the termes were playing the game as it lay – responding to the conditions in front of them…they really reminded me of toddler doing parallel play, where they’ll all appear to be ignoring one another while doing the same task, but are actually playing in relationship to one another..



kirstin: ‘the world is just a whole lot less predictable. i don’t really know how to do that..’ (robots really like termites)

predict\able nes

i wondered if the experience of failing to find the machine in the termites in namibia had changed their minds about their work w the robots.. kirstin and justin said no, emphatically.. the termes, they said, were a short term experiment maybe another four months and they had no further plans to explore termites..

really? i asked again, hoping that they’d show some regret about leaving behind the real termites.. ‘no’


seeing the roboticists’ affection for their machines, i felt affection for them.. i could almost understand why they were driven to treat the real termites as machines..  after all, the roboticists seemed to interact w the world partly thru their creations – both robots and programs..


building a starfish (iconic/famous for self repairing).. would be nice.. but mike’s ultimate dream was to build programmable materials.. ‘robots size of sand.. put my hand in sand and find ie: screwdrivers.. make every tool you need’

starfish ness

the roboticists were dreaming of a great triumph of rationality: all those repetitive iterations and abstraction to find the perfect whegs and simulate the perfect interactions, all to create a collection of machines that together are *emergent and  fundamentally more than the sum of their parts, exceeding the rationality that built them. i understand why we want these machines – **self healing computer networks and the dream of ***applying swarm intelligence to the stock market – but i keep feeling like ****there’s another paradox buried in the idea of gaining control by creating mechanical versions of systems that control themselves..t

indeed.. and.. machines can’t *emerge..

**imagining if we lived – ie: meadows undisturbed ecosystem ..aka: got to the roots of healing..  we wouldn’t need healing

***intelligence as focus is killer.. stock market ness is irrelevant/cancerous to humanity..

****indeed.. esp since what we need most is to let go of control.. (why we haven’t yet gotten to global equity – everyone getting a go every day.. aka: undisturbed ecosystem)


(sitting in traffic) – our algo was optimized for each of us, and so it worked for none of us

15 – influential individuals


termites seemed to do whatever they felt like: dig, take up soil and clean the dish, sit around.

kirstin’s termites were not the downtrodden drones of a totalitarian assembly line but something more like the well kept residents of a danish socialist village – each contributing in its own way

one ness

kirstin having run her numbers back/forward has accepted it: ‘the informed individuals have a purpose. they have an opinion’

this kind of leadership has been seen in the animal collectives.. ian couzin has done extensive work on how fish, birds, ants self org, finding that ‘informed individuals’ influence the way schools of fish swim, effectively leading them..  interesting. the more fish there are in a school, the fewer leaders they need..  when more than on informed fish begins to lead, the school will often average between them..

the fish behind the leader have behaviors that allow them to concentrate their sensory awareness while damping down unnecessary hair-trigger reactions.. this mixture of sensing and damping makes the system sturdy and does not depend on individuals or single leaders, yet it takes advantage of their enhanced abilities..


fish, in other words, have evolved collective strategies that reduce the likelihood of following a really eccentric fish w a bad idea, which is something humans might want to look into..kirstin muttered, half in warning to herself: ‘there’s no such thing as intuition’

but kirstin’s data revealed a world that was more intuitive – more gooey/individual and less robotic – than the more mechanistic views of termites that humans had been able to imagine..  it was as if scientists had forced themselves to obey a set of rules about how to think about what termites do – their own internal algo of possibility – and that led them astray..t

once kirstin stopped assuming that the termites were identical to one another, all other assumptions came under strain.. t.. a year earlier she’d been ready to give up/ now she as having much bigger thoughts.. ‘i’m a firm believer in social influence over genetic ‘ she said


when i asked scott what he thought, he nearly crowed ‘idiosyncratic individuals are driving the whole system..’.. t

idio-jargon ness

bio’s complexity: ‘the mechanistic view of life doesn’t have room for minded things’ and yet it was machines that had revealed this ‘minded’ world


paul explained.. technically, it appeared that the mound soil contained an arrestant that signaled the termites to finish up whatever they were doing. paul called it a ‘shalom’ chemical,

shalom ness

on justin.. having to reexamine stigmergy.. when it was the very thing that had drawn him into the study of termites in the first place.. ‘you don’t get to choose what you don’t understand‘..t


she (kirstin) doesn’t want robots that think, only robots that react, w a high tolerance for failure. ‘you have to design for crummy. then it’s a robust system. it would be great to move to a world that works 90 out of 100 times

16 – the robot apocalypse


while synthetic biologists are presumed to be saving the world, roboticists nearly always have to endure some kind of franken-story. science redefines itself almost daily, but public discussion of the morality and possible outcome of technology remains stubbornly anchored to mary shelley’s story from 1818 – six years before carnot wrote his theory

justin on shift from very real potential of tech to more religious concept of human evil


few who have gone as deeply as radhika into the crack between bio and engineering.. and she doesn’t not want to save the world – 1\ have to arrogant  2\ most of things that will save world have nothing to do w her research.. .. would have to stop what i’m doing and work on climate change energy or poverty


if we could move into that gulf between us and the scientists, and be content w uncertainty, i think we could start to think more deeply about what we’re doing w the technology scientists are building

embracing uncertainty

17 – darwin’s termites – australia


2006 – tom p curtis: ‘if the last blue whale choked to death on the last panda, it would be disastrous but not the end of the world.. but if we accidentally poisoned he last two species of ammonia oxidizers, that would be another matter.. ‘


i 2010 tech had seemed like a way to jump over politics.. but it didn’t anymore. tech was a diff kind of politics: sure, it might solve problems, but the questions of  *who chose the problems and **who chose the techs were big…

yeah.. ie: *has to be our hearts (ie: deep enough that 7bn already crave it) and **has to be all of us

my interest in oil was waning and my interest in people was rising..  how did people use politics to build real hope – a shared future – out of confusion..t

ie: a nother way.. to get back/to undisturbed ecosystem – a quiet revolution – 2 convers as infra

deep enough


in namibia and cambridge i’d watched the roboticists search for the termites’ algos; but there the termites themselves had changed their own algos – building little cones in one place and great towers in another.

80% of eucalyptus trees here in north were actually hollow, eaten by termites.. garry cook: ‘the inside of a tree is dead wood.. it’s not like hollowing you out’.. trees burn differently.. and produce diff gases


n australia’s plants and trees have evolved to withstand and even take advantage of fire..


when symbiogenesis became the accepted paradigm for the evolution of mitochondria and piles of genomic data arrived right after, scientists stopped looking at the old papers..  patrick turned his microscope on the scientists themselves writing that it’s ‘almost as thou we are ourselves experiment subjects but never get the diagnosis needed to be more self-aware of the reflexive nature of scientific theories’

like stigmergy and the superorganism.. the symbiogenic protist was the kind of idea that could inspire scientists for generations even if it did not turn out to be, strictly speaking, true..

18 – the soul of the soil


another australian study reports that a farmer had increased the amount of wheat he grew in his dry fields by 36% when termites and ants were allowed to do their thing in the dirt.. the authors speculated that termites move the soil around, which makes it hold more water in dry areas, and that their gut microbes also increased the amount of nitrogen available for the wheat to use.. farmers didn’t have to spread expensive nitrogen fertilizers in fields..t

termites could be the ecosystem engineers humans need..t

in 2050 s the population of the planet peaks, we’ll need 60% more food than we currently grow to feed increasingly affluent people

well – unless we quit trashing 40% of it..

19 – the math of fairy circles – new jersey


‘termites are really important at regulating water flow. they’re a black box’.. rob pringle

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4lJ445yR_c] – 1 min video – 2017 – Corina Tarnita: First Understand Nature’s Rules

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE80fqfB0Sg] – 42 min video – 2013 Math Prize for Girls Dr. Corina Tarnita, Princeton University

17 min – wherever your fire is.. that’s where you have to go.. everything else is just noise

the thing you can’t not do

18 min – selfish cells – one way cancer can be described


rob quickly realized his error – he had simply known too much about the plants to really see past what he knew.. ‘.. t.. it’s awesome to be in the field w corina. it’s not surprising, but she didn’t have the same ideas about root competition that i did’..

‘what comes before the model is an intuition of what the rules for the patterns could be..’ – corina


(on corina’s finding the hexagon and leopard spot patterns in termite mounds) corina discovered that when grass was associated w a termite mound, it could survive on very little water, much less than expected.. termite mounds made the landscape much more drought resistant..

what this mean was the places w termite mounds were much less likely to become desert, and if they did, they were likely to recover when rains reappeared..  as long as the termites remained, grasses would sprout first on the mound and then in distinctive patterns.. termites then appeared to increase the robustness of the whole place.. in addition to providing homes for the geckos and food for the elephants..  and w dry lands making up about 40% of the world, and climate change redistributing rainfall, termites might actually be saving the planet. .t.. for real. for once

the model was nice.. but pseudo world.. team’s next step was to further test the model’s predictions w experiments in the kenyan fields..


corina felt that w a more complete model she could show that the fairy circles (mysterious roundish areas of bare dirts found in n namibia and australia.. generally surrounded by grass.. 9 to 98 ft across.. debate if via termites or grass patterning) were the result of the termites’ self org and the grasses’ scale dependent feedback combined..

building the model was difficult, ..’the model forces you to have a rule for everything. you can’t have any blank spaces.. it forces you to consider what you might not consider otherwise’ – corina 2015


corina ‘for me it’s not the fairy circles..’ what she wanted was to understand how multiple pattern mechanism could interact at multiple scales. ‘i think it’s fascinating that these little organisms, which are part of messy and complex ecosystem, can produce regular patterns’

in 2017 – the team publishes a paper that modeled how burrowing animals like termites, ants, and rodents might interact w grass to create vast patterns and structure around the planet..  suggested that many tens of thousands of square miles may have been re ordered from below. no mastermind could possibly have pulled this off: only trillions of mimi minds could possibly have taken on a task this big..’ t

spot on.. this is why an undisturbed ecosystem begs the energy of 7bn alive people..in the city.. as the day.. each doing/being the thing they can’t not.. via gershenfeld something else law

now i could see this relationship between the tiny diggers and the great scope of land from the air, .. i felt sympathy sympathy for the early scientists who looked into termite mounds and saw only human organization and proof of the rights of kings. by looking inward, they missed seeing the earthly equivalent of the celestial spheres..t

in the mound, it is possible to see the whole order of the terrestrial sphere, or in more modern language, the progress from local to global..  first there is the teeming world of the termite’s gut, processing grass; then the world of the termites, digging and grooming in their great social pile; then the world of the termites and their fungus, communicating in the mound thru waves of chemistry and water vapor; and then the world of the plants and geckos on the surface. way up in the air, a giraffe obliviously munches on a tasty leaf. and from the air, a regularly ordered carpet of fertility and super fertility becomes evident. and finally, a planet w an atmosphere..


like the giraffes, we humans are ignorant of the vast churnings of smaller and larger worlds that we cannot see..t

zoom dance ness

we anthropomorphize or abstract these relationships into puny concepts we can understand: aristocratic insects, altruism, competition, cousins, bad guys and good guys. but these collab behaviors, and the sensing and signaling capabilities they require, may be the building blocks of complexity. t

for a little while i had recriminating thoughts about the failure of humans to see beyond ourselves into the vast universe: we have so little ambitions.. then i read a speech on the problem of scale in ecology by simon levin.. i realized that we are as patrick keeling said, subjects in this experiment ourselves, and our fitful awareness is part of what makes us human.. levin said that the world needs to be studied on multiple scales of space, time, and organization.. there is no one ‘correct’ scale.. t

begs we zoom dance

and in fact, the scale at which we see the world is a product of how we’ve evolved, and how we will continue to evolve..’the observer imposes a perceptual bias, a filter thru which the system is viewed. this has fundamental evolutionary significance, since every organism is an ‘observer’ of the environ, and life history adaptations such as dispersal and dormancy alter the perceptual scales of the species, and the observed variability’.. *for humans as well as termites, these limits in how we perceive the world are the very core of who we are.. t

*if in our natural state.. which i don’t think we are in.. we are currently like whales in sea world.. so.. our perceptions are not the core of who we are.. they are our zombied state gravely in need of detox

if in natural state
but we are currently like whales in sea world
gravely in need of detox before limits/perceptions are core of anything

20 – the soul of the cell


héctor: ‘we can only see a hundred reactions here.. and we need to see 700 or 1000.. once you can zoom in and zoom out of a map of the metabolism, memorization becomes irrelevant‘..t

zoom dance


hector still – humans could understand what was going on w/o losing biology’s essential complexity..  done right a map could even enable predictions

oy – so ok.. predict away.. but .. i still say living things aren’t predict\able


there was a possibility that biology could transcend the repetitive (and costly) work at the bench but what they called the voodoo issue remained..

hector’s group ended up accomplishing all the tasks he set out to do – making predictions about reactions, getting the scientists to save their work and making the metabolism intuitive..  by 2015 they had metabolic maps that i could understand

jay saw the map as a win in the long struggle against the quirkiness of bio and its aversion to rules ‘someday i’d like not to worry about every detail. i’d like to be able to operate at some higher level’

21 – empathy and the drone


after years of being consigned to places like afghanistan, yemen, and pakistan, the drones had come home. by 2014, ten of them were flying along the border..t

w/o any democratic discussion, we’d made a choice to have more control over space via a filmy, unthinking, constant presence that is one of the essences of termiteness, the very soul of the technological superorganism. the defn of the human, freud once said, was that we’d never give up our individual liberty to the group like termites do.. but ..

by becoming a bit bug, we are losing some of the essential qualities that make us human.. ‘we can’t let the military decide this’.. – rev billy.. everything termites do, the military would like to do too..t

mufleh humanity law


the military’s role as an inventor and investor makes it a complicated santa claus for both scientists and consumers like me, who can now protest war while wearing velcro sneakers and tweeting our indignation on ridiculously cheap smartphone computers..

the issue of why military funding for tech succeeds while bill gates can’t buy a molecule for malaria sufferers is a diff book

? – gates and military one and same – as far as humanity goes.. ie: winners take all

on tiny robot killers flooding civilian and combat areas to find enemies.. 1 dollar swarms


on killing and farming and utopia and apocalypse arriving at same time

new tech may enable new behaviors, but only the changes in our moral universe permit us to do the thing the tech allows..  we’re now at another time where our ability to both kill and dramatically change the world around us is leaping ahead, but we haven’t given it much thought

the popularity of the robobee as a military concept demos that one of the oldest tactics of war – dehumanizing the enemy – is being abandoned..  ie: extermination and cleansing patrols suggested the victims of tech genocide were not people but vermin or insects.. the swarming drone turns old paradigm on head: we are now presenting ourselves to our enemies as tech insects, dehumanizing ourselves..intent may be to show total tech domination, but we also demo we do not value our shared humanity.

peter singer: the risk of autonomous weapons is that we appear not just inhuman, but also inhumane..

we already are that w war.. et al

which is fine if your sole goal is to create fear but it backfires if you’re trying to get the swing vote in a conflict.. w terrorism the only way we win is if we win the majority. an insect could be the wrong weapon for the task’

the only way we win is if we all win (actually ..winning becomes irrelevant)..ie: gershenfeld something else law


for mark hagerott.. what’s crucial about this 3rd realm is that between the machine and the complexity of the software, it’s no longer possible to find that crucial place where the human finger meets the trigger (fighting went from fist to rock to bow to cannon ball et al).. and this brief fleeting moment before the two meet is where empathy happens or doesn’t happen

no.. way past empathy if holding/controlling any weapon.. it’s not that we need to figure out a more ethical/safer way to fight.. we need to let go.. what we need: gershenfeld something else law

empathy is embedded in the geneva convention’s laws of war

no.. not there..


what he (mark) describes is not a robot apocalypse, but something much more human: a power grab

it seems humans are hardwired for empathy; and more than cognition, empathy may be what makes us human

definitely.. don’t know if empathy is the best word.. maybe just .. love.. either way.. cognition way over rated.. ie: it gets us to wars et al

removing the messy humanity form our computers seems reasonable enough, but removing the humanity from our weapons systems is of a diff color

yuck.. i’d say no humanity in weapons..


(on people saying autonomous robots better..ie: won’t be racist, get drunk, be mean, have bad days/judgment/aim).. to mark.. the very essence of war is the human element.. his experience in afghanistan showed him that policing, stabilizing and nation building require empathy.. these fights he says are often about people being preyed upon by their govts which can only be addressed by a bunch of frazzled humans, not a swarm of bots… it’s probably unstoppable..

oh my – let’s address/stop it this way: gershenfeld something else law


less that 1% of fed money invested in synthetic bio goes toward understanding risks. and the study of social impact of autonomous drones is even smaller..

out of necessity, scientists may see themselves as termites involved in creating their pile of mud balls, in their individual experience they cannot see or understand dhow the whole mound they are building will or could work. by sticking w the local , they leave the global out of sight

begs we zoom dance..  but all of us .. as scientists/experimenters


jasanoff, hurbut & saha: ‘the challenge for democracy and governance is to confront the unscripted future presented by tech advances and to guide it in ways that sync w democratically articulated visions of the good‘..t

ie: 2 convers as infra – to get back/to and undisturbed ecosystem

(leaving out democratic ness in quote.. we don’t know what that is)

following termites led me to the much large question of who gets to imagine and define the future.. and there is no simple answer..t

maybe there is.. has to be all of us .. no more rep’ing

and now.. we have the means (as it could be) to listen to and facil that.. everyday.. anew

there are influential individuals but no one seems to control the process..

as it should be.. control is a killer.. but/and we need a mech to get us back to the sync of our undisturbed ecosystem:

‘in undisturbed ecosystems ..the average individual, species, or population, left to its own devices, behaves in ways that serve and stabilize the whole..’

how could we decide, democratically, what we’d like the future to be like..

rev of everyday life.. (3 & 30) 2 convers as infra – in the city.. as the day..

our hang up with democratic decision ness is a killer.. we can do better.. ie: cure ios city

decisions imply some agenda/given.. aliveness begs for curiosity as the start of every day

by talking alternately about apocalypses and saving the world we participate in a game of mystifying tech.. we are preventing serious discussion before it even happens.. t

what we need more than discussion.. is the energy of 7bn alive people.. (discussion implies some agenda/given.. we desperately need a reset.. first)

*we need to call tech what is is – an abstraction of power, politics, and econ..  and then – if we are going to take ideas from the termites into our human realm – we should use them to become **more human, not less

*tech could also be a temp placebo.. waking 7bn people up..  ie: as it could be)

indeed **mufleh humanity law: we have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity – Luma Mufleh

22 – white ants – australia


termites had brought me here, but what i was really seeing was how a community discussed what it wanted for the future, reached consensus and then build the political and social capital to make sure it happened..

public consensus always oppresses someone(s) – today we can go beyond

what had started the rehabilitation was shared moral imagination, an attention to the nitty gritty details of what was important for this community

moral imaginationimagininga story about people grokking what matters – listening to and facilitating that.. everyday .. as the day (tech as it could be..)

ie: 2 convers as infra

cure ios city:

about a problem deep enough to get to the root/soul of all of us ..via a mechanism simple enough to be accessible/usable for all of us ..within a system open enough to set/keep all of us free

the second thing i realized.. success depends partly on who tells the story and when

begs it’s everyone telling the story.. everyday

ie: rev of everyday life

revolution instigating utopia

there is an unreasonable truth that what we want in 1971 may not be what we want in 2015 or 2045

or tomorrow.. ie: equity is everyone getting a go everyday; the bravery to change your mind everyday

let’s listen to and facil that

it’s only in the careful transects and grids of scientific journals that the ‘success’ of a project can be separated from the living stream of history of the people who use it

redefining success – all the flavors

and project can be as problematic a word as success (to the sync of an undisturbed ecosystem)


the intimate damage the mine has done to the community is much harder to map than its environ impact.. valerie: ‘they really raped the land’

was i sitting on my aluminum campstool and shedding a tear over my aluminum computer for the way a bauxite mine has contributed to the destruction of an environ and the lives of the people who lived here..

was i a white ant? had i hurt people while claiming to tell their stories? .. i tried to count how many aluminum jets i had ridden to reach the conclusion that bauxite mines are bad.. what as my responsibility as a writer ad as a fellow human.. i kept returning to this long after i left yirrkala..


a certain kind of technocratic optimist might look at this situation and declare that the problem is aluminum…  to that person the way mining destroys the land in remote communities around the world constitutes a clear argument for synthetic bio.. engineer microbes to grow some new hard substance.. and use that to wrap our computers/airplanes..

that would be an easy story to write. but even the story of such a tech .. could harm people here by making their complaints seem irrelevant

where before i might have seen such stories about solving problem as being about a specific technology, i now see just the story.. science, along w our hopes/dreams/fears of it, is one of the big stories – almost an art form – of my culture..

if i had not ridden all of those aluminum jets to get to gove, i would not have understood so clearly that regrowing the forest was not the same as justice.. justice is a much bigger goal than problem solving and it’s far messier

moten abolition lawi also know that what it is that is supposed to be repaired is irreparable.. it can’t be repaired. the only thing we can do is tear this shit down completely and build something new. – Fred Moten

it’s one thing to create a medicine for malaria – or for that matter, unlimited hamburger or grassoline, but how do w e do right by our fellow humans

begs a mech to listen to every voice.. everyday.. (tech as it could be)

which begs a reset – a global do over


staring into termite mounds had turned me into a version of the victorians, looking for meaning in there. only instead of queens and utopias, i saw all the thing *we don’t know: a **representation of the world’s boundless complexity

*we can’t know.. alive ness is unpredictable (which keeps/sets us free.. aka: antifragile)

**fractal as organism (as long as we don’t mechanize/roboticize it/us)

23 – them and us

us & them ness


termites make the terrestrial maypoles around which a good part of the planet’s fertility spins

more personally, mounds are the human brain turned inside out..


what we don’t know, and where we’ve failed, i just as interesting as success, however it’s defined.

as the (biology) field struggles to become more predictable, or at least more quantitative, it is changing

ugh.. let’s go w neither predictability nor quantitive ness

descartes used graphs, metaphors, habits of though and analysis to give us a way to talk and think about the world.. the task – for scientists and the rest of us – is to find a new common language for what we understand and also for what we don’t..t

ie: idio-jargon

because – all of us scientists.. experimenting everyday