>The Ancestor’s Tale

>This book’s author is Richard Dawkins .The book is rather long, nearly 700 pages so I’m working my way through it slowly (it was a Christmas present). The subtitle for The Ancestor’s Tale is A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution and it is a collection of “tales” about human evolutionary ancestors.

The book moves backwards through time, starting with the present and moving though a series of common ancestors of humans and other species. These are termed “concestors” by the author. For example, the concestor of chimps and humans lived about 6 million years ago.

The structure of the book is loosely based on Chaucer’s Cantenbury Tales (which I never read), where for each concestor (also refered to as a “pilgrim” by the author) there is a tale that illustrates some interesting fact about evolution and the particular concestor. I especially like the various explanations of how evolutionists know certain things. Some of these get quite technical.

I liked the explanation of the method that evolutionary biologists use is to evaluate how the DNA of different organisms relates to each other. This method is similar to how Chaucerian scholars try to figure out which versions of Cantenbury Tales cames first. At the time Cantebury Tales were written, books were copied by hand and the scribes made errors. By studying where these errors occur we can figure out which version of the text came earlier and how the texts relate.

The same holds true for DNA. When organisms reproduce the DNA is copied and sometimes errors (i.e. mutations) occur. By comparing DNA sequence of related organisms, we can get a very good idea of what species descended from what other.

For example, did you know that the nearest relative species to whales is the rhino?

In case you didn’t know Richard Dawkins is the author of the famous book The Selfish Gene (I haven’t read this one, but Google seems to have the text online). I’ve read another one of his books: The Blind Watchmaker.

At the moment I’m on page 269 reading about sexual selection, the is about characteristics that evolve because either the male or the female of the species likes something (eg. the peacock’s tail).


>Hackers and Painters

>I have been using O’Reilly’s Safari service, which gives you access to O’Reilly books online. One of the books they added recently is a collection of essays by Paul Graham called”Hackers and Painters“. I have read some of these essays from Paul Graham’s web site, but several of the essays in the book were not published elsewhere.

Yesterday I read the title essay. In it the author compares hackers to painters. They are both “makers” – hackers create software and painters paintings. He makes an interesting point that hackers don’t fit in academia, because they are not scientists, nor do they fit well into companies, because they are not engineers.

One other neat observation that he makes, is that the way he write code is equivalent to an artist’s sketch. That is, you do not do a big formal design, but jump into coding and then work with the code as the primary medium.

You need to know that Paul Graham made a lot of money writing software in Lisp. In fact, he has written several essays and a book about Lisp. The book is available for free on his website.

Today I read another essay, titled “The Road Ahead” – it was a story of his startup company and his philosophy of startups. One thing he said is that when you are a startup and you have a choice between doing something easy and something hard, always pick the hard thing. This will make it harder for any competition to cach up to you.

I’ll post more as I read additional essays – but if you are impatient, just visit Paul Graham’s web site and do your own reading.