Friday, April 24, 2015

Maps are visual thinking

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, maps, mapping, diagrams

For much of my childhood my parents took us on numerous road trips, frequently of the night-on-the-road variety. Dad or Mom would often pick up a current road map of the state or states we were passing through; gas stations used to hand them out free. We wound up with boxes of them. When I was a teen there was a large shed in the back yard we used for various kinds of "club house", including a place for my folk band to practice. We hung up some of the old maps for decoration, and were thinking of papering all its walls with them, but never did so. As a geology student, maps became ever more important to me, and I learned a great variety of concepts I could tag to geography.

Imagine my surprise upon encountering the first map in an "Alternative Atlas", in which the Unites States and some other countries have gone missing! Titled Surrealist Map of the World and attributed to Paul Eluard, I suppose it shows what was important to him in 1929 when the Left everywhere had such hopes for Communism and Socialism (Alaska was part of Russia at the time).

This map is found on page 8 in the introduction to Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographers, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist. While many of the diagrams in the book, in its near-coffee-table format, are based on geography or some distortion thereof, not all are. However, a great many of the "artistic" items are so abstract they have meaning only for the artist. Thus, I'll do my usual blather about a few that I could at least comprehend.

Here, from page 29, is a political map of the USA by James Croak, showing the relative clout of Senators relative to the population of their home states. Each state has 2 Senators, regardless of population. I detect a somewhat different political agenda, however. Mr. Croak seems to be trying to mobilize the Democrats or even to scare them, by squeezing them into the corners. Why else make Delaware, which has a population no more than double that of Wyoming, appear around 1/100th that state's size? By the rules he set up, it ought to be closer to half the size shown for Wyoming. Also, California and New York, with 70 and 40 times Wyoming's population respectively, should appear as tiny is Delaware is shown. Of course, those are blue states, so it's hard to discern what's really going on. Maybe he factored in the years of experience of the Senators? or their clout on important committees?

Here is another geographical map, also with political intent, that is much better conceived and executed. From page 45, it is an educational diagram by Kai Krause, showing that Africa is a lot larger than most of us realize. Of course, the area of Asia is 50% greater than Africa, but half of that is the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Try this out for your next bar bet: "The land area of Africa is about equal to that of the USA, Europe, China, and India, combined." Be sure to scope out the actual figures beforehand and have them handy! A good wi-fi connection in the bar will also help.

The era of Big Data has enabled scientists and artists and everyone alike to gather and collate and chart almost anything, whether related to geography or on any other basis. I particularly liked a map of the U.S. and nearby parts in North America, created by Aaron Koblin, found on page 110, showing the density of air traffic based on public data on daily flights.

The editor writes that this shows something about working life in America. It also shows how most of the country west of the 97th Meridian is "flyover country". Leave out the big hubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, and there are nearly no landings in that half of the country until you get to California.

I sometimes wonder what a map would look like based not in physical distance but on travel time, using the database found in a GPS navigator. Let's gather the parameters for making such a map. I live on a street about 0.4 mile long that connects to a 6-lane road at its west end and a "2-lane blacktop" suburban road at the other, one that is crossed by a road-ditch for rainwater at each intersection. My road and 8 others run east-west between the two. These 9 roads have a speed limit of 25 mph and speed bumps that slow most cars to 20 mph. The road to the east is hard to traverse at greater than 25 mph. The big road to west has a 45 mph speed limit but most traffic goes at least 50 mph. There is also a north-south road that crosses all 9 east-west roads about midway along with stop signs at every intersection, some 2-way, some 4-way. Practical travel along it seldom exceeds 15 mph. The N-S length of the three roads in that direction is about 0.5 mile.

Nest, turn these numbers upside-down, using a unit of tenths of a minute (6 sec) per mile:
  • Big road to the west: 600/50 = 12
  • 2-lane east-side road: 600/25 = 24
  • Road up the middle: 600/15 = 40
  • 9 E-W roads: 600/20 = 30
Those are the numbers to multiply by the length of each road segment. A time map for getting around in this neighborhood would be 6 units high on the left, 12 units high on the right, and a puffy 20 units high down the middle. The right-left size would be 12 units. In this illustration, the upper time map shows an attempt to use straight lines as much as possible. The wiggly sections at top and bottom became necessary when straight lines could no longer connect properly. That gave me an idea, which I sketched out as seen below. I set the middle road a little longer in total extent compared to the one on the right, but used wiggly lines to show that each block is really even longer. They also convey the start-stop feel of that road.

The geographic neighborhood is quite close to being a rectangle, but either of these time maps gives a better feel for what it is like to navigate. With all of this buried in the database of my GPS, it can determine the fastest route between two points. The upper map in particular shows how it is almost equally fast to go from the top center intersection to the bottom center intersection, whether you go "straight down" the middle road, or go first to the highway, then down, then back in! The only wild card is how long it takes to make the two left turns in the latter case. But going the other direction, those are right turns, and the physically longer way is probably the fastest.

In a more conceptual section of the book, some of the map creators brought in more dimensions. This example by Toyo Ito, from page 202, is an attempt to give a feel for the many-layered structure of a city's infrastructure. To me it resembles the solid substrate of bone, with its many voids in which separate systems for blood, lymph and nerves can pass with minimal interference. Whichever metaphor pleases you, it is a powerful concept.

If we generalize the concept "dimension" into the physicist's term "degree of freedom", we can use conceptual maps to show several variables together. A favorite example of mine is the chromaticity diagram, which represents human color vision, at least for most folks. Various kinds of color blindness require very different charts, as do the rare cases of female tetrachromaticity (4-color vision).

The chromaticity diagram shows "color coordinates" of the colors a normal human eye can see. The outer edge of the horseshoe shape follows the pure, or saturated, colors of the rainbow. The numbers around the shape are the wavelength in nanometers (nm). All colors inside the shape, and along the flat base, are produced by mixing two or more spectral colors.

The creator of this version of the diagram has superimposed generic color names on various regions of the color space. The central sort-of-oval part encompasses colors typically called "white" and "off-white".

The curved line from near the "600" point on the edge at the right, through the middle, is called the "black body locus", and represents the colors of anything hot enough to glow. Point "A" near the "yellow" area is the nearly-white color of an incandescent light bulb. Letters "B" through "E" show other standard light sources originally produced by filtering out some of the red and orange colors of an incandescent lamp. Black body colors closely match the colors of stars of different temperatures. The noontime Sun has a color at point "D". Cooler stars have redder colors toward the right, and hotter stars are bluer. The tip of the black body locus is the limit of incandescent blueness for a nearly infinitely hot star.

Thus, I would generalize: any diagram is a map of some kind. The book helps to broaden our understanding of mapping from a more-or-less explicit exercise, to a conceptual and recreational activity in which we all engage. Though "cartography" as a discipline began with geography, we can also map not only color but all the senses, plus relationships, processes, functional planning and, really, anything we can think of. To Think is to Map.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Nearly zero times nearly infinity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biology, evolution, biogeography

I learned a new word: vicariance. Although the related word vicarious means "on behalf of another" or even "second hand", the emphasis on this word's coinage is the separation of a biological population into two or more parts by some change in environment, leading to new species. The principal connotation, however, is on the "second hand" experience of members of the population that are thus separated from and even carried away from their fellows and thus physically prevented from breeding across the new barrier. And, AND, the principal emphasis of "vicariance biogeography" has been upon describing the distributions of related species and genera in terms of relict populations from the separation of continents that began about 200 million years ago with the breakup of Pangaea and then Gondwana.

Pangaea was the most recent supercontinent (there have been at least 5 over some 3 billion years or so), comprising just about all the land surface of Earth, that formed some 300 million years ago when earlier, separated continents were driven together. It first split in two, forming Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south, then these each split further. The rift that became the Atlantic Ocean began forming in the north about 140 ma ("ma" is the abbreviation for "million years ago"), but the southern half did not begin to open until something like 70 ma or so. The closest distance across the Atlantic is currently 1,800 miles (2,900 km), but it was half that roughly 35 ma, a fact to which we will return.

I was a geology undergraduate in the 1960s, just as the old "shrunken apple" explanation of mountain building I'd learned as a child was being thoroughly replaced by the new paradigm of plate tectonics. It was an exciting time to learn geology. I had the most interest in paleontology (fossils), and much was made of the correspondences of late Paleozoic and early Cenozoic fossils across the Atlantic between the facing continents of South America and Africa. This naturally led the few biogeographers of the time to describe the distribution of nearly all living things as being a consequence of continental motions.

As described in The Monkey's Journey: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, by Alan de Queiroz, for some this concept became dogma. "Nearly all" became "all" in their minds. When new evidence showed that continental breakups do not explain everything about the distribution of species, they were, and in some cases still are, unable to assimilate the new information.

As it happens, the last rift in Gondwana opened about the time of the dinosaurs' demise; it is now obligatory to add, "except some of the flying dinosaurs, that we now call birds". To the point: major speciation by continental separations ended about 70 ma. Lesser events, such as desertification of formerly temperate regions, re-routing of rivers, or mountain chain development, must be called upon for any later splitting of gene pools due to vicariance. Of course, strictly speaking, vicariance refers to anything that divides a population, even the removal of several members to a different island or continent, but "vicariance biogeography" discounts "dispersal" mechanisms.

The Monkey's Journey describes the rise and fall of vicariance biogeography as the principal theory of species distributions. Prior to the new paradigm of plate tectonics, several competing theories about the dispersal of plants and animals competed for academic attention. Charles Darwin had done much work to understand how chance dispersal across oceans and other significant barriers could take place. Plate tectonic knowledge was more than a century in his future, and he didn't want to just posit "land bridges" rising and falling wherever it would be convenient. So then, just how did some similar kinds of living things come to populate far-flung continents? It is easy to see that, once continental motions were known, they were grasped upon like a holy grail, to explain absolutely everything about both geography and biogeography.

Of course, that "bio-" part is a problem. Rocks can't walk, swim, burrow, fly, or crawl. Animals can, and plant seeds and even certain plants can either do some of these things, or be carried along when animals do so. So it stands to reason that purely mechanical motions of continents and other landforms cannot explain everything when it comes to creatures with volition.

By the 1980s, significant evidence had accumulated to call into question many "of course" assumptions of the vicariance crowd (nearly all the biogeographers). Hawaii is a case in point. None of the Hawaiian islands was ever even close to any continent. Neither were any of their precursors, including the Emperor seamounts that used to be islands. Every species on any island of Hawaii that was not brought there by the Polynesians or later humans somehow crossed a few hundred miles of ocean, or is descended from a species that did so. The Galapagos islands are similar: perpetually oceanic. There are other examples. Pangaea didn't include absolutely all the land on Earth.

DNA sequencing, begun in the late 1980s, seemed to provide a way of confirming the various species-splitting events, and it was expected to confirm vicariance theories. However, the early "molecular clock" techniques were a bit of a joke. The various "clocks" were notoriously inaccurate and unsteady. Depending on the bit of DNA used, the "tick" could vary over a range of thousands to one. But time marches on, and scientific progress with it. Molecular biochemists have learned a few things in the 30+ years since, including ensemble methods to have a group of "molecular clocks" correct for each others' instabilities. Nobody can yet pin down any event millions of years in the past to the nearest hundred or thousand years, but the difference between 20 million and 200 million years is readily discernible, and that between 20 and 50 million can be cleanly determined.

Considering just animals, island ecosystems typically show a range of species diversity that matches ease of travel by different kinds of animals: many kinds of birds and flying insects, fewer kinds of endemic mammals and reptiles, and very few amphibians or even none. But there are some astonishing cases of animals you'd never expect could cross an ocean, living on oceanic islands. The most astonishing case is that of the monkeys, but this is not about islands. Unless you recall that, until 3 ma, South America was an island, just a very big one, and it became an island nearly 70 ma.

Three million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was almost as wide as it is today, and the Pacific was much, much wider than that. So vicariance biogeographers have been very diligent to find a way to get primates between Africa and South America, without leaving a single fossil in North America, at some time before 70 ma. The plausible explanation was that monkeys could simply walk west out of future Africa to future South America. The trouble came after molecular dating showed that New World monkeys and Old World monkeys and apes did not split from one another until some time between 20 and 40 ma, with the most likely date close to 35 ma.

At that time, the closest bit of African land was 900 miles (more than 1,400 km) from the closest bit of South American land. So the new explanation came to this: posit land bridge (a proto-Panama) about that time, and some similar connection between northern Africa or Europe and North America, plus a long period of warming so monkeys would be willing to go to, say, Spain, to get to America. Then somehow they walked south to South America, leaving not a single monkey fossil behind. Considering the thousands of fossils of Eocene and Miocene horses, tapirs, and sloths found throughout North America, the absence of monkey fossils is telling. Yes, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", but such a case as this is pretty close, pretty close. Monkey fossils, later than 35 ma, are abundant throughout South America…

So somehow, a major "floating island" sort of raft got ejected by an African river and made its way to South America before all the animals on it died. Every chapter of the book ends with an anecdote, and here is a relevant one from the end of chapter 4:
In July 1892, a natural floating island was spotted off the northeastern US coast, at about the latitude of Philadelphia and some 300 miles from the nearest land. The island was roughly 9,000 square feet in area, contained living trees 30 feet tall, and is said to have been visible from 7 miles away. The same island was again seen in September, by which time the Gulf Stream had pushed it more than 1,200 miles northeast of its previous position. (Powers, Sidney, 1911, Floating Islands, Popular Science Monthly 79, 313-307)
Let's see, 1,200 miles in two months. Had a similar island become caught up in the equatorial current between Africa and Brazil after being ejected by a proto-Senegal River, it might have made the crossing in 5-6 weeks. It would have brought, not just monkeys, but dozens or hundreds of species of all kinds, plant and animal. Not all would survive as colonists, but some would. It only had to happen once, once over a span of millions of years.

The vicariance diehards pooh-pooh such explanations, as much too unlikely. Well, so was the origin of life. But that also had to happen only once, and considering how early it happened, it was only "moderately unlikely". So was this. People tend to think of things that are very unlikely as "miracles" if they occur anyway. The "once in a million chance" is a venerable staple of storytelling, and the classic example is a hole-in-one in golf. Few golfers have seen one, fewer still have done one. Jack Nicklaus did one a couple of weeks ago, at age 75. Of course, he has done 20 of them, in competition, but then, he has probably hit several million drives that were not holes-in-one! But even if the monkey-bearing raft is not just one in a million, but one in a billion, a lot can happen in the 70 million years that South America was an island.

A major point of the book is, that the biota of nearly everywhere is much more a product of long-distance dispersals across all kinds of barriers, more than we had thought of. So much so that relict Gondwanan species pairs, or genus pairs, are actually rather hard to find! But that's not the only point. The author brings to life for us many of the principal players in biogeography, details the steps of study and reasoning that were key to the shifting winds of understanding over the century-and-a-half that have elapsed since Darwin released The Origin of Species in which he also discussed species dispersal mechanisms. "Dispersalism" is proclaimed as the resulting paradigm. Of course, there are a few pesky Gondwana relicts around, and other evidence that dispersal on all scales, over all time scales, has gone on. Scarce, chance travels by unlikely travelers have led to Earth's lands becoming a story of "everybody came from everywhere". The proper answer to any question, "Which way did these plants and animals get here" is, "All of the above". Leave dogma to the world religions where it belongs. Science is about discovering what is, and to some extent, how it came to be, based on evidence.

So THE major point of the book, that bears repeating endlessly (especially to certain mis-named "scientists" I know) is this: Evidence must drive theory, not the other way around.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

American anti-science, unlikely to improve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, evolution, creationism, religious prejudice

Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") claims to be cheerful and optimistic. I sure hope so, because the goal of his new book is unlikely to be realized. He rushes into the creation/evolution debate that underlies American resistance to science education, somewhat reminiscent of the old "fools/angels" proverb. But he's no fool.

Bill Nye, with coauthor/editor Corey S Powell, opens Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation with an account of his debate against Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, early last year. The core "sound bite" is this: both Nye and Ham were asked, "What would it take for you to reconsider your position". Bill Nye answered that it would take only a single piece of evidence that favors "creation science", and that stood up to scientific scrutiny. Ken Ham said that such a thing is not possible, because he has "the book" (meaning The Holy Bible) and will not give credence to anything not found in it.

Nye acknowledges that any possible battle has already been lost, for the allegiance of evangelical Christians who follow Mr. Ham's way of thinking. But he has hope that well-taught science in our schools can still reach their children. I'll explain just how slender that hope is shortly.

But with this hope in mind, the 37 chapters of Undeniable describe 37 aspects of evolution, evolutionary theory, and how an evolutionary understanding of biology affects our daily life. Just for instance, if you've ever had to switch antibiotics because the bug you had is resistant to the first medicine, you're a victim of evolution in action. And if your grandfather did any moth collecting in England in the early-to-mid-Twentieth Century, the Peppered Moth provided evidence in hand of natural selection in action: Prior to laws that greatly reduced air pollution, and thus to light-colored tree bark being seen again as the grime washed off, most members of this moth species were dark colored, but in the years since, the light colored varieties have again become more common, almost to the exclusion of the darker ones.

Also in England, specifically London in this case, an annoying species of Culex mosquito has diverged into two species, with the new one inhabiting subways only. About 60 years were enough for physical near-isolation to become reproductive isolation. Culex pipien was the native species in the area prior to 1940, but then "budded" a new species, Culex molestus, by around 2000. WWII is the culprit. Londoners used the subways as bomb shelters in the early 1940s, which attracted lots of Culex pipien mosquitoes underground. This near-24-hour occupation of the subway tunnels by humans and their pets meant the little biters had no reason to return above ground. They stayed, they bred, and in 50-60 generations they diverged enough to become the new species.

The book abounds with examples of contingency in evolutionary development. How else to explain a nerve in a giraffe's neck that loops down, up and down again, except by comparing it to the path of the same nerve in short-necked ungulates to which giraffes are related? Then we see that, as the neck elongated, a nerve that follows a straight path between two blood vessels when necks are short has to loop around now that they have become further and further apart. Apparently, an innocent choice of nerve routing 50 million years ago has led to a rather unusual path for that nerve today. There is a similar loopiness in the male human urethra, which can be puzzled out by comparing with the very small primates that probably most resemble the first primates. Nye doesn't mention this one; after all, he's writing for youngsters.

There is a powerful argument in Chapter 21: "good enough". There is a lot of talk in creationist circles about the "perfection" of the human form. It is manifest that we are far from perfect, in form or in any other way. The standard riposte is that Adam was perfect, and we have degenerated. I wonder: did his urethra loop around in the same nonsensical way as ours? What we see throughout the biosphere is creatures that are good enough to thrive in their environment, but no better. Why should they be better than they have to be? It isn't cost-effective.

Tropical climes have abundant species of all kinds because, all year, it is Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy. It is just easier for all sorts of critters to make a living there. Go to a high mountaintop or into the high Arctic or Antarctic, and only a small number of species are found. Life is harder, and few species have the adaptations needed to survive there.

I just recalled that Krill, the tiny shrimplike critters that most baleen whales eat, do best in water very near 40°F (4.5°C), and die of overheating at 50°F (10°C). From time to time some are carried too far from the pole by shifting currents and perish as the water warms. I suppose a Krill would me "more perfect" if it could survive higher temperatures, but making the extra chemicals to do so would cost something, using more energy and resources. The cost-benefit balance that evolution has struck works well for the species. They are good enough.

So, our bodies and minds are good enough for us to earn some kind of living (usually), reproduce (usually), and raise our children (usually) until they can fend for themselves (usually) and also reproduce (usually). That is five "usually"s, because there are no guarantees. Think of this: Abraham Lincoln had four children. He has no living descendants. Every descending line died out by the late Twentieth Century. Whatever benefit the genes of Honest Abe might have had for humanity, all are lost except those few that survive in the descendants of a few of his cousins.

But none of the 37 items in this book will convince someone who has been taught that evolution is anti-Bible. And just how does one reach the children of Evangelical Christians (in whose ranks most anti-evolution folks reside)? Many entire congregations seem to exist for no other reason than to support the Ken Hams of the world and propagate that message. Though I think it "another Gospel" and thus anathema, they don't see it that way.

I see both sides. I am an Evangelical Christian, meaning that I favor gospel preaching and take a rather literal view of The Holy Bible. But I am also a scientist, with degrees in Geology and Geological Engineering. I excelled at paleontology as an undergraduate, and I still like to collect the odd fossil now and again. But even though I am "fluent" in both "languages", the scientific and the theological, there's no convincing most of my fellow believers that evolution is no threat to their faith. They have been taught an interpretation of the Bible that is in error. They would think me a heretic.

The fact is, most people, religious or not, are insecure. It seems the only people who are totally secure in their self-image are psychopaths. To be insecure and religious is to be in near-constant fear of "damaging" your faith somehow. This simple fact underlies every form of religious extremism. It is also well known that, no matter what religion, about a third of the children defect, at least inwardly, during their teen years, and no more than a third of those return to the faith. Christian churches in particular nearly all have special classes for parents trying to "win their children back to the faith." Those parents don't need one more reason for paranoia.

The more fearful among them place their children in private schools or get supplementary religion-sanctioned instruction, if they can afford it. Actually, most American Christians aren't sufficiently afraid of evolution nor of science in general to worry what their children might be learning in any school, private or public. But the terrified, noisy anti-science bunch have a disproportionate effect in the churches. It is they who drive out any pastor who doesn't toe the line of hyper-Creationism. It is they who have the energy to undertake ecclesiastical and public politics. They who vote in, and campaign in, school board elections. And thus they control science education where they can, and influence it everywhere.

Bill Nye calls his arguments "undeniable", and they are, to anyone capable of scientific thought. The terror-stricken Evangelical Creationists cannot think scientifically, and do their best to ensure their children will mirror them. Poor "Science Guy". You're up against a behemoth, and only the tiniest of victories is possible for at least the next couple of generations. I hope humanity survives.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Neoteny as a business value

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business practices

The way Mickey Mouse was drawn in 1927 is rather different from what we see in Disney cartoons of the 1930s and later. Even "Steamboat Willie" of late 1928 bore more resemblance to later versions than to the version just half a year earlier. The "first MM" was already quite different from a real mouse, and the later versions were even "cuter", and look younger, even childlike. The features we call "cute" are characteristic of infants and juveniles. Biological development that retains such features is called neoteny. You might say that humans are the most juvenile-like of the apes. Adult humans resemble very young chimpanzees and gorillas, more than they do adult apes.

What is it that makes most workplaces so unpleasant? Isn't it the very "adultness" of the place? I feel very fortunate that I usually had the freedom to leave a job for a different one, and could keep looking until I found a place to work that was, if not quite "pleasant", at least less unpleasant than usual. The last few years of my career I usually enjoyed my work and my surroundings. The part-time work I have now, while in the seemingly sterile environment of a lone desk along a hallway among Museum cabinets, actually gives me great access to colleagues as needed, even better access to the specimens I need to study, and the freedom to set up my workspace as I like it. The greatest "perk" of the job is the opportunity to do work that matters, at least to a gaggle of very picky researchers!

Can all workplaces be made enjoyable? Perhaps not, but they can be made "less unpleasant". What is the source of the unpleasantness? Mainly, that "adults are in charge." Think of the classic film, "Nine to Five", in which the women who "sequestered" the boss ran the company better than he had. It wasn't just that he was a king of sexual harassment, but that he was too "grown up" for the job, and the women's sense of enjoying working well made the company run better.

I think it must be great fun to work for Google. Not just because of the nearly unique amenities (free meals, and abundant play areas and conversation spaces, for example), but because of the challenge of extraordinarily meaningful work, and the freedom to pursue nearly anything you find useful and meaningful with your "20% time". I did have "10% time" at my prior employer, but we were told, "It had better be work-related"; they didn't understand that we had our minds full of our work, and could hardly do anything that would not be somehow useful to the company, perhaps just not right, right now. Once I learned to "manage my managers", I built a very productive career upon doing things sundry supervisors didn't want me to do, but my customers sure did!

Thomas Edison was famous for, as one wag put it, "throwing almost anything up against the wall to see if it sticks." After several hundred things didn't make a good light bulb, one thing did. It took "modern technology" more than a century to supersede it, a process not yet complete (and one of the first run of Edison bulbs, 135 years old, is still ceremonially lit for a few minutes from time to time. Your iPhone should last so long!). Edison couldn't always pay well, but his workers were quite loyal. They had enjoyable work that mattered.

Three significant Googlers, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, have written How Google Works, meaning the company, not the search engine. In brief, it works like Edison's Menlo Park, amped up to 21st Century velocity. A phrase they use a lot is Internet Century, which I suppose started about 1995 when the Mosaic browser made it easy for anyone to "browse the web". Another is "smart creatives", meaning bright, internally-motivated people. Reading between the lines, I gather that a gaggle of smart creatives can accomplish just about anything as long as the adults are kept at bay. That is the vision of Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

While you do need someone to set the course of a company or work group, the members will know best how to accomplish it…or at worst, they'll know best how to figure out how best to accomplish it! And Internet Century speed requires getting a product out there fast, then improving it, equally fast. Modern tools and processes allow the use of early versions as probes to find out what does and doesn't work well, then making things better before your customer base flocks elsewhere.

The reason it takes 8 chapters and 270 pages to explain Google's magic is that most non-Googlers simply don't believe it. Thus the authors spent 3 years writing the book, gathering all the best stories of good people doing good work in a good environment. I reckon if one person in 20 who reads the book "gets it", it could transform, at the very least, the American technical workplace. It might also transform companies you'd think were less than fun: manufacturing centers, construction (think of all the pranking that goes on at blue-collar job sites—wise foremen tolerate it because it promotes worker joy, and thus worker productivity), and all kinds of "office work".

While the book is full of stories, I'll repeat just one. A decade ago, Google Earth had been released a couple of months when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The geography team, still winding down from the hard work of getting the product running and updated, plowed a lot of personal time, on their own initiative, into obtaining and releasing thousands of current NOAA satellite images so that rescue workers could see before-and-after views of ravaged parts of the city. How else will you find a street that has been washed away? This is touted by the authors as a stellar example of a "20% project", but it is more, it shows how meeting a need with the joyful abandon of knowing you can do it better than anyone else, is reward enough. Give employees a chance to make an impact like that, and do you think they'll turn around and leave for "greener pastures"? The pastures don't get greener than that!

Juvenile animals tend to be fearless. Witness teenage behavior; they think they're going to live forever. The main driver of much "adult" human behavior is fear. Remove the fear, and what is the result? Better almost everything. If you didn't fear your boss, but liked her, what kind of memos or e-mails would you write? In a staff meeting, if you thought her opinion wrong, would you say so? If your lack of fear had good reason, how would she respond if you did challenge an opinion she'd voiced? To what extent would you pilfer office supplies?

Jesus said, "Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God" (my paraphrase). A bit of childlike (not childish!) attitude can improve earthly "kingdoms" as well.