Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Successful systems accumulate parasites

ABOUT a decade ago a scientific organization (AAAS?) polled various scientists, soliciting a list of simple statements of core scientific ideas. I've looked for this list on the net, and have been unable to find it (if anyone else knows, please comment here or email me). There were about twenty statements, and they included things like 'Over time, species evolve into different forms in response to their environment'. There were also statements about astronomy, geology, and so forth.

Many statements were submitted that didn't make the cut. Although I can't remember the exact wording of any of the accepted statements, one of the rejects has stuck in my mind for years. It goes like this: Successful systems accumulate parasites.

It's easy to find examples of this in the natural word. Virtually all animals have parasites; nematodes are particularly common. It's been said that if you destroyed all life on earth except for the nematodes, you could tell, from the clouds of nematodes, where each animal had been, and even from the species of nematode, what species of animal it had infected. Most animals also harbor lice.

But it's also possible to see parasitism in social relations. Less successful members of families may sponge off more successful members. When a new Disney cartoon is released, VHS tapes of other, similar cartoons start appearing in the racks at my local Acme. Any popular TV series or cartoon that generates a line of toys, will also generate a line of bootlegs. This might be called meme parasitism, and it's extremely common. What's being exploited is consumer interest in a current meme. Most thievery and fraud might be considered parasitism: successful individuals generate enough free cash to tempt unscrupulous persons to mug them or break into their houses. Many stock market strategies of the technical or momentum variety could be considered parasitism. So could some political campaigns, all the 'red' beers that began appearing a few years ago, and so on.

What brought all this to my attention was that I recently downloaded and started using Trillian. Trillian is an instant-messaging client, that can handle ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger, and IRC protocols. No more need to fire up multiple clients if your friends are on different IM systems.

Most IM systems haven't complained, but for the last month AOL has been waging a battle with Trillian, changing its protocols so that Trillian can't receive AIM traffic. The Trillian coders fight back by adapting to the new AIM protocol. Right now, Trillian is winning. AOL says that it keeps trying to kick Trillian off the AIM network because the client is not secure. Most users suspect the real reason is that Trillian doesn't make you watch the ads that come with AIM and ICQ, and that help pay for the service.

Trillian, although I like it a lot, is a parasite. It's both a meme parasite, and an economic parasite. It exploits users' interest in IM, and it uses the IM servers of AOL, Yahoo and MSN without displaying the ads that help pay for those servers.

Can this continue? Advertisers surely pay attention to how many users see their ads. If a significant part of the user base of AIM and the others starts using Trillian or similar clients, they will lose interest in subsidizing AIM, and that will cause AOL to lose interest in AIM existing at all. Parasitism is like that. As long as the parasite burden is low, the 'successful system' that it parasitizes will continue. But it is possible for the burden to parasites to increase to the point that the system they depend on fails. Sharks can carry a few remoras without affecting their ability to hunt and kill the fish that sustain both the remoras and them, but when the number of remoras becomes to large, the shark swims too slowly to feed effectively. Then the remoras leave, to find another shark. It's been suggested that stock market technical trading strategies only work for a limited period of time, because if they are successful, more and more people use them, and this destroys the patterns that the strategies depend on.

I like Trillian. But I worry what might happen if too many other people like it too.

obo(eru), sa(masu), sa(meru)
meaning: commit to memory, learn, perceive, feel, wake
jikaku == self-awareness
oboegaki == memorandum
The top radical originally meant 'emulate' or 'learn'. The bottom radical is 'look' Henshall suggests remembering this kanji by: 'Remember to be aware when learning by looking'.


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