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Jumping Into The Post; Plus, Weird Life Run Amok

Before we get back to weird life, a quick detour to discuss the Fortune story on The Washington Post. Excerpt:

' The Washington Post, a first-class newspaper that dominates its local market, has the best shot of any at reinventing journalism for the Internet. Since the mid-1990s, the Post has plowed many millions of dollars into its interactive unit, taking readers to unexpected places. They can join a lively global debate about religious faith, read hyperlocal coverage of a fast-growing Virginia county or watch daily video programs from the digital magazine Slate.

'Graham has made the paper's digital business his uppermost priority. "If Internet advertising revenues don't continue to grow fast," he says, "I think the future of the newspaper business will be very challenging. The Web site simply has to come through."

'...the Post is published in the most affluent and educated region in the country; in the nation's capital, much of the business that gets done depends upon the news. Here's the point: If Graham and his people can't build a business model for journalism in the digital world, nobody can.'

That's a key point: Metropolitan Washington isn't like most other cities. It's an ideal environment to run a news business. I have no idea how this is going to play out over the next decade or so, but I'm pretty sure the crucial players won't be the editors or reporters or ad reps or printers or distributors, but the citizens of the community. They're not just potential readers; they're a huge talent pool. The Post and dot.com have come up with all kinds of new ways for readers to join the discussion, offer feedback, argue, kvetch, and boodle (which is both a noun and a verb).

From the Fortune story: 'Another problem is that readers feel a deeper affinity to the newspaper that lands on their doorstep than to a Web site that's one click away from everything else. Most of the eight million monthly users of washingtonpost.com come to the site "horizontally," following links from other Web sites. A minority are "vertical" readers, who start at the Post's home page and then dig deeper. Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, spends a lot of time thinking about how to turn incidental readers into loyalists. "We love visitors at washingtonpost.com, but we prefer residents," he says. '

Some years ago the advertising campaign for the Post was built around the slogan If You Don't Get It, You Don't Get It. [Have they resurrected it?? Will try to chase down that rumor.] To the extent that it made any sense at all, the slogan had a slightly aggressive edge, with an implicit rebuke to the clueless dunderheads who were too foolish to subscribe to the paper. [Unless someone in charge of my continued employment came up with the slogan, in which case it's genius.]

I'd like to see the Post adopt a slogan that invites readers to not only read our work but also participate in the enterprise as much as possible. And which reflects the depth of what's offered in the paper and online. Something like:

The Washington Post. Jump Right In.

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And then there's this, from ink-stained Sven Birkerts, about plunging into literary blogs:

'More than once in recent months I've followed the siren call of link and thread, immersing myself at depth... In the process I've discovered what the more digitally progressive of my peers have known for years: that it is alarmingly easy to slide into a slipstream, or, better, go rollicking in a snake-bed of sites and posts, where each twist of text catches hold of another's tail, the whole progress and regress morphing into a no-exit situation that has to be something new under the sun.

'Experiencing this, I become the gradually graying reviewer again. I can't help it. I am in every way a man of print, shaped by its biases and hierarchies, tinged by its not-so-buried elitist premises. My impulse is to argue that if the Web at large is the old Freudian "polymorphous perverse," that libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications, unbounded and free, then culture itself -- what we have been calling "culture" at least since the Enlightenment -- is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering....

'The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.'

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Not everyone is buying the weird life argument, to judge from yesterday's boodle. Several people asked, in essence: If weird life exists, wouldn't we have noticed it? Wouldn't it be obvious? In an email exchange, I asked Paul Davies that question last week. His response:

"No, because nobody has looked. If shadow life is microbial, it could be under our noses (or even in our noses) without us realizing. You can't tell what makes a microbe tick by looking at it. You have to study its innards. And microbiologists do this by employing biochemical technqiues customized to life as we know it. So by definition they will overlook life as we don't know it. For example, shadow life with opposite chirality (mirror life) could be all around us. Only one experiment has been done to look for it."

Here is the intro to a new paper by Davies:

The origin of life is one of the great unsolved problems of science. Nobody knows how, where or when life originated. About the only certainty is that microbial life had established itself on Earth by roughly 3.5 billion years ago. In the absence of hard evidence of what came before, there is plenty of scope for disagreement. The simplest known autonomous organisms are already exceedingly complex. If they arose by random self-assembly of basic organic molecular building blocks then the transformation process would have had a vanishingly small probability and so unlikely to have been repeated within the observed universe. This "chemical fluke" theory was the prevailing view among scientists a generation ago, and exemplified by Monod.

The opposite position is that life forms easily under earthlike conditions and is therefore widespread in the universe (given the high expectation of a large number of earthlike planets). It is a point of view called biological determinism by Robert Shapiro, and is sometimes expressed by saying that "life is written into the laws of nature." A strong proponent of biological determinism is de Duve, who describes life as "a cosmic imperative." It is a founding tenet of the astrobiology program, and has gained considerable support if recent years.

There is thus a vast spectrum of opinion, from the conservative view that life's origin was a freak event to the claim that life emerges more or less automatically under earthlike conditions. How can this spectrum be narrowed? The most direct way is to seek evidence for life on another planet, such as Mars. If life originated from scratch on two planets in a single solar system, it would decisively confirm biological determinism. Unfortunately there is a complication. The bombardment of Mars and Earth by comets and asteroids has resulted in large amounts of ejected material from Mars falling on Earth, and a lesser, but still significant, quantity going the other way. It seems very likely that at least some microbial life will have hitched a ride in rocks traded between the two planets, resulting in natural cross-contamination. If the biospheres of Earth and Mars have become intermingled in this way, it will complicate any attempt to demonstrate that life has started independently on both planets. In any case, it may be a long time before Mars missions are sophisticated enough to study putative Mars biota at that level of detail.

An easier test of biological determinism may be possible, however. No planet is more earthlike than Earth itself, so if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions then perhaps it formed many times over on our home planet. The orthodox view is that if life on Earth originated more than once, then one form would come to predominate and eliminate the others, for example, by appropriating all the resources, or genetically out-competing. A key part of this argument is that genes are regularly transferred between organisms, especially micro-organisms, so that successful traits acquired by one organism can spread through the biosphere. However, two very different domains of micro-organism, bacteria and archaea, have peacefully co-existed for billions of years without one domain eliminating the other. Moreover, this mutual success has taken place in spite of the fact that the genes for a very successful trait, namely methanogenesis, seem not to have been exchanged with bacteria. Methanogenesis is widespread among archaea, from deep-sea vents to the human gut, and is therefore presumably a basic property, yet it has not spread to bacteria or eucarya. An additional point is that alternative forms of life may occupy non-overlapping environments, or require different resources, and so would in that case not directly compete anyway. These deliberations raise the fascinating question of whether there may be traces of a second or subsequent genesis. If there are, what might we look for?...

A more exciting, but also more speculative, possibility is that alternative forms of life have survived to the present day and are extant in the environment, constituting a sort of shadow biosphere. At first sight this idea seems preposterous. Surely scientists would have discovered it already? It turns out that the answer is no. The vast

majority of organisms are microbes, and it is almost impossible to tell simply by looking what they are. Only a tiny fraction of observed microbial life has been characterized by microbiologists, for example, using gene sequencing. It is very likely that all life so far studied descended from a common origin. Known organisms share a similar biochemistry and use an almost identical genetic code, which is why biologists can sequence their genes and position them on a single tree of life. But there is an obvious circularity here. Organisms are analyzed using chemical probes carefully customized to life as we know it. These techniques may well fail to respond meaningfully to a different biochemistry. If shadow life is confined to the microbial realm, it is entirely possible that it has been overlooked.-- Paul Davies

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I emailed Curmudgeon's "rant" (see 2:52 p.m. of yesterday's boodle) to John Baross, lead author of the weird life report. He promises to send a response forthwith, and I'll post that tomorrow or later this week. In the meantime, Baross writes:

"I do agree with Curmudgeon's earlier blog about Ingmar Bergman - The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries were his best movies and two of top movies ever made. If Curmudgeon also likes Felini films, he should
appreciate weird life."

--

Scientist David P. Stern writes by email:

I saw your article on "The Aliens Among Us (Maybe)" but personally
fear the chances of life arising by itself wherever the ingredients
and environment are earth-like are slim. Life as we know it rests on
proteins, quite complicated molecules, but more than that, creating
these proteins depends on a more sophisticated chemistry of DNA, RNA
and perhaps other unknown components. The chances of them coming
together by chance seem small.

Of course, there may have existed simpler life, preceding ours,
and some ways for it to get nourishment before green plants evolved.
It is possible, and hey, we ARE here. However...

Many years ago, at an elderhostel in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory,
our group introduced itself and I told I was a NASA physicist at
Goddard Space Flight Center, at the Laboratory for Extraterrestrial
Physics (a name since changed). Soon afterwards someone asked, "so tell us--does extraterrestrial life exist?"

I told them: "There is no evidence. Life involves very intricate
chemistry, so it may well be an extremely rare chance that life on
Earth exists. Maybe life elsewhere does exist, maybe it does not. No one knows."

"However, until we are sure that we are NOT the only life in the
universe, the safe thing is to assume that we are. That we are the
keepers of the flame of life, and if through our fault life on earth
is no longer possible, there may not be a second chance. So whatever we do, we should be careful with whatever we do to this planet."

I still believe that.

By Joel Achenbach  |  July 30, 2007; 5:28 PM ET
 
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