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Information, DNA, and Change Through the Prism of a Great City

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue August | BY John Stuckey 


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After retiring from a career in academic/IT management at Carnegie-Mellon, Northeastern, and Washington and Lee Universities, John Stuckey is serving as Acting Chief Technology Officer at the American University in Cairo. This is the third of his reports to Ubiquity from Egypt.

Cairo is a growing, changing organism, mingling prominent traditional elements and modern communications and computing technologies. It is home to what can be seen as the oldest university in the world and Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, Al-Azhar University, and to newer institutions conducting ground-breaking research in information technology and many other areas of study. The Egyptians I talk to are understandably proud of this combination of old and new in their society and their educational institutions.

By regional standards the city is of relatively recent origin, said to be founded in the 10th century A.D. as a royal enclosure, separate from the locus of administrative and commercial power, nearby 7th century Fustat. (By comparison among major cities in the region, for example, Damascus was already an important hub more than 3,000 years earlier, and pharaohs were having pyramids built near Cairo's location several centuries before that) Fustat was ordered burned in the 12th century so it would not fall to the advancing Crusaders, and Cairo became the consolidated seat of power. Cairo's growth has been such that it long ago absorbed the site of Fustat, which is now known as the Old Cairo part of the city. So much for a quiet royal vacation retreat away from the office!

Cairo is the most populous metropolitan area not only in Egypt but also in Africa and in the Middle East, and the pace of its growth is not slowing. Like all cities without natural boundaries to prevent it, Cairo sprawls, and the amount of construction underway at its perimeter is hard to describe. There are many locations at the city's edge where dozens and dozens of partially constructed buildings fill the vista in every direction, like this scene in the Maadi area of the city.

The government has tried to impose discipline on this growth, creating new cities at locations some distance out from metro Cairo, but within a few years Nasser City, 6th of October City, New Cairo, 10th of Ramadan City, and other attempts to channel growth are surrounded by the apparently unstoppable expansion of the greater metropolis itself. In 1999 I stood on a sand dune about 15 kilometers from Cairo, able to see nothing but desert in every direction and having a hard time persuading myself that a new university campus, let alone an urban environment, would grow there in what would become known as New Cairo.

Today, the new campus of the American University in Cairo

is nearly finished, and one now never feels one is leaving Cairo, as "development" stretches out from every roadway en route.

There's an irony in my characterizing Cairo as a growing, living organism, since an enormous number of unofficial residents of the city (one claim I read said more than five million, but more credible estimates range from tens of thousands to a million) live in the vaults of the city's vast cemeteries, a phenomenon referred to as The City of the Dead and even figuring in some of the works of the late and revered Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Like all great cities, Cairo is full of contrasts.

I traveled about a third of the way around the globe to come here from Virginia, and it sometimes seems that I traveled at least that fraction of the visible spectrum, from the verdant greens of the southern Shenandoah Valley amid the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to the surprisingly variegated browns of the parts of the larger Sahara that surround Cairo and most of North Africa. The desert and the city seem locked in a timeless struggle. On a day-by-day basis the city seems to advance, seizing sand and building on it. (And with it; much of Cairo's pollution is attributed to the cement plants around the city.) The desert fights back more subtly, painting the city with its sand and dust on every breeze and on occasion sending storms of the stuff to hang visibly in the air, evoking the Genesis 3:19 view of what we come from and will return to. Sand and the city: skirmishes, battles, wars. The city has energy. The sand has patience.

The old/new contrast is particularly striking in the building of a New Campus (that's its official designation) for AUC here in a region that contains some of the planet's oldest known settlements. I've been thinking about what's really old, having recently read Richard Dawkins's Darwinism classic, The Blind Watchmaker, published in 1987 and re-issued in 1996. Thoughts about evolution slow down one's perception of time, since all of known human history fills such a meager slice of biological time, not to mention the geological or astronomical. (There is a blurring of new and old as one ages. I read a few years ago that administrators at the University of Michigan were deciding what to do with the old Computer Center on the North Campus. As someone who was a computer user in graduate school in Ann Arbor when that structure was built in the 1970s, I knew it and naively still thought of it as the New Comp Center.)

Biological, geological, and astronomic calendars also get one to thinking about large numbers. Dawkins is talented at characterizing very large numbers in dramatic terms. Analyzing the old saw that given enough time a monkey playing with a keyboard could produce all of Shakespeare's works, he calculates that, instead, even the probability of randomly producing even merely one particular line (he uses Hamlet's "Methinks it is like a weasel" from that character's playful discussion with Polonius of a cloud formation and even simplifies the task by using only upper-case letters) is 1 out of 27 (the 26 English letters plus a space) for each of the 28 letter/space positions, or 1/27 to the power of 28 (1/27 times itself 28 times) "These are very small odds," Dawkins muses, "about 1 in 10,000 million million million million million million." (p. 67) Against that "single-step selection of random variation" he posits a much greater probability if each successive trial retains any correct matches from the previous trial. The context is his assertion that some critics of Darwinism laughingly dismiss the evolution of complex structures because they mistakenly assume random single-step selection; he argues that Darwin instead described cumulative selection, analogous to the second Shakespearean probability model he proposes. A computer program Dawkins wrote to test that latter model, by the way, produced Hamlet's sentence from initial random strings typically in 40-60ish iterations, rather than the Carl-Saganesque improbability that independent, single-step variation implies.

Among many other things I learned from Dawkins that I probably should already have known is that plant and animal life share the structure of DNA, distinguished merely by differing arrangements of the same four nucleotides, leading to the plausible inference (for Dawkins it's virtually a certainty) that all species in the different "kingdoms" descended from a common source ancestor. Now there, I found myself thinking: finally an excuse for not cutting the grass! The logic of all life descending from a single originating event is clear; I merely had never followed that logic back to its evident implication.

On the efficiency of DNA as an information-storage and -transmission medium, Dawkins writes, "Cows and pea plants (and, indeed, all the rest of us) have an almost identical gene called the histone H4 gene. The DNA text is 304 characters long. We can't say that it occupies the same addresses in all species, because we can't meaningfully compare address labels across species. But what we can say is that there is a length of 306 characters in cows, which is virtually identical to a length of 306 characters in peas. Cows and peas differ from each other in only two characters out of these 306. We don't know exactly how long ago the common ancestor of cows and peas lived, but fossil evidence suggests that it was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 million years ago. Call it 1.5 billion years ago. Over this unimaginably (for humans) long time, each of the two lineages that branched from that remote ancestor has preserved 305 out of the 306 characters (on average: it could be that one lineage has preserved all 306 of them and the other has preserved 304). Letters carved on gravestones become unreadable in mere hundreds of years." (pp/ 174-175)

I had only begun to mull over the blurriness of the animal-plant line when I encountered a New York Times article ("Loyal to Its Roots," 1o June 2008 on-line edition) about research in the Department of Biology at McMaster University in Ontario. Reporting in biology letters, an online journal of the Royal Society ("Kin recognition in an annual plant," in volume 3, number 4, August 22, 2007), researchers said that the Great Lakes sea rocket in laboratory tests was more likely to sprout nutrient-competitive roots when sharing a pot with unrelated plants than with its own kin. If confirmed (as the report says it seems to have been by later, related research), that behavior makes me wonder about my conception of intelligence and about the types of "behavior" (and motivations?) plants may be capable of. It also underlines Dawkins's claim that much of what we see as animal and especially human emotions and behavior (i.e. care for offspring) may be ultimately attributable to the drive (I can't find the passage, and that may well be an inappropriate choice of verb on my part; where are digital texts when you need them?) of DNA to replicate/perpetuate itself.

Strangely, this thinking about evolution has a connection to my impressions of Cairo. Much has been made in the last century or so of the process of "modernization." In some ways, Cairo seems impressively modern. Mobile-phone usage (what Americans call "cell-phone" usage) spread broadly throughout people here before it did in the USA, no doubt due in large part to an underdeveloped, expensive, and bureaucratic landline telephone system. Thus, while Americans think of cell phones as succeeding landline phones, in many parts of the world their availability obviated a landline-based network.

A Chinese-American friend pointed out to me that most of China bypassed black-and-white television (and, I suspect, broadcasting from antenna towers rather than satellite), whereas I grew up thinking that one had to grow out of the other because I had watched it develop that way. Once new technologies are available, of course, adopters have no need to re-trace the historical path. The result is that everyplace is something of a patchwork quilt of new and old, modern and traditional. The driver of a new car, talking (against traffic regulations) on his mobile phone while speeding along a limited-access highway here may still come suddenly upon a heavy cart of vegetables or cardboard being drawn by a donkey, as likely as not headed toward him.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were poking fun at Midwesterners like me in their 1943 smash musical hit, Oklahoma!, when they wrote that

Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City
They've gone about as fur as they c'n go!

I was only a year old that year, but as soon as I heard that song while growing up I recognized not only the gentle condescension in it (compared to New York, of course, Kansas City was decidedly unmodern) but also its essential truth. Until going away to college I lived a hundred miles south of Kansas City, in little Pittsburg (no h!), Kansas, and compared to my little town, Kansas City was a place of amazing marvels and up-to-date conveniences.

In the widespread use of communications technology, places like Cairo may not at all be behind in the way it is convenient for a Westerner to think. Not only did mobile phones come into widespread use sooner here; the view from my apartment in the Nile-island Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo (and not atypically there) shows how nearly universal satellite TV has become.

Throughout Cairo, and as I discovered when walking in the Old Medina in Casablanca, on the other edge of North Africa, in Morocco,

people in this region are definitely connected to each other and to the world.

"Modernization" results in surprising contrasts and combinations - witness my university's Voice-Over-IP telephony, gigabit switches, and wireless network, rising where only recently there was nothing but apparently endless desert.

Like genetic mutations, modernization is also inevitable and constant, but what thrives in one place and situation and set of circumstances will wither in another, resulting in that patchwork that characterizes not only "developing" places but those that consider themselves to be "developed." The one thing that seems certain is that we have yet to go as fur as we c'n go, even if it's not always forward, in a straight line, in a single line, or toward a pre-ordained or planned result.

As is familiar in cities like Rome and Athens, today's Cairo stands on the remains of yesterday's. The Hanging Church in Coptic or Old Cairo developed from an early-Christian-era structure built over the remains of a Roman fortress. In modern Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, site preparation for a department store uncovered a buried Roman amphitheatre, which in turn may sit over Greek-era construction built after the Macedonian Alexander made the city his capital nearly 2,350 years ago and then went off to conquer the world. Before our New Campus site was desert it was forest, as these petrified remains of ancient trees attest.

The new springs from the old, competes with the old, and sometimes replaces and becomes the old, from which springs the new in a fresh cycle. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is constant. Life is change.

And as the streets of Marrakech in Morocco attest, change is ubiquitous.

[The aerial photos of the AUC campus site were taken nine years apart, the first in 1999 by Barry Iverson and the second on July 15, 2008, from Samsung-Samcrete Joint Venture. The evening photo of the AUC Library (home also to our Primary Data Center) belongs to AUC Director of Planning and Design Ashraf Salloum and was also taken on July 15, 2008. I took all the others myself.]

Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 33 (August 19 - 25, 2008)


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