Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Tom cats and lightning bugs: Two approaches to data

July 16, 2020General

On a summer evening in the Northeast, an orange tom cat creeps under a wooden fence and hides in the bushes behind a bird-feeder. It’s getting dark. The cat is hidden and silent. His tail twitches. Above him, wrens and blue jays and cardinals land on the feeder. This cat has placed himself at the most highly trafficked node of a network. Seeds spill from the feeder. A blue mourning dove, its head bobbing like a pigeon, pecks at the ground. The cat leaps from behind the bush and nabs it.

A few minutes later, it’s a bit darker in the garden, and tiny lights flicker in the summer air. These are fireflies, or lightning bugs. These insects carry chemicals in their abdomens that produce the yellow or pale red light. The patterns of these lights send signals to potential mates who lie below, in the grass. Each species has different signals. When a female  lightning bug below sends back the appropriate signal, the male lands and mates. This is risky for the bugs, because at the same time they’re going through their mating ritual, whippoorwills in the nearby trees are looking for their evening meal.

If you look at the tom cat and the lightning bug, they represent two different approaches to data. The cat is stealthy. It shares no data. He places himself at the busiest intersection in the network and he hunts. He inspires fear, which affects the behavior of the birds.

The lightning bugs, by contrast, share data to get data. Yes, it involves risk, but they weigh that risk (or evolution has accomplished that calculation for them), and it’s worth it for them. In this sense, they represent a more modern approach to data.




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