Weeds and Tubers


There is a maple tree in my backyard. Each year it drops a carpet of winged seeds on the ground. Tens of thousands of seeds, every year, for 30 to 60 years. One, just one, of those seeds needs to take for this tree to fulfill it’s Darwinian mandate and create the next generation. One survives out of million? The ecologists call this a r-Selected strategy.

I, on the other hand, have only a few children, and unlike the maple tree I am expending vast resources on each one of them. The ecologists call this a K-Selected strategy.

Species with an r-Selected architecture (weeds, annuals, insect pests,bacteria) tend to be opportunistic. They spread fast. The “r” stands for resources. If storm clears a section of forest the nearby maple is ready to seed that clearing. These species quickly cover new territory and quickly compose the dead. They tend to fluctuate quickly with the weather.

Species with K-Selected strategy (coconuts, apples, birds, most mammals) expend more on each offspring. Their populations tend to be more constant and self regulating

I assume that some business models are more r-Selected, with others are more K-Selected. If the weather is good and new markets are emerging fast then one should invest in the r-Selected businesses. For the last hundred years technology has created new markets in quantity – a good time for r-Selected businesses. Ones where it’s best to encourage a large population of lightly funded experiments. Now if you think that’s easy I’d recommend a careful dissection of a maple seed. Conversely I’d assume that if your operating in a very mature market with volatile weather then larger enterprises more careful planning and husbanding of your resources if a better tactic.

All this give rise to my new cartoon of open source. That those tens of thousands of projects at Source Forge are like maple seeds. That Open Source is a species that has adopted a r-Selected strategy. It assumes that that the problem at hand is not husbanding ideas, but covering the fresh earth of possibilities. That the problem isn’t finding options worth executing upon, but finding which of a ten thousand possible options will actually take root.

Now one thing that’s curious about this is that if you look at large Open Source projects you might not see that. Those projects look more like whales. They tend to have a certain overhead where in their resources more carefully managed so the baby doesn’t die.

Of course all this is in total contrast to closed source projects. Every one of those I’ve worked on has expended tremendous resources attempting to manage scarce resources. Those projects seem much more like K-Selected species, carefully hording their fatty reserves so they can survive the next round of lousy weather that the market or management blows down the hallway.

Finally I think this has something critical to say about what goes on as you move along the power-law curve. That the population that resides on the long tail tends to be more r-Selected (limited by resources and driven by opportunism) while the upper classes that reside in the towering heights tend to be more K-selected (durable in the face of bad weather, fat, enthusiastic about property rights that guard their inheritance.).

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