But there's another reason John Edwards dropped out of the Democratic race last week: self-organized criticality.
From forest fires to economics, self-organized criticality, or SOC, applies to just about everything. The easiest way to imagine it is to think of an hourglass. As sand pours through the waist, a sand pile begins to form. The grains of sand may fall randomly, but those grains begin to self-organize, creating a complex system: the sand pile.
Once the pile reaches a critical base-to-height ratio — a so-called state of criticality — the pile stops growing, and small avalanches begin to slough off as the grains of sand reconstitute the system.
Recently, researchers have even observed the phenomenon in a Mexican colony of ants that, instead of growing continually, inhabit only 3 percent of their habitat.
This was heartening as I tore into a bag of Dried Weaver Ants With Eggs. I was not in the mood for a gastric avalanche, and I could only hope these ants would practice a restraint similar to that of their Mexican cousins.
I'm well aware that in plenty of countries, ants and other insects are eaten by the hive-ful. I, on the other hand, have cultivated a happy ignorance to the culinary virtues of Class Insecta, and I was now worried that this tufted mass of dehydrated bugs was about to self-organize a criticality in my gut.
Tearing open the foil pouch (shipped via air mail from Thailand) was not pleasing. The ants, so delicate and industrious in life, in death had been pulverized into a dehydrated clump of dismembered petioles, alitrunks, heads and gasters. The jumble of body parts was interrupted only by the occasional sac of desiccated ant larvae — included, I presume, for texture.
And texture it had. Sure, it was crunchy, but all of those random little ant eyes, tarsi, mandibles and antennae were like so many grains of sand. You can't pick them out. They make up their own undifferentiated texture — a sort of gustatory self-organizing criticality.
The "Thai herbs" the ants were seasoned with were a boon. The dried insects themselves were a little, well, dry, but overall, it was nice and sour — sort of like peanuts seasoned with salt and lime.
The only critical part came a few minutes later, when I found myself extracting the occasional ant head from between my teeth. I suppose that makes sense as well, though. After all, researchers believe that those ants in Mexico self-organize in order to protect the colony from another insect: the decapitating fly.
This parasitic creature earns its name by laying a single egg in the thorax of an ant. The larva then migrates to the head, where it eats the contents. Finally, it knocks the head off, allowing the mature fly to emerge.
In other words, the decapitating fly acts as the avalanche-inducing grain of sand.
Of course, in politics, the presidency is the ultimate anthill. The only question: Which fly will emerge?
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to email@example.com.