Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Putting Yourself in Another's Skin, Empathy, and Art

I've been watching a lot of episodes of the television show "House" lately. I don't watch ordinary tv, just Netflix on my computer. And Netflix Canada just uploaded the entire series. So now I get to see what all the fuss about this very popular program is about. I admit, it is quite mesmerizing. I've been feeling guilty about all the time, but it occurred to me that watching the show isn't a complete waste. 

In the first season there is an on-going subplot involving a wealthy pharmaceutical magnate, Edward Vogler, who "gives" the hospital $100 million (actually, buys control of it) and ends up being chairman of the board of directors. I've sat on charity boards and I have to admit that this portrayal is probably the most dysfunctional depiction of a board chair I've ever seen. He steps in and starts micro-managing decisions by the CEO and bullies the members of the board---including ordering it to fire both individual doctors and any board member that opposes him. (I'm not going to suggest that this can't happen---some truly awful things happen on non-profit boards---but this was a HUGE divergence from how things are supposed to work.) 

One of the things that this monster does is tell Dr. House that at a medical conference he has to flog some new drug that Vogler has recently put on the market. Since House is considered one of the best diagnostic doctors in the world, this is a big deal. The problem is that the drug in question is simply a rehash of an older drug who's patent has expired. A much cheaper---and equally effective---generic is available. If doctors prescribe this new product, they will be seriously harming poor patients without a drug plan and helping artificially jack-up the cost of health care in the USA (already much higher than anywhere else in the world, due to shenanigans like this.) 
House and Vogler
The problem is that Vogler has told House that if he doesn't give this speech he will have to fire one of the young doctors that make up his diagnostic team. This has nothing at all to do with money, as Vogler admits that he is doing this just to punish House and force him to learn how to do as he is told. (This is why a properly run non-profit board creates a fire-wall between the board and the CEO, who is supposed to make these sorts of decisions. This would make for bad drama, however, and, unfortunately isn't always the way things really work.)

House tries, but ultimately gags when he tries to make the speech as ordered, so he simply explains why the drug is a waste of money. Vogler freaks and orders the board to fire House. Since firing a tenured doctor requires a unanimous verdict, House's friend Wilson invokes a effective veto by refusing to vote for this. Vogler responds by ordering the Board to vote to have Wilson kicked off the Board. 

Drama ensues. And, as you might imagine, the character that the series is named after ends up victorious. Vogler leaves the hospital and takes his $100 million with him. 


Why am I making such a fuss about this tv show?

Actually I was so upset by this fictional arc that I found myself having to put the computer on hold and walk around my home until I had cooled off enough to watch the show without exploding.

What the heck is wrong with me? Am I so immature that I can't tell the difference between a story and real life?

I fussed about my behaviour for a while and then I thought, "let's stop being judgmental and look at my mental phenomenon objectively".  After all, I am both a philosopher and a Daoist. Both are supposed to look at the world as it really is and not beat ourselves up because it (including ourselves) aren't the way we think we "should" be.


Let's start by looking at the following YouTube clip from the classic movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird". 

There are two important points here. First Atticus tells Scout about the importance of "considering things from someone else's point of view" or to "climb inside another's skin and walk around in it". (The second, where he talks about the value of compromise which he calls "an agreement reached by mutual consent" but which Scout defines as "bending the law", is also very important---but not relevant to this discussion.)  Like a lot of things in this movie, it appears to be a heartwarming simple father/daughter conversation, but it actually deals with some pretty complex issues. 

What exactly does it mean to "consider things from another's point of view" or "walk in someone else's skin"?

It seems to me that what it is about is using our imagination to try to identify those elements of a person's life that are similar and different to our own, put them together, and create a holistic vision of the motivations behind another person's behaviour. This requires, amongst other things, an attempt to stop thinking about how that person's behaviour affects your life and instead to consider how those actions exclusively affect the other person.  Another way of saying this is to treat other people as "subjects" instead of "objects".


This is not a trivial thing to do, as the show "House" neatly identifies.

One of the people on House's team is a brilliant young immunologist by the name of "Allison Cameron". Her character is motivated by an extreme sense of personal empathy towards others---to the point where she married a man dying of cancer while in med school. House misses no chance to tell her that this is a profoundly dysfunctional attitude for a doctor to have. It not only will create chaos in her personal life, but it will make her a worse doctor because her extreme empathy with patients will prevent her from objectively assessing their maladies. This is obviously true in the series, as whenever she has a patient with a terminal illness her response is to frantically try to find some other---treatable---cause for the symptoms instead of accepting the patient's death.
Allison Cameron from "House"
In the middle of the House/Vogler battle, however, a strange thing happens. Even though she has a very strong crush on House and sees him as some sort of "saviour doctor", she is very hurt by the fact that House refuses to "knuckle under" in order to save her job. (House has to fire one of his doctors and she takes the choice away from him by resigning.) As she resigns she complains that House really doesn't care about anyone else. He only saves his patients as a byproduct of his drive to always be "right".

What is surprising about this is the fact that from an outside perspective House is being extremely altruistic by refusing to "go along" with the insane drug industry system that is causing immense misery to poor people all over the USA. Cameron is very empathetic, but she has a failure in her inability to extend it beyond the person right in front of her to a person she's never met. This is a profound problem in our society because so many people "personalize" issues and cannot get emotionally engaged with issues on a theoretical level. House can, and that is one of the things that sets him apart from other people in the show and makes him seem so bizarre. (More on this specific issue in one of my old blog posts: "The Button Problem".)


OK, what does this have to do with my agitation about watching a mere television show?

Years ago I had a boss at a janitorial job who really liked to hear himself talk. One day he was blathering on about being in India with some friends who are really freaked out by a beggar who had no legs and was going around on a little cart asking for alms. He said he was dumbfounded by his friends who acted like they were afraid of him. He said he couldn't figure out the attitude. At this
This is an actor, I think, but this is what my boss was talking about.
point I offered an opinion that went something to the effect that "Perhaps his existence scared them because he popped the illusion that life is fair or that really, really bad stuff cannot happen to them. He is, after all, a living embodiment of how grotesquely fucked up their lives could potentially become---." My boss's jaw literally dropped. He thought for a while and said "Hey, you might have something there."

The important issue I am talking about is imagination. You cannot "put yourself in another's skin" without have a powerful imagination. And some people have a lot stronger imagination than others. I don't know how much it plays into people's intelligence, but it must have an awful lot to do with it.
Any sort of problem solver needs to be able to consider a lot of different things. Of course they also have to be able to discard most of them and decide which most effectively explains the facts, but there have to be ideas in the first place.

The value of good art---like the television show "House"---is that it allows people to get "into" the heads of other people and imagine what it must be like. This gives them the opportunity to "try out" that other perspective. I'll never be a doctor dealing with life and death issues, but watching how Gregory House and his colleagues work through these issues gives me an opportunity to work through a lot of different complex issues.


Jean Buridan
But why do I have to be so emotionally caught up in this story? Contrary to what a lot of our society tells us, emotions are an integral part of the thinking process. This is explained by the following thought experiment. Consider an intelligent donkey that is placed an absolutely equal distance between two absolutely equal piles of hay. Which one does it go towards? If there is absolutely no difference between the two, then there can be no rational reason for it to go from one to another. Yet it still chooses. How?

This is a teaching story is attributed to the medieval philosopher and physicist Jean Buridan. Actually, more than anything else, it's value resides in reminding people of the common experience of being "on the horns of a dilemma". This is the situation all people find themselves in at one time or another where they see two different options that seem to have equal value and so cannot make up our minds which way to go. Generally, what people have to do is "go with their gut instinct" and accept the consequences.

It could be argued that this decision isn't an "emotion" but some sort of random decision-making feature of the brain (sort of like flipping a coin.) But if so, I would argue that it must be somewhat related---even if only in function. That's because from self-observation my emotions seem to be very tightly connected to what motivates me to perform actions in life. I get very upset about the death of nature, so I've devoted huge swathes of my life to environmental activism. Similarly, when I proposed to my dear, sweet, lovely wife there was no conscious volition on my part. I simply asked her totally without premeditation. I suspect her response was similarly emotionally driven, as without hesitation she said yes.


Once we accept that emotions are part of a decision-making process, then I think I've explained why I had to stop the action and walk around the house for a while before I resumed watching the television show. The exercise of watching a good drama is about becoming engaged with the fictional character, or, as Atticus Finch says, "putting yourself in another's skin". And when I do that, I activate the emotions that come from the situation he finds himself in. The result is nervous energy that threatens to overwhelm my self-control. So instead of "losing it" and throwing something at my computer monitor, I put the show on pause and make a pot of tea.

Why do people do this sort of thing to themselves? Is it pleasurable? Not really. It made me feel so uncomfortable that I am writing a blog post about it. But obviously there is something to it, or else people like me wouldn't give Netflix money to serve this stuff up to us.

I would argue that it is because it serves a useful social purpose in that it allows us a safe, convenient way to exercise empathy towards people we have never met in situations we will probably never experience. This is tremendously important to the human race because it allows us to work through very important problems. In the episodes I referred to, many serious issues were raised.  For example, here are two: "How much power should a boss have over our behaviour?", and, "How do we balance conflicting demands between people we've never met versus those of us we see right in front of us?"

This is exactly the same sort of thing that all creatures indulge in as preparation for life. For example, look at the following YouTube clip of a snow leopard kitten playing with its mother. It's very obvious that it's play is preparation for hunting.

In much the same way, when people watch drama, read novels, etc, we are working through the complexities of social interactions. This is tremendously important to humanity, because our "evolutionary advantage" isn't thick fur or claws, like the snow leopard. Instead, it's our ability to create complex social communities. Humans have a very rare, but enormous useful evolutionary strategy:  Eusociality. That is what scientists call the ability of animals to work together in large colonies. Examples include ants, termites, bees, naked mole rats, people, and very few other animals. And I would argue that the human interest in drama is directly connected to it. That's why I get upset when I watch "House"---I'm learning how to think about some of the complex issues that face the human hive.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dao is Not Sentimental

The first part of Chapter Five of the Dao De Jing is like vinegar to many people. But I think that contains a deep truth that everyone should understand.
Heaven and Earth are not humane (jen),
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs (ch'u kou).
The sage is not humane (jen), 
He treats the hundred families as straw dogs (ch'u kou).  
Ellen Chen trans.
I thought about this after I saw yet another weepy news story about the recent bombings in Brussels. Society is flailing and the news media is sending story after story over the airwaves. But let's think about this. According to Wikipedia, there were thirty-five deaths and three hundred injuries. Lets compare that death toll to a real catastrophe, like World War II. That war lasted a little under six years (Sept 1/39 to Aug 14/45). The total deaths due to the war in that period---including soldiers killed due to battle, civilians due to war crimes, disease, and, starvation---are estimated at between 70 and 85 million. This means that at the most conservative estimate of casualty estimates, 70 million, about 32,000 people died every day during WWII. If we want to get a little closer to home, let's consider the number of people who've died in Iraq and Syria.  According to the website "Iraq Body Count", 242,000 people have died there since the American invasion. And in Syria, according to Wikipedia, 147,000 people have died in the Civil war.

Seen from this perspective, it strikes me that our society's collective reaction to a few minor terrorist attacks is wildly, crazily, insanely, over the top.


In contrast. I've been watching the way our political classes have been responding to the prospect of runaway climate change. Various celebrities and elected officials, for example, have been going on about how unfair and "over the top" it is to expect Alberta to not be allowed any way of shipping their tar sands oil to market. In contrast to the minor casualties predicted from the terrorist attacks, there are serious climate scientists who are arguing that climate change will do things like flood all the coastal cities of the world, disrupt seasonal rains in many areas, and cause the deaths of millions---if not billions---due to drought, starvation, and disease.

Look at these two YouTube videos to explain the two points of view.

It seems so crazy that so many people go berzerk about a few people losing their jobs in Alberta or a tiny number of commuters getting blown up by bombs, yet seem so totally blase about millions of people dying nasty horrible deaths due to climate change. What makes it even worse is that the majority of these other people will admit that climate change is real, they just don't want to do anything about it. The person in the second YouTube video is bang on, if you won't do anything about preventing climate change, no matter what you say, you are still a denier.


What's going on here? It seems to me that the big problem is sentimentality. By that, I mean an emotional reaction that is un-tempered  by rational thought. Take a look at the following poster that I see on the my local bus.

What exactly is the argument here? Did a video tape slap this crying child on the side of her head? Was she strapped to a chair and forced to watch it? Was she forced to take part in the creation of a pornographic movie? Was her mommy neglecting her because she wanted to watch or make pornography? What is it? Frankly, I don't know. I suspect people are just expected to see a crying child and come up with their own ideas. This is the problem with sentimentality, it isn't based on evidence, reason or much of anything at all. But a lot of people build their lives around it.

And the thing to remember about the anti-pornography laws is that they were used to do things like prevent birth control information. Margaret Sanger, for example, found that her pamphlets written to spread information about birth control methods were considered "pornographic" and banned under the "Comstock Laws". In addition, any attempt to portray non-"traditional" sexual orientation was also considered "pornographic", which is why the gay friendly bookstore "Little Sister's" found it's gay-friendly materials being seized at the border by Canada Customs and Revenue agents.  Since women who don't know about birth control often die due to self-induced abortions and gays of both sexes often commit suicide because they cannot find a place in society, anti-pornography laws are of life-and-death importance.
Margaret Sanger, Icky Pornographer

The thing to recognize about the anti-pornography poster that I put up above is that the "hurt" that it is referring to is the sense of "icky fear" that people feel when they are confronted by emotions and urges that people don't know how to understand. For a lot of people who haven't come to terms with their "animal nature", lust is something that is profoundly scary. It puts the lie to the idea that people are somehow different than all the other animals in the world.

In fact, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote a short story about this issue, titled "Welcome to the Monkey House". The title refers to the discomfort that many people feel when they visit the monkey house at the zoo. It is clear to everyone---not matter how much they might deny it---that there is a profound resemblance between human beings and monkeys. (We are all primates, after all.) But monkeys have none of the inhibitions surrounding their bodies that human beings do. In
Kurt Vonnegut, Supporter of Icky Pornography
Vonnegut's story, this discomfort leads a druggist to develop a drug that inhibits human sexual desire and the government promotes it as a means of population control. But a rebel underground fights against this program and instead encourages a different type of birth control that leaves people's instincts whole. When a woman makes the transition from supporting the establishment and instead becomes a rebel (called a "nothing-head"), her first batch of birth control pills comes with the label "Welcome to the Monkey House".

In other words, going into the "Monkey House" is admitting that some aspects of being a human being---such as lust---should be admitted and accepted instead of ignored and denied. Women do want to have sex, so just preaching abstinence is not going to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Not to mention the women in abusive relationships who have no choice in the matter.) Homosexuality is an innate condition, not a chosen lifestyle. So not allowing anyone to discuss it openly will not prevent it, but it will make it almost impossible for many young people to understand what they are going through. Wanting to keep on having good paying jobs in the oil patch is not going to change the horrendous consequences of runaway climate change. And refusing to put a few deaths from terrorist attacks in a larger context is bound to severely damage a free society.


Sentimentality is defined by Google as "excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia". And the sentimental response to terrorism, job layoffs, and, pornography is dangerous. As human beings our sentiments need to be tempered by our reason and experience. If we don't, we thrash around like wounded bears, creating pain all around us.

That's why as Daoists we need to always remember to not be excessively sentimental. And this is part of the point that the famous "vinegar tasters" painting is meant to express. The rational way of looking at the world needs to temper our feelings. One of the traditional ways that Daoists used to teach this idea is through this image. A Confucian, a Buddhist and a Daoist are depicted surrounding a vat of vinegar, which all three are tasting. From the expressions on the faces of the Confucian and the Buddhist, you can see that both consider this a bad-tasting element of life that must be fought against or endured. But the Daoist smiles, because he sees it as just another part of existence and something that must be accepted on its own terms and even enjoyed if possible. Pornography doesn't really "hurt", it is just our inhibitions that cause the pain. A transition to a carbon-free economy is essential to avoiding disaster. And whether we like it or not, we are all going to die, so freaking out about a very small number of terrorist killings is not really necessary.

Wisdom of the Ages---May We All Absorb It!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Volunteerism, or, Yes You Should Do Work for Free

I recently got into an unfortunate exchange on FaceBook that resulted in my "unfriending" an acquaintance that I met through politics. He'd posted an image from a Batman movie that I found particularly annoying and used the opportunity to work through why it bugged me. He responded with a call to "lighten up", which I refused to do.

The Offending Image

There are two things about this image that I find really annoying. First of all, I do not like Heath Ledger's portrayal of "the Joker" in the movie "The Dark Knight". I didn't like the movie at all. It was a reactionary fantasy about a world where the biggest problems that society faces are anarchic street criminals that a "politically-correct" and hopelessly corrupt government finds itself incapable of opposing. The problem with this portrayal is that it is ridiculous. The fundamental problem that society faces aren't bank robbers, it's the owners of the banks. And the worst criminals aren't criminally-insane people who dress-up in pancake make-up and create spectacular explosions, but rather psychopathic "snakes in suits" who are able to worm their way into organizations and twist them to their own ends. The way this movie (and the entire Batman franchise) plays on this reactionary trope came home to me after Barack Obama was elected president of the US. Almost immediately, my hometown was blanketed with the posters that portrayed him as the Joker.

Obama as Joker
Frankly, I found these posters offensive and racist. What was really annoying is that my town isn't even in the USA, it's in Canada. And Obama wouldn't even be considered much of a progressive by most Canadian political parties---let alone a "socialist". But the way right and wrong are expressed in the Batman world appeals to reactionaries, so it makes total sense that someone would use the Heath Ledger Joker portrayal to riff on the "Kenyan Usurper" motif.


Even worse, from my point of view, is the message that "The Offending Image" attempts to portray. I sometimes hear from "creative types" (artists, musicians, writers) that they are being horribly exploited in that they are sometimes asked to "work for free" and that this is a vile, awful idea. The argument is that no one expects anyone else to do stuff for free, so why the heck should they? How could I possibly disagree with such an idea?

My response is that the idea that no one should work for free is supporting the idea that every human interaction should be transactional in nature. Even if no money changes hands, people need to reciprocate in every interaction. This does tremendous violence to the way human society operates. Did you pay your mother for raising you? Did the people who led your scout troupe get paid? How many human institutions would collapse if everyone who worked for them expected to be paid? No more volunteer fire departments. No more food bank. No more soup kitchens. No more community orchestras. No more political parties. No more activist groups. Linux wouldn't exist. You get the picture.


Paul Mason
I recently heard a talk on the CBC show "Ideas" by Paul Mason about his book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. He argued, among other things, that a new society is coming down the pipes, one where non-transactional (my word) relationships will become more and more important. His argument is that modern technology is increasingly dominated by processes that are almost impossible to monetize. That is to say, the information economy is based on ideas instead of things, and by definition ideas are better given away for free instead of sold.

Science and technology only flourish in a world where information flows freely through journals and conferences. If you try to monetize it through patent protection, you stifle innovation and encourage the creation of "junk science". Open source software is inherently better because it benefits from the insight and creativity of everyone in the world who knows enough to participate rather than a very small pool of engineers who are being paid to work on it. Music and literature that exist as digital files instead of vinyl records or paper books can be copied and shipped all over the world for a fraction of the previous costs. The big issue for creatives is marketing, not distribution---which means the biggest problem for most artists isn't having your work copied and shared for free, it's seeing your work being ignored.

Reactionary and neo-liberal politics is increasingly all about putting this genie back into the bottle. For example, I understand that one of the biggest elements of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement involves patent protection. As well, increasingly professions have become arbitrarily exclusionary in order to allow "rent-seeking" by those members of society that are lucky enough to have the right credentials. That is part of the reason why, for example, the legal system has become so insanely complex---lawyers don't want it to be to simple enough for an intelligent person to be able to navigate it without paying a lot of money to experts. Fighting against these attempts to limit the
Pirate Party Logo
free flow of ideas and creative content has fueled the rise of groups such as the Pirate Parties of Europe.

Mason argues that instead of trying to fight against the new technologies that make it harder and harder to reduce relationships between people into monetary transactions, government should be working to make it easier. This isn't as startling as it sounds, as what we call the "free market" is actually a government creation that was put into place through centuries of government intervention. To cite one example, the legal artifact known as the "limited liability corporation" was specifically created by European legal systems to foster the creation of large trading companies. This was because the sums of money required to build fleets of ships to travel overseas were far too large---and the enterprise too risky---for even the wealthiest individuals to attempt. So the legal fiction of the "corporation" was created which holds the liability instead of the individual shareholders who are not personally obliged to "make good" on the company's debts.

One suggestion that Mason makes is that the post-capitalist society could be fostered by the creation of a guaranteed annual income. His concern is that unless the "safety net" becomes better we will see a stratification in society between the people who have paid employment and those who do not. Moreover, the ones that do have employment will become more and more militant about keeping it. The result will be a lot of "rent seeking" in society as people fight tooth and nail against efficiencies that would shrink the work force. And without a good safety net to protect against catastrophic failure, a lot of "ideas workers" won't take the personal financial risks necessary to devote their personal time into creating "the next great idea" on their home computer. Trapeze artists always develop new moves while using a safety net. Why shouldn't inventors and entrepeneurs have one too?


One of the important points that Mason emphasized in his talk is that we are the first society in the world that has solved the problem of scarcity. That is to say, there are no absolute reasons why people should find themselves living in poverty. Any scarcity that people currently find themselves in has been manufactured by human society instead of being intrinsic to the nature of existence. Artificial scarcity can come about for various reasons. One of which is simply because society refuses to redistribute wealth. Another is to create a society where people's wants have been artificially enhanced through things like advertising to the point where people feel that they are being deprived if they lack any number of unnecessary consumer goods. Another one is to design societies in ways that make it very difficult to live without wasting resources---such as housing people in suburban sprawl so people have to use personal automobiles instead of public transit. One last way is to refuse to control population growth so that any surplus production gets eaten up by creating a surplus of consumers.

If we are going to survive past the climate change "bottle neck" however, this creation of artificial scarcity has to end. Instead, we need to create social mechanisms to enhance the ability of people to live within the current abundance instead of feeling the need to always get "more". The creation of an economy based upon the free exchange of ideas is pretty important to that. And, I believe that this is an aesthetic that is at the core of the Daoist ideal. In Journey to the West there is an exchange between two characters where they talk about living a simple life. One of them has a poem about living the simple life of a fisherman who supports his family with the bounty of the lakes and streams. He says when times are bad and there are no fish, they can always eat the leaves of the Tree of Heaven. (I wouldn't recommend this as this could very well be an example of a bad translation confusing one type of tree with another.) The point being that the man of Dao lives in a state of abundance all the time. Partially, this is because he lives a frugal life. And partially, this is because his willingness to learn from nature (a kung fu) gives him the ability to adapt to and see resources that are hidden to the majority of people.

These two old immortals in Journey to the West are living a life of simple abundance because they have made the transition from the old transactional economy based on "things" to the gift economy based on "ideas". Mason's point is that our entire society needs to make this transition now if we are going to survive as a civilization. That's why I fundamentally reject the idea that all creative people need to be paid for everything they do. It is a view of existence that is fundamentally out of harmony with the Dao.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Competition is a Very Bad Idea

I had some conversations recently that reminded me about some very bad ideas that infect many people's minds and create chaos in our civilization. I thought I'd explain one to my readers.



A fellow I know has been asking me a lot about a Canadian institution known as "French Immersion". Canada is an officially bilingual country. This means that the government has mandated that all over the nation everyone is entitled to being served in both French and English. A practical upshot of this is that lots and lots of good-paying government jobs require or strongly recommend fluency in both languages. This ranges from high ranked civil servants down to the woman who sells you stamps at the post office.

This has had a lot of results in our society. One of which was the beautiful mother and young daughter I heard talking away in French when I came back from the Farmer's Market on Saturday. This is a good thing. Another result was the fear from middle class English speakers that their children would never be able to "get ahead" if they weren't fluent in both languages. Since most parts of Canada outside of Quebec are totally English speaking, this created pressure for school boards to create public schools where children from English speaking homes are taught only in French. The result is supposed to be children who are fluently bilingual when they graduate.

This has created several big problems.

First of all, it is really expensive to create a second public school system that parallels the existing one. Second, it costs a lot of money to bus those students who's parents want their children to attend a French immersion school across town. Third, it breaks up communities as children who live next door to each other are often strangers because they do not go to the same school. And fourth, it is the most talented children with the most engaged and supportive parents who go to these French immersion schools. This is a problem because it leaves English public school teachers with a higher percentage of demanding students to look after and the schools lose the students who are often good role models for  the ones that struggle.

In essence, French immersion schools have become elite private schools that are part of the public system.

Space is limited in these public/private schools. This means that the competition for placement in a French immersion school has become intense. Parents sit in cars for days waiting for the doors to open so they can register in the "first come, first served" system. In other districts where people can register by phone, people create "parties" where parents co-operate in order to get to the first. (They all dial until one gets through then the rest pile on and register their children through that connection.) School boards are trying to deal with the issue through creating a lottery. But this doesn't satisfy parents who still want their children to get into the school but fail to win a place.

The fundamental flaw fueling this idiotic situation is the issue of competition for a limited number of positions.

To understand this idea we have to do some thinking from game theory. Let's consider a competition by a population that is larger than the limited number of slots that are open. For example, 100 couples want to get their child into one of 50 slots in a school. If one couple decides to "game the system" by taking extra-ordinary measures---such as sitting out all night in a car so they can be first in line when the doors open---they will end up increasing their chances of getting their child into the program from 50% to 100%. Unfortunately, other parents will see that this strategy works, which means that they will start camping out, which will mean that people have to wait longer and longer periods in order to make sure that they are in line. (According to one article I read, in some areas parents are already waiting for three days ahead of time.)  This is an inevitable outcome in a "first-come-first-serve" system where people are selfishly competing with each other. That's why more and more school boards are using a lottery to assign positions.

But the system gaming for placement is just a minor subset of competitive gaming. The entire concept of a French immersion school system is an attempt to "game" the labour market. Middle class parents who cannot afford to send their children to a real private school are trying to use the French immersion program to give their kids a "leg up" over the others when it comes to finding good jobs when they graduate. Again, the problem with this is that there are only so many jobs where being bilingual will give their children an advantage. So getting your child involved in the immersion program is no guarantee that they will actually get one of those jobs. But one thing we can be sure of, however, is that the more competitive we make the educational system, the more miserable we will make the children who are in it.


One of the big flaws in competition is that people almost never consider the opportunity costs  that flow from it. These can be both personal and communal.

In the case of communal opportunity costs, parents are not considering several things. First, in "gaming" the application system, they are creating a system that makes it harder and harder to go through the mechanics of actually enrolling their child. Secondly, by making such a fetish out of French immersion, they are damaging local English public schools, disrupting the community, and creating excessive and unnecessary costs for all the schools. Finally, by dramatically expanding the pool of bilingual citizens they are making competition for a limited number of government jobs just that more intense.

In terms of personal opportunity costs. The pressure that parents are putting on children to "excel" in their education so they can be more competitive with regard to the other members of their generational cohort lowers the quality of life for everyone. In other nations where society is more competitive than ours, this competition for good schools and good jobs has gotten to a place that most North Americans would find appalling. For example, my ex once explained to me that in India middle class children are usually expected not only to work hard at school, but they are also tutored in their "spare" time in order to get a "leg up" (actually, to just keep up) with their class mates. In addition, they are usually expected to do things like seriously practice a musical instrument (in order to discipline the mind.)

This same intense competition for scarce "entry tickets" to good middle-class jobs also exists in other countries such as China and Japan. Indeed one fairly successful book on this subject is "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". I haven't read it myself, but my understanding that it describes what the author, Amy Chua, calls "traditional Chinese parenting".
Amy Chua: Tiger Mom

There are several problems with this system.

First of all, it puts enormous stress on children and I suspect this damages many of them. Secondly, it is based on the assumption that it is possible to teach a child how to do "everything" or "the important things". I suspect that it is possible to teach or train a child to do many different things, but some of the most important come from unplanned or unpredictable experiences. And those things are by definition unteachable. The child needs some time to spend in an unstructured environment in order to find his or herself. I'd be interested in seeing long term studies that would show how many people who came through this sort of up bringing suffered from some sort of psychological problems in later life. I'd also be interested in seeing how many of them actually became trail-blazers in their fields as opposed to "middle-men" and technicians. I would suspect that the sort of rigorous imposed training in routine and practice costs in terms of creativity and courage.

On a macro level, this intensive pressure on individuals to compete within a system does nothing at all to change it. And that is probably the biggest opportunity cost. Society needs to do something about wealth inequality and the power dynamic that fuels it. Putting huge pressure on our children to become better and better at competing for the small number of jobs needed to support a super wealthy elite does nothing to change the system into something better. For the individual, this strategy might seem to be "more realistic", but for the society as a whole it is suicidal.


When I was young I was taken to a special event at our local agricultural co-op. The guest speaker was a famous Canadian fiddler by the name of Al Cherny. He told a little story about a man who died and when he came before St. Peter he was told that he had been accepted into Heaven. The fellow was a bit of skeptic, so he asked if he'd be able to check out both Heaven and Hell before he made up his mind about where he wanted to go. The saint said that this was OK, so the fellow went off to Hell to check it out.

Being a practical sort, the man went off to the mess hall to see what the food was like in Hell. He said that the devil chefs were serving soup that day and it looked and smelled pretty good. When the denizens came trooping in the door they were all given spoons. But they were strange in that they had impossibly long handles. This meant that when one of the citizens of Hell tried to eat the soup, it all fell out of the spoon and all they got were tiny dribbles of the soup. As you might imagine, this was pretty frustrating.

The fellow thought this was not terribly good, so he then decided that he wanted to see how things fared in Heaven. Again, he went to the mess hall. In Heaven the angels were serving soup too. And surprisingly, when the people of Heaven came in to eat they were given exactly the same types of spoons as the people in Hell! But when they ate they took the long spoons and fed the people sitting across them them at the table. Everyone had lots to eat and all proclaimed the soup was delish.

The point of the story was obvious. If we want to create a Heaven on Earth, we are going to have to help one another instead of competing!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Childhood's End: Part Two

In my past blog post I set the stage for the hypothesis outlined in Susan Schneider and Seth Shostak's Huffington Post article Goodbye, Little Green Men. That is, the reason why we haven't found any extra-terrestrial civilizations is because once a species becomes capable of looking, it quickly evolves into something that would no longer be recognizable as such. Only intelligences---like ours---that are on the beginning of this trajectory would be seen as such. And that is a very narrow window of "visibility".

Ultimately, what I am talking about is the "Technological Singularity".  This is the idea that there will come a point in the development of artificial intelligence when computers will start designing themselves in substantive ways. Since computers are so much faster than the human brain, this means that a fourth evolutionary race will begin (beyond DNA, culture, and technology/human hybrids like the Internet) as the new computers designed by the old ones design even better ones that will in turn design even better ones until we almost instantly reach a point that where humanity is left in the dust. What is left will probably function at a speed and in ways that would be incomprehensible to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) machinery that is currently in place.


I'm not about to get caught up in technical issues that I know almost nothing about, but I do think it might be interesting to discuss some of the ways that science fiction writers have thought about what a transition away from purely biological thinking processes to technological ones would look like. There are a huge number of examples. For example, D. F. Jone's novel Collossus deals with a cold-war era super computer that develops sentience and uses it's control of the nuclear arsenal to blackmail human society. In Harlan Ellison's short story to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", this concept is expanded into a world where the AI goes beyond wanting to control the human race into a diabolical hatred of a small remnant of humanity which it keeps alive in order to torture. Star Trek played with the idea by introducing the Borg, who were an sort of "super Internet" of creatures from various civilizations that had been "assimilated" into a digital collective consciousness. And Stargate SG1 introduced the "replicators", which started off as a child's toy that was able to reproduce itself and became like a swarm of locusts spreading from one advanced civilization to another across two galaxies where it feeds on their technology and raw materials in order to reproduce (or, "replicate".)

The Replicators from Stargate

It's hard to choose, but the first example that I want to discuss in some detail comes from Ursula Le Guin's  book Always Coming Home. This novel is something of an anthropological treatise on a future, enviro-utopian society. In it, intelligence has split into two streams: human and machine. Human society is fragmented into small tribal societies that have all created specific cultures that are adapted to the specific environment that they live in. There is some use of technology, but it is quite minimal and very much what is known as "appropriate tech".
Ursula Le Guin
Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, exists totally separated in the underground and, to a certain extent, in outer space. The only way it interfaces with humanity is through the creation and maintenance of computer terminals in every community. These terminals allow human beings to communicate with other humans over long distances and to also access the sum total of knowledge that both humanity and AI have been able to accumulate. In this vision, artificial and human intelligence have become what Stephen Jay Gould would call "non-overlapping magisteria".

In effect, humanity appears to end up living totally at the sufferance of an artificial intelligence that benignly neglects them. While Le Guin never really works through the implications and makes this explicit, her future humanity is living in the equivalent of a nature preserve or game park. (Please don't feed the bears!)


The next example I came across was from Frederick Pohl's Heechee books. In this future, humanity develops both artificial intelligence and the ability to download human memory and "personality" into data storage. This creates both a type of immortality and a temporal disconnect between the living and the dead. The disconnect comes about because computers are able to process information so much faster than brains can that dead humans can accomplish in seconds what would require living ones months or even years to achieve.

This disconnect between living and machine stored intelligence creates a tension in the series of novels that gets settled through the plot device of the discovery of an intelligence that only exists as data, the "Assassins" or the "Foe". They are seen as the enemy of "meat" intelligence because they supposedly wipe out all intelligent life that holds the promise of evolving to become an eventual competitor and because they are attempting to change the nature of the universe to make it more
Frederick Pohl
compatible with energy-based life forms instead of material ones. Rather anti-climatically, this tension gets resolved once the "Assassins" learn about human artificial intelligence and machine storage of human personality. It turns out that human beings are evolving into energy-based entities instead of material, so they are no longer enemies and should be tolerated. Since the long term Assassin project of changing the entire universe has billions of years to proceed, humans decide that there is lots of time to evolve to a point where this will no longer be a problem.

I have a problem with Pohl's description of machine-stored humanity because I don't think he's really come to terms with the complexity of human consciousness.

The first thing to remember is that what we "are" is not a "brain in a bottle". Instead, we are firmly rooted in a specific body. This has various ramifications. First of all, it's important to understand that our hormones regulate a great many things like emotions. Pohl's machine stored humans indulge in a lot of things like eating fancy meals and having sex that have a great deal to do with the bodies that they have given up. Without sex organs, why would they have any sex drive? Of course, it would be possible to write subroutines in the stored personalities that would create simulated appetites of all sorts, but why would they do so? More importantly, even if these stored people started out with virtual bodies, why would they want to keep them in the same state as in material existence?

Even beyond things like sex and eating, human beings are governed by physical limitations. For example, I can only see in one direction and only one viewpoint at a time. No such limitation should exist for a machine stored intelligence. What would it be like to see a full 180 degree viewpoint at all times? And why stop there? What would it be like to be able to see an entire object front, back, sideways, up and down all at once? Again, why stop there? What would it be like to see an object simultaneously over a period of time?  Pohl doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of how incredibly alien it could be to live as a stored intelligence. Perhaps something of humanity could eventually be stored in computers, but I doubt if it would be in any way shape or form recognizable as a human being.

Of course, this is the point that the authors of "Goodbye Little Green Men" were getting at. The fact that we have the technological ability to look means that we will be quickly evolving into something that would no longer be recognizable as being life at all---.


The last science fiction novel that I want to discuss of that explicitly deals with the issue is Linda Nagata's The Red: Into First Light. This story involves an emergent Artificial Intelligence (AI) that comes out marketing software that is designed to track and anticipate the desires of people browsing the Internet.

In Nagata's world, modern society has devolved into an almost total plutocracy dominated by the Military Industrial Complex. A small number of oligarchs (informally known as "dragons") control and arms industry and armies of mercenaries, and manipulate the American government to create endless brush fire wars in the Third World primarily as a means for sustaining their corporate
Linda Nagata
empires. One element of this system are the creation of "linked soldiers" who are managed in combat through the use of real-time communications systems directly connected to their brains. This allows the chain of command to be able to see and hear everything each individual front line soldier does. This allows them to co-ordinate their activities in a way that makes them far superior fighters than any other army is able to do. It also allows the soldiers to survive combat stress far beyond that of anyone else, because the hormonal structure of the brain is manipulated to prevent debilitating combat fatigue or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An added advantage is that this system creates a lot of visual footage that can be edited together and made into a very popular "reality tv" show that provides useful propaganda for the government.

The protagonist of the story, Lt. James Shelley, starts finding that he is being given a subtle "advantage" that allows him to avoid death by "intuitively" avoiding specific situations or "anticipating" problems. Eventually, all the members of his squad begin to notice and they realize that there is something manipulating them from "on high". They understand that this sort of thing is impossible for human beings to do, so they realize that what is happening is some sort of emergent AI is manipulating them for some reason. They call it "the Red", and develop a strange ambivalent relationship to it----at one time scared of it, but beginning to rely on it for survival.

As the novel series proceeds (I'm only half way through the second of the three part series), the "movers and shakers" either try to destroy the Red (through an attack on the server farms where it lives) or accommodate themselves to it by attempting to anticipating its desires and making themselves useful to it. In effect, it just becomes another player in a complex world where "little people" like Shelley and his crew exist as little more than chess pieces. I haven't finished the novel series, but it strikes me that this is a perfectly logic way of looking at AI---just another part of the mix, just like the Emperor was to your average Chinese peasant or Roman slave, or,  Bill Gates is to someone who works at McDonald's flipping burgers. A semi divine part of the landscape that one hopes either ignores you or finds you of some use.


Of course, some of the people who read my blog will now be saying "What has this got to do with Daoism?" I'd suggest a great deal. There is something in the human psyche that has always made us speculate about the existence of divine beings. In Daoism, this manifested itself in the creation of a huge pantheon of Gods. Some of the more popular ones are:

Jade Emperor
Queen Mother of the West
Lu Dongbin
General Guan Yu


Why do people create these sorts of stories? I would argue that part of the reason is so the human mind can work its way through a specific type of complex issue. How would a truly wise, beneficent ruler act?  Hear stories about the Jade Emperor. How would a truly honourable, loyal general act? Talk about Guan Yu. In the same way, science fiction stories talk about how an AI would act. Would they be pretty much indifferent to humanity, as in Le Guin's novel? Would we be able to meaningfully interact with them as equals, as in Pohl's book? Or would they be incomprehensible "powers" that manipulate humanity like pawns on a chessboard, as in Nagata's series?

The difference between the olden days and now is that we no longer believe in "magic" like the old people did. Instead, we embed our "magical thinking" into science and technology. It is impossible for us to believe that Gods exist, so we have to create them by extrapolating what we have created here-and-now beyond what concretely exists into some sort of plausible extension. But ultimately, it is much the same thing. Reading science fiction is just like listening to stories about the Gods and Goddesses in old temples. The difference is that we can believe in these stories, whereas the old ones seem "impossible" and "archaic".

Silly mortals---.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mencius and "Soft Power"

In book six ("Duke Wen of T'eng, Bk Two"), chapter 5, of the David Hinton translation of Mencius, a disciple of Mencius asks him about the limits of righteousness when it comes to asserting power in the world. He points to the small state of Sung (also translated as "Song")  "Sung is a small nation. If its government became that of a a true emperor and it were therefore invaded by Ch'i and Ch'u, what could be done?"

Remember that Mencius was writing at the time of the "Warring States" period, which was when a group of individual nations emerged from the old Zhou dynasty. Because what we now call "China" was fragmented into different states, it was a time of intense competition as various governments experimented with different philosophies in order to create the most successful society. This is when Daoism, Confucianism, Moism, Legalism and so on competed with one another in much the same way that Communism, Capitalism, Fascism, and so on vied for supremacy in the 20th century.

Warring States China:  450 BC
As you can see in the above map (click on it to get a good view), Song was one of the smaller states in this group---situated between the much larger states of "Chu" (ie: "Ch'u") to the South and "Qi" ("Ch'i") to the North . The assumption that the disciple is making is that there is nothing that the rulers of Song can do to avoid being swallowed up.

This is a significant concern for Mencius, because he posited that rulers only governed at the sufferance of their people. This is the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven", or, the idea that if a potentate was so bad that his people successfully revolted against him, the divine right by which he rules was revoked and handed to whomever replaced him. The question being raised is "what happens if a ruler with the Mandate of Heaven (ie: a "true emperor") arises in a small state like Sung? Will the mandate protect him from being squashed like a bug?"

Mencius's answer is to make an analogy from The Book of Documents, (also called The Classic of History). I've not read any of it myself, and Wikipedia says that much of it was lost during the Qin Empire's book burning that followed the end of the Warring States period, so I don't even know if there is anymore than can be learned about the incidents that Mencius refers to. But what he does say is pretty self-explanatory. The ruler of Po (T'ang) was concerned about the ruler of the neighbouring state of Ko neglecting some sacrifices. So Po sent Ko some "foreign aid" in the form of animals to be sacrificed. Instead, the rulers of Ko just ate them. Again, Po asked why the sacrifices weren't being followed, and the response was "Ko doesn't have enough millet". So Po sent some "Peace Corps" workers to help with the plowing and planting---Ko had their food and seed stolen and even killed one of the young people that was sent.

After this outrage, Po sent an army to remove the leadership of Ko. Mencius says "---everyone within the four seas said:  It isn't lust for all beneath Heaven:  it's revenge for the abuse of common men and women." Mencius then goes on to say that T'ang then went to mount eleven other expeditions to build his empire. He says that "When he marched east, the western tribes complained. And when he marched south, the northern tribes complained:  Why does he leave us for last?"

The reason why people wanted T'ang to invade them was because of the way he ruled that nations under his sway. Mencius says
People watched for him the way they watched for rain in the midst of a great drought. When he came, they went to market unhindered again and weeded their fields without interference. He punished the rulers and comforted the people, like rain falling in its season. And so a great joy rose among the people. The Book of History says:  We're waiting for our lord:  his coming will end our suffering.
In effect, when T'ang marched into another country it wasn't seen as an invasion but rather as a liberation.

What Mencius is talking about is soft power. This is when a state or institution is capable of influencing other states or institutions through example rather than by using either bribery or brute force. At one time there were countries that actively tried to use soft power in the world---Canada at one time was one of them. But after the attacks of 9/11 and other incidents of terror, a different narrative took over, one that finds appeals to reason or the better nature of other people totally inexplicable.


Take a look at the following clip from a speech by Canada's current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. In it, he is outlining Canada's new policy for dealing with Isis. It involves three elements.

First, he is removing the six fighter bombers that are currently involved in attacking ISIS position. They will be replaced by some support services for the bombers being supplied by other nations such air tankers for refueling and surveillance aircraft to help identify bombing targets.

The second element involves military support for the emerging nation state of Kurdistan. This ultimately means that Canada supports the ending of the boundaries that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the emergence of new borders that actually reflect the ethnic identity of the population.
Where the Kurds Live
In practical terms, this support involves sending more military trainers and light weapons such as assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and ammunition to help the Peshmerga with their campaigns against ISIS. This support makes real sense from a geopolitical point of view in that the Kurds are the only effective local fighting force in the area and are committed to the long term project of establishing their own state. As such, they offer the hope of becoming one of the pillars for long term stability in the area. This really is part of a strategy that actually offers some hope for ending the threat of ISIS once and for all---as opposed to the current one of trying keep the present borders through unending warfare.

Unfortunately, helping Kurdistan goes directly against the stated goals of Syria, Turkey and Iran---all of which have sizable Kurdish minorities and who would ideally like to take their parts of said countries and incorporate them into the eventual Kurdish state. (Iraq has pretty much given up already and already ceded the parts of its territories where Kurds live.) This is a tremendously "ballsy" foreign policy move, but has the advantage of being the only thing that I've heard on the subject that actually makes sense.

In addition, the Canadian government has committed itself to increased foreign aid to the nations that are currently hosting the brunt of refugees from the fighting:  Lebanon and Jordan.

Soft power isn't just about countries being "nice", it's also about not being stupid. And the willingness of the Liberals to actually support the Kurds is, I suspect, an example of creating a foreign policy that is meant to not be stupid. In politics there is a constant pressure to pander to the electorate. And there are well-organized constituencies who feel it is their job to "bang the drum" and whip people into frenzies of anger, fear and hatred in order to mobilize the masses. I've always felt that one of the jobs of a politician is to do the opposite---to prevent panic, calm people down, and come up with the best policy possible. If you listen to the tone Trudeau is projecting in the speech, I would suggest that that is exactly what he is trying to do in that clip I posted above. In effect, his speech is the verbal equivalent of the famous WW2 poster.

If, however, you look at where I originally got the link of the Trudeau speech, it was from a YouTube channel called "Rebel Media" where it was posted with this title "Trudeau displays his troubling world view in ISIS announcement".  Presumably, they would have also complained bitterly about the British government trying to calm down the populace in the face of nightly bombing attacks and the possibility of a German invasion. (I can only assume that they believe that the only patriot response to a threat seems to be panic and thrashing around blindly.)


Daoism teaches about the "soft" overcoming the "hard". Indeed, I was taught in my taijiquan school how to take a punch by totally relaxing my body and allowing the force to flow through my body and into the ground. But how we define "soft" can have several meanings. As Trudeau says in his clip, the "the lethal enemy of barbarism isn't hatred, it's reason". The soft, calm voice of an intelligent foreign policy---based on an objective assessment of the situation---is much more productive than the shrill populist attempt to mobilize support through fear and anger.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Childhood's End: Part One

Dr. Frank Drake and his Equation
I recently read a blog post titled "Goodbye Little Green Men" that got me thinking about a great many things. Primarily, it is an answer to the issues raised by the "Drake Equation" and the "Fermi Paradox".

In 1961 Dr. Frank Drake suggested that it is possible to identify all the elements that govern the existence of intelligent life in the universe and create a formula to predict its frequency.

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

Enrico Fermi
I won't go into the details (the link to Wikipedia serves that purpose or you can click on the picture of Dr. Drake), but I will point out that given what we now know about our galaxy and our present capacity to analyse radio waves, an honest question arises. As the physicist Enrico Fermi  asked: "Where is everybody?". This became known as the "Fermi Paradox".  Following the perfectly plausible elements of the Drake Equation, we should be drowning in old episodes of the extraterrestrial equivalent of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honey-Mooners". Instead, we get a big, empty silence.

Susan Schneider
The philosopher Susan Schneider and the astronomer Seth Shostak co-authored "Goodbye Little Green Men" to explain the Fermi Paradox and IMHO, they pretty much did it.

Simply put, their argument is that because of the nature of intelligence, once any species and civilization evolves to the point where it is capable of searching for intelligence in the wider universe, it would quickly change into something that that we would not be capable of identifying as such. In other words, the situation we find ourselves in right
Seth Shostak
now as a species is a tremendously short window of opportunity that disappears very quickly in the lifespan of intelligence. Before this point, we wouldn't have had the technological ability to search for signs of intelligent life, after it, we will be so changed by our technology that the intelligence we (and others) exhibit will be incomprehensible to the people who are alive today.

To understand this point consider the notion that human intelligence as we know it is the result of two evolutionary processes, one biological and the other cultural. The biological one is the result of billions of years of slow, Darwinian selection. The cultural one has worked on a much, much, much faster timescale and has only taken thousands of years. The first used random selection of chemicals in our DNA to create better and better brains. The second used random selection of culture as societies adopted things like language, agriculture, logic, writing, mathematics, democratic decision-making, the scientific method, and so on, to create more and more intelligent human societies. Think of these two processes as roughly the same as creating smarter and smarter computers, and, more and more sophisticated software to run in them.

A third process is happening right now. That is the use of technology to develop, for want of a better term, "post-human intelligence".


They still publish it!
Years ago I used to write a weekly column for my local daily newspaper. One of the "tricks" I learned to use was to find facts in my yearly almanac. Once a year a thick paperback comes out with a enormous number of statistics. I found it an invaluable tool. For example, I wrote one column about the cost of personal as opposed to public transit in my town. Using that almanac I was able to look up the population of my city, how much the average Canadian spends on their automobile, and, how many automobiles there are per Canadian. Using these figures, I was able to calculate the amount our citizens spend privately on transportation.  I then did some old-fashioned reporting and called City Hall and asked someone in transit to give me the numbers for how much the bus budget was, and how much of the money spent came from fares and how much from tax payers. The result was a column that shows my city spends something like a thousand times as much on cars than it does on buses and trains. The implication was that if we got rid of personal automobiles altogether we would have an amazing public transit system that meets all our needs and which would cost a fraction of what we spend on cars.

That old almanac was an amazing piece of technology for journalists!

During this three year period of writing a weekly column, I attempted to use search engines and web browsers to do research. But I always found that there simply wasn't enough content on the web to answer even such simple questions as how to spell "Auschwitz" (something my spell checker on Blogger just did.) Now things are very different. Indeed, they are so different that they have given someone like me an ability to do research much faster than was previously possible. (And I no longer buy a yearly Almanac.)

An even starker example of how things has changed comes from an earlier time----when I was in graduate school. It was possible to do word searches of databases. But before Google and the World Wide Web this involved paying $50/word and waiting a week for the mainframes at the University of Waterloo to come up with a print-out from specialized academic databases. I can remember one horrible semester where I had to go through one of these fan folded nightmares to look up "quality of life indicators research" in Master's theses.  This involved pulling out an enormous printed book filled with synopses of individual theses. I would look up a specific thesis, read the precis and make a note for the professor whether or not it might be of relevance to his research. Now everyone with access to a web browser and Google routinely does this sort of search with far more sophisticated parameters and other things much more mundane---like chicken soup recipes or telephone numbers. And, of course, the results come almost instantly and are usually for free.

The impact that this has on my writing is astronomical. It is what allows me, a glorified night porter, to do the sort of research and writing that used to be only the preserve of a tenured professor or a professional journalist. Before Google and the huge database on the World Wide Web, just looking up the bits of information that I mentioned at the start of this blog (ie: Drake's Equation and Fermi's Paradox) would have taken hours in a library. Instead, now I just have to vaguely know about them, do a quick Google search, and double check. Indeed, in this case I thought that Fermi's Paradox was the inspiration for the Drake Equation, but glancing through the Wikipedia, I realized that it was the other way around.

Not only does this enormous instantly accessible database allow me to do research hundreds, if not thousands of times faster than used to be possible. It also allows a generalist---like myself---to bypass the enormous amounts of time that used to be required to learn a specialized field. My MD mentioned this to me in my last check up. He said that increasingly he takes advantage of expert opinion on the internet to benefit from the best knowledge about diagnosis and treatment. (Thankfully, the medical community uses a vetting process to shift out all the crap that clogs the lame-stream and social medias.) Now he can be a family practitioner in general practice, yet still benefit from the experience of specialists who have been able to see thousands of patients with just one specific complaint. This is a good thing---.


This situation has crept up on us, so most people don't realize how tremendously important it is. What has happened is that the Google search engine plus the World Wide Web has by-passed several significant evolutionary bottle-necks in the evolution of our brains.

First, human beings used to be limited by their own personal ability to amass and store facts. Human beings are capable of storing huge amounts of information---anyone who has memorized the lines of a play can attest to this. Lots of traditional education used to involve assimilating information. The Chinese even have a slang phrase for this sort of learning, "stuffing the duck", which means jamming the heads of students with specific information aimed at their doing well in a standardized admissions test.  (Does any of this sound familiar to modern North American teachers?) The problem with this system is that it pretty much destroys any interest in learning for learning's sake and selects against creativity.

Having said that, there at least was a rationale for stuffing the duck because professionals had to lean on the facts that they had assimilated during training. It would take too long to constantly look things up when they were working and would be expected to have amassed a collection of information that they could draw upon at need. But with Google and the Web, this is increasingly unnecessary. If I don't know how to do something, all I have to do is be able to articulate the problem in a way that allows me to search for it, and the information will usually show up on my computer almost instantly. What this does is takes away the advantage of people who have specialized knowledge and puts the generalist who is a creative problem solver on top. (This is what my family practice MD is doing when he accesses the expert database.)

It isn't enough to just add to the store of human knowledge and give people access to it, there also has to be some way of evaluating that knowledge and organizing it based on its value. There is a lot of crap out there on the World Wide Web and people need to be able to find the good stuff easily. Indeed, when most people do a Google search, they only look at the first one or maybe two pages of results---even though there may be hundreds of pages found. The very best stuff needs to be on that first page! The way the Web does this is by using the collective intelligence/wisdom/good will of the entire human race.

This has been identified as "the wisdom of crowds" and is integral to things like Wikipedia. In the case of the Google search engine, it harnesses this phenomenon through a system called " PageRank". Basically, this assigns a value to a webpage based on how many other webpages link to it, and, the value that each of those webpages has in turn been assigned by the Google algorithm. (This is a gross oversimplification, but it is one of the main ways that Google assigns placement of a website URL in a search.)


This is a point where the reader should pause a bit and think through the implications of what I have just mentioned. The WWW and sophisticated search engines have managed to dramatically expand the store of human knowledge on a personal level. Moreover, they have harnessed the collective wisdom of the entire human community to improve our judgement about that knowledge. We are using technology to literally construct a "collective intelligence". This isn't some sort of strange science fiction future I am talking about, but what I am doing right now as I work on this blog post.


Consider the next steps.

Right now there are several "bottlenecks" in the development of this collective intelligence. First of all, we are limited by the speed with which a person can type and read. I can type over 100 words a minute, which is on the high end of human capacity. I can also read and comprehend faster than the average person. But the difference between the fastest and slowest human being pales into insignificance compared to the speed with which the hard drive on my computer can read and write data. What sort of world would we inhabit if the human mind were capable to directly connect to computers and was able to bypass the use of hand and eye to interface with the internet?

A lot of work is being done on this question right now, mostly for things like helping people who are paralyzed to walk through the use of powered exoskeletons or as a marketing tool to measure people's emotional engagement with specific products. They appear clunky, but if there ever is some sort of interface developed that allows people to approach the speeds that computers currently are able to communicate with the internet, it might dramatically change the relationship we have with it.

There are severe limitations on the speed with which the human brain can assimilate new information, however. As I pointed out in a previous post, there seem to be absolute limits to the ability of the human brain when it comes to assimilating new information. Beyond an hour or so of writing, for example, I become extremely fatigued. And if I spend too much time at a computer or "multi-tasking" I find myself becoming more and more "scattered". In other words, I lose my ability to focus upon one task and my mind starts flitting around almost at random.

This inability to focus one's attention is something that I've heard professors complain about with undergraduates. It's hard to tell if this is just a case of the old grousing about the young. It might also be the case that the old don't understand the way young people's minds operate---there still seem to be lots of bright young people making discoveries in science and engineering. Or, it might be the first signs of a growing problem as the human brain becomes a absolute bottle neck in the growth of earth's intellectual capacity. If so, it might be that we will be ripe for replacement for some sort of artificial intelligence.


This post is already a bit longer than most, so I will continue this theme at a later date.