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that if a potentate was so bad that his people successfully revolted against him, the divine right by which he rules was revoked and handed to whomever replaced him.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.