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When oppression carries a small price tag most of the time you learn to pay up and move on. Once in a blue moon you feel moving on is a mistake. You decide to fight back against the oppressor. In this case Amazon. All that separates Amazon from China (so far) is Amazon can’t send a black van with a security detail to drag you out of your house and put you in a detention centre until you confess your crime, profess your loyalty to the regime and agree to not cause any more problems. You are invited into a zero sum game that you can’t win.

There are reasons why Elizabeth Warren and others have called for the break up Amazon, Facebook and Google are gaining traction and a band of followers. They are too big. Too powerful. They are bullies extracting money from you. That is their business model. Extraction of your wealth. They have departments working on opening new and productive mines.

When I trained as a lawyer, anti-trust laws constrained the worst of these predators knocking them down in size. Whether you now call them oligarchs, rentiers, cartels, autocratic power, it doesn’t matter—as name calling doesn’t quite reach behind the opaque corporate veil where marching orders are issued and the rest of us are forced to comply or risk our livelihood.

Amazon shares with the Chinese State Social Credit Ranking system is their impressive, massive surveillance systems to monitor and control those under their authority. If you’re an author on Amazon, then your books are subject to surveillance by Amazon 24 hours a day. Amazon goes one step further into the oppressive, surveillance state, they demand that you comb the Internet for pirates or anyone else who has found a way to offer your book for free or $1 and demand they remove your title. If you don’t, and you refuse to lower your price to match the pirate’s, your book is delisted after five days.

Amazon demands you work for them for free or they delist your book. Amazon has given new meaning to the concept of the road to serfdom. Like all good rentiers, Amazon has the power to force you to work for them. Don’t like their offer? Then your book is kicked off their website. In common with the Chinese Social Credit Ranking system, Amazon punishes you. Only in this case, you are responsible for the actions of others over whom you have absolutely no control. Try sending a takedown order to a pirate website. Good luck on that. Not even the Chinese have gone quite this far in repressive measures.


You can buy at kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/search?query=A+Bewitching+Smile+moore

You can buy at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/search?query=A+Bewitching+Smile

Please DO NOT BUY AT AMAZON.

Here’s my story. I received an email on 9 March 2019 from Amazon. It is one of those mindless, drone-like robot letters that would never pass the Turing Test:

“During a review, we noticed the Amazon.com physical or digital list price for the book(s) listed below is higher than the list price of the same book listed on Amazon or another website.

A Bewitching Smile (Land of Smiles Trilogy Book 2) (ID: B002VECT98) is listed on Amazon.com at $ 3.95 and at $ 2.99 on GooglePlay-US

Please adjust the list price within the next 5 business days to comply with our pricing policy. You’ll need to set your Digital Book’s List Price (and change it from time-to-time if necessary) so that it is no higher than the list price in any sales channel for any digital or physical edition of the Digital Book.”

It seems their robot is innumerate. Rather than another site having a ‘higher’ price than Amazon (they love that) but presumably meant Google was offering a ‘lower’ price than the one for A Bewitching Smile on Amazon. Higher, lower, who knows with Amazon what nonsense their robot will come up with next.

One other minor point, II had an IT person check on Google-Play-US and it turns out they aren’t selling A Bewitching Smile. I never uploaded to Google-Play-US and certainly haven’t received any payments or had any contact from Google-Pay. That doesn’t small matter of any contractual or other relationship with the ‘vendor’ in the Amazon worlds.

I was in no mood to be polite to the robot and replied:

I did not set the Google price.

I get no money from them.

I have no idea why they are selling A Bewitching Smile. Another corporate predator in the style of Amazon.

Your policy is fucking crazy.

What if google set the price at 1 cent for a book does that mean amazon removes my book unless I reset it at 1 cent on google?

Today 11th March Amazon replied

“Thank you for your response.

You can view where your book is available here:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=5_-77ABcF4wC

Please note that, as the rights holder for your book, you are responsible for the distribution of your book and for ensuring that it meets the requirements of our Terms and Conditions.  If you’ve found your work available for sale on an unauthorized website, we suggest contacting that website to confirm your rights and request removal of the content.”

Never mind I wrote Amazon that their policy was fucking crazy, they thanked me for my response. This is the kind of response that converts a crime writers into a mouth frothing Jihad Luddite. A literary mob with axes descending on one. Of Jeff Bezos’s mansion and turning it into firework display.

I could reply that I live in a country where what Amazon is asking me to do is illegal. Work. Work without a work permit. I’m quite confident that under Thai law requesting a foreigner to work (for free it doesn’t matter) without checking to see if they are allowed to work is a criminal violation. Amazon spends no time or money on those issues as they would likely say under their Terms and Conditions you are required to get a work permit to do Amazon’s bidding. And if you can’t get one, get the fuck off their site. And Americans complain about Chinese government oppression.

Of course, I suspect the Amazon oppression falls hardest on the low volume selling author. All of those millions of authors on Amazon is impressive until you dig a little deeper and find most of them make next to nothing. Their books are worth pirating. Even for free, there is no market for most of them. Then at the very top are authors who make in a week what I make in 10 years in the Amazon gulag.

I decided on a little test. I’ve met Lee Child. He’s a wonderful, empathic person and has helped many writers in the crime community. In fact, I’ve met few writers with a bigger heart and an open door for others. So this rant isn’t a shot at him. It’s a shot at the Amazon system. Lee is like the Warren Buffet of crime fiction. James Patterson, I don’t know, makes millions a years from novels, mostly written by others, but published under his name in big letters. So do either writers like Lee Child and James Patterson or their publishers receive such letters from Amazon?

I was curious as to what would return from a Google Search of Free downloads books Lee Child, author of the highly popular and commercial Jack Reacher series. 161 million returns on the search. Lee Child or his publisher would have to employ an army of researchers and lawyers to send takedown notices of the countless thousands of pirate sites selling his books. I suspect there is no such takedown army. Going after book pirates is like the whack a mole game. They always pop up under a new IP and are back in business.

Amazon’s policy is to let the pirates set the price. And you are powerless as an author, unless you are Lee Childs or James Patterson, to do anything other than bow to the robot letter dispatched by Amazon. Like a good serf, I will drop the price of A Bewitching Smile from $3.99 to $2.99 knowing that in a short period, another email will be delivered to me and Amazon will once again want me to match a pirate.

Power corrupts corporations and governments. When market power corrupts, the poison spreads through an economic system. It becomes the norm. The way business is conducted. The domesticated population goes along to get along. Amazon is a monster born of a neo-liberal system that has grossly and narrowly benefited a few and consolidated political power as well as economic power into their hands. If you are a writer, you are part of the Amazon gulag, and you receive letters instructing you as to your duty to further their interest. After all what is in the interest of Amazon is totally aligned with your interest as a writer. You. Will Obey. Big Brother is watching.

Perhaps there is a law firm in the USA that might explore a Class action against Amazon for this predatory behavior. If so, please add my name to the list of claimants. I don’t want money, I want Amazon to have less power over the lives of writers. You have a choice where to buy books.

Don’t support a predator like Amazon. If Amazon were a sovereign state, there would be UN sanctions against their leaders and vilified for their roguish, threatening behavior. Use KOBO or SMASHWORDS for your ebooks or paperback books.

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Posted: 3/11/2019 9:17:23 AM 

 


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The word “immortals” is entwined in my mind with the Jorge Luis Borges’ story titled The Immortals. The story is an exploration of immortal beings imprisoned in the infinite and seeking to understand their condition. This passage in particular speaks a truth about our ideas of immortality.

“Indoctrinated by a practice of centuries the republic of immortal men had attained the perfection of tolerance and almost that of indifference. They knew that in an infinite period of time, all things happened to all men. Because of his past or future virtues, every man is worthy of all goodness, but also of all perversity because of his infamy in the past or future.”

Over the years I’ve gone back and reread the story. Each reading demonstrated that a different “I” was reading the story than the person who years before had processed the same words. The words had not changed. However, my perception and processing of the words had changed in ways that revealed the separation of that prior self from the current one reading the story. Having again reread The Immortals recently, I’ve collected the thoughts of the contemporary “I” on the subject of immortality.

As for the word “time”, it is the measurement instrument we use to mark the existence of our short span of life. It starts and it ends. In between is the duration. In The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli discusses the way of seeing events: a hug, a soldier’s salute, a Bach Sonata, rivers, seas and mountain are all events. Only their duration over time separates them. Human beings as biological creatures are an event in time. Some may find it repugnant or unacceptable to insist that we are time wise in the same category as a hug or a mountain.  Instead, we construct religions and beliefs about immortality. This doesn’t solve the fundamental problem; it merely avoids facing it head on. The inevitability of our dissolution would make Sisyphus shutter.

Our metaphysical journey begins with the desire to be immortal. It’s a wish for a certain state of being. It’s not an act or a sensation. Like the word ‘infinite’ we have no real understanding of what it means to be immortal. We think of the infinite as being a very, very long time. That is wrong on its face. It ignores that to be immortal is to live outside of time or beyond time. But we want a foot in time, too. The paradox of a creature which evolved over time wishing to exist outside of time while also living inside time is what led Borges to examine what such being would build in time. Borges described the abandoned palaces the immortals built: a horror of labyrinths, dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors leading to a cell or pit, or incredibly inverted stairways to nowhere. The immortals abandoned, or perhaps it is better to say they escaped, the palace complex to dwell in caves where they became pure thought, living in an eternal speculation. They chose to live beyond time.

Borges’s clever tale anticipated the proof that entropy dissembles, splits, and scatters their atoms and particles and this scattering is how time is experienced. His trick was to remove his immortals from their fantastic palaces and leave them to dissolve into the sphere of atoms. The immortals escaped time in Borges’s story by the abstraction of pure thought. Was a thought like any other event such as a kiss or the earth’s magnetic field? Time, after all, is the mechanism used to measure the state of disorder of an event. Nothing in nature reserves immortality for an elite category of events. All objects and things exist under an unpardonable death sentence. To be mortal is to be in time, and to be in time is to become disordered. To be immortal means you are no longer an event that falls into dust, something that disintegrates. What is a thought made of? As it arises from the brain of a physical being, its originator is atom-built. To disassemble the thought generator is to destroy the mechanism by which thought arises. Pure speculation is a seductive path, but like Borges’ palace it is another form of labyrinths, dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows.

Without the anchor in time, there is no basis for norms, values, plans, novelty or destinations. Everything repeats. Endlessly. Remove time and there are no boundaries, no shores, no horizon that curves or lavish palaces.

For thousands of years, we’ve witnessed the creation of manifold immortality projects. The projects of the powerful resist with all of its might and power to knock entropy from the saddle. We find their efforts re-expressed in the language of architecture—the castles, cathedrals, pyramids, towering glass and chrome high-rises; the idea of immortality is buttressed by myths, legends, religion and culture. These are our tangible and intangible weapons used to fight against our existential anxiety of being dismantled into atoms and recycled. Our denial of death is strong, enduring and has not waivered over time. It has created a ‘self’ that screams out for preservation, protection and safety. We have a long history of making desperate special pleading to be spared. We make confessions, perform penance, and pay indulgences like a poker player with a losing hand but hoping he can bluff his way through.

This is despite the evidence that science has collected and analyzed which makes it clear that even the universe itself with all of its observable matter will not last. No prayer or penance grants a forever outcome. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Immortals we may elect to retreat into a world of pure speculation. Thoughts emerged from networks of neurons in the brain. No brain, no thought, no immortality. Salvation is bulldozed by entropy. Even if this were true, it doesn’t change Borges’s story. His is a fictional world. That is where immortality belongs—on the fiction shelf. Even in the land of fiction, immortality, is riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. For example, by avoiding the constraints of time, one immortal can construct every man and every woman, live their lives, invent languages, codes, and machines and forget what he’d done where and when. Borges’ named his immortal Argos after the old dog, which appears in the Odyssey. But we aren’t Argos. Borges says that is an illusion. This ignorance of who we really are is tied to Argos’s fate, which is to forget us, too. We blink out of memory. We are left to contemplate the fate of our mortal ‘self’, one that arises from our atomic structure. That structure comes undone over time. The assemblage is transitory. No building of monuments, literary, physical or digital objects or things can change that disordering.

I wonder if we dared to take a moment of reflection about the impossibility of immortality, we could change the worldview of our species. No other species shares this fictional worldview. We are the old dog who hasn’t bothered to learn the true nature of the world. The results of such ignorance and hubris are predictable. The most fearful, powerful, greedy and ambitious of people grab what they can to build a legend. They have a strong cultural incentive to violate any and all moral prohibitions if the end result will guarantee a box seat in the theatre of our collective future memory.

We might scale back our idea of personal immortality moving the dial closer to a very long time into the future—longer than a kiss, but less than forever. A long collective future memory is easier to hijack if the techniques left an impressive trail of slaughter, pillage, wreckage, murder, torture, and enslavement. The Great Khan is a good example. His reign of terror left a ghostly trace in our collective memory. His shadow inspired by legends and contemporary documents has given him a long after life. His atoms long since scattered. He’s an object of myth and fables, and like pure speculation, they will decay until time erases them like formula written in chalk on a blackboard.

It’s not just the Great Khan who will be erased. Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Confucius, Socrates, Bach, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Seneca and the rest who seem immortal will be forgotten. They may be stored in the long-term memory of a database in a cosmic cloud lost in the sea of information including the position of the asteroids in the Kuipler Belt in our Solar system, the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and the stars contained in two trillion other galaxies. None of that big information carries the warm hug of immortality. It all ultimately is erased.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously in 1951 adopted a metaphor, which he couldn’t have known would become a symbol half a century later of the fibre optic cable culture. He said, “We extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.” Is it possible we understand only part of one fibre in the infinite number of fibres wrapped around each other? Perhaps our limited perspective on immortality is founded on a misunderstanding about our measurements of things, including time. We think of time as having a beginning and ending. A duration. The reality may be different. The length of the whole may not be anchored by a start and finish point.. Our idea of Time arises from our limited understanding of the overlapping ‘fibres’ most of which we neither can detect nor measure.

The laws of physics deliver the concept of entropy based on our understanding of how a fibre twist, bends, turns and dissolves. The scientific consensus is that entropy is a kind of poison chalice that all atomic structures ultimately drink from. All of the galaxies and stars are merely other categories of events that last much longer than a kiss, mountain or Argos. These cosmic events, too, will fall apart and the component elements return more disordered to the world of atoms. It doesn’t stop at the doorstep of atoms. The atoms are themselves events in time that unravel into fundamental particles, and in the very end of a very long time the universe is a dark, empty place. No stars, moons, planets. No Great Khan. No wink or nod. Not even a solitary proton remains. But the place isn’t really empty. It’s teeming with quantum energy, and you and I may be in a universe that emerged from a quantum fluctuation, spooling out the first thread of a new fibre in an infinite cable. Isn’t that the definition of immortality—the beginning and the ending are indistinguishable and never extinguished?

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Posted: 3/4/2019 7:46:37 PM 

 



I want to share some research on the air pollution crises in Bangkok. I started with a number of question such as what causes the high levels of PM2.5 ? And why are elevated levels dangerous? As I continued researching, I discovered a vast amount of scientific literature as well as government agency briefings and papers. What I found should read as tentative and as basic research.

 

There is too much detail in the studies to summaries easily in a short summary. The goal is provide a minimal level of understanding the central issues and end with some possible solutions.

 

What follows is a general briefing.

 

Close to my home in Vancouver, is The British Columbia EPA, which has looked at and addressed many of the air pollution issues.  https://www.epa.vic.gov.au/your-environment/air/air-pollution/pm25-particles-in-air

 

What is a PM2.5 particle?

 

It’s small. This is 2.5 microns. It measures about 1/30th of the width of a human hair.

“Particle pollution is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. EPA Victoria monitors the air for two categories of particle size: PM2.5 and PM10. These particles are very small and are measured in micrometres (µm).” This suggests that spraying water may actually increase the risk associated with these fine particles.

 

Where are the sources of PM2.5 particles?

 

“PM2.5 particles result from the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal), organic matter (including wood and grass) and most other materials, such as rubber and plastic. Motor vehicles, power plant emissions and bushfires are all major sources of fine particles.”

 

Also from British Columbia, the British Columbia Lung Association observed the major sources of PM2.5 :

 

Smoke from biomass burning.

Exhaust from cars, heavy trucks, and off-road vehicles.

Emissions from Industries and coal-fired power plants

Emissions from agriculture and livestock.

 

What is the standard for PM2.5 ?

 

Air quality data collected by EPA is measured against the national air quality standards, known as the Ambient Air Quality NEPM. These standards are incorporated into the State Environment Protection Policy (Ambient Air Quality). Currently, the reporting standards for PM2.5 particles are:

 

Advisory standard

Averaging time

25 µg/m3

24 hours

 

Also the British Columbia Lung Association following the 1,300 forest fires in 2017 that struck the province caused the provincial government to declare a state of emergency for ten weeks.

https://bc.lung.ca/sites/default/files/2018%20SOTA.pdf


PM2.5 can come in a range of shapes, including spheres, cubes, and chained structures composed of elemental and organic carbon, sulphates, nitrates, ammonia, minerals, and trace metals. The size, shape, and composition reflect the source materials and the conditions under which the particles were formed and transformed in the atmosphere.

Global Scope of the problem:

In Briefing: The health effects of air pollution: time to Act: https://www.policyconnect.org.uk/sites/site_pc/files/report/1071/fieldreportdownload/aphgairpollutionandhealthfinal.pdf

“In the UK it is estimated that 40,000 - 50,000 premature deaths each year are linked to air pollution, while the EU estimates that air pollution is responsible for more than 500,000 premature deaths across Europe annually. Worldwide, the number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is estimated to be three million by the World Health Organization. “

From a Chinese study titled The Health Impact of Air Pollution, Mark Li and Leo Mallat, July 2018 can be found here: https://www.scor.com/sites/default/files/sp42-air_pollution.pdf


Noted a 5% increase over a five-year period for Southeast Asia in terms of PM2.5  and PM10. https://www.scor.com/sites/default/files/sp42-air_pollution.pdf When you look at the projection for concentrations of these particles they show a steep incline in 2030 and 2060.


Bangkok air pollution is considered in the Chinese Study: “Over the last decade, daily measures of ambient PM10 have been collected in Bangkok. The analysis indicates a statistically significant association between PM10 concentration and all of the alternative measures of mortality. The results suggest a 10g.m. increase in daily PM10 is associated with a 1 to 2% increase in natural mortality, a 1 to 2% increase in mortality associated with cardiovascular affections, and 3 to 6% increase in respiratory mortality.”
 

The Li and Mallat study noted that the London heavy smog in November and December 1952 killed 4,000 people directly and normal mortality rates didn’t return for several months. Overall the event was responsible for 12,000 deaths.

 

Also health related to small children, the study observed: “Ambient air pollution was responsible for 27.5% of deaths due to lower respiratory tract infections.”

 

It gets worse. “Particulate matter has also been associated with the short-term risk of mortality from ischaemic heart disease, haemorrhagic stroke and ischaemic stroke. A cohort study in China concluded that an increase of PM2.5 led to a 9.7% increase in mortality from ischaemic heart disease, a 4.4% increase in the risk of mortality from haemorrhagic stroke, and a 13.5% increase in the risk of mortality from ischaemic stroke.”

 

“The strongest correlations were seen on the day of exposure with more persistent effects for PM2.5 .”

 

“Globally, 29.2% of the burden of stroke was attributed to air pollution.”

 

The exposure to PM10 or PM2.5  is associated with increased risk of low birth weight. The studies indicate an association between PM pollution and post-neonatal infant mortality for respiratory causes and sudden infant death syndrome.

 

In adults, PM is associated with increased risk of dementia, DNA damage, epigenetic alterations, and oxidative stress, and reduction of telomere length. The physiological damage ranges from increased heart rate and blood pressure, increase in cholesterol, and others disruptions of the metabolic endocrine function.

 

The World Bank reported “premature deaths due to air pollution in 2013 cost the global economy about $225 billion in lost labour income, or about $5.11 trillion in welfare losses worldwide.”

The U.K. Briefing paper produces similar evidence of health issues:

“The evidence for a link between air pollution and cardiovascular and respiratory disease is now well established and strong, in particular for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter.”


From Scientific Reports volume 7, Article number: 46456 (2017) 

Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46456
 

What follows below is taken from the Chinese Scientific Reports where they compared data collected from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Wind speed and weather conditions are a vital element in air quality and the other important factor is transportation. An important takeaway is this is a dynamic process with distribution and duration fluctuations.

 

Some of the findings in the Chinese Scientific Reports:

 

“PM2.5 pollution processes causes, especially in large Chinese cities, are not clearly understood. Ground observations and modeling studies have been used to analyze specific PM2.5 5 pollution episodes. In these studies, PM2.5 concentration, composition, and sources, along with associated meteorological conditions, are often checked to find the causes of heavy pollution episodes7,8,9. For example, the heavy haze pollution episodes occurring in January 2013 in North China were investigated in dozens of studies using diverse techniques. Ji et al. (2014) described two particulate pollution episodes in Beijing (BJ), with explosive PM2.5 5concentration growth in one case and persistent growth in the other5. They concluded that the explosive episode was mainly caused by local emissions under stagnant weather conditions, while the persistent episode was largely due to normal regional transport. Other studies in BJ concluded that local emissions coupled with unfavorable meteorological factors were the main causes for prolonged PM2.5 5pollution processes10”

 

“PM2.5 pollution processes causes, especially in large Chinese cities, are not clearly understood. Ground observations and modeling studies have been used to analyze specific PM2.5 pollution episodes. In these studies, PM2.5 concentration, composition, and sources, along with associated meteorological conditions, are often checked to find the causes of heavy pollution episodes

 

“Other studies in BJ concluded that local emissions coupled with unfavorable meteorological factors were the main causes for prolonged PM2.5 pollution processes10
 

What are ten solutions to tackle the air pollution problem?

 

1)     Expand data collection. Collect data from private home sensors with local government sensors to compile a large data base to have a better understanding of the problem;

2)     Establish regulatory limits for different pollutants and to enforce them;

3)     Establish pollution targets (this is done in the EU);

4)     Establish a countrywide health data basis to determine the health problems;

5)     Establish a national air pollution monitoring strategy for ASEAN and fund the project from the member states;

6)     Allow the importation of air purifiers and other devices without the high import taxes (that have allowed local vendors to hike prices and profit from the misery of others);

7)     Provide information programs in schools and for pregnant women about the problem;

8)     Phase out diesel fuel;

9)     Expand monitoring for Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, Ozone, Benzene, Lead, Arsenic, Cadmium, Nickel, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. As these elements are part of the problem along with PM2.5 and PM10;

10)Recruit professionals, who have put teams together, managed them, and have experience in benchmarking, process management, the ability set up a simulation tracking the process as they alter the variables and match solutions. I’m sure the Canadian Embassy would be helpful in arranging the experts who deal with the air pollution emergency in Vancouver.

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Posted: 1/22/2019 7:02:17 PM 

 


Bangkok: 15 January 2019

 

Tuesday 15 January 2019 and the real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) reads 168 for Bangkok. Little red flags dotted on a map of areas of the city. I’ve been curious as the sources of the air pollution. You can accept as gospel what you read online or in the press. I wanted to dig deeper into understanding the nature and danger of the main air pollutants. I decided to ask an expert with no axe to grind about understanding the causes of the pollution and assessing the relative health impact of each.

 

I reached out to an international expert Dr. Mark Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University. Jacobson’s area of expertise is environmental engineering, air pollution and global warming modelling.

 

Professor Jacobson wrote me, that “The only way to determine the relative impact of each of the sources listed is 3-D computer modeling of air pollution that accounts for emissions, atmospheric chemistry, deposition, meteorology, radiative transfer, and cloud processes.”

 

The process is to run simulation with each source (e.g., dust, smoke from outdoor fires, vehicle exhausts, weather conditions) removed and this would establish a series of benchmarks based on any one particular source, which is causing the greatest impact. Professor said  “Such modeling is actually required by law in the U.S. under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 in, for example, ozone non-attainment regions. There are plenty of consulting companies that do this kind of work (AER, Environ, SAI, Sonoma Technology, Tetra Tech, to name a few in the California alone).”

 

Not all of sources of pollutions are equal in the damage done to human beings. Professor Jacobson observed, “that vehicle exhaust will cause the greatest damage because the human intake fraction of vehicle exhaust air is much greater than the intake fraction of pollution from a source far away. People are literally breathing in the exhaust. The other sources are more dilute.”

 

The PM2.5 or fine particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers should be less than 50 micrograms per cubic metres. The Bangkok Post reports “The PM2.5 measured 60-81mcg on the streets and 49-79mcg away from main roads.”
 

The best choice may be an unpopular one. We may have no choice, if supported by test results, to impose restriction on the use of cars, motorcycles, buses, vans, and trucks.  The immediate question is whether vehicle exhaust air has become a public health hazard setting up long-term adverse health consequences to the population breathing the polluted air. What is weighed in this equation: The cost of disrupting transportation system or diminishing the health of the resident population to preserve the economic infrastructure. In the future, we can expect to frequently confront the public policy dilemma between choosing between economic growth and public health.

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Posted: 1/14/2019 9:27:40 PM 

 

On 11th December 2018, at the CheckInn99, along with William Wait, we explored creativity and imagination. Below are my thoughts I shared with the audience.

Imagination

The most astonishing, extraordinary thing that happened to each of us tonight is we walked into this room without stopping to marvel and reflect where we are. We aren’t in nature but in constructed space sprung came from imagination. This is true of all rooms around the globe. We’ve gathered inside a confined space designed for entertainment, food, socializing, and exchange of ideas. You know some of the people in this room but many are strangers. You feel relaxed, comfortable and not threatened. All of these feelings are recent and quite unusual.

We’ve occupied man-made rooms for a brief period in the existence of our species. But long enough that we no longer notice that the room and everything in it is the product of imagination realized through various creative acts. The same is true of everything contained in this room. Everything you are wearing, carrying—your clothes, shoes, cellphones, iPads, watches, glasses, rings, handbags, wallets—all are products of imagination.

Imagination is a powerful force that co-ordinates movement, decision-making, and emotions. The evidence is all around us.

We have an embarrassing question, though. Imagination. What exactly is it? Where does it come from? What is it for? Why do we have imagination and other species don’t? Lots of unanswered questions about this immaterial thing we call imagination. You can’t touch it. You can’t see or hear it. You can’t smell or feel it either. It is an elusive, subjective experience we’ve all had.

It happens inside our mind. It leaves footprints in our consciousness.

Imagination depends on your mental state. Are you asleep or awake?

This black box of non-sleep imagination goes offline every night when you fall asleep. Your brain switches the place of operation. In the latter stages of REM sleep (there are four stages) your imagination is a series of hallucinations, randomly assembling of emotions, visual images and memory by the most primitive part of your brain stem.

This part of the brain stem makes no effort to edit or control weird strange events, creatures, and landscapes. Dragons and unicorns rise to the surface in deep sleep. Your memory, feelings, and image storage areas go into full improv mode. Imagination in sleep is this surreal, chaotic mix of information from the active centers of the brain associated with motion/movement, emotion, memory and visualization.  Your dreams are the harvest of imagination management in sleep mode. We discover sleeping brains produce this unmanaged chaos. This is not an occasional experience, it happens every night.

Imagination is different when we are awake. In our non-sleeping part of the day, our imagination is managed by the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which uses rationality, planning and logic to order what how our brains process movement, feeling, memory, image and pattern recognition.

We stayed alive because in real life experiences our pre-frontal cortex edited out excessively bizarre, unhinged images, behavior, and events. It was fear and peril that keeping the delusions in the dream state that we survived in our waking state with a different kind of imagination. We learn to understand that magical objects and beings are not real but a fantasy. What makes a video game so powerfully addictive is we are emerged in the visual story as a player. When we unplug from a day-dream or a video game, most people snap back into reality. What happens when you fail to wake up from the day-dream or the video game continues in your mind in the unplugged video game world? You can’t step outside of it.  That’s called being mentally ill. The doctor says you have become psychotic or delusional.

Mediums to imagine in

Are there different mediums of imagination? Imagination is exercised in more than one way. Some people process their imagination through mathematics. Newton, Dirac, Einstein, Turing and Von Neumann to take a few noted examples. Their imaginary portal opened with equations and numbers. Other people’s imagination is expressed in the language of musical notes. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, William Wait. They compose sonatas and overtures in their head. And still others process their imagination in the medium of images, colors, textures, or shapes. Through movement we call dance. And we imagine in language. Writers use a metaphor as an imagination enhancer.

Look around the room and choose your medium. Nothing you observe, in whatever imagining you choose, is a direct product of nature. The objects, events and the interactions are creations that originally can be traced back to an act of imagination of some individual or group of people. Mostly we don’t know nor do we care who first came up with the idea of fork or spoon or air-conditioner.

Facebook and email spilled out of someone’s imagination. Could Facebook have arisen out of the imagination of someone living in the distant past?

Plato, Confucius, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Jane Austen or David Hume never saw a TV, used a cellphone, drove a car, rode in a plane, took an antibiotic, switched on an electric light, or forgot half a dozen logon passwords before breakfast. They never imagined such things. Yet we can’t imagine life without them. Imagination is contained inside a particular state of technological development in time.

Look at the ceiling lights. Most people who ever lived never imagined such a thing. The same goes for the electrical circuit boards in your cellphone and computer, the floors, walls, cupboards, carpets, chairs, sofas—all of them sprang quite recently from an imagination, which ignited another’s imagination which in turn sparked creativity activity to realize what had been imagined. There are gaps that imagination can fill.

Guttenberg had a brilliant imaginary leap.

He imagined that a wine press could function as a printing press.  He also had the technical skills and tools to adapt a machine to another use.

One Heart Beat

An American architect and sculptor named Edward Casagrande is an example of creativity. He was approached by a man who arrived with old his pace maker. The device had worn out and was removed from his chest. What do you do with a no longer useful pace maker? He gave the old pace maker to Edward and asked him to incorporate it into a work of art. The artist imagined how a pace maker manufactured for insertion into your chest, could be made into a post-chest artifact that told a story.

He created a sculpture of the heart and a pace-maker as visual experience that makes the observer re-elevate her relationship with our heart as a machine that works one beat at a time. I played a small role. Edward had read Heart Talk, my book on the Thai language use of the root jai or heart in hundreds of different phrases. Image in your mind what that piece of art looks like. What would you have done with the old pace maker to incorporate it into a work of art?

In a hundred years, assuming our species hasn’t gone extinct, people just like you will marvel at how we never imagined the objects and events of their world. We will be in the same category of people like Confucius, Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson who lived limited, sheltered, and narrow lives captured by the artifacts of a primitive technology and at, from our perspective, suffered from a low level and slow speed of innovation. Imagine a future world in which the pace of technological developments at the Nobel Prize level happens every minute of every day. And those future people consider that pace of innovation as normal.

History of imagination. Our species has been around for 300,000 years and for 99.999% we made sense of the world through a limited database of information, knowledge, belief, our GPS, our calculator of odds, risks, and opportunities. To turn it off meant you were lost, confused, and very likely soon dead.

History has many examples of the powerful seeking to control, limit or contain people’s imagination. A separate talk would be needed to describe the restriction on women’s imagination right up the Enlightenment. The English Witchcraft Act of 1735 punished people—actually it was overwhelmingly women—for advertising powers to channel spirits, to predict future events, to cast spells on enemies or to locate stolen goods. These are acts of imagination that have been criminalized. There is a long history of suppressing imagination through witchcraft, heresy, and censorship laws. We get the idea that imagination is seen as dangerous by the authorities unless it is controlled, regulated, and directed

Imagination hijacking. There has always been a downside. Our imagination is easily hijacked. In prior times it was religious figures or government officials who provided the images and visions to fire our imagination. For instance, the grand question, to imagine what happens after death. There’s been a large audience for such imagination makers. We once called them performance artists, shamans, story-tellers, and court jesters, who provided the images, music, songs, dance and words to create legends, fables and myths. The modern process of imagination making has changed. The Internet spawned a new system of digital imagination hijacking. Social media addicts suffer from the digital equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. They defend their captors.

Imagination triggers. Compared with the authority figures of the past, who sat as guardians of our imagination, we have been drawn into a world of social media. Daily thousands of stories compete for our attention. Our attention is that mental facility that is triggered by death, violence and sex. That’s why you see a large amount of content about war, conflict, murder and porno. Such stories trigger strong emotions such as fear, anger, lust, envy and hatred as if we personally faced a murderer or natural disaster like a typhoon, earthquake, or forest fire.

If you’re a materialist, imagination is found in the firing of neurons and hormones in the brain. If you’re a romantic, imagination is a gift of the Muse. Inspiration comes from a mystical and magic and unknowable source.

Creativity. Imagination is the rough draft used by creativity to innovate. In the world of Star Trek, you can travel across the universe at warp speed. No matter how creative we are, no one has figured out how to create the technology to allow a space ship to reach warp speed.

Competition for superior weapons means there is pressure to hire creative minds through benefits and propaganda. These creative minds become a part of a heavily funded industrial/military complex to innovative more powerful and precise weapons. This explains how imagination is harassed to construct future technology. We highly reward those whose creative talents are responsible for the next generation of killing tools. Where the private and public sector blurs the space between them. The world of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are creative processes with a mission to invent a future that they control.

Most of our lives are spent in rooms where people imagined objects and events and invented the creative methods to realize the imagination. We also learn it is easier to imagine than it is to realize that imagination. It can stay in your head. You don’t have to worry about testing, product development, quality control, funding, the law of physics, or biology. In the creative world of objects, all of these elements require coordinated activities of lots of different people who must create as a group. Organizing, funding and cooperation supports creativity.

Imaginary Source Material. What is the source of our imagination?

Most of our information sources are discovered through our direct contact with the physical world. We evolved to take in information in this fashion—first hand, direct experience of living in nature. But our source of imagination, however, has changed for many. Two billion people have Facebook accounts and acquire their information about the world largely from what appears in their timeline. There are other platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest to fire up a wide range of ideas and images. This is a temporary state. Social media is likely a passing phase in our information evolution.

In the emerging VR digital world, a new source of imagination is opening, strange, elegant, surprising, and surreal. In this world we are both in and out of our heads at the same time. That’s bound to create new avenues for imagination to travel.

Airplane announcement. You know the standard announcement as you are buckled in your seat as the aircraft pulls away from the gate: turn off your electronic devices. Turn off your laptop. Put your cellphone on sleep mode. There we sit with our “neck top” unconnected with the outside world.

That private processor in your head is burning the equivalent of 20 Watts. Not enough to interfere with the pilot’s navigation or communication systems. We are left with only our body and its head stripped from its usual outside augmentation. For a moment, they are getting to know each other like two old lovers who’d not seen each other for ages. We go into withdrawal when separated from our information feeds. We lose our imagination.

Selfpublishers. We think of ourselves as independent publishers of reality stories. We don’t think we have or others have imagined our stories. We don’t think about those whose imagination and creativity are responsible for the culture we inhabit. In fact, we aren’t indie publishers; we are imprints of our time, place and culture.

We spent most of our lives processing stories we consume from story-tellers of one variety or another. Our story-tellers include those who are currently alive along with many others long. We are genre people crammed with stories waiting for an audience to share them with as if they belong to us. Our ‘self’ is structured on the scaffolding of these stories. If I know your time, place and culture, I have a good chance to understand where, how and from whom you acquired the components of your imagination. And its limits.

You can predict the stories people will tell as their own and you can hear the echo of others in those tales. The longer back we go, from the observer’s perspective, the more impoverished a person’s imagination appears. Think of the 1950s science fiction movies. We laugh. As those a hundred years from now, if there are people left, will laugh at us.

Creative genius. Everyone starts with the same seed for creative genius. The potential is in everyone to be creative. But nothing prepares us with being submerged in an overwhelming sea of information. We aren’t taught swimming lessons to survive in this sea. We offload the work to others who seem to have mastered the art of dog paddling in this sea. They bark. We listen.

This sea of information is all around us—most of the time we don’t know the size, shape or boundaries of this giant information machine that challenges our creativity. We are taunted by its vastness, its chaos, its indifference to us, and its failure to bend to our will.

The Good Bad and Ugly of Creativity. Of course, words like creative can be slippery. Don’t assume that creative is always one hundred a good thing. It can produce evil, existential results, too. More about that possible dark side that be as creative and original as any artist. And don’t assume all creative people are geniuses. Everyone is creative. Just like everyone has an imagination. But acquiring and inventing creative tools and processes are hard. That’s why it is easier to imagine a unicorn or dragon than to create one.

Creativity and imagination come installed as basic, standard kit at birth. But it isn’t one setting; it’s a wide spectrum with some people at the long-tail where creativity and imagination are small, isolated oasis as they journey life through a vast desert of routine, habit, and downloaded beliefs. Like certain talents or intelligence, some people are both creative and imaginative at the other end of the long-tail. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

Time Travel machine. While creative or imagination can be a lot of different I found the two words describe different states that define us as species. Imagination is a time travel machine. Your imagination visualizes, witnesses and experiences an event or object in the past or future. As consumers we pay for and consume the imagination of people who make films, video, paintings, music, books, and dance. We graft the imagination of strangers into our own imagination.

How many times a day does our media uploaded imagination into our neck top take us out of the present? Multiple times.  It happens when you realize where you’ve entered a time realm in your mind. An imagined happening in the past or the future. It is exactly this activity of the mind that is hard to shut down. It’s that jazz music channel that is always playing in the background. Your mind weaves in and out of reality like a drunk looking for a lamppost to lean against.

Final Word

Imagination had evolutionary advantages. It allowed a small seed population to spread and increased over the entire globe.  While this took many thousands of years, on the time scale of evolution this was a blink of an eye. Imagination was the short-cut or mental hack that allowed us to visualize what was on the other side of a mountain or the opposite shore.

Imagination has also produced the tools and instruments to broaden our exploration, taking us far beyond earth. We have used our imagination to construct technology that creates artificial worlds.

We are the beginning of the imagination marathon. Our most imaginary and creative minds are constructing artificial intelligence that promise to expand imagination beyond what is capable for the Homo Sapien mind. How a superior intelligence will use imagination is an open question as is how such an intelligence will value our own imagination.

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Posted: 12/15/2018 12:21:05 AM 

 

What if everything you thought was right is wrong? This is the murky world of gas-lighting, paranoia, doubt, divisiveness, and anger. The patterns we instinctively follow to the watering holes of ‘right’, ‘truthful’, and ‘moral’. We learn these norms and values. They are cultural constructs. We aren’t born with them. We weave them from tales told by our parents, friends, teachers, books, newspapers, and social media. They vary from place to place and from time to time in various places. They are dynamic leaving us in a state of perpetual change. The patterns appear to be our own when in reality all of them are borrowed from others with only the rare attribution as to the original source. What if that watering hole was just a collective illusion? And what if a new pattern of thought and ideas remapped those places we migrated to and substituted a novel image of reality.

The United States and other countries, fueled by new technology, are at the beginning stages of depatterning. The way we understand the truth of the world, our actions, our motives and intentions, and those of other is in turmoil. We have lost our mental footing. In the midst of the fall, before we hit the ground, it might be worth considering we are subject to an accelerated process of shedding our previous models of reality without an equally rapid replacement to clutch as handrails.

Depatterning is a form of brainwashing so as to remove the normal patterns of thinking and behavior. Our patterns construct our subjective experience from the exterior world we move around in. That is a narrow definition and involves an intentionality on the part of those seeking to shift patterns of thought and action. Think how long it took to disrupt the normal patterns of thinking about cigarette smoking? The pattern that informed our thoughts about smoking was stoked by association with romance, drama, and glamourous movie stars and sports stars who smoked. Smoking became a symbol of personal freedom. Years and years passed as scientists and doctors (the ones not on the tobacco payroll) tried to inform the public about the unromantic health dangers of smoking. We ultimately changed our pattern of thinking about smoking. Our original pattern of thought was based on wrong assumptions. Our collective thoughts about cigarettes were manufactured: first as a symbol of glamour and second as an instrument of death. Similar old ideas about race, gender and ethnicity have shifted, but part of the population still resists disturbing the traditional patterns of thinking about such matters.

Chuck Klosterman in But What if We’re Wrong? (2018) noted that for two thousand years people accepted Aristotle’s belief a rock fell to the ground because it belonged to the earth and wanted it to return. Klosterman’s book is an extended argument of how most of what we know is likely in the same category as Aristotle’s theory of gravity. It’s just plain wrong. But we don’t go around thinking that we are wrong about most things. Most of the time we feel we are right and other people are wrong. When in fact everyone is wrong and no one can admit that fact to themselves or others.

Aristotle’s error was passed on to multiple generations. It became accepted as true.  We can smirk at this long period of ignorance and feel slightly superior with our updated knowledge of gravity.  We can agree that while everyone else in the past got it wrong, we are different because we finally, at last got it right with the true and absolute answer. Patterns are like comfortable shoes. We don’t easily discard them. There are a couple of ways the pattern breaking occurs—advancement of scientific understanding, creation of new technology and psychedelic drugs. The latter have been declared illegal, off-limits, and dangerous and it has stopped a growing movement unearthed by writers like Michael Pollan’s aptly titled How to Change Your Mind (2018). Pollan charts the history, the laws, the science and the medical application. He records the studies that point to opening a new path to reintroduce psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mushrooms. Pattern busting avenue is to ingest a chemical. It may produce bliss. It may produce anxiety or horrors.

All three—science, technology and drugs—are converging in our lifetime. We are curious. We are scared. We are unsettled as to where one or a combination of these avenues will eventually lead us. What can be said with some conviction is that each of us is undergoing the process of depatterning.

Our latest technological innovations are forcing us to rethink what can be trusted. We have all become more cynical and skeptical of images, text, statements, accounts and videos. Before these changes we’ve traditionally used the daily dose of information as basically ‘true’ and ‘reliable’. We didn’t ask whether something was fake. Though that sometimes happened. It was uncommon and difficult in an analogue world. In the digital world it is cheap, fast, effective and allows many more players to play the game of disrupting and replacing our reality.  If the old trust assumption is dead, how can we be sure of what we see as ‘real’ in order to judge a motive, intention or action. A Washington Post report titled “Fake News is about to get more dangerous” on technological advances that permit the making of “deep fake”— nearly impossible to detect fake—videos warns of the steep slide down another technological rabbit hole.

“If technology continues its current advance, we may soon face totally convincing videos showing events that never happened — created so effectively that even experts will have trouble proving they’re fakes.

Deep fake” video will be able to show people saying, with the authentic ring of their own voices, things they never said. It will show them doing things they never did, by melding their images with other video or creating new images of them from scratch.”

Open your browser history on your computer and scroll down for the places you visited last week. Check your Facebook and Twitter timelines and your own history of ‘likes.’ Go through your library, look at the books you’ve read (or not read) on the shelf. The exercise will give you a snapshot of your own biases, filters, and content you’ve personally curated as an expression of how your truths, facts, and morals. Commercial Big Data (not to be confused with Scientific Big Data) has tapped into this emotional and intellectual root system. By doing so the big data owners effectively own you in ways that are not apparent but are nonetheless real. As much as in principle we celebrate cognitive diversity, in reality we like any system that spares us cognitive dissonance. We trust what confirms rather than challenges the reality we’ve constructed. It is difficult to persuade someone to abandon the template for pattern making that they have developed over a life time. It is difficult as well to accept someone whose pattern making is alien to our own. We hunker down in like-minded communities and co-ordinate attacks on those who disagree with us.

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court will likely be confirmed. He will take a seat on the highest court where he can participate in the cycle of depatterning of American legal constructs and replace them with older patterns from the past. The solace is this is a short-term gain. In the near and long term, Big Data patterns will replace our low information, emotion-based social constructs. Our big ape brains will be retrained in the meaning of real, true, or factual. It will be much more difficult to stonewall as the tobacco companies did successfully for years. But there is a wildcard: the creation, distribution, access, and interpretation of Big Data may be concentrated in the hands of a small elite who will be tempted to use the new patterns for more influence, more power and more wealth accumulation.

Pattern recognition will remain the key to opening the door to our perceptions about ourselves and life. How those patterns are formed is about to change, and that change will have enormous implications for the way we think and solve problems and how we confront our existential fears. We will have little choice to learn that changing our minds will lag behind the data. Our collective and individual intelligence is capped by cognitive limitations. AI won’t have such limitations, and will have large cognitive resources to mine, refine, and reflect on the patterns that represent reality. How we perceive reality points to solutions to old and new problems. We have the possibility that whatever these new patterns show, it will open up the world in the same way that the microscope and telescope opened our world. We will see and feel more, and see further than ever before.

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Posted: 9/9/2018 5:47:51 AM 

 

Fires, floods, volcanoes, dying sea coral, boats, dogs, rivers, deaths, births, anniversaries, weddings, car crashes—help us as we can’t absorb all of this information—this is a daily timeline on Facebook or Twitter. Many of us have that feeling of being submerged over our heads in information. We are losing touch to distinguish stories that signal catastrophic consequences from what are the normal drift of life.

We are vulnerable to images of dogs, cats, children, or seductive smiles—the online visuals grab us and pull us in. We click on the story. It’s like picking up a book in a bookstore (remember those?) where opening the book and reading a page or two was the halfway to deciding whether to buy it. Your worldview is made from, shaped and reinforced by these stories. The medium in which the story appears is as important as the actual story. As Marshal McLuhan famously said in 1964, “The medium is the message.” The oral story teller required a physically present audience. His or her voice was the medium. Guttenberg changed all of that with the printing press in 1439 which spread throughout Europe over the next sixty years. The medium became the pamphlet, newspaper or book. The audience didn’t have to gather to listen to the author tell his or her story. But that time has changed. The volume of stories makes selecting which ones to read crucial. We have to choose what to ignore and what to pay attention to. Books were revolutionary. You could read one at your own time and place of convenience. if Gutenberg had gone the Mark Zuckerberg routine of Facebook and created a story-telling platform cartel. Today would be a very different place as people’s reality would be stamped with Gutenberg’s values at every level of society, politics and religion.

In the digital revolution, the new medium has centralized the machinery of story-telling into the hands of a very few. Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezo are a few of the digital heirs to Gutenberg who have discovered great wealth and influence by developing and owing the digital story-telling platforms. Facebook has monetarized hate as in the case of Burma. To close down an audience is to lose money if you are building an online community. For years, Facebook has looked the other way, or underfunded and understaffed a way to actually look at how Burmese bigots and radicals, in and out of country, used Facebook to build an audience with tell stories that demeaned and dehumanized the Rohingya and justified their expulsion and genocide. The recent suspension of Alex Jones and his InfoWars with his conspiracy theories, drawing an audience in the millions, was said to glorify violence, promotes hate speech, and dehumanize Muslims, transgender and immigrants. YouTube, Twitter, Apple and Spotify followed Facebook’s lead and sent Alex Jones packing.

These events suggest it is time to re-examine the information content in stories, the medium of story-telling, the role of story-tellers and the chaotic transition of story-telling traditions as story tellers and audience adjust to story gorging on various digital platform.

We have two general models of story-telling. One is ancient. One is new. It is only a matter before they collide. Some might say we are witnessing the shock waves of that collision with a populist shock wave spread across the globe. I’m a professional story-teller which means I have a dog in this race. The reality is that we are all story-tellers with an audience, as we are part of an audience for other story-tellers. We make sense of our lives by telling stories. There is a new model of story-telling which I call the statistical predictive story, and this type of story is threatening to marginalize our traditional, anecdotal story-telling tradition.

The first model is familiar to everyone. It is the default story-telling structure. It is rooted in the local, personal and based on low information or the original model the anecdotal story. The mission is to convey a personal story, which may be reports of old or new events that unfold over time. From five minutes ago to the distant past, stories are about others whose actions or behavior changed lives, they are sometimes celebrations of courage, and sometimes warnings about disloyalty or cowardice. Stories also confirm our biases, beliefs, and prejudices. You find these stories exchanged around a campfire, water cooler, over the dinner table, overheard in the elevator, stitched into books, film, TV, religion, politics, and family life. The audience is small in most cases. The story-teller is part of the community. We take for grant being an audience one moment and a story teller the next, and easily pass between the two states without much reflection. The story-telling process we are accustomed to is so pervasive that like the air we breathe we don’t see it, think about it, or go looking for it. The anecdote nurtures the psyche. They keep our emotional and intellectual engine fine-tuned and running, that allows us to locate our ‘self’ and explains the behavior and beliefs, desires, and needs of others we interact with.

The anecdotal story draws on personal experience, or the second-hand experience shared by others either as gossip, opinion, memories, beliefs, and feelings. In this form of story-telling, blends together from these elements. It is in the skill of a person touched by imagination that we think of as creativity. The magic of making a seamless composite of reality as the story unspools in front of the listener or reader. If you are labeled creative, it means you’ve succeeded in lifting the veil of doubt and convinced someone else that your story has merit, truth, or practical use when you find yourself in the wrong space at the wrong time. In reality, creative or not, we are all story-tellers and an audience for story-tellers.

Anecdotes merging real and imagined incidents, sights, slights, and motives are the kind of stories everyone tells. Some of these harden into myths, and myths transform into religion, and religion into identity. The anecdotal story-teller is what has created the structure of our culture, politics, and social life. Not to mention our relationship to economics. These are social constructs and they are built largely from anecdotes.

We’ve always known there were limitations on the accuracy and validity of the anecdote. What has been a sea change in story telling happened after WWII with the advances in computer science, physics, software development, and big data. The anecdote was highly personal and told eyeball to eyeball with the audience. The audiences were relatives, neighbors or family, expanding out to include the clan or tribe. Outsiders had their own audience and stories to tell. We resented an outsider telling a story about us—however we define ‘us’ didn’t matter, what mattered was leave our stories to our story-tellers. Our anecdotal stories were by their nature local, personal, and provided the social fabric out of which a community bond was forged.

While the personal anecdote created a communal social reality, solving the hard problem of how to achieve co-operation among a group of people with different needs, desires and goals. We used the personal anecdotes to explain how we are special in dealing with adversity and crisis, and we built ourselves and others from such stories. In other words, the story was a teaching tool to examine what was a good life in our group. In the last two-hundred years we began telling a second model of story-telling based on scientific inquiry and methods. In the last few decades, we used this model to discover unexpected patterns that emerge from large data sets. These aren’t our usual patterns processed from the raw material of lived experiences.

Banking, medicine, drugs, education, transportation and stock markets have invested heavily in this model of story-telling. What story-telling model would you wish your doctor to use if you should be confronted with a serious health issue? You’ve taken a battery of tests. The results are in. Your choice: The anecdotal story model or the statistical predictive story model? The first model is your doctor reads through your test results, your health background, ask you a number of questions about medication, etc. He scripts a personal story based on your specific results filtered through his own biases, and his prior experience of similar cases.

Or you could choose the second model asking your doctor to use the most advanced analytical tools at his disposal to upload your medical record and test results into a big data bank containing millions of people who have symptoms just like yours, similar age, gender, and genome. The networked system writes the story for your doctor. These are scary stories not intended to reassure a patient. Instead there would be a list of medical procedures or additional test with a chart of showing the probability of outcomes. Since the scriptwriter has high information, the best doctor, on his own, will be a degraded low-information medical provider. That’s part of the human cost of the second kind of story-telling. The statistical predictive story is not about you. It is about millions of people are like you, share your fear, needs, or medical condition. We haven’t quite made the transition between the story that is about us and one where you are largely irrelevant as an independent self. There is an uncanny valley, slightly creepy that comes from the sense of disappearing in a sea of numbers. At that moment, you as sit across from your doctor, you might be forgiven for asking who is making the decision? A human doctor or a machine programmed to analysis medical conditions.  They represent two different focus points.

The anecdotal story traditionally has rested on the personal angle—what’s in the story-tellers frame of reference. We tell many personal, anecdotal stories every day. The story becomes impersonal once the analysis shift from an individual or small number of individuals, and expands to a large number of people. We continue to harvest the details of individuals. A system can predict an individual’s likely actions and choices. In the world of the statistical predictive story the value in a consumer society is in how the buyer’s attention is captured, held and manipulated. Retailers want to hear that story and pay large amounts to Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon for access to this big data.

If you want to influence the outcome of an election, the Russian hackers need to find story points that score for a particular demographic of voter. You have to tell them a story that reinforces what they believe to be true. The Russian discovered big data allows you to define an audience in large numbers and to fashion stories as if you are around a campfire. One level of skill is to use computers and cloud data bases to gain insight into the preferences, fears, and anxieties of the audience.

In the world of high technology and science, an impersonal story is used like a scalpel to cut away the individual as the central actor of the story. In these stories, the personal is often a code word for the irrational. This hasn’t stopped articles, studies, books and movies about the personal stories of scientists like Einstein, Nash, Darwin, Hawking and Turing. We live in a world where most people know more that the personal life of a scientists than understand the equations and scholarly work that form the basis of their fame. This is the cadre of statistical, analytical and mathematical story-tellers whose stories drive this information acquiring system.

The kind of stories and the scale of persons allowed to be story-tellers expands and contracts over long periods of time. The reality is the zone available for the anecdotal story telling has been narrow and serving political and economic interest of an elite. Globalization and the Internet have combined to create a much wider and broader zone. Trump’s election showed millions of people wanted the old fashion anecdotal, personal, ad hoc stories that reinforced tradition suspicions and prejudice based on ethnicity, race, or religion. Like the wall Trump promised to build along the USA border with Mexico. That was a powerful story in itself—it promised to stop the flow of outsiders from crossing the border and bringing their own stories as psyche hand carry luggage.

People and their personal stories are mobile and with the Internet, outsiders have the means to evade the story censors.  The old borders were built from anecdotal stories. The personal nature of such stories, in part, explains the high volume of hate and anger, with digital censorship to block the ridicule or questioning of leaders, examining their beliefs or criticizing their ideology. The flow of large seas of information continues and no one can risk cutting off that flow looking for offensive material while others are harvesting that information for economic, strategic or military gains. If that is the case, we should have evidence that the founding myths of most nations would be under siege. In reality, there has been a resurgence in the anecdotal story-telling tradition that lies at the heart of most modern populist movements.

If anecdotal story telling is not in a freefall while most of the most important sectors of life have transferred to the statistical predictive story telling the role to a small number of global cognitive workers and artificially intelligent machines and big data, are the two kinds of stories compatible? All the indications are they are not just incompatible, they are positively hostile to each other. The audiences are told all will be right once they can proudly tell their own personal stories, stick with common sense and anecdotes and forget the rest. Pride and ego intervene and probably always have. A fundamental problem with the old anecdotal story-telling tradition was often such stories reinforced the locals viewed that increasingly outsiders saw them as supporters of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. From the inside, they were blind to that message. There lies the rub. We have great difficulty retaining this story-telling tradition as a construction of individual and collective identity without being condemned as a bigot, racists, or sexist.  The kind of stories we tell and listen to locate the threshold that triggers cognitive dissonance. And a fight breaks out. Few people reflect on what it means to accept that your beliefs, values, and desires constructed from innumerable anecdotal stories from early childhood.

We have a generation who are getting their stories from the global library, and the international group of story-tellers are transmitting stories that may conflict or contradict what they learned at home or school. As story-tellers compete for the attention of an expanded global audience, the stories essential to sustain local cultures are threatened. Stories that inspire are no longer exclusively based on local elites, celebrities or events. In the case of Xi Jinping, the Chinese censors have banned Winne the Pooh as the image of the beloved children’s character has been used to ridicule him. Stories can wound. Our attention to stories remains a central part of our self-perception and how we perceive others. That means stories have social, political and economic consequences that can create shock waves far beyond what the story-teller intended.

The statistical story has disrupted and threatens to displace the anecdote. Though we have witnessed that millions if not billions of people are unwilling to shift from the anecdote to the statistical even if it is convincingly argued their view of themselves and the world will be more accurate, reliable, and objective. The point is we have a great deal of difficulty to shedding our addiction to the subjective story. It may be inaccurate, unreliable and personal, but it seems more real, we are more moved, connected, or influenced because the anecdote is the way our emotional system communicates with us and the community.

The statistical story is generated by processing large amounts of data, interpreting the data, creating a theory (a story) to explain how the interpretation of the data is actionable. Information is controlled, updated, expanded, shared, stored, sold and traded to sell policies, personalities, beliefs, products and services. It is impersonal, difficult to understand, and in constant flux. The statistical story keeps changing and shifting. Science approach to story-telling has awakened people to the dangers of the anecdote. Many have reacted by supporting reactionary leaders who promise a way back to when anecdotal stories had respect and those who told such stories were pillars of the community.

The statistical story-telling method has weakened the old institutional story-telling institutions from churches, to political institutions, to schools and universities, and the core of life: the family unit. We are entering a world where human being will be replaced as the primary story-telling species. One reason is the statistical story hold the promise of making our decision-making and problem solving far more efficient. We will make fewer mistakes relying on such stories. Like the horse which had been central to our agriculture and transportation system, it will take fifty years before the old story-tellers are put out to pasture. The anecdote will be dismissed as primitive and crude means of conveying information and forming group solitary but did little to decrease ignorance of reality. We are at an inflection point and people are willing to defend their stories with their lives. We’ve never had a period where the global population has been under intense pressure to shift their identity and reality from myths, legends, and fables and embrace a radically different kind of story-telling with a new rank of story-tellers. An indication of the seriousness is the reality Islam has declared jihad on the modern story-tellers.

Future generations will produce a different mind map of children, who are raised on statistically generated stories that predict the future in terms of probabilistic outcomes. If that comes about, it is likely such children will be dismissive of the relevance of anecdotal story-tellers from the past. Religion as we know it won’t survive the statistical predictive story culture. No one today reads Aristotle today to study his insights into the laws of physics. He was wrong about everything we now know about physics. We read him for his teachings about what makes us human. The anecdotal story conveys that message well. A meta-physics question is what space will remain for the traditional, low-information, flawed story that feed an emotional need? Can the two forms of story-telling co-exist? The answer will determine how we think and feel about ourselves and society.

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Posted: 8/17/2018 3:19:31 AM 

 

The last of my mentors died. Police General Vasit Dejkunkorn was 88 years old. He wrote novels and newspaper columns. He was at his desk daily right up to the end. As I sat in Sala in Wat Makutkasatriyarn in Bangkok one Thursday mid-afternoon. Wats run the death business with considerable efficiency, respect for ritual and ceremony. The funeral caught the heat of a baking Bangkok afternoon shortly after a monsoon storm ended. Hundreds assembled dressed either in black or dress uniform to join in the traditional circumambulating the temple. Before the walk started, ten monks, led by a police escort, arrived through a side door. They took their place on a platform and a few minutes later began to chant. The audience sat stoically hands in a wai. I’m no expert in chanting, though of late my abilities have increased from having attended multiple funeral, but this particular chanting had a transcendent beauty, a deeply resonating blend of harmony and melody, and genuine feeling.

I felt my friend’s presence. Not a ghost nor other-worldly apparition. It was his voice, the one I heard over lunch many times over the years. Warm, friendly, matter-of-fact, confident and clear. Every writer’s funeral has a story. Looking around, it looks like there is no one else. He laughed. That is his final story. The Sala is the place where you find one story has ended and another story begins. Pick up the thread and start that story. It’s the one right in front of you. The one you see but don’t see.

That had always been his way of distinguishing a real writer and someone doing an assignment for money, fame, or attention.

What was it in the Sala that I didn’t see: the flowers, the elaborate coffin and royal wreaths on tripods. Other than the wreaths, most of the objects in the Sala looked familiar. That was my friend’s point, the journey of life hugs the shores of the familiar and the longer you’re in the boat, the more the shoreline all looks the same. A writer after a certain age has to make an effort to be surprised by finding some new connections in something that is familiar.

In front of me was a chair. On a small plaque on the back each chair was the name of the person who had donated them to the wat. There were rows of chairs 6 deep. At a glance each one looked identical as if some giant machine with a pattern had manufactured and assembled them as the furniture equivalent of identical twins. The closer examination started to reveal idiosyncratic, subtle differences. Uneven layers of dust suck to the flutes on the back one of chair suggesting neglect and age. The scrolls, channels, flutes and curves on closer inspection were all slightly different. You could see a craftsman had made the chair mostly by hand from a pattern. Within that pattern he was able to create a distinct chair if you bothered to look for the little clues he or she left. Notes indented by nature beneath the smooth, polished, glistening surface of wood all displayed slightly different patterns. It is a safe assumption that all of wood for the Sala filled with chairs came from more than a single tree. It was far more likely the wood was harvested from many different trees. If you are an expert, you can tell from the branching pattern the relatedness with one another. Trees have ancestors and their ancestry, their past history on the planet, their place in the long chain of life was right before in the chair.

I was sitting on a chair with my back to the information it possessed. That was a metaphor for the kind of life you didn’t want to lead. I used it without understanding and thinking very much about something as ordinary as a chair. It had a utility. To hold my weight with comfort. Beyond that the chair had no existence or meaning. That kind of thinking was a redline for a real writer. If you were stuck at the ordinary you weren’t looking hard enough. Look again, my friend said. There were rows and rows of chairs and they would hold thousands and thousands of people who came to that place to say goodbye to a loved one or friend. They would pass like day into night, a constant stream of people dressed in black with their faces wet with grief and sorrow. The chairs held them as they said goodbye. The point is we have such a long history in common. When had we stopped reading the ancestry of trees and finding a common one in the distant past. Like the chair, anyone of us was another chair that found itself in a particular row, holding up someone else over a life, and mourning the loss of each person as unique.

The role of the writer was to describe the chair as both special and banal, and how chance had placed it in one position in a row or one row rather than another one. In doing so he was practicing the art of observing and preserving a portal opening, like the one the chanting opened, that allows one to take for a voyage of discovery through time and space. What makes the human being more elusive is her or his mobility. We are an object in motion with other people, events and things. We sit on chairs. We bounce off walls. We run on the beach. We swim in oceans, fly on gliders, float on hot-air balloons, and dance in the street. Our story, or stories are flights of human beings—they are moving, weaving, dodging, dunking, or crawling. I had come to the wat, it seems to find, that final story he left for me to discover. A final test by a mentor where only the student will know whether his answer will satisfy the criteria of truth. One that captures the magic of movement over many decades. That was his legacy. The story-teller dies like everyone else, but the spirit that moved him to tell all those stories during his life does not die. His spirit lives inside every tale he told, and every reader who opens his books will find his spirit preserved.

He taught me how to read a Sala chair. It was right in front me. Like most things in life, we only see as little as possible. It’s not our intention to do this. It’s our nature. Our attention is short, fragile and scattered, and like our bodies is always on the march over the slope of the past, and through the valley of the future. Never quiet; never still. But it didn’t need to be that way. All it took was taking a little time to concentrate on the message in a Sala chair. Solid, stationary, egoless, the chair makes no demands or promises. Yet it can teach us a great deal about our constantly agitated, self-absorbed selves. Things have been tough for a writer always. They are no easier now. My friend had a wonderful, long life and was loved by tens of thousands of readers. At his funeral he left me with a final lesson, to return back to when I started all those years ago to become a writer when I began to focus on and to notice the clockwork below the surface of things and people. It took many years to understand what kind of attention meant to me as a writer. My friend’s voice reminded me it’s not the devil that’s in the detail; it’s who we are, why we do what we do, and where, if we concentrate and are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of a much grander web of connections, loops and nodes. We can spin the wheel back to the place branching patterns in a tree trunk and human beings shared a common ancestor. Or move forward to the time when AI may read us like a chair.

As the last echoes of the monks’ chanting ended, I understood that a world-class chair reader had passed. But the spirit of his story-telling secret is now declassified for all to read.

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Posted: 7/26/2018 8:46:28 PM 

 

When we go for an eye checkup we are asked to cover one eye and read an eye chart. Most eye charts are a variation of this one.

When we read an eye chart we aren’t seeking to find or confirm information. We are testing what our eyes can clearly see and what blurs into a smudge we can’t decipher. The eye chart, in other words, only tells a very narrow story—how well we can read without making a mistake lines of letters in descending size from a specified distance. If we switch the eye chart to another language, like the chart below, we can still see the images but we can’t read the characters unless we’ve studied Chinese. To give an eye chart to test the vision of a non-Chinese readers would defeat the purpose. No matter how close I stand to the Chinese eye chart I can’t establish the limits of my vision.

Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote an essay (The Library of Babel ) about an infinite library, a paradise thought experiment for any author or reader. An infinite eye chart shares the same essential characteristic—we can never find the bottom row of such an eye chart. This infinite eye chart is a test not only of vision, but how many features you choose to consider when reading the chart. If we stay with eight items on line 8 of an eye chart, can see without the aid of eye glasses and read them out loud at 20 feet or 6.096 meters, we’ve demonstrated our 20/20 vision or 6.096/6.096 vision. We don’t need glasses. Line 8 seems a rather arbitrary place to stop. Why not at line 9 or 10 or 11. The point is, we agree on what makes good vision. We read the letter. We don’t have to explain or describe it. We don’t have to understand anything about it. We respond on a basic level. We rarely question these aspects of the eye chart test.

I wish to adapt the traditional eye chart test into one that tests which line on the chart the person being tested uses to understand a picture or a piece of text. Each line adds another set of factors, expanding the context, widening and exposing the layers and levels of connection. How much complexity can you or your beliefs withstand? My idea of the Infinite Eye Chart is to divide vision into two parts: 1) identifying what we see; and 2) the larger context that infuses what we see with meaning and purpose. Both have a place. But we don’t think much about the second part of vision. The first vision test is the simple picture of a letter unanchored from any other relationship. It floats without meaning in front of our eyes as whole, contained, and absolute. The person testing us doesn’t ask for any meaning. But that changes with the Infinite Eye Chart. In the second test, each as you descend line by line, new meaning and relations among events, objects and people emerge. You no longer see just a letter. You see the outlines of a complex narrative. Social media isn’t the villain. We are the ones who push away the life boat sent to rescue us from the small island of the simple and distorted and delivers you into a more complicated, difficult and uncertain world.

In the era of short-tempers, aggressive tribes, and partisan positions, people tend to stick to the top or second line of the Infinite Eye Chart. Most people don’t feel their vision of the world is compromised or diminished. They assume their way of seeing is 20/20, which means what the brain processes as a 20/20 vision is a good enough understanding to be labelled as normal. This is also assumed to be true right along the political spectrum. From the standpoint of a non-partisan observer, there is little difference in the myopia from the Right and Left. They both hug to line 1 and a few will venture onto line 2. Beyond line 2 reason, deliberation, and thinking kicks in as more elements need to be evaluated, compared, distinguished, with correlations predicted.

Let me give a couple of examples.

The Trump Presidency: A Success Story (US News)

Donald Trump is indisputably the worst president in American history (The Week)

For those on line 1 of the Infinite Eye Chart, the headline and photo are enough. The emotions kick in, a reaction is made, an opinion is confirmed. People who hate Trump will dismiss the article in The Week and those who love him will also not likely read the article in US News. They can see. They can read. But they stay stuck on gut-feeling reaction of the headline and photo. You could run a blank page for the actual article. Only a few people will bother to click and read what the full article says. If they did so, they graduate to line 2 on the Infinite Eye Chart. No one, including myself, is immune from defaulting to line 2 and thinking that is good enough eye sight to see and understand the world.

It’s only when I sit back and wonder how short-sighted I’m being by drawing a picture of reality based on a headline and a photo. Yet I do that very thing. I pretend I see and my friends see the same line, I believe my sight is well above average. When in fact I am driving the emotional bus through a thick fog with only one headlight that flickers on the road. I have to consciously think about how I’m thinking about a piece of information. Is that piece increasing my understanding of reality or confirming what has been manufactured and dispensed as the correct way to see the world? In other words, all my friends who stay at line 2 agree with me that we have 20/20 vision and the other side is legally blind.

Anyone who operates at line 8 (normal vision) is thought to be a genius based on the Infinite Eye Chart. Not because line 8 is close to infinity, because they are dealing with a larger information and knowledge base that places the headline and photo in a much larger context. It seems strange to say, but using the Infinite Eye Chart pushes us to the height of mediocrity as if that were a noble achievement. The reality is there are eight events, objects and theories colliding, reshaping the nature of their relationships with each other over time. Social media speeds up our reading of the eye chart. Your days and nights are headline and photo deep.

The question to ask yourself is whether it is better to know one or two things in depth than dozens of things that brush against the surface and deliver a simplistic reality. Light one candle. Or run through the dark with instinct and desire as your shining light. I also understand after a long day at work, time with your friends and family, and other activities you might shrug off the Infinite Eye Chart as a beautiful idea for those who have the time. But we make time to examine the information flow because it enriches our understanding of life. The poverty of our information makes for an impoverished vision. It’s not enough to ‘feel’ the emotion ricochet around your consciousness. The goal of better personal vision is to understand the meaning and context that are causing you to experience those feelings. In Buddhism it’s called mindfulness. Social media makes the best of mindless, reactive, tribal people taking on the worst characteristics of those we condemn.  Stopping the paddling to assess, assemble, compare, test and evaluate means you will miss hours of new headlines and photos, and those are the ones your friends are talking about. These line 2 hits are getting likes and you are stuck with an assessment no one will notice or care about once you write out your line 8 findings.

We face time limits and information flows beyond our capacity to adequately process. We let others do the processing for us. There lies a danger. Someone else is feeding you the result of their Infinite Eye Test and you are accepting the results as your own eye test, and that you’ve passed with flying colors.

What lies beyond line 8 information processing?  This line takes time to digest. It forces you to take into account historical events, the experience of other cultures, ideologies, religions, economic patterns, and trade and financial matters. Line 8 works by a process of comparing multiple benchmarks of performance across many different areas and centers a government policy within this context. The limits of power and authority come into focus—you see things that others are seeing. You draw upon the history of powerful leaders and the philosophers and thinkers whose framework broadens your knowledge and evaluative capabilities. History humbles the powerful; they come and go. We are no different than our ancestors. Our age hugs line 2 as if it were a life-line. Each age feels their time and leader is different.

Presentism is that strong tug, the gravity we feel that decouples us from the past, discounts the information others learnt often through bitter experience. We are happy at line 1 or 2 of the Infinite Eye Chart. There is only so much time in a day. We can’t research everything. I know all of the excuses. I’ve used them. But the worm of doubt gnaws at a side of me that knows two things: 1) we can’t get much beyond line 8 on the Infinity Eye Chart and participate on social media with our friends; 2) our cognitive limitations kick at line 11. There is, in other words, no line 12, etc. on the chart. We don’t test eyes beyond a certain level. Likewise we don’t test our information processing beyond line 11 against a wide data base of information. The number 11 is a dismally small number in the world of infinity. Returning to Borges’ infinite library, it would mean that no one can read and process more than 11 titles. And from those 11 volumes they must imagine the rest of the relationship of the infinite library to those 11 volumes.

What lies beyond line 11 on our Infinite Eye Chart?

Because the chart is infinite there is no bottom. There is no way of measuring infinity. Take the mathematical formula for PI, which is usually expressed as 3.14 Fabrice Bellard revealed in 2010 that pi could be calculated to 2.7 trillion digits. That makes for a very long line on the Infinity Eye Chart that takes 85,000 years to read at the rate of one number per second. In the world of infinity, we need to remind ourselves that pi is much closer to line 1 than it is to infinity. But that should not stop us from reaching as far as we can for meaning.

If we want a better understanding of reality, we shouldn’t aim for pi level of non-repeating numbers. What is more reasonable is to move down a line or two. To be more mindful and conscious of the range of risks and the number of variables used to assign risk. We should examine the depth and size of the context in which we find the issue is embedded. As a rule of thumb, the quality and size of your information matters. Information is never static, always expanding, doubling back, revealing new connections, and often filled with junk that seems useful. The payoff is increasing our understanding of how things fit together, the role of chance, the fallacy of assigning agency to all outcomes, and in assessing the possible effect of a decision or a policy staying within or exceeding existing moral boundaries. It is constant adjustment to the information. Letting go of something you believe to be true based on a new information is difficult and frustrating. We have so much information it puts people in a perpetual bad mood. They are overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed.

Once you’ve tried to see reality at line 8, you are likely to experience boredom, exhaustion, and humility. If you’re are a partisan whose beliefs and ideology guide you from headline to headline, what I’ve proposed means that you are likely to suffer cognitive dissonance. That uncomfortable sweaty palms feeling that the devil has sent these contradictory elements to test your faith.

How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go on the Infinity Eye chart?

85,000 years of reciting pi won’t gain you enlightenment or unlock the mysteries of the universe. You would still be far away from the bottom of the eye chart. We have no glasses to take us to where pi unfolds. Eight to 11 lines of reading our chart seems modest. We certainly wouldn’t call 8 or 11 books a library. None of that matters to us. What does matter, and is in our control, is to move down the chart from time to time to remind ourselves that something smaller, more distant and numerous may offer a window for us to comprehend the edges of reality. Who knows? In fifty years we will all be reading from the Chinese eye chart. That would be a different way of seeing.

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Posted: 7/16/2018 5:13:29 AM 

 

Every age produced prophets who tell us to trust our dreams, promise salvation, the meaning of life, and the purpose of existence. Jonah, Amos and Hosea in Israel, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, and Habakkuk in Judah along with other biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel wrote their prophecies.

In modern times, L. Ronald Hubbard wrote a book titled DianeticsThe Modern Science of Mental Health and went on to found Scientology. Hubbard followed an ancient tradition. Kahlil Gibran went straight to the point in his book titled The ProphetIf you go to Goodreads, you will find a list of writer/prophets from Rabindranath Tagore to Thich Nhat Hanh. In the 1960s and 1970s proselytizing prophets included big names like Alan Watts, Terrance McKenna, and Timothy Leary.  The point is there has never been a shortage of prophets writing books about their vision of existence, suffering and death and offering a pathway to salvation. In the 1980s Bhagwan Rajneeshee’s sermons were recorded and shared among the faithful. We should check the daily chart of prophets like we check the weather or stock market. A prophets’ fate fluctuates, with booms and busts, ups and downs, and roller coaster rides that aren’t for the faint of heart.

We are living through a prophet boom period. Reports like “The Intellectual Dark Web,” explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right by Henry Farrell place Jordan Peterson alongside of Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. These dark prophets are making a very good living as cultural contrarians. Like most inflated markets, this one will also go bust. If you could short this kind of prophet market, you make a pretty penny. Let’s have a closer look at the prophet who currently occupies the number one slot on the Dark Prophet Market (DPM).

He is University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson. He is in the tradition of prophets who appear to have distilled the truth about the meaning of life from psychology, history, literature, philosophy, and social biology. His prophecies have capitalized on the alienation of young western white males and the community building capacity of the Internet and social media.

Prophets share a number of common characteristics and one of the central ones is their unwavering, absolute belief that they have discovered and are revealing the truth. Not an approximation of the truth. But the absolute truth. Doubt or uncertainty isn’t part of the prophet’s toolkit. The irony is Peterson’s conflating the entire left as a monolithic hive mind intent on establishing a totalitarian state. Nathan J. Robinson makes this very point in his Current Affairs “Two Way of Responding to Conservatives,” (2018).

To Peterson, there is no possibility that the left (like the right) is a wide spectrum of political positions and beliefs. Concentrating on the extremes or fringes of the left or right is cherry picking of the most dishonest kind. A genuine analysis and inquiry requires a nuance of thinking to nagivate often contradictory ideas and positions. And Peterson did acquire his number one rank on the DPM for engaging in such subtlety. Inside this self-selected manufactured world, the conflict—life and death of course as nothing else is dark enough—is a secular death match between two absolutist positions on political, economic and social life. They can’t be both right. With Peterson you feel his passion. He really believes the left is the cause of the problem that is on principle wrong, dangerous and like any infection must be stopped. Peterson has the blueprint for its replacement. In his worldview, you stick with this binary choice: Peterson’s way or the way of gulag with the leftist gatekeepers who are currently disguised as academics. It is this vile fifth force that must be defeated. Enough people (mainly young white males) have signed on to Peterson’s battle wagon.

There has been criticism that Peterson has been a lightning rod for disaffected youth. He winds them up into an adoring mob who protect him like the Queen bee who is the only purpose for all other bees in the life of the hive. Every writer wishes for such a devoted, fanatical and loyal audience. Peterson has gathered his fold into something not unlike Scientology. Let’s call it the Peterson’s Movement—which echoes science, sound secular, and promises sexual access. The promise, the ambition is to ‘liberate’ the oppressed male from the cultural slavery of the Left. Like Moses, Peterson, is parting the red sea of left-wing ideology and offering them a safe haven. All a disciple is required to do is to follow his 12 rules like stand up straight, shoulders back. Be precise in your speech. Tell the truth. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Here is a prophet who believes in and preaches ‘perfect order’ as an attainable goal. Keep that idea in mind and ask yourself what kind of mind believes that is even remotely possible? His philosophy has a structural precondition much like a Soviet Refrigerator Factory. You report to the big boss anything less than perfect order. For someone who rails against the left, he has a couple of things to put in order himself. Prophets are often bundles of contradiction and their believers and the faithful don’t let minor details bother them.

The thing about the high fliers on DPM isn’t so much their ‘intellectual’ or ‘philosophical’ positions which often sounds vaguely at the NRA level of response to the latest American school mass murder event; it is their audience. Not enough attention is being paid to understanding what is going on in a culture that has allowed the DPM bubble to inflate to this level. Remember those fixed-income instruments that carried credit ratings of BB or lower but everyone said they were safe and the real estate value would never drop but continue onward and upward with no end in sight? In the case of our prophets we entered what is the late 2007 stage, that window of time before the DPM crashes. A time when it appears nothing can touch the unstoppable upward trend. Cultural gravity works like ordinary gravity. Toss the ball or idea in the air and sooner or later it comes back to earth.

If you want to understand the message of a prophet examine the beliefs instilled in his investors or, if you like, his followers. Prophets, like bond salesman, seduce their customers. It is an art. Peterson’s is a seducer of youth on a grand scale. Long before Peterson came along, another serial seducer of youth was Socrates. But there is a big difference between Peterson and Socrates. The youth of Athens flocked to hear Socrates. Same hold for Peterson. Fans line up for hours to hear him speak. In ancient Greece, the youth didn’t need tickets and probably had no reason to queue in order to hear Socrates speak. That’s the only way the youth could receive Socrates ideas—listen to his oratory and ask him questions. Socrates told them he was ignorant of the world and that’s why he asked questions. The more he asked, the more ignorant he felt, and he didn’t understand how others could be so sure of what they knew. Socrates shrugged his shoulders at this state of affairs. He wrote no books. He made no YouTube videos. He didn’t appear on any high profile TV shows, newspapers and magazines, and blogs.

There is one other difference—Socrates taught the youth of Athens the importance of doubt, the role of uncertainty, the nature of ambiguity and complexity. The leadership of Athens were threatened by such a radical idea that they or their policies could be flawed, incomplete or in error. Socratic empowerment was to disembowel the absolutists by planting the worm of doubt into the minds of youth. He believed in a basic equality of ignorance. Those who felt they knew were the most dangerous of the lot. As ignorance causes more suffering and harm than those under the delusion they have discovered the secret, lost knowledge. Peterson believes he has discovered that secret and he wants to share it with you. That resolute, determined need to convince you, persuade you, makes him an activist. Socrates made inquiries as to whether something was true or false. He didn’t pursue an agenda. Peterson is from a long-line of absolutists advancing an alternative set of core values and norms for everyone, believers and non-believers. His purpose to annihilate the existing leftist, totalitarian value and normative structure that suffocates the true nature of men. In this struggle between the forces of good and evil, Peterson is growing a large international army of volunteers.

A number of articles have been written to say Peterson is dangerous. Socrates was thought to be dangerous, too. I believe too much weight is placed on the Prophet Peterson and not enough on the circumstances that has allowed for such a meteoric rise. The same mistake is made with Trump. Both men are taking advantage of an untapped market to sell their ideas like shares. Junk shares like junk ideas don’t deter buyers who are looking for a deal.

Trump and Peterson are not so much dangerous as we think of that word but more of a distraction for why there is such a high market demand for an idea product based on a series of assumption that holds like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote who keeps on going beyond the edge of a cliff. It’s only when he looks down that gravity takes over. Socrates, on the other hand, s path. We live in a dynamic world of interconnected problems—war, famine, diseases, scarce resources, inequalities, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology.  This is a hard world to comprehend. We try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together with what basic information that is available to non-experts. Along comes Jordon Peterson who confidently tells anyone who listens that he’s found the solution.

Peterson has figured out how all those moving parts are connected, how they work, where there are problems, and he sums it up: it is the radical left who are making a mess of things. That all anyone needs to do is to follow his path. This kind of absolutist thinking promoted by Peterson has a political counterpart in the elected leaders from the United States to Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland among others. Peterson is a spiritual populist. The new orthodox church of disaffected males looking for guidance, demanding answers, and searching for a prophet.


Bhagwan Rajneeshee

The fallout from Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman has been widely reported. Peterson’s followers, not unlike the cult in Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country mobilized in a hate campaign launched against Newman. Though Peterson appears to fill out his dance card more like Ma Anand Sheela than Bhagwan Rajneeshee. Newman’s interview couldn’t have gone better for Peterson who appeared calm, centered, and reasonable while the wheels came off Newman’s wagon as she flew off the cliff into a low-grade hysteria. If you are a prophet, your best hope is for a Newman-type interview to validate you as a truth seeker, a truth finder, a truth guarantor patiently as a series of wild punches fail to do any damage. Newman paid a price for her questioning which Peterson handled with a detached sense of rationality. She underestimated him, and that was exactly the wrong way to handle Peterson. But it was too late, and rather than adjusting course, she continued to blast away with Peterson playing the part of Superman let every verbal bullet bounced off his chest.


You can see her interview with Peterson here.

Cathy Newman was vilified and threatened with physical harm by members of Peterson’s tight pack of followers. They seem to have the equivalent of their Ma Anand Sheela personalities. She took on a small town in Oregon. They are taking on millions worldwide. That’s a globalization of prophecy that took most religions centuries to match. The emotional level reached lynch mob proportions until Peterson intervened and called the prophet equivalent of an emergency AGM of his shareholders and asked them to back off with their threats. The Prophet had spoken and the congregation ended. The threats wound down. Though Newman apparently maintains a security detail finding herself like a Russian who got on the wrong side of Putin. The incident indicates that a kind of religious faith had infected the young men in Peterson’s flock. Peterson had given them an identity and in the time of identity politics and change, the challenge to identity ignites calls for violence against someone testing the materials from which that identity is formed. The Newman lesson for posterity: never underestimate a prophet especially if he’s leading a global prophecy movement.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Peterson discovered it was hard to control the monster once it has life and walks the streets. The first rule of a prophet is to seduce followers with an identity that appears to give them hope, dignity, and community. The second rule is the prophet must seduce himself. The faith he teaches must be the faith he believes in and is willing to die on a cross for. Peterson may fare out before he finds that cross. I once saw a video where Peterson said the international exposure and fame had caught him by surprise. He saw himself riding a 100-foot wave and that sooner or later that wave would crash. Meanwhile, he planned to hang ten toes and ride it as far as he could. Afterwards he didn’t know what would happen. Perhaps his most valuable prophecy is to understand that no prophet rides the big wave forever.

I also know that other peoples’ prophets are conman, charlatans, and game show hosts on the 24-hour meaning of life game show channel.

They plea, they bargain, they offer solace, hope and meaning. If you have suffered the usual whiplash of life, this is what the doctor called for. All you’ve got to do to join the church is believe in the gospel. In the case of other peoples’ prophets, we see through them, view them with contempt and make fun of the gullibility of his followers. We feel sorry for them and write them off as delusional fools beyond reach. That rejection only adds to their resentment. A community finds coherence in the attacks by non-members. It rarely causes any soul-searching of their prophet’s commands or rules. Much of what we want in life is beyond our control. Peterson succeeds by tapping into the resentment of white young males. The reality is the world has become more challenging for white young males. Sharing privileges is not something any group is happy to do.


General audition call

In the West we live in a manufactured reality that promises that if you stand up straight, get your act together, follow the rules, you will get the seat at the table you deserve. Otherwise, you stand outside in the rain and look through the window as others are invited inside. Peterson isn’t responsible for that lie. But he believes his truth will deliver his believers. That’s sad. Because it only compounds the lie. It kicks the can down the road. No one tells the young white men that they were born to stand in a queue that stretches to the horizon. They believed they were entitled to a place in the big show called life. Like casting in a film. The reality is the queue is longer for women and always has been. The same for blacks, gays, and other minority groups bunched together at the back of the queue.

Young white men believe they’d been promised a part, if not a talking part, at least they’d get called to be an extra

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Posted: 6/2/2018 5:24:35 AM 

 

Aaron Schlossberg, a US lawyer, was recently caught on video berating two people for speaking Spanish in a Manhattan restaurant. He was thrown out of the restaurant. But not before his actions went viral on social media. Aaron found himself in a deep hole. A community formed to vent their anger against such a bully. With the daily acts of racism Aaron Schlossberg will soon fall away from public view and memory, and may reappear when inevitably a similar event happens. It will happen again. And again.

Aaron Schlossberg is a member of our species. The bullying instincts he showed run deep in our DNA. Rather than focusing on his conduct as a character flaw that makes him a bad person, I’d rather explore an uncomfortable truth that there is a little bit of Aaron Schlossberg in all of us. Until we address the core issues of dominance, dominators and Alphas we can feel good by joining in and expressing our anger as part of a larger collective anger at Schlossberg. We feel good then move on. That’s not problem solving; it’s problem shuffling. We have a long evolutionary history and it is easy to ignore our basic nature and how our species must own up to its own uncomfortable social and political history.


Aaron Schlossberg

Most of us keep contrary evidence and facts from destroying our little idea castles that dot the imagined landscape of the world we wish to live in. If your beliefs are strongly held, then you won’t be persuaded they might need revision or that they are incompatible with the evidence. In the case of the American lawyer, we witnessed spontaneous communities forming overnight on social media to ridicule the lawyer who, as it turned out, has a history of racially provocative encounters. Ridicule escalated quickly, turning into calls for action. The equivalent of banishment. The lawyer’s law firm was kicked out of its offices. State officials launched application to have the New York State Bar Association to revoke the lawyer’s license.

I’ve been working on a new non-fiction book: Rooms: On Human domestication and Submission. As the NYC lawyer’s story played out on social media, I thought about my two-year research project into the background of our egalitarian heritage.

A quick look at our egalitarian history shows that what happened to the lawyer in New York goes deep in our bone, our instincts, and our very nature evolved because of mutual co-operation among band members as equals. The Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Christopher Boehm, is a classic text that charts a 1,000-generation period when we lived in small bands based on a set of egalitarian values and rules. I found it interesting how early humans created and maintained those values and wondered what forces had caused that social system to collapse. Boehm along with other researchers had discovered how in modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes in the few patches where they still exist showed that the whole band acted as a unified whole against an alpha male who was mean, took more than his own share of food, bragged, and bullied others.

The scholars claim the evidence indicates that evolution bestows us with the burden of dominator males. If it makes you feel any better, chimpanzees are another group of primates with hierarchy and alpha tyrants imposing their will on others. What many view as a character flaw is hard-wired into our species. With our large brains, language, and cognitive skills we evolved a social hack to turn domination on its head. Boehm calls it an inverse hierarchy. Think of a pyramid upside down with the point bit on the ground and the base pointing to the sky.

The social hack worked well for about a thousand generations. Why did the hack ultimately fail? I’ve written a book on that very question. In summary, the fate of communities to fall under powerful alphas happened for two basic reasons: 1) populations scaled beyond the band’s ability to function as an effective, unified social force to coordinate action required to corner and contain the bully; and 2) communities settled in one place, becoming immobile, living inside rooms where they were surrounded by hundreds, and later thousands, then millions of other people, most of whom were strangers. Rousseau’s idealized view of hunter gatherers as peaceful, tranquil communities which worked in harmony sought to discard the instinct for dominance and the associated behavior that Alphas used to seize and maintain the power to bully others. Once the community grew beyond the Dunbar number (150), the cracks opened for hierarchy to grow and for dominators to divide and isolate a community in order to prevent the unified front to their rule.

There is a related question that has troubled me: how did our species evolve the original egalitarian values as hack against tyrants? Was there a companion set of events that allowed egalitarian values to persist for a long period? In thinking about these issues, it is likely that natural selection favored individuals and bands that developed oral communication skills and used them to exchange crucial information about the environment and members of the band. The ability to convey information other than gestures and grunts would have had given an advantage to the band that could use language. Foragers and gatherers had words to identify fruits, nuts, plants, fish and vegetables. Language also helps to order a coffee at Starbucks.

The next step was a language that conveyed information about other members of the tribe: habits, attitudes, fairness, generosity, kindness as well as negative characteristics such as anger, meanness, lying, stealing, cheating, and bullying. The experts believe we’ve had oral language for about 100,000 years, and if you consider the use of protolanguage of sufficient complexity to keep alphas in line, then the start of our advanced communication skills takes us back, according to Boehm to several hundred thousand years. We’ve been talking to each other about how to keep the bully of the band in line for much longer than we’ve been living in rooms. That history and its big social hack continue as background in many contemporary conflicts.

Somewhere in this lost fog of time what we call gossip evolved as an early weapon to contain bullies and other alpha dominators. It allowed the band to discuss, debate, and understand what others were doing that might be against the interest of the band. While modern people may view gossip with disdain and dismiss it as silly, empty and unimportant, in reality, gossip had an important role in structuring and maintaining an egalitarian society. As mentioned earlier, the egalitarian society didn’t abolish dominance; it co-opted the impulse, taking from any individual and placing it with all band members. The commons, in other words, was the ownership of dominance by all members of the band. To prevent dominance of just one individual, his cronies and supporters, hunter gatherers tamed the dominance streak by making it a group behavior aimed at stopping any individual from gathering cronies and supporters to dominant the group. As long as the band could communicate and maintain solidarity, this system of dominance worked. Other than Bonobos, we are the only primate that has a long past record of egalitarian bands.

What was interesting is our ancestors developed ridicule as a crucial tool to create a moral climate and cultural channel to contain bullies. We also had ostracism, banishment, and murder. The community reacted on any hints from gossip that so and so was pushing others around, claiming he was a better hunter. People would laugh at him. Belittle him. Show they were not afraid of him. And they weren’t afraid for one important reason: the entire community had gathered around the person who was laughing at the bully. This communal humiliation destroyed his plan for domination. The dressing down would serve as a stark warning to other alpha upstarts as to what their fate would be. Bullies confronted a united communal front of the rest of the band. Ridicule was the social glue that provided the social ammunition to contain alpha upstarts. For hunter gatherers, they had another arrow for the bow—no member would last long on his own if banished from the band. They had a large incentive to co-operate as equals and equality would be lost if one member ruled the others. The ridicule that worked as a power equalizer for hunter gatherers. Once that way of mobile life was lost, the social and cultural forces shifted and in the new environment united behind a wall of ridicule no longer was sufficient to prevent the rise of the bully to order others around. Once our species became immobile, settling into the life lived inside rooms, ridicule of the powerful continued but it no longer prevented the consolidation of power into the hands of an Alpha.

For thousands of years, instead of a closed band controlling the domination of its members, the role fell to small groups of artists, activists, dissidents and free thinkers who employed satire and ridicule in art, song and stories. They became the unofficial class of ridiculers. But the new ridiculers with limited communication channels found that their efforts force fell short of preventing despots from arising. The Alphas contained the new ridiculers using repressive censorship, blasphemy, and natural security laws in many countries allowed the imprisonment or banishment of such rebels. The underlying goal was to prevent any resurgence of the hunter-gatherer’s reversed domination hierarchy. The first rule of Alphas is to enact laws that deter and punish attempts to contain in-group Alpha conduct.

One of the most important innovations of the Internet and social media has been to vastly expand the unofficial class of ridiculers. The old hierarchies have been rattled by the constant flow of ridicule streaming over millions of timelines. New computer crime laws and access to social media along with bullying of digital companies has raised the question as to how successful the new ridiculers will be in containing the large infrastructure the Alphas have built up and refined over thousands of years.

We can see cracks in the power structure. The question is whether this is good evidence that the existing hierarchy that institutionalized the bully has started to find its power leech away? The Alpha’s authority has been historically based on not only one the threat of violence but by controlling the flow of information to the oppressed population by convincing them they aren’t repressed. That information monopoly over framing of an artificial reality has been disrupted. Social media along with the entertainment industry has witnessed a resurgence of public ridicule. There is an entire entertainment industry like the Jon Stewart Show, Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to mention a few shows that are fueled by skits and humor that point out politicians, public figures, and superrich with public ridicule. The audiences may overlap but it is likely each of the shows has a base audience whose biases are confirmed and they feel part of a larger community. But are these changing making a difference socially and politically? We have the instinct to ridicule a bully but do we have the power to contain the bully?


Hunter gatherers

Our egalitarian instincts are engaged when the bully orders or threatens us.  The question is who is our community? It’s not the band of 30 to 50 relatives, it is more diffuse and abstract, and draws not from the individual but from the identity a group provides to give it cohesion. The group coalesces around a theme: gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, political affiliation, guns, abortion, climate change, etc. Sometimes there is overlap in group membership.

Each group unites and pushes back anyone who threatens their identity. For gun lovers, the advocate of gun control is an outside threat, an enemy, someone who wishes to oppress them and take away their freedom. They treat those who wish to enact gun law restrictions with contempt and ridicule. On the other hand, anti-gun advocates also shower the gun advocates with bile and ridicule. There is no one alpha bully to contain, but legions of them. They pop up like moles and we’ve played whack-a-mole for so long that it seems like a normal part of what goes on in society, when, in fact, the hunter-gatherers dealt with the alpha barking orders swiftly. This was serious business. It wasn’t incorporated into show business as a form of entertainment. Bands united to cooperate in a collective matter to contain the potential tyrant before things got too far along in the attempt to cause them to surrender their equal status to the bully. They also lived in an analogue world of face to face confrontation. There was no hiding behind a keyboard under a phoney identity to bully others. It isn’t that we necessarily produce more bullies than hunter gatherers but we have enabled a mob of social media bullies who doesn’t have to face those he bullies.

The question is whether the social tools such as ridicule are sufficient to retake the high-ground from the dominator class and return that power to the dominated class where it had existed for a thousand generations. Each time a consumer protection law is weakened, or an environmental law abolished, or tax burdens shifted from the rich to the poor, we witness the acts of domination. Since the agricultural revolution, the bullies have taken control of the tribes and are still in power worldwide. They still control and tell others what to do. While acts of defiance seem to be increasing, we find ourselves in the position of either accepting submission or evolving new hacks to control dominators. Whether social media is that hack is open to debate.  What is clear is that allowing dominators out of the social ridicule cage guarantees repression. Alphas ultimately damage the social fabric and spread misery and hopelessness. We need to think about how to create a new social cage for bullies. To make a guess of what that social cage would look like, you’d have to ask an artificial intelligent agent who will one day design and hold the keys.

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Posted: 5/22/2018 8:54:20 PM 

 

Mark Zuckerberg glided through first senate committee hearings on Tuesday 9th April 2018 like an AI given a bunch of old Atari games and mastered them to superhuman level in 24 hours. He blew his questioners, Red and Blue, away like a series of slow moving pixels. But Zuckerberg is no Demis Hassabis and Facebook is no DeepMind. The Senate committee hearing demonstrated reasonable grounds for an amendment to abolish this unrepresentative club of incompetent analogues who are clueless to the dangers lurking in the digital world.

What we witnessed was a roomful of press watching senators in Washington, D.C., at event not unlike a police line up trying to identify the suspect. Only the elected officials had no idea of the crimes Zuckerberg might have committed. They don’t read legislation because they don’t have the attention span or they have not done sufficient research to understand the complexity and range of issues involved. Why should they read about digital technology, social media, data mining, AI and information collection? The US senators cracked their knuckles, a bit stiff from all that dragging on the ground, and winged it. They asked the kind of lazy, half-assed questions your old uncle whose technical knowledge terminated with the jukebox and pinball machine would have asked. On one level their performance makes for highly amusing reading. On another level if you’re not horrified by their performance, then you need to rethink what is at stake.

Facebook isn’t just an online advertising company turning a pretty profit for their shareholder by hawking information to anyone with a pet rock business seeking to expand theircustomer base, or some Third-World hellholes seeking to gather a lynch mob. Facebook is the gateway drug to a serious addiction; they work to maintain their sticky pages with the intention of causing you to feel painful withdrawal whenever you leave the special community with all of your ‘friends’ who share your interest in slitting the throat of your neighbors.

Facebook is also the major social media platform in many countries where the population has been under the yoke of strongmen dictators for so long they have mistaken the yoke for a normal shirt collar. What dictator could resist the temptation to create communities of ‘friends’ who support your ethnic cleansing and genocide or a platform for a repressive regime to control and guide the thoughts of its citizens? Facebook made it easy for them. Or you want to mess around with another country by egging on the worst instincts of one side or another, hey, why not hire a platoon of gamers and computer nerds to help? The new digital community has gathered by murky political operatives. These click farmers are examples of the entry of a new digital agricultural age. They work for pizza, gold stars, and hotel vouchers.

Zuckerberg’s reaction?

There are 2 billion people using Facebook. What happens to all of that information collected about information you? It’s sold. You are sold. What your like, read, desire along with your prejudices, biases, and plans are recorded. Where does the information go? To that big iCloud vacuum cleaner bag. Facebook has created a digital climate change in this bloated information atmosphere; one they harvest, control, trade and own. Like the other climate change, this one threatens humanity with a long drawn out political winter. That’s a pretty serious charge. Explain. Zuckerberg’s little digital empire has invaded, captured, done business in 150 countries. Facebook is in business with some of the worst elements on the planet. Zuckerberg is a more polished than Donald Trump. For different reasons, each one is exposing us to major political risks.

Political thugs with street smarts figure out what Congress still doesn’t understand. All that prevents Facebook from further consolidating its empire and overcoming limitations the current hardware capacity to process all that information, is the development of AI. Once the Facebook system is much smarter, efficient it can be optimized to rig the institutional infrastructure found in any political setting.

What happens when country after country has installed the Potemkin village and all of its citizens believe it is real?

With the staggering, mind boggling amount of information already collected, how can anyone think that it is only has a commercial value. The political implications of Facebook as a platform is staring Congress in the face. Hello, the Russians in the 2016 American election gamed the platform. How many Facebook employees are assigned to focus on terrorism. Two hundred. Let that register. For the whole world. 200 people. As for state inspired terrorism it is obvious this is inadequate.

The Burmese generals gamed the platform.

Facebook has shown itself in bed with some bad actors. Take a look at the picture above when you think Facebook is just another company. Afterwards these men who shot and buried by elements of the Burmese military. Facebook didn’t pull the trigger. But Facebook allowed for an enhanced atmosphere of hatred making it easier for others to do so.

The insularity of Zuckerberg is breath-taking. He talks about Facebook reforms. Ha. And ha again. Most of the world’s been down that dead-end road. In much of the world outside of the United States, dictators rattle on about reforms until people roll their eyes and fall over dead from waiting.

Reform is a political process that requires experts, cultural, historical, and regional sensitivities. It other words, it takes a lot of very smart people who draw from a deep well of expertise to draft, test, implement, adapt and review changes to policy. Most of the time reform is a delay tactic or what is served up as reform is another way to disguise the rent-seeking.

That leads to me to wonder? Remind me again of where I can find the Facebook handbook on the separation of social, economic and political policies; how they are coupled, when they are decoupled, and the levels and context in which they are ‘imposed’ in a given nation-state? Who are the specialists, the equivalent of the civil servants, who have studied the specific regions, know the languages, the current political players, the tensions and conflicts, and the history of minority repression and other human rights violations, and provides for a failsafe procedure when those with ill-intent attempt to game the FB platform?

Zuckerberg is clearly outside of his depth. But that doesn’t matter. Like General Custer at the battle of the Little Longhorn, he assumed the natives will be easily defeated. Unlike Custer, Zuckerberg was right. He hadn’t underestimated the senate committee. He likely over prepared for all kinds of attacks. Before the senate committee, though, he weathered the battle as all of the natives who surrounded him came armed with cream puffs. If you examine the battlefield. The only dead were the brain dead who asked zombie like questions. Score that as a Zuckerberg victory: cream puffs and zombies were no match for someone with a California surfer’s knowledge of the larger world beyond the wave he sees from the shoreline. It was up to a House Committee a day later to shoot a number of straight arrows. Zuckerberg ducked as the senate committee must have softened him up to think these bozos know less than an intern.

The House committee also had a chance on Wednesday 10 April 2018 to ask tough questions of Zuckerberg in a separate hearing a day after the Senate committee failed to do its job.

Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, threw a number of punches at Zuckerberg showing the prize fighter may have impressed others with his golden gloves, the fact was he didn’t know the game all that well: “As CEO you didn’t know some key facts. You didn’t know about key court cases regarding privacy and your company. You didn’t know that the FTC doesn’t have fining. You didn’t know what a shadow profile is. You don’t know how many apps you need to audit. You don’t know what other companies were sold the Kogan data, even though you were asked that yesterday. You don’t even know how many kinds of information you’re logging.”

As for Zuckerberg’s reflections on what Facebook got wrong, Scott Peters, a Democrat from California, had this exchange:

Peters: What about things they got wrong?

Zuck: I need to think about that more.

That was Zuckerberg’s fallback position as the arrows rained down: I need for time or AI will fix it. The members of the house committee demonstrated that Zuckerberg was clueless about important issues central to the operation of Facebook.

And that’s why you should be concerned.

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Posted: 4/12/2018 2:15:33 AM 

 

From the beginning of our species, there is evidence that we valued the arts. We rarely question the talisman of ‘creativity’ as part of what separates us from other animals. We are creative in ways that allows for mystical attributions. The creativity flag flies from a pole on a hill occupied by writers, artists, poets, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, and other creatives. The creatives as a class and cling to the belief that their creations are safe from artificial intelligence displacement.

Unfortunately, this worldview is a delusion. AI has breached the creative hill. You can expect our creative forces, in time, will be overrun.

An article by Elizabeth Kiehner titled What Artificial Intelligence Will Do to Creativity shows evidence of how AI has partnered with filmmakers, composers, horror writers and website designers.

There is an AI pattern of encroachment into the realm of human social, artistic, economic and political activities. Each domain has been or is in the process of disrupting the pre-existing human-centric model. Muscle-powered labour was the first to be displaced. High-level abstract thinking and analysis, research, information gathering, testing and prediction found at the heart of mathematical theory and models, and underlying law, medicine, accounting, teaching, design, etc. have witnessed the intrusion of AI. People in these professions are as vulnerable as auto workers. We aren’t quite at that point but the hand-writing is on the wall. The old stability of gradual change and small data basis and containment of knowledge has ended. But these professions, in theory, are where really smart people are found.

Our concept of IQ is based on a person’s ability to accurately and quickly process abstract symbols and to manipulate information. Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 (2017) defines intelligence as “the ability to accomplish complex goals.” He goes further to say that it makes no sense to quantify intelligence by reference to an IQ number as such reductionism leaves out key components such as “capacity for logic, understanding, planning, emotional knowledge, self-awareness, creativity, problem solving and learning.”

A few people, we call them geniuses, perform exceptionally well at problem solving, logic and learning. We can start with something simple like a tear drop. A genius can predict its rate of fall, and work out a formula to describe the chemical composition, volume, atomic weight and pressure. After all a tear drop from a scientific point of view is no more difficult than to analyze than a drop of whiskey. Sometimes they are found together. But science isn’t that interested in this social and emotional connection.

Another form of intelligence which goes under a variety of names from emotional to creative intelligence draws upon a different way of looking at the tear drop. Was it the result of joy, sadness, frustration, pain, or loneliness? The creatively intelligent seeks out the hundreds of possible stories about the human condition she found inside a tear drop.

The stories that move, guide, entertain, thrill and inspire us are shared and read. They shape lives. They change attitudes. They change our relationship with each other.

Creative people find a way to express what can’t be easily reduced to abstract principles, formula or theories. There is a degree of freedom at work in the creative examination of a tear drop. The expression may be irrational or absurd but it conveys a deep feeling embraced by some. We sort our friends by the nature of their stories. The ability to read stories in a tear drop isn’t a reading from our DNA. The skill is taught. Some have more talent than others but the meaning of a tears comes from immersion in the daily bath of cultural values. This learning process is uploading social and cultural software.

We have people who have use their high IQ to describe and interpret a world of abstract symbols that make predictions. Without such people you wouldn’t have the technology that allows you to read this essay on your computer.  Inside this ultra-rational world, the descriptions which emerged have been calculated with a degree of precision and exactitude. Your GPS would be useless without such calculation proving to be highly accurate. 1% of the world admires the beauty of such equations. The rest of us struggle along thinking we have the same understanding from metaphors like “black holes”, “dark matter”, “dark energy” and “worm holes”. Our language is enriched by metaphors. That wealth also conceals a poverty of precision.

As tear drops illustrate the world of the abstract mathematical formula and the world of metaphors are different and only roughly reflect a common bond in reality.

A tear drops trajectory has a mathematical formula that is highly predictive. But why that tear drop emerged at this moment has no formula. Given the tools in development and growing understanding of neuroscience, the future may bring a creative-edge AI that can spin tear drop stories with the best of our writers. We are at the very beginning of a new age of innovation. If I had to make a prediction when that hill of creativity will be overrun and the human creators are pushed over the side, it is when AI can tailor the story around your own goals, personality, background and desires, and offers you the chance to assist in the creation.

We might expect something like a Facebook addiction that arises once you discover creative content that is your personal mirror. You look into that mirror and see a reflection of your personal worldview honed from the millions of data points. As many billions of sensors will enter every aspect of your life, no stone will be unturned, you will think nothing or do nothing that doesn’t add to an information trail. AI follows those bread crumbs. As any artist knows, if you trace the tracks long enough, you will be able to capture hearts. When that happens, we will look to AI to explore the stories in our own tear drops. Because that will be the only set of stories most people will be interested in searching for answers.

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Posted: 4/5/2018 4:00:25 AM 

 


Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea since 2011.

I have been reading The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (2018) and would like to share my thoughts about a couple of ideas raised in the book.

From the Trump White House to political systems in Thailand, Turkey, Russia, China, and the Philippines we have witnessed a shift to the strong leader model of governing along with a distrust of democracy, its institutions, its processes, and rules of succession. Does this mean we are observing a fundamental shift in attitudes of people living in democracies? Or are there other, better explanations?

The Elephant in the Brain argues that social status has been divided between two styles of leadership: one is based on domination and the other one is based on prestige.

Domination

The leader who uses domination reply on an arsenal of weapons: guns, prisons, re-education, exile, censorship, and intimidation. The Alpha male (they are mostly male) builds or co-opts a coalition which overwhelmingly benefits the ruling class socially and economically and the vast majority who aren’t part of the coalition either bend to the leaders will or suffer the unpleasant consequences in an oppressive system. The world is witness to this kind of domination-based, non-democratic, autocratic leader, who uses violence to keep people in line. North Korea is an extreme example where domination takes place by highly restricted access to the Internet and social media.

Prestige

Prestige as Robert Mueller (the American special counsel who is investigating the Russian involvement in the US 2016 presidential election) shows the second way to leadership. Such a person doesn’t cause fear and a wishes to avoid (unless you are a target of his investigation). This style of leader evokes admiration and we wish to associate with him. We exercise our free will to join a coalition that supports him. We’d vote for someone like him. He doesn’t need to use the threat of force and violence in order to implement his policies or a gun to our head to influence our electoral choice. Such a person has a record showing expertise, contribution to community, self-sacrificing conduct, fairness, curiosity, and the inclusion of different points of view as a natural part of the decision-making process. A combination of these qualities are rarely found in a single individual. But there are such people who have them. Why aren’t more of such type of leaders? What is it about the political process that is biased against opting for prestige over domination, offering no or little choice alternative?

Coalition formation

The Elephant in the Brain raises the importance of coalition building in the political process. Their analysis falters as it fails to take into account the significant difference between domination and prestige over the treatment toward the coalition formation process. A common thread through the domination of governance is that the coalition behind the leader is a minority of the overall population. If it were a majority, the Alpha dominant leader would be first to have open and fair elections. Democracy is messy because it allows for a more fluid formation process. The recent events surrounding the school shooting in Florida shows how quickly new and potentially powerful coalitions emerge from the private and public sectors. The new players can work together to create a counter agenda. The new policies threaten the vested interest of the old coalition of gun manufacturers, sellers and owners. The old coalition over time become rigid, brittle, fragile, and, when threatened, ruthless. It appears it is all for the benefit of the leader. But this is almost never the case.

The State uses all of its institutions and powers to reward its coalition partners and to exclude, threaten or intimidate those who signal an intention to form a new political coalition. In the domination style of the political process, a great deal of attention is devoted to exposing the beginnings of new coalitions as anyone of them might gain momentum and post a threat to the existing beneficiaries of the domination system. New coalitions as well as factions rising inside existing coalitions are both existential threat to a domination political system. This is a reason why they rarely have a smooth succession plan. No one trust whether another leader will realign the coalitional interest in a way that will be disadvantageous to some of the partners. The leader in this system comes from some faction of the coalition. They are allies. Everyone else is a potential enemy and a threat.

In the democratic system, the conflict as well as the stability comes from creating a coalition formation space. Most people aren’t political. They don’t follow the political developments on a daily basis. They go about their lives as if politics is happening in another universe that rarely intersects with their own. Yet despite the lack of interest and focus of the general populace, coalitions form to change laws on abortion, pot possession, discrimination and a number of other issues, and leaders who are admired for their leadership of such coalitions are elected to represent the emerging values and interest. If you want to know the true nature of a political system—to cut through the propaganda—examine the history on coalition formation and assess how it correlates with the history of political prisoners. You will find a correlation.

Whether democratic or autocratic, the coalitions that benefit from the power-sharing arrangement are unstable. Coalition partners fall out with each other. Or a new coalition replaces the old one. In the case of an autocratic state the collapse of the coalition usually results in the failure of the state itself. The state institutions reinforced with guns only dissolve or pull back to a small ring around the center of power. Syria is a good example of such a coalitional collapse. When the coalition in a parliamentary system fails, an election is usually called to provide a possibility of new coalitional partners to form and replace in part or whole the old ones, with the goal of bringing in the new members in order for stability and legitimacy to prevail. The lesson of history is political coalitions are not solid, permanent features; they are transitory and have an expiry date.

Digitalized emotions

Democracy has been widely believed to be the best way to ensure that the prestige style of leadership trumped over the domination style. Until Trump came along. Look at who Trump admires. They are all dictators out of the domination mode. Turkey, Russia, China, Burma, the Philippines, and Thailand have leaders that are variations of Donald Trump. What The Elephant in the Brain doesn’t address is how those from the domination style have found with the Internet and social media a new and powerful set of weapons to their arsenal. The anti-democratic forces (there are exceptions such as North Korea) have discovered that digital domination is less bloody once you convince the people outside your coalition to self-suppress their feelings which are now directed against others.

Xenophobia and ultra-nationalist platforms have produced new coalition partners for dictators. Propaganda requires control of the media and exclusion of counter-media messages. It also requires wide penetration to the mass population. The propaganda can be micro-tailored in ways that make earlier propaganda crude and subject to ridicule. Social media—Twitter and Facebook—have become the best new communication channel for authoritarians. They have subverted ‘social’ and converted it into ‘social-political’ that drives emotions in the direction that reinforces authoritarian rule. It converts dictators into populists, and turns Nobel Peace Prize winners into handmaidens of dictators who enable and legitimize their violence. The social media companies are the second set of handmaidens who have equipped authoritarians with powerful emotional weapons of mass persuasion and mass misinformation.

The emotional fury of the Burmese directed at the Rohingya is a signal of how this new world of domination works. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled genocide to live in make-shift refugee camps along the Burmese and Bangladesh border. This ethnic minority in Burma was a convenient way to create super-majorities of Burmese who supported violence against men, women and children. Thousands were slaughtered and raped. Their homes pillaged, burned and bulldozed. The regime labeled this minority group as less than human and the majority Burmese agree. Authoritarians’ strong suit is violence.

As a visible minority group with a different religion, the Rohingya played into the hands of the Burmese government by providing a focal point, playing the emotional card to assemble and rally a large group who share the same fanatical sense of revulsion, hatred and fear. The American far-right embraces an anti-immigrant agenda as do most other countries with a domination style of leadership. In the Internet age, democracy has degenerated into sizeable coalitions based on communal hatred and fear of others.

The voters who elected Trump flipped to the domination, strong-man, and attack the non-believers, anti-ethnic and foreigner model. There is a lack of faith that their coalition would survive a fair, open and honest vote. It may be also why they have little interest in exposing the Russian involvement. The domination style takes allies from wherever they can find them if it means this is the way to power.

This tweet illustrates the domination political style:


https://twitter.com/cobbo3/status/968139608885202944/photo/1

Modern authoritarians

The current political trend was featured in a speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world.  Shame is also in retreat.  Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban who earlier this month said ‘we do not want our colour… to be mixed in with others’.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22702&LangID=E

Few people thought there were enough such voters to elect such an American president. But there is growing evidence he had help from Putin whose interest is populating the world with Putin-like clones, or at least creating chaos that challenges the Western hegemony. Xi Jinping admires Putin. It has been suggested that Xi Jinping has modelled his own political fortunes along the Putin roadmap (a proposal to abolish term limitation is one evidence). Others have speculated on whether Xi’s leadership will not follow the Putin style of leadership.  https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/xi-jinping-may-be-president-for-life-what-will-happen-to-china What remains common is the failure to embrace a central feature of limitation: (1) that it is limited in duration; and (2) the measure of leadership success is succession policy, without a smooth transition of power to a new leader, the existing leader finds himself riding on the tiger’s back..

Trump is ill-suited to the democratic process as are the non-democratic leaders in a growing number of countries. These modern authoritarians hunger for prestige—which doesn’t come due to the lack of the leader’s merit, expertise or achievement—so they double down on repression of those who don’t admire them, make fun of them. Censorship, exile, murder or prison are useful tools to enforce submissions. In the digital coalition of hatemongers, the members are emotionally charged up and aim their discontent and bile not at their own regime but at immigrants, blacks, or Muslims as one unified class of dangerous, criminally active and less than human.

History suggests that those tools have not earned a leader prestige outside his narrow coalition of partners in extraction, corruption and other crimes. Their tools bring them dividend rich in loyalty and devotion from coalition members. The authoritarians and their coalition partners have discovered the Internet is the best coalition partner they could ever wish for. This partner has opened a vast platform where the participants believe they are making up their own minds. The hate, fear, and disgust except for their relatives, cronies, and corrupt associates, makes them fall in line with the rulers.

The result is traditional prestige and freedom to build alternative coalitions have been degraded. Norms, laws, and institutions in the United States are in an upheaval as the authoritarian model proves cunning and resourceful in marshalling the Internet and social media, giving them a renewal based on mass support that continues so long as the capacity for hatred and fear is not exhausted.

In the battle between the NRA and a group of 17-year-old high school students in Florida, the world watches to see if the hatemongers can ride out the challenge to their influence and power. If the hatemongers lose this battle, it gives hope that democracy still has the robustness and resilience to put the authoritarian genie back into the magic social media lamp.

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Posted: 3/2/2018 1:37:34 AM 

 


Christmas Day Truce 1914

Swimming pools of ink have been emptied in the discussions of the intense verbal warfare in America about politics as the president fires tweets like a machine-gunner at a wide range of enemies. In all of these dramatic battles, there’s not been much discussion about a central question that defines our humanity: have we loss our sense of empathy? Exactly what makes empathy a desirable trait? I recently read an interview with Nick Bostrom, Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, who writes about the danger of AI; he is worried that mankind might suffer an existential crisis should AI lack empathy. In an interview with Andy Fitch of the
Los Angeles Review of Books Bostrom draws what is, I believe, a useful distinction between two different meanings of empathy.

In the first sense, empathy is our ability to read the mind of others: their intentions, emotions, and feelings. Our theory of mind is based on the words, gestures, posture, and the context that provides enough information to make a reasonably good prediction of what another person wants or is seeking to obtain from his or her own actions. If you can predict with reasonable accuracy what someone is after, this is a huge opportunity to take advantage of another’s vulnerability.

In the second sense, empathy is using the theory of mind to dissect the wants, urges and desires of others, and genuinely being interested in and caring about their intentions and feelings. What makes us human is this innate sense of caring. It limits the kind of actions we take as we want to avoid causing harm to the people we care about. If we care only about the feeling we share a common cultural or religious identity or does that caring scale to others who have different attitudes and beliefs from us? Everyone needs to ask themselves how far the caring empathy scales to people outside of their tight circle.

A psychopath may have an overtly developed sense of empathy in the first sense, but a psychopath lacks any ability to care about the people whose minds he or she can read. No one existence inside a psychopath’s circle of people whose feelings he cares about except himself. It’s that void we find frightening about a psychopath.The psychopath may take it one step further and take pleasure and satisfaction in harming, crippling or killing others. What Bostrom was concerned about was that AI is a kind of psychopathic intelligence that may not necessarily set out to harm us but has no human notion of what it means to care about how someone else feeling come into play when making a decision or taking an action.

We are some way from creating an AGI—Artificial General Intelligence. How far away is that time? No one can predict the time frame. We live with that uncertainty and that risk. Our more immediate problem is happening now. We are in an era of empathy reduction of the second kind by us, homo sapiens who have become overtly polarized. You can find ample evidence in the first year of Trump’s presidency. The Democrats along with many on the left believe Trump has caused damage to the democratic traditions and constitution system of the United States. Not to mention he’s managed, in their view, to have destabilized international treaties, alliances, and human rights. But Republicans and those on the right believe Trump will save the United States from the heavy hand of big government and overregulation, and protect US citizens from terrorists. The US electorate is deeply polarized, and neither those on the left or the right are interested in exploring a common political ground. But it has gone beyond politics. People hate people they don’t know based on their political beliefs and affiliations. Neither side cares about the feelings of the other. In other words, a large number of Americans (and others around the world) are slipping into a group psychopathic mental condition. Both camps have militarized their empathy in the first sense, and, at the same time, have buried dug the grave for dumping the second element of empathy: caring.

One row in the graveyard of empathy (in the caring sense) is filled with the unread fiction. The best novels celebrate our capacity for empathy and that is why these books have been written, read, treasured, and handed down. People are buying fewer novels. They are reading even fewer of the books they buy. I wouldn’t say people are reading less. Many are reading more from their social media timelines. Is your timeline a source of empathy for all sides? More likely, like my timeline, it is a one-sided empathy landscape. Cheerleaders are working 24-hours a day feeding me signals that remind me when to feel smug and self-righteous and when to feel anger and outrage. My timelines on Facebook and Twitter allows me to feel comfortable, right, engaged, part of a community or tribe of people who see the world very much like me. This is an emotional trap and I’ve stepped in it. Social media timelines are popular because of the clever way they work on enhancing our empathy in the first sense of figuring out what someone is thinking or feeling. It is remaking our vision of the world as one that is occupied by psychopaths because we use this information to launch an attack. Read any popular website like the New York Times comments sections on a political story. It’s a humbling lesson when it comes to empathy. But this is not how many of us wish to see ourselves. It’s hard to hold up the mirror when what is reflected is not consistent with our self-image. The Trump administration most dangerous accomplishment would be not to recognize what we are seeing in the mirror as 2017 closes. It’s not him. It’s us. You. Me. In the last year, ask yourself the cost we’ve all paid by concentrating on theory of mind of others while ignoring caring, letting it atrophy like an unused muscle. We find a movement to mock the idea of caring. Someone who cares about other’s feelings are called ‘snowflakes’ as if empathy turns you into an emotional puddle. Hold that thought for the day when AGI arrives and we are treated as 7.5 billion snowflakes which as far as AGI is concerned, how we feel is irrelevant to it’s actions.

Fiction has another purpose—to make you care about all the characters, the good, the bad, and sometimes even the ugly ones. Characters are said to be thin, two-dimensional, or shallow if absolutely nothing in their lives, plans, history that humanizes them, and makes us care about them. We condemn the bad, for whom we withhold redemption and forgiveness easily. But people and life are complex, often contradictory, neither black nor white. Caring about the feelings of others opens the door to a more complex, complicated, broken, and fragile world. Nothing works the way it should, nothing is really fair or just, and everyone dies in the end while meanwhile we try to get along with the least amount of conflict as possible. In order to make an armistice we need load both barrels of the empathy gun. I don’t see the will to that and that should worry us.

We have reached a stage of anger, hate and polarization when we don’t care to consider anything that would humanize a Donald Trump or a Hilary Clinton or their supporters. Even the best of our commentators and pundits are drawn into the frontline battles where any sign of caring is viewed as a betrayal. We cheer when someone on our side lands a blow, although we should be reflecting and digging deeper. We don’t dig. We stay firmly on the surface like good soldiers protecting his comrades at arms. We are at war.

There is a term for what we are avoiding in caring about something we have intense feelings of dislike—it’s called cognitive dissonance. We hate and project that negative emotion on people who don’t think like us. Part of the process is the inevitable avoidance of facts or information that contradicts our belief about an idea, a culture, or a person. In this simplistic, binary world of black and white, the information is sort into one or the other category. You are on the white side; those ‘morons’ are on the dark, ignorant side. No one cares about what a moron thinks or feels. We call someone a moron or stupid so we can dismiss, diminish, mock, or ridicule such people. We have never been so fully weaponized for social and political battle. Our arsenal includes a mishmash of images, hashtags, photographs, videos, comments, blogs, and gossips. As digital warriors we sit before our screen poking the other side in the eye with a digital stiletto. As they are blinded, it doesn’t hurt, right? Our side cheers. The other side retaliates in kind. And so it goes like the trench warfare of World War I.

My New Years wish is that we start 2018 with an intent to rediscover our second sense of empathy. We need to remind ourselves, and to urge others, to care more about each other’s feelings. It’s not enough to care about the feelings of people you like, those on your side of this digital no man’s land. We need to also care about the people on the other side and make room for their feelings. We have evidence from the past where such a miracle happened.

In the history books it’s called the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve and Day 1914, French, German and British troops left their trenches on the Western Front and entered no man’s land where they mingled, exchanged food, played football and sang carols. Although the generals forced them back into the killing machine, for a moment in time we were shown a glimmer of the best of our empathetic selves. The lesson is when you hunt for the caring part of empathy, don’t look to the generals or politicians or pundits, instead look to the common foot soldier for leadership in caring. We have a chance to get out of the trenches and call a truce on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Why don’t we take that chance?

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Posted: 12/11/2017 10:40:56 PM 

 

 

For a definition of ethnocracy Wikipedia provides: “An ethnocracy is a type of political structure in which the state apparatus is appropriated by a dominant ethnic group (or groups) to further its interests, power and resources. Ethnocratic regimes typically display a combination of ‘thin’ democratic facade covering a more profound ethnic structure, in which ethnicity (or race, or religion) – and not citizenship – is the key to securing power and resources. An ethnocratic society facilitates the ethnicization of the state by the dominant group, through the expansion of control, often through conflict with minorities and neighboring states.”

This definition of ethnocracy also covers many countries in Southeast Asia. It also extends to countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Trump’s election was a wakeup call. We found that what we thought of as democracy was a public relations sham. Unless, of course, you are part of the dominant ethnic group, then you are celebrating a return to the way things should be. You’ve recovered your dignity and respect and those outsiders have been pushed back.

Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 signified a major advancement of the concept of ethnocracy. The current genocide of the Rohingya in Burma is another example of ethnocrats ‘cleansing’ their state of minority ethnic groups.

Demos is the Greek word for the people. Democracy is a system where the consent of the ‘people’ is the basis of legitimacy for those who govern. The word ‘people’ is in scare quotes because there lies the problem—how do you define ‘the people’? The people’s (however you define that group) consent is conferred through an election. With voter intimidation, suppression, rigging and gerrymandering, it is possible for a dominant ethnic group to discourage ethnic minorities from voting. The effect is a political system that has the outward appearance of a ‘demos’ consenting to the governing authorities but in fact this is a sham.

The left and right, republicans and democrats, nativist and globalist are united in their belief that the other side is supporting a sham to suppress them. There are daily news reports showing that the real split is between two social constructs of reality: global/international and the native/ethnic. The two perspectives, which determine how to allocate resources, extend security and protection, and set the power and role of authority are in conflict. There is no middle ground. You see people as the species or you see the people as a mythological ethnic group of which you are a member.

An article in the Bangkok Post reported a growing anti-tourism feeling in many countries. Foreigners are no longer welcome. It’s not just tourism. Religious dogma has been used as support for blood letting by nativist groups. In Burma, the genocide conducted by the civilian and military government has been led with Buddhist monks in the forefront of the call to eliminate the Rohingya. Trump made campaign promises to build a long, expensive (an ultimately useless, symbolic) wall between the Southern United States and Mexico. Bans of immigration and travel have followed. Racial hatred against minority groups has been on the rise in many countries. Police brutality is disproportionately applied against ethnic minorities. Prisons are filled with ethnic minorities. But somehow we can bring ourselves to see the pattern. One goal of an ethnocracy is to destroy the ability of the dominant group to see such patterns. Willful blindness is a psychological requirement for an ethnocracy to work. Women, particularly ethnic minorities, do not fair well in terms of rights, education, security and protection in ethnocracies. Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale won Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series for a dystopia where women had lost their rights in a rigid, ethno culture.

Censorship has a new life in the ethnocracy. Knowledge, expertise, and intelligence are devalued and nativist propaganda bans studies, books, discussion and dissemination of information that counters the ethnocratic version of reality. The anti-intellectual fury against science and knowledge workers is understandable. Unless that knowledge and the scientific method for examining reality is shutdown or marginalized or dismissed, the results of the research might be used by the global/international group to undermine the myths upon with an ethnocracy is constructed. We’ve seen on YouTube ethnophiles who have had a DNA test showing their mix ancestry and the cognitive dissonance that caused. There have been, for example, a number of articles showing that historically there was no ethnicity in the sense we use that term today. The great fear of ethnocrats is their founding idea of race and ethnicity is true and real rather than a construct of our minds. Evidence that it has no biological or evolutionary support will never change the mind of an ethnocrat.

Science is distrusted by ethnocrats for a couple of reasons. First, science cares nothing about ethnicity as a membership requirement. Instead scientific method and process depends on the quality of a mind, it’s openness, it’s curiosity, and it’s ability to co-operate with others from different cultures. That makes science a global force and a natural enemy of the ethnocrats who are anti-science in order to secure their belief system. Second, science has the evidence and the means of communication to demolish the concept of ethnicity. It is a man-made construct and the racial hatred it encourages becomes the building blocks of an ethnocracy and its culture. If you examine the budgets in an ethnocracy they are surprisingly consistent: science is defunded, de-emphasized, and scientists encouraged to work as engineers to build a strong ethnocracy.

The nativists are the core of the ethnocratic dominant group. They will refuse to accept the science of climate change and for a very good reason—the nativists have no solution climate change. It can’t be problem if there is no solution. There is only a global solution to deal with climate change and that is to go beyond ethnocratic cultures and mindsets. The ethnocrats don’t see an impasse. They don’t find a problem. You find the same approach with the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘human rights’. The Burmese rankle at the idea they are committing genocide or engaging in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. This is, for the nativist, not a ‘global’ issue, and there is no ‘global’ morality, only local, cultural ways for the dominant ethnic group to deal with their minority populations. The government officials don’t want NGOs, news correspondents, or other observers on the scene to report what their security forces have done along with local dominant group members. That is consistent for nativists; they believe they are superior and in the right but when challenged become aggressive about their rights as a sovereign nation/state and demand non-interference in their domestic affairs.

Historically, the ethnocrats have support for their position in the seventeenth century the Treaty of Westphalia. “State sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs.”

We are no longer living in the world of 1648 Europe. Nation, like the Greek word, People, has created a tension as technology has encroached on state sovereignty, and the major existential problems facing mankind as no longer ones local governments can address on their own. The ethnocrats want 1648 treaty to be the model now and in the future. That is understandable if your goal is to advance the interest of a dominant ethnic group inside the boundaries of a state. Look around places like the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and America and ask yourself how well the 17th century shoe fits the 21st century foot size.

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Posted: 9/18/2017 10:34:28 PM 

 

 

The Rohingya genocide at the hands of the Burmese is bibical in its full fury and brutality. Unfortunately what is happening in Burma is not unique. Our species evolved as members living in groups. Our self-identification, culture and group membership maintains itself by the presence of outsiders. The non-group member is a threat, the ‘bad’ the ‘evil’ the ‘criminal’ always someone who is less than human, a demon to be put to the sword and house burnt down.

The implications arising from the Rohingya ethnic cleansing are disturbing and disheartening for many reasons. One implication is that we have another lesson of how difficult it is for us to think in terms of species survivor–a condition for broad-based co-operation required for climate change measures and human rights. Both are based on us being part of a universal group. One species.

Peace prizes are awarded to those few who call for universal human rights. Until the application of those principles is required at home. Then Aung San Sui Kyi retreated to her native ethnic, national group and that is a lesson not lost on others elsewhere in the world. Trump leads the nationalist retreat in America. Around the world you find leader after leader working the tribal drums against outsiders. You might say these leaders have failed us. The other side, is more troubling, these leaders reflect who we are and in shocking ways that are painful to accept.

The Rohingya are the canary in the coal mine shaft. As more agricultural land become infertile, temperature rise, extreme weather, and ocean acidification leads to mass migrations, we will bear witness to tragedies like this on a on a global scale and this will be a frequent feature of our lives. The cleansing of outsiders is increasing a big political selling point to power in many countries.

In The Marriage Tree, the story revolved around the plight of Rohingya in Thailand. That Calvino novel was published in 2014. Three years later, the Rohingya are receiving international attention as the Burmese genocidal rulers sense no push back from America. We have entered a time when leaders like Donald Trump asked for sympathy with the side doing the murder, to see the matter through eyes. In which case, I say take a close look at the photographs coming out of Burma. Ask yourself why you click on a funny video of a dog streaming on your timeline and why scroll passed a story about the Rohingya. We don’t want to look. We know but we don’t want to know.

Our group-think, group-act psychology no longer works for 7.5 billion people and lays bear our emotional wiring that is guiding us on a path toward extinction. If you could buy futures in ‘hatred’ and ‘fear’ as commodities you stand to make a killing.

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Posted: 9/15/2017 5:29:03 AM 

 

Most people have experienced enchantment. It’s a moment in time when you find a sense of wonder and beauty in something much larger than yourself, but includes you, and this enlargement of self gives us a subjective sense of bliss and joy. Given that payoff, you would think enchantment is sought after.

But when you look at a bar graph charting the use of the word ‘enchantment’ you discover a steady, long decline over the past 200 years. If it isn’t in the vocabulary, then enchantment is just another of those terms we no longer much think about. If you’d invested in enchantment shares in the stock market of modern life, you would have been a loser. The word still knocks around but has gained a bad reputation by its association with fairy tales. Not to worry; it has been repackaged for contemporary times. We live in a modern era where ‘enchantment’ like most other things have been commodified, packaged, and sold as mass produced experiences. What are the sources of the subjective feeling of being enchanted? Why, in modern times, do we feel disenchanted with life? The answers to these questions are not obvious or easy. What is more obvious is we are in an age of despair, an age of deepening disenchantment. How would be go about for the re-enchantment our world?


M.C. Escher

During the long period of hunter gatherers, nature with the wild flowers, rivers and streams, mountains, oceans and beaches, birds and animals would have provided a rich, diverse opportunity to feel the magic, bliss, joy, delight and charm that folds into our sense of enchantment. The point is, enchantment is about our subjective sense of how we feel about the world that surrounds us. Evolution would have taken care of eliminating the early bands of homo sapiens whose subjective sense was so whacky as to find bliss in riding a saber-tooth tiger.

Once we entered the agricultural period 10,000 years ago gradually our relationship with nature changed; we took to religion as the way to register enchantment. In the rituals, ceremonies, art, priesthood, angels and saints, we constructed enchantment from the tissue of beliefs that gave us new skin in the bliss and joy emotional space we had inherited from the hunter gatherers’ way of life. With religion, we learned to ride with a new set of communal mythical, celestial beings, holy, divine and enchanting.

The Enlightenment set a fire under the religion’s monopoly over truth-making for both the objective and subjective experiences of the world. Science gradually used observation and experiments and mathematics to provide objective explanations and descriptions that left religious doctrines stranded in misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition. Spinoza saw that religion had become a political enterprise “pandering to popular fears and illusions.” Prophets with ulterior motives have made history of many religions. In recent advances, science has given a biological and chemical explanation for our subjective experience. Consciousness, the so-called hard question, is being pursued and may soon be captured in a commercial or university lab.

To be satisfied with religious literal explanations about the world carried the stigma of ignorance. The educated populations found themselves excluded from the enchantment experience that had been in place for thousands of years. But in most places, even after 500 years, the Enlightenment has failed to substitute for enchantment that has the same appeal as nature had for our hunter gatherer ancestors and as religions had for the post-agricultural communities.

In the modern era of capitalism, enchantment has become a business. I recently listened to an Atlantic magazine podcast interview with Kurt Anderson talking about his new book FantasyLand. Two of the interviews gushed over their joy of visiting Disneyland with their children. There was no awareness that the ‘fake’ and ‘alternative’ reality of Disneyland is a modern enchantment enterprise that comes with tickets, long lines, popcorn and soda.

I may have been too harsh about the Atlantic interviewers lavishing praise of the Disneyland experience. Wikipedia delivers the facts: “Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average annual attendance of over 52 million. The resort is the flagship destination of Disney’s worldwide corporate enterprise, and has become a popular staple in American culture.”

Why are Disneyland and Disney World so popular and not just for Americans? There are Disneyland franchises in France, Japan and Hong Kong. The answer to popularity among diverse cultures is no doubt complex with lots of plausible ways—from mass marketing to alternative entertainment—to connect the dots. One of those answers is Disneyland is what capitalism has invented as a substitute for our desire to experience enchantment and share that joy with members of our family. Can that be so bad? It’s not a moral issue as much as it is an insight into how our modern world has been stripped of the magic of nature and the authority of religion, and in that void flies Tinker Bell over the Cinderella Castle and acts as our guide to the Magic Kingdom. Disney World with a payroll of 74,000 cast members is the largest single-site employer in the United States.


Tokyo Disneyland

What is left out of the Disneyland enchantment option is the financial cost. While hunter gatherers had the great open spaces to experience enchantment, and the agriculturalist and industrialist age populations had churches available for the emotional uplift of joy, A family of four going to Disney World starts with a minimum budget of $2000 and runs up to $10,000. You reach for your wallet if you want to experience this artificial world of joy. The costs would exclude a lot of people who flock to the megachurches where ‘ministers’ preach sermons that act as a kind of Disneyland substitute for the poor where they are fleeced of their cash.

The problem is Disneyland, Disney World, megachurches are at times in competition and other times complicit with alternative radio, TV, and social media. These modern rivals for our unconscious mind and our subjective state of mind play out in the low-grade psychological wars one encounters on various timelines. Our modern enterprises in the enchantment business—and it is a commercial venture—either haven’t made a dent in the disenchantment of modern times or collaborate with these outlets in a joint effort to manufacture a safe subjective blissful reality. Religious fundamentalists, reality show personalities, and assorted specialized self-help gurus have filled a void. They have found a large unfulfilled bliss market among the discontented and disenchanted. Our subjective feelings are a marketplace where fortunes are made. The modern disenchanted are searching for reasons for why their lives lack bliss and joy. If you are disenchanted, that makes you vulnerable to emotions such as hate and fear. We have failed to re-enchant our world after science and philosophy cast a long shadow of doubt on the enchanters of the past. Knowledge provided the sword and we’ve been using it to chop off the head of enchanters. As most of these were charlatans, the misguided, or the outright grifters, to the scientific mind this was a good thing—to liberate humankind from ignorance is a noble goal.

Our collective enchantment deficiency is another explanation for the rise of someone like Donald Trump and other opportunists. Trump is the face of what a disenchanted person sounds and thinks like. Trump has channeled that absence of transcendent meaning for millions. He understood the world was no longer an enchanting one and could emotionally work up a crowd to support a way to claw back their loss of meaning, respect and purpose. It’s an old political gaming of the psychological desire to have feelings that put us in touch with our subjective need for irresistible charm and beauty that holds us in its spell. W.H. Auden once wrote, “A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.” Thus we must be cautious about spell casters and their magic over large numbers of people. We are easily tricked by the sleight of hand.

What lies ahead is the difficult mission to bring about a re-enchantment. We can’t go back to the hunter gatherers’ way of life, where nature dominated, or to religious explanations that no longer attract many. The experiments with Disneyland and Disney World have been highly profitable but ultimately required us to pay a high price for bogus and fake amusements only to discover the commercial enterprise was failure to re-enchant the world. The 1960s and New Age sought drugs as a way back to enchantment. Drugs became another avenue to furnish the chemicals required to kick start the altered state of mind needed for the enchantment experience. Huxley may have forecast our future back to enchantment—we drink our soma to supply the missing subjective experience we crave about being in the world.


The Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns

If we can’t go back and what we have isn’t working, where does that leave us with our instinctive desire for enchantment and its return to our world? There has always been an element of fantasy in enchantments. Hunter gatherers would have read spirits, demons and omens into mountains, streams and forests. Any 11-year-old with a computer, smartphone or iPad can play games and enter virtual reality spaces where magic spells are plentiful. It may be easy to become lost in that world as our objective world is a messy, chaotic, confusing place filled with uncertainty. The allure of bliss and joy transports one beyond the walls of rational, objective reality. We’ve been unable to merge these realities any more than we’ve been able to merge quantum and classical worlds. We have an intuition that they are linked but we can’t discover it.


Max Ernst

Everyone has their personal portal to enchantment. Might is Bach’s French Suite, the writings of Jorge Borges or John Berger, or the art of Max Ernst or M.C. Escher. Or just sitting quietly on our porch to watch the sunset at Eel Swamp.

Enchantment is unlocking the imagination and unearthing a sliver of joy, charm, and allure, uploading that feeling into my mind as the mental armor to protect me in the setbacks and disappointment that I surely will suffer in my brush with the unpredictability and uncertainty of my day. Meanwhile, there is no need to go to Paris because an exact replicate of the Eiffel Tower sits in Disney World in Orlando. Only the fake one is much smaller. In the minds of those who see the fake Eiffel Tower there is no difference in their experience as my experience in seeing a reproduction of M.C. Escher or Max Ernst paintings or drawings.

That should give us a hint that our subjective sense is not a reliable reporter of the objective world. But it never was. Enchantment has always been the willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world. The re-enchantment project is open to anyone. The ticket to buy is not at Disneyland, it is the retreat into the realm of imagination for the purpose to experience the bliss and joy that has long been absent in the post-enlightenment world. Ultimately it is this search for enchantment that will separate us from artificial intelligence who can do their work without connecting to a larger subjective sense of bliss and joy. But who can say what the future holds? Perhaps it is with the intermediary of machines will allows to re-enchant ourselves, to open up new pathways of imagination, beauty and grace that light our way back to lives saturated with enchantments. Who knows?

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Posted: 9/2/2017 1:26:56 AM 

 

Official planning originates from a different perspective inside a patronage system. That seems obvious but it needs to be made clear. One of the weaknesses of the patronage system is the planning has undisclosed agendas. No one on the outside knows the political physics inside that black hole.

 

There are two areas where this shows up—procurement and operational procedures. When you purchase services and goods for use in large system—for example, the military, police, educators, forest management—planners assess specifications, policy goals, performance, quality control, etc—all important to an overall evaluation as to what is being fed into the existing system won’t cause problems of integration. Say the spare parts aren’t reliable or durable, and when a machine breaks down the system closes until the repair is made. If that is a transportation system, then the shutdown affects other external systems—people, for example, can’t use transportation to go to work. Matters such as training, maintenance, spare parts, upgrades, and quality control require planning if the new service or goods will be effective for the purposes purchased.

 

A number of crucial public services such as airports, electricity generation, water management, highways, ports, and waste deposal require a high degree of coordination, technical skill and understanding and rely on independent experts. Planners recommend what services and goods are optimal to the overall system directly involved, and what possible consequences may arise to interconnected system. Also planners take into account the chokepoints where public and private spheres overlap. No man is an island, and no public system is one either. System planning requires a high degree of co-operation and sharing of expertise across public and private sectors, drawing upon information and knowledge about operational procedures. Most large systems are networked and fragile. It doesn’t take much of a sudden change to collapse a crucial, related part of an overall system. Cut the electricity supply to Bangkok for 48-hours and see what happens during that period. It wouldn’t be pretty.



Photo credit Bangkok Post
.

 

Take for example, international airports where airlines, pilots, service and maintenance staff, immigration, customs, police, private vendors, and ground transportation require an understanding of vulnerabilities that result if one part of the system becomes overloaded. Recently, when four additional flights from Hong Kong, Singapore and China were approved for landing at Don Mueang Airport, brought the arrival of an additional 1200-passengers into the arrival hall already packed with passenger from the existing flights that had already landed. Those additional passengers overloaded the immigration desks and passengers reported a four-hour delay in getting their passport stamped. One explanation is the officials approving the additional inward flights didn’t communicate that information to immigration and customs, or if it was communicated, it wasn’t acted upon. Incidents such this one illustrates the role of contingency planning in complex operations. Contingency planning means putting in procedures to deal with the surprise, the unexpected event. If there was such a plan, it wasn’t evident.

 

My theory is a patronage system undermines the capacity for system planning and coordination. Procurement and maintenance under a patronage system are often compromised because of the tension of conflicting interest. The obvious conflict is that patronage works to find ways to ensure a level of benefits flows into the network of patrons who occupy the top positions in the organization. The part of the planning for procurement is spent working out what is the best deal for the patronage network and still will deliver a benefit for the publicly stated reason for the procurement.

 

You can tell a procurement system in a patronage system from the goods it procures—they are usually from an eye-popping number of different manufacturers, middlemen, and specifications. That’s the cost of patronage; the kind of diversity that has no supports outside of the patronage class. Such systems are difficult from an operational point of view in the same way that simultaneously playing Chess, Go, and Checkers on the same board would cause problems. As mechanical and operational breakdowns pile up, it may be too costly to do anything other than junk the machine or system and procure another one. The point is that in a patronage system at the operational level things can break down quickly and the lack of planning for that breakdown is magnified as it works itself through a complex system. Like a bowling ball rolled down a pool table to break the balls, everyone realizes this is a different kind of game.

 

As the problems accumulate, it becomes apparent that maintenance and planning issues are resolved on an emergency basis, and everyone in the line of fire scrambles to avoid blame and responsibility.

 

In Thailand, the history is for governments to plan for the immediate issue, find ways to secure an immediate play back, and they are less concerned about the knock on effect to the system as a whole. When a patronage system is scaled up from a less complicated agricultural based economy to a dynamic, high-tech driven information economy, the most glaring problem is the lack of forward system planning. That requires hard analytical skills that look for inefficiencies and seek to eliminate or minimize them. In a patronage system, it’s exactly that mindset which is a threat to how things actually work. It is conflict between two contradictory values—the traditional patronage system (guaranteed stability to agricultural communities) with an advance modern system that has broader based tools and is more flexible. The modern system is better adapted to respond to unstable, unpredictable events. In this clash of systems, authorities will find it difficult to choose which model to use as a planning roadmap. The default is the patronage system model. The problem is that model is incapable of reacting quickly enough to 'surprise' events that can cause system collapse.

 

Next time you are caught in a multi-hour airport queue at immigration, remember the system was designed to serve patrons and not you. Don’t take it personally. It only means that you lack the right connection inside this closed patronage system; otherwise, you wouldn’t find yourself standing in the queue with the tired masses. Patrons, in theory, look after their own circle but if you don’t have a patron, well, you are on your own to deal with the sound and fury of dysfunction swirling outside the circle.

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Posted: 8/9/2017 1:59:39 AM 

 

Archeological finds coupled with better techniques of carbon dating have pushed back the origins of our species to nearly 300,000 years. The environment in which humans evolved favoured family groups as a cohesive, cooperative unit for food gathering and protection against predators. Complaining about your uncle, grandmother or nephew being idle or incompetent wasn’t going to help. The whole group was interconnected. They stuck together because they had no other choice. And remember, for hundreds of thousands of years, hominids lived in family arrangements far different from our own. The dye was cast.

The family has remained a constant throughout our history. The first political institutions drew from the ‘family’ as a model to legitimize its authority. All of us have valued family. The problem has been how far the family concept can scale to cultural and political institutions involving millions of people. Only in the last few hundred years has there been any widespread political movement based on notions other than ideas and values drawn from the long road from kinship to clan to tribe to nation state. Each step has scaled up our sense of family to include more and more people that our pre-historic ancestors would have considered strangers.

Thailand’s culture largely revolves around a modified kinship model. This is not unique. China is an example of the kind of ancestor worship, paternal hierarchy, father/son set of values that underlies the political system. Given the success of China economically, and the ongoing decline of the United States in its international leadership role, it is time to assess the conflict between kinship-based and individual-based political systems.

One might argue that the colonial and capitalistic nation-states were able to overcome the old kinship-based civilization, which was the foundation of the scaled up bureaucratic nation-state—an institution that used the cultural rhetoric of kinship as the basis of legitimacy. When, in fact, the nation-state evolved into a system of inclusion of elites. The political system was shaped by innovation, a market system, and co-operation between the ruling class and commercial-trade-innovative entrepreneurial class.

What was new from Europe starting in the 15th century was the evolution of political and economic system that wasn’t primarily kinship driven—or at the very least the kin relationships weren’t used to oppress or suppress the commercial class in order to protect a related class of elites. The co-operation gradually blurred into political participation of a larger set of people. That participation may have been illusory in many cases but it created a new notion—that people were equal, with equal rights to liberty, justice and freedom, and opportunity. These ideals were and are challenged by those who rely on the kinship system as the political model. No one is equal to your father. You have no freedom to defy your father, or challenge his opinions or worldview.

A stumbling point between the kinship-based and individualistic systems is the role of authority and whether there is a built-in respect for authority that limits the kind of challenges that can be made to authority. In Thailand, elders, monks, high-ranking officials, among others have traditionally been guaranteed a high-level of unquestioning respect. But that respect has been chipped away over the last twenty years accelerated by social media—whatever one’s view about social media, most would agree it is not a force designed to advance ‘respect’ for authority. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to mean that ‘respect’ for authority is only valid so long as authority respects the wishes of the majority.

In many countries if the respect of those in power has collapsed because of bad policies and actions, there is a remedy: the greedy, inefficient, incompetent or self-dealing authorities aren’t shown respect—they are removed from power by the voters. Not being elected is a signal the voters trust your opponent more than they trust you. Appealing to the voters as your ‘father’ will likely fail to win the day in many countries.

Elections, it turns out, became the ultimate weapon for the ordinary citizen to show his or her disdain for the governors and to elect new people who promised better policies. An election was a test of whether voters continued to respect the government and leaders who were made accountable—at least in theory—for their action as the price for their respect. The problem with the traditional kinship/respect model was its rigidity. There was no social or political space where someone could show disapproval without it being interpreted as disrespect. Respect means submission to the judgment of someone the traditional members of society cloak with the garment of respect.

Disrespect, in the traditional sense, has always been viewed as highly personal. No one likes the ordeal of mud being slung at them in public or before their peers. It was the idea of the right to respect that men used to fight duels over. In the modern political era, respect was earned. Performance, competence and expertise became the new political currency, which has gradually reconfigured the conditions on which respect was paid to someone.  That’s a huge change. Respect went from being unconditional to conditional. This is perhaps the major change politically in the last 250 years, and with Trump it is looking like there is a movement to return to the unconditional respect value system in the West.

The culture of youth connected like a digital umbilical chord to social media has collapsed the distance between people and ideas. The rapid transformation that has empowered and encourage youth to freely ‘share’ their ideas and messages has resulted in a pushback from those who continue to believe in the unconditional respect of the past. Censorship of social media has been the official response in a number of countries.  But it is unclear how successful governments will be in managing and controlling disrespectful content given there are 2 billion Facebook readers. Not only in Thailand are authorities under pressure to enforce conformity, worldwide the youth, who have grown up on digital information, roam freely, exchanging views and ideas, images, gossip, likes and hates. Inside this new chaotic, disrespectful technological space, the audience that supports unconditional respect for authority will dwindle. Social media works as digital democratization of culture creating a free zone to exchange views that may be disrespectful. And this new cultural sandbox explains, in part, the huge attraction to the young trying to find their own identity through their online relationship with people and information.

An illustration of the conflict between these two positions on the nature, right and scope linked to public demonstration of ‘respect’ came to a head at a freshmen initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand last week. Every year there are stories, some outrage or another, about initiation rituals at many Thai universities. In this case, the ritual required freshmen to prostrate before the monument of King Chulalongkorn, who established the university and who abolished slavery and prostration. Some students objected to prostrating on the ground, saying they had a prior agreement with the university to show respect by bowing instead. A small number walked out of the ceremony.

01
A lecturer holds a student in a headlock in an initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University on Thursday, August 3, 2017. Source: Khaosod English

A photographer caught the moment when a lecturer held one of the protesting students in a headlock, dragging him away. Photographs and video were widely circulated on social media. Both sides of the Thai political divide—tradition vs. progress—turned to social media to offer their views on what had happened, why it happened, and who was responsible. To enforce respect against the consent of those from whom it is demanded requires a set of good arguments, or alternatively a headlock.

The role of respect remains contested among factions in Thailand. There is little tolerance shown toward students who were willing to show, in the view of faculty members, disrespect.  You are in deep waters once you are deemed disrespectful in Thai culture.  Bangkok Post columnist Kong Rithdee summarized the larger message sent by the conduct at the initiation ceremony: “In Thai society, teenagers who speak up, walk out and question what hasn’t been questioned for decades are viewed as insolent, attention-seeking and all-around detestable.” Nonetheless the testing of the boundaries of respect and disrespect continue.

There is a long history connecting respect cultures with the right to use intimidation, force, or violence to enforce that value. The essential difficulty with the kinship/respect model is there isn’t a clear, efficient process to throw out the incompetent family member or friend. Inefficiencies are absorbed as part of the costs of keeping the family a happy place for all of its members. The inconvenience, damage or loss that occurs and accumulates as a result of protecting kinship-based cultural system isn’t a cause for challenging authority. It might be the exact opposite—the high official who covers for his incompetent niece or nephew is seen as reinforcing the importance of family. As without a secure, protected family, so the story goes, no public good can succeed and no peace secured.

What makes the Trump presidency unusual is, by chance or design, his crude graft of the kinship/respect culture onto the American democratic model. He’s brought his family to the White House. His businesses flourish. There is no apparent distinction between his personal ambitions and public duties. In Trump’s case, unfortunately he lacks the Chinese respect for science and education. Trump’s kinship model is closer to a Medieval European model than to a modern Chinese one where kinship has drawn significant gain by advancing an engineering class of technocrats to design and carry out the nuts and bolts of governance while leaving respect to the elders and family as an important political pillar to the system.

The question is whether the Chinese model will be the one that replaces the American model on which political institutions are founded. Trump has put America in a headlock and is dragging it off familiar turf and into a wholly different kind of game. This has shocked and terrified people who took the American institution-based system for granted. They never thought that America was that kind of political system. A political system is its institutions, and its institutions are its people, and the people have a cultural bias as to the role of authority and respect.

China was a strong civilization centuries before the rise of the West. In the long run, historians may see Trump’s election as the beginning of the end of what was a failed experiment to break with the kinship/respect model. Alternatively, with the rapidly changing digital environment it may be the kinship/respect model is already exhausted, and a new system, yet undefined, is emerging that is neither Chinese nor American, neither Eastern nor Western.

We are always at some crossroad of history. We’ve reached such a crossroad and it is unclear which path we will follow as one leads to the headlock of respect while the other path leads away from unquestioned, unchallenged respect in the same way we chose to leave the path of slavery. We can do better as a species, and as people, once the ideal of the family with the father/husband at the head is no longer the metaphor used to mint licenses to exploiters.

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Posted: 8/6/2017 7:47:06 PM 

 

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