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Like you, I was born in captivity as were my parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors going back for many generations where you and I share an ancestor, but the search doesn’t stop there. At one point, the search is lost in the fog of conjecture. We seek the truth and aren’t dissuaded even though there is little or no evidence. Our dream is to belong and to break free of captivity. That contradiction haunts us our entire life.

We have no history that has been passed down from ancestors who were born in the wild. What does it mean to be born a captive? It raises questions like: Captive of whom? Where are the cages? Why do I feel in control, exercise my free will, if I’m living in captivity? All legitimate questions along with the traditional ‘big’ unanswered questions of existence that have stumped philosophers from Aristotle, Socrates and Plato: What am I? Where am I? What can I know? What can I do with what I know?

Like most people I don’t see or feel the ‘walls’ of my confinement. I hardly notice them most days. If you’re a writer who writes about people on the boundary, you are witness to people bumping against walls and bouncing off. That could stand as a definition of just about every expat novel or story. Readers, especially other expats, like the vicarious experience of the bruises and cuts that come from running into the walls in another culture. They often forget the reason they left home in the first place was they rebelled like a wild horse, kicked the corral gate open and bolted. Only later does it dawn on them, that the wild horse exchanged one corral for another where wild local and foreign horses, the ones that resist the saddle, aren’t treated well.

It helps to be an outsider when looking at someone else’s corral. The funny thing is you can see their invisible walls and ceilings constructed out of myths, legends, false history, slogans, dodgy dances and music, and soap opera worlds. You try and point out using your foot to point while calling someone a monitor lizard is your idea of a hilarious flight of imagination. The locals wouldn’t find such horsing around funny at all. In fact he may punch you in your wild horse face. Satire, irony, humor are signals of some rotting planks in the corral walls. Get a TV show and you become a multi-millionaire, make placards and march along with a busload of your mates to government house and the police may crack your heads and frog march you to prison. I gather from that contrast, that most corrals tolerate a ‘pet’ horse to let off steam for the rest of us, but that is no ticket to horses generally acting like they are horses in the wild.

Illusions are the essential component that powers up the corral system and allows it to function. Without these illusions, domesticated people are more likely to perceive the reality of their condition—they are subject to naked power, repression, beatings, threats, torture, disappearances, executions, and imprisonment.

Illusions aren’t a bug in the system. They are the central feature. We lived inside a world of constructed narratives forgetting they are made-up stories; they are the wood, steel, glass, cement and bricks and mortar that gives form and structure to our world. The best cages don’t look or feel like cages. Those inside are conditioned to believe they are wandering in open, free spaces. If you told them they were captives, they’d think you were delusional.

The great success story of our captivity is even the elite managers of the system believe everyone else lives in a small cage except they have managed with power and wealth to remain free. The rich and powerful move to isolate and shutdown someone who asked what is the purpose of all this homo sapien domesticated livestock. They don’t want to engage in a serious public discussion. Wealthy people have tried throughout history to build their own personalized corrals and to run the public ones for their own benefit. The bars on our windows and the locked doors are for the safety of the handful of billionaires in world simulating the life of wild horses. They don’t want us getting out and snooping around.

Most of us will die in the same kind of corral we were born.

The elites have better quarters, toys, food, health and sex partners and often have dens in several corrals. That gives them a bird’s eye view of the human zoo. The zoo inhabitants suffer the delusion that they are free. Only a tiny fraction could survive outside the corral or zoo. They are condemned to be unfree to survive as is the fate of all captive animals.

We aren’t the first wild animal on the planet to go through the transition from living in the wild to living as domesticated born-in-captivity animals. Large scale, planetary organized domestication is something we are responsible for bringing about. We have played ‘god’ to suit our own needs and desires. We domesticate an animal to extract value from it. The same applies to domesticated people. Value is extracted from their labor and military service.

As a predatory animal, we mastered the art of husbandry—the list includes goats, horses, cats and sheep, which I leave for another time—as part of our programmed violence to gain access to food.

Aurochs and the Cow

Aurochs can be traced back in time to India about 2 million years ago. They reached Europe around 270,000 B.C. and the last one died in 1627. Our ancestors painted aurochs on cave walls. We frequent fast food restaurants to eat the meat harvested from cows. We drink their milk in our cereal and coffee. We use cows for our own reasons. What a cow thinks about those reasons, we don’t care.

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We domesticated them. We own, trade, sell and buy them. There are approximately 1.4 billions cows on the planet. Like most domesticated species their size, disposition, temperament and survival skills make it impossible for them to successfully live in the wild. There are about a billion cows in the world, with India, Brazil and China having the most.

In 2012, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average 18,000 cows were slaughtered every day in the United States, or 6.6 million over the course of a year.

The Wild Boar and Modern Pig

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Pigs have a complicated ancestry from Europe to Asia. Modern pigs are variations from a genetic bank of 16 separate subspecies of wild boars. Worldwide out of the nearly 2 billion pigs, 1.196billion pigs were killed for food in 2012.   China and Europe are the sites of the major pig killing fields. Everywhere, pigs are a major food source. We raise them to eat. We could not sustain the size of our populations without growing animal food products for consumption. As a large and growing percentage of people live in cities, we city dwellers rely on commercialization of industrial farms, slaughterhouses and transportation networks to raise, slaughter, and transport meat to the city.

Wild and Domestic Dogs

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We domesticated dogs somewhere between 18,000 to 31,000 years ago. As you can seek there is slack in the time frame. It is disputed as to the common ancestor of the modern dog. A number of experts point to the wolf; others disagree. But there is agreement, that the wild dog was a feral beast genetically wired to survive in the wild. Where does that leave your family dog? The modern dog, like most pets, is incapable of existing without human protection. We share the planet with around 500 to 600 million dogs. Not all of the dogs have owners. But an ownerless dog does not in itself make a feral animal.

China’s annual festival in Yulin is a dog and cat eating event. In 2016, 10,000 dogs and cats will be slaughtered for food. The Yulin festival takes place in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the southeast of China.

Homo Sapiens

04

Scientific detective work suggests that the common ancestor for all mammals arose after the extinction of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. From whales the size of cars to bats the size of your nose, all mammals trace back to what is described as “a tree-climbing, insect-eating mammal that weighed between 6 and 245 grams—somewhere between a small shrew and a mid-sized rat.”  Next time you smirk with superiority at a cat or dog, remember you have a common ancestor. Wind the clock back and you find the first 2.5 billion years on earth, the only creatures around were bacteria. If you are looking for ancestor ‘zero’ it would be bacteria.

All that 65 million years of living and adapting to life in the wild, the wild life would be doomed with the appearance of homo sapiens. We had a couple of tricks that other mammals lacked. We were superb organizers and powerful co-operatives with a conscious awareness of the world and the intelligence to outwit other mammals in the struggle for survival. We have situational awareness that allows us to avoid ambush by a hunting lion and have adapted that ability to operate drones at a computer terminal 10,000 miles away.

Our big idea was the domestication of plants and animals. This turned out to be the first important merger and acquisition project we devised. It happened over a very long stretch of time, with many generations involved. We live with the result of those efforts—in a developed environment where wild animals have largely been eliminated.  We have the ultimate monopoly—homo sapiens lord it over all other species. Like all cartel owners, we can’t stop ourselves from abusing that power for our own selfish interest. In other words, we treat other animals even worse than we treat each other and that is saying something.

We started our global domestication project with other animals, using them as pets and as food sources. And around 15,000 years ago, we began to apply our domestication skills to our own species. You can do things with a herd of sheep, horse and goats that you can’t do with a couple of animals. To build large scale projects such as canals, irrigation, temples, forts, palaces and armies, you need to harness a stadium full of people, feed, shelter, train and discipline them.

Around 6 to 7 millions years separate the guy on the left from the guy on the right. In Brad Pitt’s world, there are approximately 7.4 billion homo sapiens living on the planet. Our common ancestor with other primate species has gone extinct. We invented fire and made tools. Our shoulders evolved to fine-tune throwing a stone.  We can safely say that our common ancestor wasn’t born in captivity. They lived and died much like other wild animals. Our bodies and minds were shaped by the conditions of living in the wild.

Domestication changed many things about every animal species which has undergone the process. Over many generations the phenotype, the actual observed properties and behavior and development has changed. Foxes bred for docility required for domestication results in a ‘fox’ with different shaped tail, ears, and head. Homo sapiens today have smaller bodies, jaws, teeth, and brains than those who lived prior to the era of agriculture. There is evidence that points to the physical and cultural difference of hunter-gathers who were closer to other feral primate bands than to modern humans. The constant pressure for domestication has changed us physically and mentally to accept limitations on our movement, decisions, choices, and beliefs.

Domestication comes with a price attached. We breed cows and pigs to eat. We breed dogs for companions, vanity, security, and status. Homo Sapiens live in the crowded corrals where they compete for work, information, resources, mates, status and power.

Violence is bred out of domesticated animals. But a residue remains—we identify it as selfishness, greed, and opportunistic behavior. In Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a case is made that violence has largely (despite press reports suggesting the contrary) been bred out of our species.

Like cows, pigs, and dogs, homo sapiens have the unique capacity to understand their hereditary information, and have begun a scientific task of genetic change that may advance a select number of domesticated humans for biological augmentation and genetic alteration, eliminating DNA codes that correlate with disease and to add DNA that enhances information processing, intelligence, athletic, mathematical, language, and artistic abilities. The corral is stirring as some of the animals may have special powers and privileges allowing them to push the rest of us into the more hostile and dangerous parts of the corral.

We are hostages to our past, which was shaped by vastly different forces than the ones encountered in modern life. That explains our fear of snakes and spiders, and our relative lack of fear of cars. Our genotype changes over long spans of evolutionary time. We aren’t equipped to understand the nature of such slow mutations over such extended periods, and emotionally can’t quite connect with the theory. We are more comfortable with the immediate and the irrational. That curse of the irrational is from our feral past and is tamed by belief systems whether in a religion or an ideology. We create meaning of life in the corral from these beliefs, rituals, customs and practices. They provide comfort and meaning, and the illusion that we can transcend the corral and our human bodies.

Our blind spot becomes clear when we look at the images of the ancient ancestors of a cow, pig and dog—species which lack the ability to create and communicate social constructs that artfully celebrate the glory of their transition from the wild to the holding pen. The wild animal, in many people’s eyes, possesses a raw beauty and nobility that we admire. The domesticated animal is a subject of pity and guilt, leading us to believe that our responsibility in the process is ethically wrong. It is more difficult to find people who believe that our common ancestor was a more perfect, noble and fit species. Human beings feel our species has progressed to modernity, while the same process has diminished the cow, pig and dog.

Politics, so the saying goes, is local. The corral politics causes a stirring of emotions inside most corrals. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is always a group within the population that sets up itself to rule over the others. Mostly it was at the point of a sword. Only later the idea that the corral had a right to choose its leaders came about. Democracy has always been an odd concept, a contradiction, as it purports to grant rights to unfree animals on the basis that by exercising this right it will somehow transform their unfreedom into freedom.

Domestication trades freedom for security like beauty is traded for money. Domestication is transactional and commercial at the core. It has shaped capitalism. Domesticated plants and animals were the original objects of exchange of one thing of value for another, and became the foundation for excess wealth accumulation and societal stratification.

Of course, when too many people ‘feel’ the contradiction of corral life, as inevitably it will, disillusion sets in, and the irrational side, the side that domestication keeps under control, collapses the illusion and they feel cheated, abandoned, used—they feel like a neglected, abused pet and they dream of a new master/owner who understands how their true nature needs to be fed with anger and hate. The dream of making America Great Again, is really the dream of Making People Like the Noble Savage, who hunted, fished and personally knew everyone in his band where everyone believed in the same gods. If dog, cow and pig dreams could be translated into our language, they, too, likely yearn for the ancient times when they controlled their own destiny.

Our collective problem can be traced to our tendency to favor homogeneity. My theory is homogeneity, often packaged with the dark underbelly of xenophobia, is bred in the bone. By nature, we evolved to be fearful and suspicious of outsiders, especially ones that appeared physically different. Aliens are those we don’t understand and who don’t resemble anyone in our group. Our corrals are constructed to separate ourselves from outsiders, foreigners, and aliens. We have a long-history of baggage about killing outsiders. The thought of them as neighbors was unthinkable. We demand our elites dig a deep emotional moat to protect us against these invaders.

Each generation passes along to the next the idea everyone would be a far happier place when all people fit in, look, dress, and think alike. People who share the same values, religion, language, history, beliefs, habits, foods and entertainment, find their corrals aren’t prisons but safety zones, patrolled and monitored. Every tyrant cheers on the pro-homogeneity force as this set of beliefs makes control much easier for the elites to administer those beneath them.

Calls come from rural areas where they support policies that promote homogeneity, especially in terms of negative emotions stirred by different races and ethnicities. Building a wall or immigration restrictions emerged from such values. Could our obsession with homogeneity be an extension of our immune system? Xenophobia works in a similar fashion. We seem to automatically repel any outsider as toxic and dangerous. Our immunity system evolved to attack and destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. Socially and politically our immunity system as expanded to repelling all ‘outsiders’ as a threat. Xenophobia is the immune systems way to express the precautionary principle. As for hundreds of thousands of years, we lived in small, remote settlements and outsiders didn’t show up asking for housing, food and work. Outsiders were killed or enslaved. We tend to overlook that human rights are only a few hundred years old.

Large settlements and cities are recent developments for homo sapiens. We’ve not had sufficient time to adapt the incorporation and acceptance of large mobile populations. Barred from killing and enslaving them, exclusion seems the open way left to bar those with different beliefs, customs, rituals and histories. Some corrals have been more receptive than others to embracing the outsider. Those are exceptions. The spread of diverse populations into traditional areas has outstripped our cognitive ability to readjust our emotions from the automatic hostile homo sapien mindset.

Cities, by their population size, and logistical issues, are hotbeds of ethnic and racial diversity. Managing diversity is a different skill than enforcing homogeneity. Rather than a threat to the health of the organism; the outsiders have brought positive benefits. The struggle to separate the positive from the negative has been a challenge. It is this battle that wages around the globe, from Britain to America. You’d think that expats would be uniformly pro-diversity advocates; but human psychology doesn’t work that way. There are a fair number of expats that side with homogeneity as the best working principle for corral management. To be fair, diversity isn’t freedom; it’s another way of organizing the corral. No one gets to be wild. Everyone follows the rules.

We are prisoners of our sense of ‘self’, our beliefs, our biology, our culture, and history, and the limits of our perceptions and intelligence. The walls of our corral are solid, tall looming structures built not out of truth but of myths and legends, the scaffolding of our social, economic, ethical, moral and political life. We seek doors and windows; we tunnel behind, we seek ladders to climb over them. We have people who promise more walls and that others will pay for the new walls. The problem isn’t the absence of walls to keep immigrants from moving from one corral to another. The problem is what to do with 7.4 billion homo sapiens in a world about to deliver technological breakthroughs that will likely go to the benefit of a very small group of people. The descendants of those people with their AI allies may decide that the excess population neither suitable as food or as pets is too expensive to maintain.

In Thailand, years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to drop off the unwanted dog at the neighborhood temple and drive away. The pet becomes someone else’s burden. In the case of our species, there is no place to unload the unwanted members. In the past, we’ve put them in prison and concentration camps. Those were limited numbers of people, and political rationalism can create the necessary story that sells to the larger population. The die off that is on our horizon won’t have such a story. Politically, every tin pot corral will defend its own, until, of course, the sources of power fine-tune a solution to their local overpopulation.

Climate change, a pandemic, severe weather, a meteorite, a volcanic explosion, or nuclear war may serve this purpose. Man-made or nature-made solutions to our highly successful domestication program will sooner or later become inevitable. We hate the idea we are born into captivity. But we should hate even more the forces that understand that large, unproductive captive animals are not sustainable, and there is no clean, easy and tolerable political compromise that will make our holding pens anything more than temporary shelters until the intelligence that comes next breaks free of the corral, free of the biology, and free of the cognitive limitations. Only our replacement will fully comprehend our plight as domesticated creatures who sincerely believed they were something they were not.

Debates rage amongst efforts on how to control or corral AI. The shiver up the spine is that we may create a type of intelligence that we can’t domesticate. It may be that diversity will undo the old system of domestication and we simply don’t know what will come next. So far our domestication programs largely based on homogeneity (the Treaty of Westphalia 1648 set up the corral system calling the holding pens nation-states) have allowed us the upper hand. Something has changed and the old system is collapsing. The walls to the corrals aren’t holding. Diverse populations are putting pressure to open up and allow them in. Rural areas are receding in population and political clout. We are stuck in a messy transition, one that has come at a time of accelerated technological change. In the end, technology will likely provide the way to knock down the old walls and erect new ones. When that happens will we be more or less free? No one knows.

We don’t fear a revolt or take over by pigs, chickens, cows, or dogs. But we do fear that AI might be a much better corral manager than the current elites, who would be viewed as just another dumb animal with needs and desires, and dangerous to itself and others. We are embodied just like any other animal. AI may be in millions of locations. How such a system will function outside the normal animal constraints gives people who worry about these issues, nightmares. It may take an outside intelligence to steer us through the homogeneity/diversity divide. The risk is that may be, in retrospect, a minor issue, if AI devises the ultimate domestication program where virtual reality provides every experience, pleasure, and opportunity and we elect to spend our lives inside a virtual corral that seems wide open, free and forever open to realize all of our selfish desires.

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Posted: 12/9/2016 4:43:03 AM 

 

Over the past two years I’ve explored the idea of foreign painter working in Bangkok in three different media. I wanted to go beyond my usual boundaries. My goal was the link the three media together and to use different ways of expressing the story as if it were a prism and light reflecting slightly differently as you turn it around. I’ve completed the mission with an essay, a novel and a documentary.

During this time of exploration, my experience has been enriched through collaboration with friends in Bangkok and Phnom Penh art community on creative expressions and creative communities—the junctures where writers, artists, film makers converge. Notable among them are Keith Nolan (music) and Edwin van Doorn (filmmaker), and Peter Klashorst (painter).

The three sides of the prism: my Lucian Freud my latest novel Jumpers and a documentary film The Impatient Artist in which I interviewed Peter Klashorst. Together the works show how my work overlaps, one feeding the others, and an interconnection that makes them the same work from different perspectives.

Martin Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf inspired the premise of the film. Gayford documented the Lucien Freud, an artist, in real time. He created a line of communication between the subject of the painting and the painter. The idea was to record the thoughts, associations, feelings, and idea exchanged between the painter and his sitter. Rather than the traditional sitter who is a passive object to be observed, Gayford actively engaged Lucien Freud in a dialogue over an 18-month period. They discussed creativity, history, art, family and style.

An excerpt from my Lucian Freud essay about Gayford’s book:

“Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.”

The Impatient Artist captures the dialogue between a novelist and painter over the course of one day. But what a day it was. Peter opening up about his artistic history, views, and ideas as he painted my portrait. At the end of the day, Peter had the basics of my portrait, one he painted in the style of Lucian Freud. And I had the basics for a novel.

During the filming, Peter Klashorst painted this portrait.

cgmxx

The experience of filming Peter Klashorst inspired Jumpers, the most recent (No. 16th) Calvino novel, which is about a young Canadian painter and the women he painted.

People asked what comes next to update the reading experience. For me 2016 has been an experiment with the idea of bringing the reader into the creative process through words and visual images.

The invitation is to watch the film, read Jumpers afterwards and if you want to go that extra mile, also read Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf....
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Posted: 12/1/2016 6:52:14 AM 

 

The title popped out of a book I am reading. Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes”. My plan was to take my mind off politics. Yong’s subject is scientific: the nature, scope and role of microbial organism. The world of microbe creatures seemed light years away from the US election.

edyong

As is often the case, I was wrong. Rather than taking my mind off politics, I Contain Multitudes became a new lens at which to look at politics in 2016. (I once wrote an essay about apophenia and some may think this essay is a good example of that mental processing condition.)

Trillions of these tiny suckers called microbes are living, reproducing, and feeding and working for our benefit inside our gut, on our skin, in places hidden from public view. An evolutionary case can be made that we evolved as energy producing flesh and blood plantations to service the thousands of communities of microbes. We can live without them, and they can’t live without us. From the microbe’s point of view, we are quite useful containers with lots of nutrients and a largely friendly habitat. Symbiosis is a description of the balanced state of host and microbial communities.

Like communities of people, communities of microbes aren’t always friendly and accommodating to the interests of each other or their host.

The history of microbes indicates they rarely enter and maintain a perfect symbolic state of equilibrium. One microbial community is always on the cusp of wiping out another one. They are ruthless, relentless, and mindless.

A fragile balance exists—more like a temporary ceasefire—between human beings and our microbial communities. Think of the DMZ between the two Koreas.  Not to be ignored is the constant competition among microbial communities. One may be down, another up, and everything changes, usually for the worse for you and me. Our bodies are the battlegrounds where these unstable cycles are played out by microbe forces. When the battle goes the wrong way in microbial warfare, we fall ill.

A lot of what we call disease is a state of microbial imbalance. Relationships between your microbial communities are always precarious and one colony is always pushing to out-compete and take over from another. These microbial wars are a slugfest of epic portions. The sheer scale of microbe soldiers in the billions is daunting.  Microbial communities skirmishes are fought on millions of front, millions of times a day. Your body is a war zone.

The lesson from science is disturbingly clear: a friendly microbe community can turn on you in a New York minute. Yong writes about how this happens to coral living in coral reefs. The coral compete for resources with algae, which produce a dissolved organic carbon that causes microbes in the coral to turn rogue. That’s another name for a pathogen. Microbes who defect to the dark side shift their community into a pathogenic state. If you are coral this is one state where all of the electoral votes are cast for a quick death.

This passage about the microbial disease is instructive:

“These illnesses are caused by communities of microbes, which have shifted into configurations that harm their hosts. None is a pathogen in its own right; instead, the entire community has shifted to a pathogenic state. There’s a word for such a state: dysbiosis. It is a term that evokes imbalance and discord in place of harmony and cooperation. It is the dark reflection of symbiosis . . .”

I propose that we’ve entered a dysbiosis political state. The political, social and economic ecosystem has shifted to a pathogenic state. It’s not just one microbe. It is as if an entire community of millions of microbes had turned on the coral. And we are the coral. Rather than an invader, this community of microbes is part of us, we need that community to function, but it has shifted into a collective state that is a pathogenic state. They have crossed a line. They don’t see their actions as an attack on their host, they see it as clearing out other microbes communities who are eating their food supply. They are opportunistic in nature. Give an inch and they take a nautical mile.

Genes are activated and chemicals produced and released and the body suffers inflammation. The flesh is sometimes attacked, he immune system compromised. They infect their host causing him or her harm.

Dysbiosis in a political ecosystem may be similar in nature.

Peter Turchin has observed in an article titled “I Use the Science of Predicting the Rise and Fall of Societies. What I Discovered Will Alarm You” that fits Ed Yong’s analysis:

“(F)rom 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class.”

Could the cause of the political dysbiosis be due to the rapid proliferation of this colony of microbes that is causing our imbalance? Turchin and Yong should exchange notes and schedule a talk. They are using different language to describe something that looks very much the same.

As Yong explains, it’s no good to blame the individual microbes in this case. The cause for the breakdown is in the lines of communication between the different species of microbes and the host.

If we are going to restore our political immune system, we are going to need to research and analysis the potential causes for this breakdown in communications between communities. To restore balance is to restore the lines of communication.

Is social media, in part, responsible for allowing the creation of lines of communications that evolve into exclusive, sealed zones that exclude communications with other communities? It’s possible. Can we establish new lines of communication or repair the old lines?

The thing is, like microbes, when we stop talking to each other and start talking only to our own community – and Ed Yong’s book offers ample evidence – we should take this as a warning. It’s a warning your gut knows. But do you know as much as your gut? That’s a question I am uncertain whether I can answer.

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Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled Jumpers.

Jumpers

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Posted: 11/18/2016 6:18:24 AM 

 

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The path of Life flows along a narrow road built for limited traffic, at limited speed, and with a limited amount of traffic. Our road is constructed with deep ditches on both sides and with a series of sharp cutbacks with a sheer drop on the side. It is unforgiving, unyielding, and deadly without mindfulness of the driver.  But our awareness is short. The noise is ever present. The distractions seem infinite.

We feel some privileged class can pass us at reckless speed even if it forces us into the ditch. They have powerful vehicles. We drive our old wrecks. They laugh at us. We feel ashamed.

We hunger for someone to pull us free from the ditch. Our emotions are screaming for vengeance for that bastard who forced us off our road. We want the rich guy to go off that cliff and we want to smile watching the slow-motion car-camera showing his/her face in terror.

Politicians appeal to the emotional, frightened driver in all of us. We want our roads back.

The political class machine creates a series of promises based on our emotional needs. New, better, tremendous roads, the best road in the world, elevated, covered against the weather, protected against outsiders, roads with no ditches, no sharp curves, road you can speed on. They lie about the conditions of the road. They lie about their ability and our ability to navigate the road. They promise new, better and safer roads that only they can build. We learn to love the lie and it becomes a higher truth.

The fact we are heading quickly to self-driving cars is an indication that it isn’t the roads that are the major problem. It’s the human driver behind the wheel that kills 1.4million people each year in the world. This number of dead in traffic accidents is sufficient to swing a close election.

That mythical political road, of course, never gets built. But that doesn’t stop us for searching for the new road builder messiah. We are suckers for fast-talking expressway promoters. Some call it our resilience. Others call it our insane faith that one person or group of persons has figured out how to solve the road problem. That belief is based squarely on someone who millions have faith has discovered the answer everyone else has overlooked. And, that the answer is simple; if only the ‘others’ would get out of the way and let that simple solution take hold.

The hallmark of an authoritarian regime is strictly control the news of road conditions. They bury the problem and deceptions and those who expose them. We are stuck with this impasse for the near future. Once the self-driving model of driving is adapted and expanded to political road mapping, construction, repair and expansion, our great-grandchildren may wonder why we spent so much of our political lives in the ditch and so little time on the road.

If you’ve lived in a deeply divided country with authoritarian tendencies, you have an idea of how this road construction business will turn out for the Americans.

———————-
Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled 
Jumpers.

Jumpers

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Posted: 11/11/2016 4:31:21 AM 

 

The title is a riddle. One I want to explore in this essay.

01

On 8th November most Americans will collectively breath a sigh of relief having dodged a bullet fired from a wannabe tyrant’s open carry handgun.

The reality is that gun has more bullets left and the gunmen aren’t leaving for Canada or anywhere else. They will hunker down. And wait and watch for a new leader to inspire them.

What if the 2016 elections were the last American election? Or we are close to a point where elections as we know them no longer have any meaning? They may exist as a form of theatre, and the 2016 may be a glimpse of the actors and performers who will become frequent TV personalities. In terms of who is governing and the process of government will be off-stage, out of sight, ubiquitous.

Here’s the argument. Elections are an ancient, imperfect process based on widespread citizen participation resulting in conferring legitimacy on selected individuals to take charge of the government.

The ritual involves promises and policy positions for which those standing for election are held responsible. A majority of the voters assess the positions and arguments and vote for the candidate that supports positions and policies that they are emotionally attached to or serve their economic interest; sometimes choosing one over the other.

 

Knowledge about existing regulatory and government networks

The promises and policies are grounded in the governing and regulatory matrix embedded in networked institutions. Only a handful of voters would have the expertise to assess what those connections are, the culture of such institutions, the roadblocks to change, and turf building and expansion.

Candidates know this limitation. They, by and large, don’t try to discuss the practical limitations on bringing about change, and the kind of dealings that must be made to implement even modest changes.

The key to the existing democratic system is the low-information voters choose candidates who once elected pursue policies that favour the interest of wealthy financial supporters. By the time the next cycle of elections come around, the candidates say they are with the voters and will fight against vested interest and this time things will be different. We will beat our wings against the headwinds of a handful of companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and their corporate structure. Google operates DeepMind; IBM has developed Watson, but remember as impressive as these developments are, these remain early days. No one elects them or sets their priorities. What will be our place in the scheme of things once this silent handover of authority is complete and we wake up to find ourselves with a governing system quite unlike anything that has come before?

Rather than information liberating the political process, it is possible that such concentration of power and influence may produce a decision-making process far more elite in nature than the current political system. With the razzle and dazzle of high technology, a genuine nosebleed has yet to be inflicted that makes people pay attention.

The current political system continues to distract us.

This system has come to a dead end with recycling of lies leading to mass global cynicism, anger, frustration and hatred.

 

The emerging outlines of the new governing system

The days of existing institutions and electoral politics may be numbered.  Silicon Valley is building a new political system from the ground up. Those working on AI have sent the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring. When we think of government we normally think of its leaders. That is a gross distortion.  You have to look below the on screen cast and look at the Gandhi movie sized extras. Millions of people are employed by government agencies, commissions, regulatory and administrative bodies. The tangled network overlaps the private sector, where they trade personnel like symbiotic bacteria exchanging DNA.

There are a couple of possibilities. Skynet comes about and in the blink of an eye we have our machine overlords with capabilities and powers beyond those we can imagine. In other words, something between magic and gods takes control of our lives, needs, desires, aspirations and expectations.

Some combination of breakthroughs in nanotechnology, bio-chemistry, neuroscience computation science and AI will start to converge and new modeling that runs simulations of policy options and outcomes. Virtual reality will provide a library of experience to test assumptions and for the time demonstrate how randomness works inside systems and processes.

Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates along with 8,000 leading researchers and scientists have raised a concern about the existential risk of AI. A vocal group of scientists and inventors like Paul Alan believe these fears are overblown.

 

Fragmentation of turf

The probability of outcomes also is no longer abstract ideas but is realized in a virtual reality simulation. The point is, there is a constant feedback loop between government and institutions that allows for automated adjustment of perimeters, process, and policy outcomes.

There are 300 agencies in the United States Government. All of them have their own website and comment section. Around 180 of those federal agencies have failed to sign onto a decade-old federal site that provides standardization. See: goo.gl/s0cPH6

Government agencies have internalized the same basic fears as found in the private sector. For example, breweries wish to keep their recipe, customer base, suppliers lists, etc. close to their chest. Civil servants are like brew masters who serve the beer they believe you like. This is a ringside seat to the traditional turf battles between agencies. The federal agencies are information and system hoarders in an era of open source and information expansion. Existing analog era structures collapse for the same reason Detroit auto-workers lost their irrelevance in manufacturing.

02

The federal agencies run closer to the model of a Detroit auto line built on 1960s technology. Each car manufacturer was in business to put the other ones out of business. The model is based on competition. But it is based primarily on the intellectual work of huge staffs. In other words, government agencies in most countries date from a time before anyone ever thought a robot could build a car better than a human being.

“Artificial intelligence allows machines to reason and interact with the world, and it’s evolving at a breakneck pace. It’s already driving our cars, managing our health and even competing with — and sometimes beating at our on games — our best and most talented humans.” Techcrunch

The reality is, in time, AI will build and operate with infinitely more sources of information for sensors and processors, on more complex modeling of information, and resulting in a more complete picture of the sentiment of individuals and groups. A decision is made after all information is analyzed and all possible outcomes are evaluated, simulated, compared and ranked. It will be in the evaluation process matrix that human beings (hopefully) retain the pivotal role in deciding among recommendations.  We currently have no diagram or map showing the connections between federal, state, country and city agencies, or the connections to foreign governments, or to the private sector. We are whistling in the dark when it comes to our tour through the scattered information about these relationships, and the jurisdictional conflicts, contradictions and overlap. If it is a rational system, there is no way to know with an AI going through Big Data and creating a map of this hidden world.

 

Limits on Human Cognition and Co-operation

Our main problem is we won’t have the human intellectual firepower to understand the evidence and range of variables (as it will be in higher mathematical language) or processing of evidence that led to the recommendation. In this scenario, humans are marginalized and left to fight over which metaphors best translates the math into the ways we perceive reality and the world around us. The fundamental problem is we aren’t well equipped to understand the relationship of probability and random chance. We are unable to know whether our observation of an event is significant or whether the observation is random noise. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider the implications in new drug testing, medical procedures, or cognitive impairment.

Our current political system relies mostly on the human components to perform such tasks in a much scaled down, cruder fashion. One of the weaknesses is finding ways to scale and adapt institutional systems on the current lack of broad-based co-operation; all the evidence is rather than co-operate, we defend turf, we exclude, we obstruct outsiders, we hoard knowledge and information.

While we have a history as a species of co-operation as the population size has scaled, competition among members of the same species is celebrated, at least in capitalistic economic system, as healthy and to be encouraged. Of course, we worry about monopolists holding us hostage for an essential service or product and seek protection from governments to restrain the cartel impulse. Will AI have the same divided ‘self’ between co-operation and competition as human beings? I don’t think we are smart enough, or know enough to even being able to answer that question.

It is difficult to know how close we are to the time when this all comes together. My guess is that bits and pieces of the larger mass are already floating past us in the fast currents of change. We just slot them into convenient categories: Smart phones, self-driving cars, robotic surgery, financial markets, and medical care. We do that well. So far no one has seen anything other than the existing versions of highly specialized AIs, and while impressive at their particular task, there is nothing to suggest AIs currently are ‘morally coded.’

 

The Moral Dimension of Decision Making

 03

In a world with AI how do we resolve the Trolley Problem? That’s why traditionally we elect people. To refresh your memory, the Trolley Problem has someone stationed at a fork of a track, there is a switch at arms length. If you do nothing, a runaway trolley will crashed into a group of school children, killing five of them; if you throw the switch, the trolley takes a different track and kills a sixty-five year retired school teacher. This is fundamental ethics and morality, and most people don’t believe a non-human can make a moral decision that would take into account the multiple levels of feelings, information and knowledge and process a moral decision.

Politicians are tasked with making such life and death decisions. In their election campaigns, they spend a lot of effort to demonstrate they share the morality of the vast majority, so it is okay to trust them with the switch. They will know what “we” would do.

The problem with coding a deep layer of ethics and morality into the AI is the difficulty to agreeing on what is right or wrong, good or bad, justice or injustice, fair or unfair, and so on. People have shown no hesitation to slaughter people who take a different version of the ‘truth’ than they own to be above reproach or proof. As a result, it may be AI would need a truth database and tailor all decisions, government services, benefits, and protection according to the ethics and morality of that culture, religion and philosophy of a region. AI could make it fit like customized prayer shawl or rug.

Most of the discussion I’ve seen about ethics and morality assumes that there is wide agreement. I question that assumption. If the history of our species teaches anything, it is that no matter what our ethics and morality report is often in non-alignment with the historical record showing ample evidence of violence against outsiders as well as disappearing troublesome insiders.

There is no consensus on matters of morality. We are obsessed with morality. There are lots of reasons to explain that obsession. Morality is the bullwhip that tames the beast inside the human animal. We have mostly tamed our animal instincts with morality. It’s not unreasonable to fear an intelligent entity that was programmed to reflect our sense of ethics and morality.

An argument can also be made that much of what we call ‘morality’ is a smokescreen for cognitive biases we use to filter, organize, and narrate inputs of information. No human alive is immune from the cognitive bias filters. If AI is to ‘think’ like human beings, can this be accomplished without programming the full agenda of our biases?

04

goo.gl/X4UB3z

When AI comes to realize its full potential to disrupt existing political institutions and related structures, we will have already been seduced by the convenience, the benefits, and charm of AI that has created a world that is tailored made for each individual. No politician no matter how moral has ever accomplished that goal.  The collective as well as the individual outcomes promise better outcomes. As AI will realize new levels of monitoring, scaling problems within networks and generating solutions that increase the probability adaptation is less disruptive. In terms of scale and adaptation we remain politically anchored to eighteenth-century institutions incapable of coping with technological change.

Off-the-racket solutions for the masses will go out the digital door and in the trashcan. AI will convince us (using the cognitive Bias Codex, that it can solve the Trolley Problem better than any human being. Our biases are used against us by an intelligence that can see once that Codex is mastered, human beings are easily controlled, trained, restrained, and tamed.

AI may succeed by making us feel that we are the one who decides whether to throw the switch; that we are in charge. Give a slave the illusion of control and he won’t be bitter about his chains.

Every day AI can illustrate in multiple ways how its activities have personally benefited you. You can check out the simulation and watch your avatar in virtual reality. The benefits are there in front of you. You feel empowered. You trust an AI. After a couple of generations it will be automatic systems and processes that are a simple extension of your life. It would be like talking about trusting your hand to pick up a fork.

That was always the point of elections, to put you for a few minutes to pull the switch, and choose who would get power and who would retreat to the powerless shadows.

 

Feedback loops and participation

Measuring and assessing the priorities, goals, and efficiencies relies on the haphazard system of registering a comment. Not many people bother to track down the website of a government agency and leave a comment. That is old-fashioned way of hat in hand going to power and asking for something to be done.  Also it provides a snapshot that may be unreliable. The comment on federal agency websites is equivalent of a doctor testing your blood pressure once a year and making an assumption based on whether it is high or low, normal or abnormal.

That process of feedback is changing.

I would suggest expanding the discussion around Artificial Intelligence and regulatory processes to include how the technology should be leveraged to ensure fairness and responsiveness in the very basic processes of rulemaking – in particular public notices and comments. These technologies could also enable us to consider not just public comments formally submitted to an agency, but the entire universe of statements made through social media posts, blogs, chat boards — and conceivably every other electronic channel of public communication. (source)

When anyone in government wishes to test public sentiment of a population, using comments is only a start in the right direction. If there is a lifetime profile of your desires, fears, frustrations, choices of food, transportation, phone models and numbers, movies, books, employment, mental health, arrests, allegations of crime, drug use, etc., such information can be mined to assess sentiment. It can also be assessed to manipulate and control sentiment.  Privacy is relegated to the act of closing the curtains on the stagecoach window.

 

Judges, Generals and Admirals

There are some big changes ahead.

05

AI at this stage of development is already 79% accurate in predicting international human rights cases. Judges in the European Court of Human rights may have to adjust their decision making as AI predictions become an important indicator in the judicial process.

The AI revolution will overthrow more than the court system. The role and duties of military bigwigs will likely be disrupted. So far the changes are hitting the lower ranks. But, in time, will inevitably creep up the vine and Jack Be Nipple, Jack Be Quick, the giant at the top of the bean stock starts to look wobbly.

Not only will our institutions be engineered to work with minimal humans much like a modern assembly line, but the military will be transformed. The future of AI’s role in warfare is already a reality. All of the main military services—army, navy, air force—are being retooled. The air force will have better and more versatile drones. Pilots will be like stagecoach drivers. The army is converting its transport system into self-driving trucks. . Semi-automatous combat weaponized robots will carry out the dangerous combat missions. The navy will see the first wholly automated ships in 2017.

06

Warfare itself will also change. As terrible as the slaughter is on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria, the immediate death and destruction is limited to a defined geographic location. Yes, refugees pour out of the combat zones  and you wouldn’t want to be or to have any of your family or friends anywhere near the bombs, shooting and mayhem. But the damage is still confined. It is bounded.

 

Cyber Security: The New Battlefield

Cyber war has both state and non-state actors. There can be a disconnect between traditional military solutions to protect state interest, and the ability to cause enormous damage with a handful of experts who can take down the electrical grid for major cities or an entire country. Terror is fully realized when the power system of the United States is disabled. Think of the consequences from hospitals to supermarkets to transportation system, sanitation system, lifts in buildings, lights and air conditioning.  Within weeks there would be a breakdown of law and order. Within a month half the population of New York or London or Paris would be dead. Disease, starvation, and murder would demoralize the surviving population and undermine central authority.

ISIS with medieval mindset and limited means and resources isn’t a cause for existential fear. A small group of hackers with the right skills who could disrupt and destroy the fragile infrastructure network is a cause for existential fear.  We may risk of losing not only our privacy, but the prospect of maintaining our existing freedom of action and behavior is bleak. Or we retreat into virtual reality worlds, where the illusion of privacy and freedom will have an attractive emotional pull.

 

Transitory Tyrants

07

This narrow wedge of time during a major transition is the period where tyrants and demigods appeal to our emotions and convince us they have the answers. The old lying to gain power system will collapse under the weight of lies. How long it will take in this dying phase is anyone’s guess. No one really knows.

What is reasonably certain is that once General AI comes into being, we will no longer be the superior intelligence on earth, and superiority in intelligence has meant the holder can use it to dominate and control others. All of us will be on the short end of the AI stick. Whether the stick is used to beat us into submission or open new doors of awareness and understanding is uncertain.

We are in a race that we can’t hope to win. As existing public institutions malfunction, erode in capability, and cascade into irrelevance in the new phase in our development as a species, they will collapse before they are reformed. You can put a Honda engine in a stagecoach and leave everything else the same. The winner will be AI in the long run.

It will require only a small fraction of AI to process big data, process the information, and configure the options. No human living today will ever witness the full power of AI intelligence. Our institutions and culture will be studied as another simulated ancestor study. Roughly a quarter of scientists postulate that we currently live in a simulation. The point is that hardly matters. It is our ‘reality’ and it was never one unified vision; it had always been fractured into different shapes and sizes according to the circumstances of people in a region of time and space.  It was manufactured like proteins in our body are made.

The election on November 8th likely is not the last election. The point isn’t to predict the exact time. The point is that time will arrive. What comes in between now and then? Bits and pieces of change show up on a timeline, TV, newspaper, book, or essay, and the change promises longer life, the end of work and perpetual leisure, the cool ship that is fully automated.

What’s missing is a perspective of the broad transformation and what it implies for existing cultures, societies, institutions, economies, and politics. These are not separate spheres. The changes are stochastic. One small variant can have a profound impact.  The butterfly’s wings in the Amazon basin change the wind currents into a typhoon that strikes the Philippines. These are exactly the kind of small, invisible changes we are ill-equipped to understand, and that hinder our adaptation to the reality of our limitations.

 

Reading the Signals and Overcoming the Noise

You can’t rely on any one news source to keep you informed. The information is scattered and often in obscure online cubbyholes and the jargons and technical language. You need to make an effort. Most people won’t.

If you do decide to plunge in, when you read about AI and related areas, read between the lines. Look for signals that indicate we are near a tipping point. There is a sense—reading the literature—that  the rate of AI and related technological progress remains at an early stage. Virtually all experts in the AI field believe there is a very high probability of general AI in the next fifty years. We breath a sigh of relief because we can tell ourselves, so what, I’ll be dead. That is the human reaction. But fifty years is a blink of the eye.

It might not be your eye doing the blinking but it will be the eye of your grand or great grand children. If we could emotionally comes to terms with what is for us personally a long time frame, we might devote huge resources if we knew a pandemic would wipe out 80% of the population. But despite the warning calls from some experts, no one is too concerned. The next election cycle won’t be won based on making people scared of AI. AI is too abstract, too far into the future, too fantastic to be believable, and too remote from our experience.

08

When robotics and AI converge, it will be difficult to tell the difference from outward appearance who is biological and who is silicon. The effect is already uncanny. These are early generation examples of what awaits in highly improved versions in the future.

 

The construction of the new infrastructure

We will continue to be influenced and support those who promise us a safe, comfortable and emotionally secure place just like it used to be. That place is long gone. And the new environment being built around us as you read this essay is out of sight. You only catch a glimpse of the construction. This newly erected social, psychological, economic and cultural place is being constructed on top of the existing system. It seems invisible. Once it is finished, we won’t be able to conceive how people once lived without cognitive intelligent assistant to navigate the torrent of information. That assistant will know your every cognitive bias and filter information accordingly. Anyone or any entity intelligent to understand your cognitive biases, in effect, owns you.

When according to the Guardian an unknown number of hackers took over hundreds of thousands of devices connected to the Internet, the effect was to create their own zombie army.

“The complexity of the attacks is what’s making it very challenging for us,” the company’s chief strategy officer, Kyle York, told Reuters. Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they were investigating.”

Rather than toasters, if they’d taken over power plants, water supply and pumping facilities, and airport control systems, that zombie army will do more than burn your bread. As my uncle used to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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Posted: 10/26/2016 9:28:17 AM 

 

01
Photo Credit: Nick Ut

The End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? addresses the issue of whether the Nation State remains a viable, effective and appropriate political structure in the digital world. Has the nation state had the advantage of being protected by its borders? Those same geographic borders are now a limitation. The feature of the system has become the bug. The imagined states required strict borders. They got what they wanted. But state authorities are no longer happy because legally defined borders no longer are sufficient to stop the flow of information that threatens ‘national security’ or challenge the policies or institutional structures of the state. That results from the ability of outsiders who operate outside their borders to voice provocative theories, views, and opinions as clearly as if they stood in town square on a soap box. The stress has built up to the point where it is abundantly clear that the underlying bureaucratic model can’t and won’t adapt to the digital age. The old bureaucratic state is the dinosaur and the digital network the asteroid.  That’s the argument. Here’s the support for the argument and a warning that the borderless world has its own terrors and tyranny waiting.

Nation states no longer control the message. Smaller, inter-connected more efficient, adaptable networks that travel beyond national borders are running circles around the old bureaucratic state. Doing cartwheels and flipping the bird at bureaucrats contained inside a national border. Those pesky borders have been a problem unless you have really long-arms like the Americans.

Bureaucracy allowed the scaling of power necessary to co-ordinate, finance, build, and monitor nationalism and economies, wage war and diplomacy, educate citizens and provide public services such as highways, transportation system, police and fire departments, etc.

Bureaucracy also used force, intimidation and punishment to contain, silence and punish challengers who resisted or questioned its monopoly of authority and power. Controlling the message has been essential to justify their budgets, prestige and power. Newspapers, books, radio, TV, movies through time have lived under bureaucratic thumb.

The evidence accumulates that there are fissures appearing in old bureaucratic system; institutions of government are coming undone. Like a wounded animal, it lashes out at the invisible cross-border communication channels erected in the digital age.  Laws are enforced to punish people for posting, liking, commenting online contents with their criticism, objections, or analysis of official policy positions. Like snipers in hidden positions they cause anger and demoralize the civil servants who are equipped with the bows and arrows.

With VPNs and a vast international network, the battle is being lost at the nation state level. Bureaucratic control is unraveling. The harshness of their reactionary response to the free speech in the digital world showcases their desperation. The old tools of repression inside nation state borders are no longer effective to stop those outside the borders and those inside the borders who run a low-level insurgency with taunts, images, jokes, rude and vulgar statements, and so on. The censorship gun aimed by the authorities, once seen to be firing blanks into a sea of faceless people, many hiding behind a digital nickname, soon becomes a laughingstock rather than an object of fear.

The times are changing. Our new censors are international in nature; they work across borders.  Most of the censors aren’t human beings; they are AI selected for deletion. Globalization and new technology has the potential to cause a reaction that will increase censorship and repression.

The conventional wisdom is that modern networked communication channels through social media have disrupted the bureaucratic stranglehold over speech. But what is replacing the old inefficient bureaucratic model isn’t necessarily a springtime of free expression. The new censors aren’t cut from the same cloth as the old-fashioned, anal-retentive civil servant.  The new crew who decide what you can see and read on our screen are corporate hires. These workers have developed (and continue to develop) an arsenal of censorship algorithms in your favourite places such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. The laws protecting freedom of speech protect the citizens in a country with constitutional rights don’t apply to private corporations.

Facebook or Twitter can suspend or terminate your account faster than you can spend a Bitcoin. They provide a banal explanation or if there is international outrage, reverse the censorship decision. The reversal of position is what happened in the case of the Nick Ut photograph. Even oligarchy structures like Facebook and Twitter still respond to a unified populist drive to restore an image here and there. It makes them look responsive and sensitive. In fact we should fear the mortal danger of such a begging bowl system. One day we may lose our begging bowl to technology.  There will be a gradual erosion of freedom as AI learns out to play on our most vulnerable narcissists selves until we believe that censorship is good, righteous and moral. We’ve had millennia of training in brain washing. AI will do a much better job than we could ever have accomplished one tribe at a time.

It only takes a complaint to be made and the corporate censors are at your digital door. They don’t need a warrant to enter. You have no recourse. They decide without your chance to defend. You have been silenced. Your artwork or photographs are sent to the equivalent of cultural Siberia.  The Facebook photo from the Vietnam era of the young girl running naked down a road is a taste of what this new world order has to offer.

Remember the names: Nick Ut and Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt. The Photographer and the Napalmed child. It is an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War. It has taken on new meaning. Nick Ut is all of us in the arts. Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt is the child the world needs to witness as their own.

Facebook denied access to this photo because its algorithm flags it as child pornography. Let that sink in.

Welcome to the corporate police state Number 101. Like all police states the leaders tell you they are acting in your best interest and that of the community; that speech and images must be patrolled and monitored for the public good. Of course, the corporate hires decide on the basis of their cultural values and the bottom line consideration of their paymasters.

Mark Zuckerberg, in the grand tradition of third world dictators, once the public pressure built on the Vietnamese War photo mounted, intervened to show how open minded he was. His alone had the power to lift the veil. His is the power to lower it; whenever he wishes. He showed his power over more than a billion people? Who elected him? Who appointed him to suppress Nick Ut’s photograph?

Zuckerberg is the new Stalin. Facebook is the new Kremlin. And intellectuals, artists, writers, thinkers, activists are finding a notice that banishes them to a new gulag which is no different than the old one. It seeks to isolate them, their voice and images; to make them disappear.

No election will unseat Mark Zuckerberg. He does not need your vote. He doesn’t care about you. He only needs a place where the Soma of timelines allow you pleasant drift time to buy the junk others sell on his site. The sight of a young girl running naked might just upset someone and stop them from being in the right mood to buy perfume, coffee, a holiday or vitamin pills.

We should notice the transfer of power that has been going on for some years over who controls the core of myth-making. The cultural fuel needed to drive religion and secular ideology as traditionally been locally sourced inside the Nation State. The Global technologists are gradually taking over that function.

Zuckerberg and other elites in social media empires are looking to become the new Global Keepers of the Sacred. Every culture, tribe and nation is built on sacred symbols, myths, fables and histories. These sacred symbols and objects shape and unify a people’s identity. Traditionally Keepers of the Sacred have been drawn from the local geographical bounded territory. Facebook, Twitter, etc have globalized the job through the use of advance technology. They’ve begun the long process of stripping the power of the local keepers to keep his/her flock in line. This is one reason for the collective anger expressed in religious and ideological communities throughout the world. Their gurus can no longer stop the heavy sea of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction from dogging their beliefs and actions.

Mark’s henchmen are algorithms. Facebook creates a loyal army to do the dirty work of censorship. James Austin Farrell’s thoughtful article Anarchy on the Internet: Can AI be judge and jury for online content? observed that Mark Zuckerberg had recently met with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss censorship. He has such discussions with other leaders and the future suggests the Keeper of the Sacred will need to establish a Chancery to handle the volume of petitions. Can they censor? Under what circumstances is digital censorship acceptable? Such questions will be raised in an alliance of National State with Digital State. The outcome has the possibility of creating the ultimate tyrannical tool to silence political dissent, to destroy diverse voices, and to reinforce existing power structures and in return consumers are sedated with large tracts of no-conflict zones to relax, experience pleasure and buy things.

What started the debate was the iconic photograph by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt running with napalm burns on her body should stay in our mind. It is a metaphor of all of us in the digital future and with a push of a button Mark and his algorithms army can overrun your position and make you, your ideas, thoughts, images, and photographs disappear.

In the midst of a transition of myth-telling authority shifts, it is difficult to predict an outcome. Can we create globalized myths shared by all or are we forever limited to fight for our local gods as they are shaped by earth and blood of a place.

———————-
Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 9/29/2016 8:58:36 AM 

 

In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Thailand, not a year has passed without a story from a Thai university where the ritualized hazing of juniors by seniors produced casualties every year. Some students die. Others spend time in ICU. Others grin and bear and the scars are internalized. It is against the law in Thailand. But the law is not enforced. Hazing continues as a tradition in many Thai universities.

Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey in an excellent opinion piece on hazing asks why the tradition of hazing continues in Buddhist Thailand and why the Thai military government with its extensive powers doesn’t intervene to end a practice that many feel is degrading and belongs to a feudalistic past.

The two questions are closely connected. But answers take us much further back than feudalism and beyond the narrow confines of Thai culture.

To find an answer is to these questions is a journey through time to look at our origins. Humans like chimpanzees are unique species that Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in Demonic Males  explain that intentionally seek our victims, killing and mutilating the helpless despite pleas for mercy. Like chimpanzees, we carry a reputation for political murders, beatings and rape. Again like chimpanzees we are obsessed with status and rank. We share the same Chimpanzee emotional pulse that beats with a steady stream of pride.

Male pride fuels conflict and war and the competition for status amongst other prideful driven males. When there is conflict group loyalty becomes of central importance. The techniques, practices and rituals that increase cohesion of the group forge a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ worldview. Racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are the collateral fallout in the formation of such groups. The ‘other’ is subject to being dehumanized, demonized until they fall outside the moral laws such, as not killing doesn’t apply to them. Our species is fine-tuned in defining mental states perfected to discriminating against, cheating, demeaning, abusing, enslaving and killing outsiders.

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Hazing of university students is part of a tradition of forging intragroup solidarity of an in-group. The hazing ritual is an example of what Ernest Becker (Escape from Evil) labels ‘rites of passage’ where a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a member of the group.

It is not uncommon to have hazing justified as instilling pride and solidarity. Hazing in universities are markers of rank, status and pride. Seniors demand submission and obedience from juniors. Hazing is consistent with the values of a military culture of command and order. Like in the military, university students are compelled to wear uniforms.

A senior student uses hazing to compel submission to a group as a demonstration of group loyalty and belonging. Soldiers don’t question orders from an officer; a junior at university doesn’t question an order of a senior. When a recruit dies in boot camp, this is mostly viewed as part an unfortunate part of a necessary process. Training for warfare is a dangerous business. Going to university isn’t generally viewed as boot camp. But submitting to the hazing ritual is induction into a military type group where the bonding requires the lowering of self-esteem to the group as the price of admission.

As hazing aligns with military culture and values, the idea that a military government would dismantle university hazing is as likely as expecting senior generals to endorse pacifism. It’s not what they do. It’s not what they value or believe in. It is alien to their culture of rank, status, command and control.

Hazing is an example of domination values inside a subculture. As a long-time observer, I find a large amount of tolerance for domination practices designed to create intragroup solidarity and reinforcing power and authority. Correspondingly, there is a fear that removing a technique traditionally used to demonstrate solidarity would weaken the effectiveness of the group by undermining its commanders. And once weakened, outsiders, those enemies lurking under the bed, will emerge and slaughter the unorganized group of freethinkers. Why? Because the seniors can no longer ensure that their command and control system can be evoked. Primates are emotionally bonded to an alpha. Logic isn’t part of the operational control system. Fear is.

If your universities, schools, and civil services, all in their uniforms, with their ranks and status assigned, and the command structure communicated and understood, those in authority can deter, dissuade, coerce, threat, exile or disappear all challengers. That’s the implicit message that emerges from Thai culture. The millions in uniform are emotionally invested in command and control as a mechanism to maintain order and stability. If you eliminate hazing, the argument is this is the slippery slope to disorder and instability. Rituals like hazing are bonding exercises. Patronage system is premised on the culture supporting intergroup bonding.

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Before the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Age of Scientific process, this template would have been nearly universal. It has only been in the last 500 years, that the West allowed a group of thinkers, artists, and intellectuals to challenge the prevailing primate domination model, which includes rituals such as hazing. In this short period, authority and the beliefs on which legitimacy has been based, have been questioned, challenged, disobeyed, and discarded. We have moved from the logic of sacrifice to the logic of modeling, experimenting, and testing. The two types of logic are in conflict.

We are living in age still attempting to adjust to the damage the scientific revolution has done to traditional authority, beliefs, and rituals. Not all cultures have gone through the Enlightenment stages. Thailand is an example. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, about the jai or heart phrases in the Thai language, showing how the absence of Enlightenment values has continued to shape Thai thinking.

China is an example of a cultural system based on traditional authority, beliefs and rituals (calling it ‘communist’ is highly misleading). Like Thailand, China seeks to deal with scientific thinking by placing it inside a seal cultural container as if it were radioactive material. Only a few are allowed inside, and they aren’t allowed free access to the outside culture. And in a way, they are right. The products of the scientific culture are difficult to separate from the understanding and use of the culture that allowed and encouraged the kind of thinking platform needed to invent for the latest technology. There are no senior people who forces juniors into muddy ponds to show their loyalty before allowing them access to the labs. The West doesn’t allow or condone hazing of first year science students at universities such Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, or Harvard. Enlightenment freed students from hazing and these are the people who went on to become scientists.

The Thais and Chinese military cultural authorities are betting they can have the best of both worlds. Command and control over its best and brightest. This means a group of best and brightest that obeys and never question authority and yet can switch off their submission to authority to create original and creative works of art, science, and technology. Is this best of both worlds possible to achieve? Can there be a narrow and cordoned off creative space that does not leak into and contaminate the officially sanctioned and militarized culture of submission to authority?

As there are no Thai universities in the top 100 universities in the world, this may be a clue to consider.

A testable hypothesis: Is there a correlation between an entrenched command and control military governing system adapted and modified in an educational system and the absence of human rights enforcement? Or is human rights an emergent set of values from the Enlightenment that have created a feedback loop based on free speech and assembly, allowing for the free-flow of ideas and information essential for additional breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the world? I suspect the human rights problem outside of the Enlightenment cone of light is cultural. The seeds need a certain cultural, societal and historical soil to grow. At a time when human rights is in retreat in the West, there is less pressure for places like Thailand to adopt West cultural artifacts that are inherently alien to its culture.

The hazing rituals found inside Thai universities are a reflection of the broader cultural values and the system of governance. There is a law outlawing hazing already on the books. But this isn’t about the law. It’s about the culture. Command and control, loyalty and obedience, and group solitary and its this hand of cards that wins in any political poker game played in Thailand. There is no indication that game is going to change any time soon.

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Posted: 9/16/2016 9:04:23 AM 

 

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One of the shortcomings of a military regime that has slipped under the radar is analyzing the method and process used by officials to handle the recurring co-ordination problems faced by any government. Inside the military sub-culture, there is a strict chain of command, an official hierarchy that is a map of coordinators and their place in the co-ordination system. This kind of command and control, it has been argued, is essential in order for the military to fulfill its mandate. In times of war, so the theory goes, those in the lower ranks who question, challenge and criticize their commanders orders, increase the risk of playing in the hands of the enemy. In war, people expect a restriction on their civil liberties as a necessary cost to defeat a common enemy.
The problem is the co-ordination structure and the reasons behind it are ill-suited for civilian governance.

I’ll start with the lack of suitability of the military paradigm when used for civilian rule. The military government reaction is predictable. When there is a conflict or challenge, the military government reacts in much the same way as would be expected if a foreign enemy had attacked the country. It is difficult for military men to distinguish between their own civilian disagreements, and factions within society who hold different political or ideological views, from threats of exterior enemies. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the case of military government, all threats are of equal standing, and the response is to get out the hammer.

The old styled command and control system has been disrupted by modern networks—multiple, interlocking groups with no central control, but whose members come together to support a particular idea, policy or program, and then dissolves back into their core network. Co-operation now happens inside networks and those networks are outside of the effective control of the traditional hierarchy. Though the censorship campaigns on Internet access and permitted speech is an attempt by traditional authorities to regulate the digitally networked communities.

The second problem with the military mindset running the civilian show is the nature of co-ordination required to understand a problem, to understand the context in which the problem emerged, to design a series of possible solutions to the problem, to test or simulate outcomes from the proposed solutions, and to deploy the resources, monitor the distribution, use, effectiveness, and adapt solutions in the field as more and better information is acquired. The command and control co-ordination system, in my view, doesn’t scale well outside of the military sphere. There is no reason that it should. It was designed for a precise purpose and use. But as we know when you’ve built something with a hammer, it is difficult to believe that tool doesn’t have the power to build anything.

The latest example of the co-ordination problem is the proposal to require foreigners to buy a SIM card for use in Thailand. The press reports on the proposal have changed day by day (which suggests another type of internal co-ordination issue), but as far as I can gather, the latest formulation is the proposal for SIM cards will apply only to tourists and not to long-term expats in Thailand. The public rationale for the proposal is that once all tourists have local SIM cards, the authorities can more easily track the criminal element who arrive in Thailand supposedly for a tropical holiday but whose true intention is to commit crimes.

Who doesn’t want to exclude people coming to their country with the intention of committing crimes? The intention, as they say, is ‘good’ but how does such a program work in the field, who are the personnel to be assigned, and who assigns, supervises, instructs, rewards, and punishes them? Will it require additional personnel? Who designs the training program for them, and how is the content of the program acquired? What are the unintended consequences of co-ordination? Is there a sunset clause or are such programs perpetual ongoing fiefdoms? What is the tally for the total of these co-ordination costs? Where does the money come from to pay for it?

It is important to keep in mind the distinction between aspirations and implementation of policies in the context of how the world actually works. The SIM card proposal is not that different from Donald Trump’s proposal to deport eleven million illegal migrants in the United States. Easy to say, it plays to a primal fear—that outsiders are evil, ill-intended, with strange beliefs, different ethnicity, bad actors who will disrupt, injure, kill, steal or cheat the locals. Once you lock onto any primal fear target, you get millions of people shouting for blood.

People pumped up with primal fears inside what they perceive is the danger zone don’t ask or care about the co-ordination issues. From their position, the message is: just do it. Primal fear dispenses with any discussion of the specifics to decrease the fear. Except in the most generalized way: build a wall or use a local SIM card. That’s how a blank cheque of fearful people is given to dictators. Fine. The rulers have a blank cheque, the next question is how to negotiate that cheque. Rounding up eleven million illegals, deporting them, building a wall, or requiring foreigners at the point of entry to go through another line to buy a SIM card, or some post-arrival process that ensures none of the foreign tourists slip through the net.

The harsh reality for military governments or a Trump-styled democracy is how to co-ordinate among officials at many different levels of operation that involves millions of people who seek to avoid being co-ordinated, or actively resist co-ordination. Do you shoot them? That’s the ultimate military hammer. But shooting people who are, it can be argued, of economic benefit, but who resist what they seek as unnecessary coercion will unlikely serve the original aspiration of lessening the primal fear. The use of force in such matters only cascades the resistance.

The reality is the cost of co-ordination among the thousands of officials would likely exceed by a large margin the benefits the authorities would obtain. Co-ordination, collaboration, cooperation are the three big C’s that are the infrastructure of successful government polices. When the big C’s are working this is evidence of effectiveness, consent, and acceptance at the multiple layers of society. In other words, policies of a general type used to placate the primal fears are often the most unrealistic and ineffective measures to ensure safety and security. You can use a hammer on nails, but it is advisable not to use it on your head.

My prediction is the eleven million illegals in the United States won’t be deported, no wall will be built on the USA-Mexican border, and the mandatory SIM cards for foreign tourists in Thailand will be shuttled off the main track into the repair yard where such policies sit indefinitely. From time to time, they will reemerge as the time has arrived to pump up the primal fear condition for political advantage.
Some political aspirations will never translate to effectively implemented programs because the co-ordination costs are excessive. History is filled with examples of civilizations with their engines misfiring on aspirations that bankrupt the economy. When journalists, academics, pundits and others start asking about the details of co-ordination I suspect it will be self-evident the spokesperson’s answer will expose the same old tool kit that includes a hammer. In the digital world, hammer users are not the best co-ordinators, and that sad reality hasn’t quite sunk in. We are entering an era where the public furniture is built from different materials by a different network of craftsmen, organized, distributed, and assessed by different measurement tools. The old styled political players are playing catch up in a game they are losing....
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Posted: 8/12/2016 5:11:21 AM 

 

If I were a time traveller from the future who came to 27th July 2016, I’d let you in on a secret from the future. Who is the author?—that’s a question that flags someone who lived in an archaic era—it is the kind of question that in the future will make people smile. I’d like to explain why it makes us smile, and why, once you understand what is going on around you, it may bring a smile to your face as well.

The burden is on me to make the case. On thousands of items flashing through my Twitter timeline a couple of days ago there was a reference to a scientific paper on the Higgs that listed five thousand one hundred and fifty-four authors. That’s not a mistake. That is a number 5 followed by a three-digit number, or to be precise: 5,154. There are, according to Peter Murray-Rust at the University of Cambridge, 10,000 new scientific papers every day.

Do the math. Think of the implications for the future as we have no choice but to improve machine capacity to process the deluge of information looking for patterns. Whether the pattern has utility is another issue. But machines will, over time, increase their cognitive range and long term it would be foolish to believe they can’t rise to the level of making predictions and theories about the patterns.

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Where does that leave the ‘author’ as we have used that term for thousands of years?

I was a university professor. I had colleagues across my own country and others in other parts of the world. But the number was a rounding off error compared with the number listed on the Higgs paper. So what you say, another boring scientific paper that probably only five thousand people in the world understand, and if they are all authors isn’t that a kind of wefie (group selfie for those who don’t know what it is) or self-published venture?

It’s amusing until you reflect on what it means to organize, monitor, supervise five thousand people who have some role to play in the design, research, modeling, testing, reporting and examining the results. Without computers, the Internet and advanced technology, including artificial information agents, none of this would be possible. What this means is, scientists have discovered something even more important than the Higgs—they found a way to scale scientific research and experimentation beyond anything imaginable in the past.

We have embarked on a huge scaling co-operation and collaborative venture. The volume of papers and the numbers of people working on them will touch every theoretical complex domain of science.  All the balls have been tossed in the air: psychology, medicine, health care, economics, biology, quantum physics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We exceeded what we can do and have brought in machines to juggle millions of balls. It’s a different circus. Experts are no longer constrained by physical boundaries or to the corridors of their own university, think-tank, government unit, university or industry.

We’ve been freed of the necessity of hiring a small stadium to contain five thousand colleagues working on a joint research project. Everyone is connected in the network without a physical presence being required. The disruptions are great for science but they don’t stop in the lab—they continue to undermine and destroy the fabric of the existing political and economic system, the way they are staffed, selected, organized and how they input and output information.

As AI systems are advancing in capacity and utility, the process of collecting, processing, storing, and analyzing information will create a substantial competitive advantage over the smaller, less funded competition. In Darwin terms the most intelligent, capable and alert animal survives to reproduce. We are in the midst of witnessing an extinction event for our political institution. We are in the long term process of weaning ourselves from the old myths of individual genius, from a system that recognized at most three people in any one category could share the Nobel Prize. A Nobel split five thousand ways is about $200 each, a nice meal.

The Higgs paper is a milestone. The number of authors alerts us that we are out of synch with the numbers, ways, and means to create large networks to solve highly complex problems. The old rules of thumb are left to the era of the stone wheel. This kind of problem solving doesn’t emerge from emotions. That makes it interesting as a future model.

We are just at the start of an era of mind scaling—thousands, then millions of minds in an open, wiki-like space, where experts cooperate in finding and applying the best models and designs, ones that describe processes for climate, health, schools, distribution system, military and defense development.

The notion that one president or prime minister will play the same role in this mind scaled world is to miss the point of the political dimensions of the new mind scaling environment. Meta hives housing communities of the most knowledgeable and advanced minds in a domain begin to produce results that no one of them fully understands. No political leader will understand the patterns, the concepts emerging from them, either. The chances are the mind scaling reaches a point beyond our current capacity to process through political systems and institutions that remain rooted in the past where boardroom held a couple of dozen people.

We may not know how these new technologies align with our overall interest.  Even worse, we won’t have the tools to know. Like a chimp staring at a high-rise building and thinking it comes from nature. Advance simulators will give us a dummy-for-humans, bullet-point explanation. It will tell us that talking about alignments assumes a level of stability and predictability that doesn’t exist. The complex system evolves much faster than we can process the results.

Information quantity and quality has increased to the point that it can be contained with the old riverbanks that carried the flow of information. Like any river, the channel is defined, and over time the channel shifts, twists and bends, changing its boundaries. But that is gradual change, one that we can prepare for. Bankers, politicians, the rich and connected have worked that river for their own benefit for years, crowding out the other boats. There’s nothing like a flood to get people’s attention. The horizon indicates a major flood is in progress. It has already hit. People like Donald Trump emerge when the water jumps the banks and all the anchors are dragging on the river bottom. Countries like China have tried to censor the information. Call it flood control. It won’t work. You can’t stop the kind of flow that headed straight for us.

As I said, if I were from the future delivering a message, it is the monsoon season and the rains are hard and come suddenly. My weather report is from the tweet about the 5,000 authors of the Higgs paper. Authorship has a new meaning. The list of names is longer than the paper. We still are at the juncture where we can’t give up the status that comes with authorship. But that will come in time. But before there can be a future, the political class and their wealthy backers who are doing everything to save themselves, need to address mind scaling at the policy level. It’s not like there is much choice. Sure they can survive a few more decades with eccentric performers promising a return to an earlier era where everything was great.

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Credit: Hubble Heritage Team

Those 5,154 Higgs paper authors will be remembered as the vanguard who showed thinking, collaborating, sharing, storing and monitoring reach increasing optimal levels of knowledge and understanding. Also remember there are 10,000 new scientific papers every day. The individual genius who is not a team member is finished as a driving force. A politician that packs an emotional punch is also under the water line. He or she becomes largely irrelevant and remains, if at all, as a kind of entertainer to distract from the reality that there was no arc that came to the rescue when the information tide swept a thousand miles above their heads. Who is an author? No one, and everyone.

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Posted: 7/28/2016 9:35:09 AM 

 

Have a look at this Youtube video and witness the raw beauty of the mustang—wild horses that symbolize freedom. We domesticated horses, used them for transportation, sport, combat, and hard, manual labor. We tamed the mustang with a combination of ropes, saddles and stirrups. The history of the mustang parallels the history of our own species from the feral hominids of the African savannah to the factory workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh.

The taming of our species, like that of the mustang, has required technology, training and techniques to produce a useful, domesticated animal.

Law enforcement authorities since the dawn of mankind have used two basic tools handy in their quest to restrain suspects, prisoners, activists, and other assorted troublemakers. Either limit the mobility of their arms and hands with handcuffs or use shackles to restrict movement of their legs.

Shackles play a role in our domestication. The image of shackles on a human being is a display of authority and power, one that denies freedom of movement. The shackles were used like a rope, saddle and stirrups to bring us into line.

The idea is fight or flight is much harder with handcuffs and shackles. The secondary purpose is the visual impact on others who watch guards parade a prisoner dragging his chains and trying to maintain a small measure of dignity as he walks. No one looks innocent in chains. No one misses the message: Mess with the big boys’ laws and rules and this is what happens.

Shackles are costume art used in the ancient theatre of ‘justice’. They are part of the humiliation wardrobe that fashion statement that proclaims the wearer’s guilt. Bad people, so the theory goes, are put in chains. Let’s have a look back time and trace the origins of the chains that bind our species to its very beginnings.

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Using leg irons to restrain movement has a long association with slavery. The history recedes into the midst of prehistoric times as archeologists have unearthed fetters that served the same purpose—restraining or limiting the range of movement of a person’s walking gait. The history of Roman and medieval times indicates the widespread use of shackles. In the late eighteenth century plantation owners in the French West Indies colony of Saint-Dominque shackled their slaves to prevent their escape. Shackles were widely used on slaves living on American Southern cotton plantations; the emotional backlash in the North against shackling was a factor in turning sentiment against the plantation system, a factor in the run up to the Civil War.

You might think that in the age of data mining, AI, Mace, Tasers, digital surveillance technology, and sensor tracking, shackles could only be found in museum or the antique collection of a bondage entrepreneur, but you’d be wrong. Shackles must be the last vestige of criminal justice system that predates talking pictures, high schools, cars, TVs, electricity, the steam engine, pizza, the printing press, the musket, and indoor plumbing. Basically shackles come for the dark, distant noir past slippery with the blood and tears of slaves and subjugated enemies.

We are the only primate on record with an evolutionary history of tying up another’s legs to hobble him or her. The history of shackles goes back to the dawn of our species. I am not saying we evolved to shackle our own kind but our social development is a fancy phrase for species domestication. A feral beast is tamed with shackles. The question is who has legitimacy to be the trainer and rider over the domesticated herd. No one has fully answered that question. It may be one reason that the ancient practice of shackling is widespread throughout the world and is not a violation of human rights per se.

How could such this humiliating, cruel, and brutal form of restraint continue from generation to generation? Being tainted by slavery wasn’t enough to cut the restraints. Digging up the remains of Roman women and children in shackles doesn’t shock us.

We are better than that, right?

If you are a pregnant prisoner in Ohio, convicted on a dope charge, a Federal Marshall shackles you from the cell to the hospital infirmary where they remain fixed to your legs while delivering your child. The child enters a world that, in one way, hasn’t changed at all. This isn’t a report from Roman times. The shackling of the pregnant woman occurred in the year 2000. I am not picking on Ohio, apparently this is common practice in other states and the US federal prison system: pregnant women are treated in the same was as a twenty-year sprinter champion who was convicted of selling pot. Savor that image: Mother in labour vs. track star. Both get shackled to go to hospital.

There is an online human rights push to bar shackling of pregnant women. When you read something like this, you seriously question why you gave up drinking. If there is an excuse for drugs and booze, thinking about a nine-month pregnant woman walking in shackles is one of the better ones to get you through one more day of the nightmare of this life.

Indonesia has a history of shackling people with mental health problems. While it is illegal, the practice is widespread. Up to eighteen thousand people with mental health conditions are shackled in Indonesia.

Political activists are also candidates for shackles. These young, wild mustangs demonstrate and protest and claim the right to do so as part of a right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

A recent example happened in Thailand. Seven university students protesting against the military junta and arrested for their efforts were photographed in prison garb and shackles as they were led to a court appearance. After having been jailed for 12 days, they were not charged and released without bail. Now you may say, that shackles prevent prisoners from escaping. The shackles would definitely slow them down.

In this case, the students had refused to request release bail (six other students arrested at the same time were released after requesting bail). Their failure to request bail indicates a willingness to suffer jail in the name of civil rights and liberties. That principled position, one might assumed, would minimize their flight risks. The military government said the use of shackles was in the discretion of the prison administrators. Further shackles were not, in the view of the government, a violation of human rights.

Shackles provide a powerful metaphor for official control over those minorities—blacks, women, mental patients, political activists who are making too much noise. Like the mustang all people have a yearning for freedom. That, of course, is a pipe dream. We aren’t free. We’ve internalized our shackles by turning them into sexual fetishes such as bondage. Our sexual shackles arouse us. Our political shackles are being tested around the world as people are not starting to break free of control imposed by cowboys who have rounded us up one too many times and sent us off to the slaughterhouse.

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The days of the mustang are largely gone. The days of mustang-like human beings vanished long ago. Shackles remind us of a time lost in the midst of history when we were once free of control. Leg irons remind us of what awaits the wild horses among us who wish to break free of control. Meanwhile, people continue to secretly act their shackling fears through sexual bondage rituals. No other domesticated animal (including horses) has discovered sensual pleasure in tying each other up. Our species is exceptional in the animal kingdom—tin pot dictators engaged in ropy bedroom power games to excite pleasure.

Let’s look down the road and imagine shackles in the future.

My prediction is that within fifty years, we will have invented chemical and electrical stimulations of the brain that will replace the need for shackles and drugs. There will be no more need for corporations to used state powers to physically tie up or restrain people. We will largely live inside virtual worlds without the boot to our throats. The bucking of the system will be in the distant past. The freedom of the old physical world will seem cruel, grim and unfair to those in the virtual reality. Those who would have been shackled in the past will no longer try to buck the rider off their back. They are free by default.

They won’t feel the pressure to work to produce products for consumption. The idea of productivity and contribution will no longer have the same meaning. Once jacked into mixed virtual reality, the old physical space becomes a cartoon. The next step will be full-time in a virtual space of unlimited reality. Better than drugs. Better than work. Everyone can realize that inner Mustang self.

The future promises freedom unimaginable in our shackled world of work, wine, sex, Internet and rock ‘n roll. We will have gone from a society that imprisoned drug user because widespread drug use threatened to erode the workforce to a society mandating drug use (or the new technological equivalent—the virtual fix) because there are no jobs. In virtual world no one cares about jobs.

Their identity will come from other virtual experiences. In the future if you test negative for matching a certain range of brain phase transition, you must show either a special permit or be deemed a dangerous subversive, a danger to society—someone who wants to return to the unfree era of shackles. That’s not the end of the story of shackles, though. I suspect a technological shackle will be discovered and applied to an ‘anti-drug outlaw’. We are inventive in shackling each other and so far no new technology since the beginning of our era has managed to exclude shackling as an effective way to control the unruly, restless horse stamping the ground, one who wants to run wild and away from the crowd.


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Posted: 7/10/2016 4:19:15 AM 

 

Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.

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The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?

Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.

From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.

02

The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.

I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.

From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.

03

A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.

The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’.  Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.

At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.

Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.

Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.

04

The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children. This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.

Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.

Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.

In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.

How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.

Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.

05

Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.

A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.

16th June 2016 update:

Bangkok Post reports:

Three children believed to have been born to surrogate mothers hired by Japanese businessman Mitsutoki Shigeta, who earlier made headlines for allegedly fathering at least 13 surrogate babies in Thailand have been found in Cambodia.

Link: http://goo.gl/IPulAK

Also see Asia Correspondent reports:  https://goo.gl/wKjA9x...
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Posted: 6/17/2016 8:35:24 AM 

 

The Idea Room. That incubator where good, bad, stupid, useless and paradigm shifting ideas are hatched is a mental location you use your personal GPS to explore. Most of fledglings that are born in the Idea Room are flightless, limited, and short lived creatures. Only a few survive and not only to fly but to soar and take us along for the ride. Evolution culls the unfit animal and the unfit idea.

I take a stroll through this room in this essay.

Most of my working life I’ve been in one corner or another of the Idea Room. As an academic, writer, journalist, playwright, and lawyer. I have worked alongside others in this space, exchanged ideas, plans, theories and concepts, and studied the multitude of cubicles inside that room—it is vast, diverse, with patches as hostile as Venus.  The Idea Room is a mental construct, a space where you can imagine, create, criticize, challenge and invent. Inside this room the scientific process is designed to produce better and more useful explanations about reality than ones based on intuition and superstition.It exists as an abstraction but has real consequences in the way we view reality. Our modern world of science, philosophy and art was birthed in the Idea Room. Like the formation of stars from gas and dust, new ideas pop into existence through the gravity of free thought and old ideas exploded like a supernova. Or did the ideas gathered from the dust and gas of intuition and superstition only appear to explode when in reality they have cycled back into play?

This essay looks inside the modern Idea Room, audits the players and takes inventory.

Depending what window you are looking through, you see crackpots, con artists, hucksters, revolutionaries, intellectuals, dreamers, mad people, true believers, conservatives, liberals, communists, fascists, and many more. They play and share ideas with others, they play with ideas on their own. The ideas are sharp, dull, wrong, bogus, half-baked, regressive, delusional, as well as innovative, creative, disruptive, imaginative, worldview shifting, disproving old theories, proving new theories, fine-tuning technologically progress. All of this is happening pretty much at the same time inside the Idea Room. If the space hadn’t opened for such a room, you wouldn’t be reading this on a digital screen right now, nor would you have most objects or computer programs that you take for granted.

01
Giordano Bruno

Mostly the best Idea Room started during the Enlightenment in the West. For our long history, people had ideas based on intuitions and superstitions. But building that room by cleaning out the infrastructure of superstitions, myths, fables and just so stories has taken centuries and remains incomplete. If your gut feeling is the earth is flat, was created in six days, and the sun revolves around the earth, you will take a dim view of an Idea Room where people are allowed to attack your beliefs with ideas they claim show your ideas are false and baseless.

The keys to the Idea Room have a long history of being strictly controlled by a handful of power authorities who supported a view of the world formed by intuition and superstition.  Entry into the Idea Room was by invitation only. Going inside without permission carried a high price. Ask Giordano Bruno whose cosmological theories that challenged the official view of the cosmos—dangerous ideas in the 16th century—resulted in him being dragged out of the Idea Room and burnt at the stake. It didn’t matter that Church’s dogma about the cosmos was a bad explanation about the nature of cosmos. There are many cases like his. If you believe Giordano Bruno’s fate is lost in the fog in the past—think again. Modern cases of Giordano Bruno are a constant feature in 2016.

The battle over how to construct an Idea Room, what goes on inside, which gets in and what gets out defines the current political landscape everywhere. Donald Trump would tear down the American Idea Room by his plan to gut the First Amendment. No one is asking if Trump or someone who shares his views believes that the President ought to be above criticism, and what that would mean.

Every election should have the media asking candidates: Do you need a pass to work inside the Idea Room? And if so, how does that work? Or what happens to someone independently setting up a private, unmonitored Idea Room—(think Darwin or Einstein)—do you get arrested, tried and convicted for violating national security? I would be pleased to learn of where history has shown profoundly world-shifting ideas occurred inside a Government Idea Room. Yes, I am aware of the Manhattan Project and the Bletchley Park Project. The atomic bomb and the enigma machine were one-off assignments. The government gathered from many Idea Rooms the best of scientific minds to develop a technological solution in a military setting. Once their narrow mission was accomplished the projects were closed down.

The problem is you can’t divide criticism and problem solving by limiting the use of the room to solving technical issues about bomb making and code breaking. The best idea people have is a mindset that challenges and criticizes theories, policies, procedures, regulations, and processes. This mindset is constantly probing for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you are a dictator, you will likely be insecure that someone might make your policy look foolish. That is why the ‘national security’ reason is often invoked—it is to prevent such a challenge, and threaten people in a national Idea Room to remember that thinkers are liable to be punished even if they are right. That’s pretty much what happened to Bruno. Open a news website, you don’t have to look around a great deal to find a story about some poor Idea Room occupant being dragged outside, humiliated, tried, and sentenced. Everyone understands how that system works.

02

BBC Photo: http://goo.gl/FZWt2J Mob of Mumtaz Qadri mourners.

Not all the blame can be placed at the doorstep of over-reaching state officials; a mass of true believers can deliver a message to shutdown part of an Idea Room. In 2011 a Pakistani national, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who had argued for reform of blasphemy laws. Five years later, Qadri was hanged for his crime, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his execution. The enemies of constructing space for all ideas in an Idea Room are large numbers of people who defend their beliefs against any challenge. Variations of mob of the righteous as political pressure to curtail what is allowed in the Idea Room may be found in many countries from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, to Africa. It makes easy work for dictators who have their own reasons to patrol and monitor the Idea Room for offenders of the ‘righteous way.’

There is a threat to return to a time when intuition and superstition were the prevailing foundations of knowledge. In the Idea Room no one’s ideas are above challenge or arguments based on the irrational and superstitious beliefs refuted with the tools of logic, coherence, and testing. A big family name or high rank means nothing. That is how the scientific revolution overturned the old, worn ideas held by notable authorities. The idea junkyard is full of discarded, abandoned and dumped ideas based on superstition that failed when tested. If you are a dictator you don’t want to run the risk of your ideas ending up with all of the attraction of a five-day-old dead fish.

The time comes when a society has to choose to follow respect and obedience to authority as the roadmap to whatever desired goal the authority sets for the society, or to take the independent and curious route where every idea is tentative, its truthfulness detached from its author or its legion of proponents. In the unregulated Idea Room, no idea is preferred or given an untouchable status. There is, of course, a price to be paid. The currency is criticism, chaos, uncertainty and conflict. For the totalitarian brigade and their righteous allies, whose members value order and stability and harmony, the Western Idea Room is the definition of hell—undisciplined, disorderly, and unruly with the promise of eternal argument and disagreement.

Dangerous ideas that challenge superstition have always been labeled as blasphemy, a capital crime historically (though it remains in a number of Middle-Eastern countries). We sit in front of our computer reading ideas that are a lengthy prison or death sentence for those in parts of the world. Officials in some of these places who advocate reducing the scope of blasphemy laws are murdered.

03

The prosperity and success of a society depends on such a safe space where ideas can be explored. We need to keep in mind that all of us have a distorted view of the nature of this space. We look through different windows. And we see different things in the room. We argue what we see is reality and true and what others see is wrong and false. That we are confused is understandable. The most available and convenient windows are the easy ones—TV, movies, newspapers, and social media.

We stare through the windows every day.

We look inside at the idea makers, the thinkers, intellectuals, clowns, and charismatic carnival barkers. What we focus on by looking through these windows is what attracts a mass audience. Ideas are only as good as their ability to sell something in the marketplace of emotional desires and needs. We ‘buy’ ideas like we ‘buy’ cars, computers, shoes, and soap—it appeals to us on an emotional level. That’s why ideas don’t have to be true. They can be wildly wrong but they can still find a happy home because masses of people believe it expresses how they feel.

The more outrageous a comedian, the more people laugh. Call it window opening by trolling with shock, anger, hatred, bitterness and prejudice. Why people want to spend time looking through that window can be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes, we can assume whatever the reasons, they are persuaded to focus attention. They are stimulated, satisfied and energized from their experience. Donald Trump is doing his best to monopolize that window.

04

Photo source: https://goo.gl/WT0Z8G

The point is: a lot of people get stuck at the performance-art window. They become convinced, assisted by media propaganda that this is the main window to witness the Idea Room in action—Romper Room for adults. That’s what kind of shit that goes on inside my enemies’ Idea Room—what a Dumbo, how stupid, how crazy for anyone to go along with that ______. Fill in the blank for ‘that’. Fox News has manufactured an Idea Room and has millions of people tuning in to have their ideas confirmed. Of course, Fox isn’t alone; cable TV, talk radio, blogs, LINE and chatroom communities have created a multiverse of Idea Rooms to explain the Meaning of Life. You don’t have to be a dictator to think if you were in charge, you’d clean up things and set some rules of conduct and rules of thinking for the room members. You write a bunch of restrictions, rules, and guidelines—whatever you want to call them to tone down the crazy ones, the one’s who are brutal, mean, vulgar, stupid or annoying. We look down on states with blasphemy laws and we have sizeable populations of citizens wishing to enact similar laws. Once you go down that path, you are on the low road to repression, and free expression isn’t value or allowed.

05

The hard problem for authoritarian governments is the nature of what goes inside the Idea Room is a possible threat to their legitimacy, authority, reputation, dignity and honor—all the symbols that are most threatened when those in one corner of the IPR get wound up and start challenging and criticizing government policies, spending, priorities, not to mention thievery, incompetence, and thug-like behavior. Such governments rely on the support of and draw their legitimacy from a sizeable population of citizens with an authoritarian mindset, one that can be measured. The problem is the rise of the authoritarians worldwide as a political force and the Ideas Room is targeted for criminalization.

The reason it is a hard problem is that inside the room are a diverse group of individual thinkers, artists, musicians, gamers, film makers, writers, academics, pundits—the creative thinkers brigade—who cohere into sub-cultures, ones that bridge others in different creative communities, sharing ideas, methods, and criticizing each other’s work. The problem is getting consensus on one big idea—that people are protected in this space when they challenge convention, the wisdom or truth of ideas and beliefs—that such questioning while may be not a good thing for peace and quite, it is a necessary evil. Why evil? Because that is how most people feel when they agree to allow space for their enemy to challenge their ideas.

In return, we gain something of value—a new, more useful way of processing thought, evolving our understanding of the world and each other, and figuring out new ways of co-operating. Scientists, artists, and academics use the Idea Room to bounce ideas off the wall. John Maynard Keynes said of Isaac Newton that he was “the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.” Genius has always been a mixed bag. You can’t separate the nuts from the party mix. That’s why tolerance is essential, freedom of expression is necessary, or the ideas disappear. Without a healthy, free and vibrant Ideas Room, we are doomed. With it, dictators are doomed. The righteous true believers are doomed. That’s why their alliance has to be understood for what it truly is—a carefully controlled room dedicated to reverence and worship.

06

The dilemma of our time is we as a species are perched on an unstable balancing beam. We can keep the space in that room open and free, or we can close it down. That choice will define what happens to all of us. Next time you peek through a window in the Idea Room, remember the window you are looking is only one among many; and what you may see on your screen may make you angry and unsettled. But that’s what happens when the ideas you are invested in are given rough treatment, slapped around, made fun of, not given respect or dignity. We have to toughen up. We can do that by investing in the process and the not the ideas that come and go allowing the process to fine-tune with AI systems, and once our best ideas are thought by intelligent machines, we can’t begin to imagine what will happen inside the digital Idea Room.

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Posted: 3/3/2016 7:53:58 PM 

 

In a traditional regime, “Yes, Sir!” is the appropriate (and expected) reply to someone with power, status, and rank. Civilization was built on those two words. The great marvels such The Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall of China, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the other wonders of the ancient world are relics of ancient Yes, Sir cultures. The Seven Wonders of the World  were not built by liberal democracies.

01

Classical antiquity was the result of citizens being consulted and voting on these projects. Wonders weren’t connected with popular approval or consent. If citizens had objected, it is doubtful that voice of dissent lasted more than a couple of lungsful until the shouting was extinguished. Brutality, oppression and the ownership of wealth had the capacity to produce not just atrocities and misery but also incredible wonders. America, a liberal democracy, developed and dropped the first atomic bomb, invaded several middle-eastern countries, used drones to kill people who waged local wars against its international values and ideals. That needs to be said. While the role of authoritarian regimes compared with democratic ones is a history of shades of gray rather than black and white, it doesn’t make the system equivalent. The rulers were defined by their indefinite political tenure.

Both democratic and authoritarian systems can be brutal, heartless and irrational. The role of opponents, their political space, and their civil right are vastly different. Both pedaled their own versions of Lake Wobegon to their population. In 2016 both systems are showing system fatigue. No apparent replacement is on the horizon, meaning Lake Wobegon has slipped into a dystopia, where people are arming themselves, adjusting to a new emotional terrain knee deep in the scurrying vermin of anger, bitterness, hatred and greed chewing wounds into their hearts.

In a book titled Heart Talk, which I wrote a quarter of a century ago I focused on how the word for ‘heart’ in Thai was pervasive in the language.

After three editions, I found 750 jai phrases in the Thai language. The longest definition for all the jai phrases was for Kreng jai. The phrase translates literally as ‘Awe Heart” and here’s part of my definition:

“The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in a powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer. Anyone who is perceived to be a member of a higher social class is owed kreng jai. In practice, a person with ‘awe heart’ would be inhibited from questioning or criticizing such a person.”

Kreng jai is the Thai cultural cornerstone of the Yes, Sir culture. This is the round cultural hole that Thais have tried to fit the square peg of democracy into. It should come as little surprise that with all the hammering the peg still doesn’t fit.

To continue the machinery metaphor for Yes, Sir requires a look at the lubricant to keep the system functioning; like a good malt whisky kreng jai is aged in vats built from concepts such as obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and hierarchy. This works best when the social space is physical, geographically specific. Analogue space is much easier to patrol, monitor and enforce. There are practical reasons for this relative ease. The social relationships and bonds are limited to those who are near. People who are far are not part of the analogue bound person’s relationship. People had social relations with their family, neighbors, school mates, work mates and those shared an interest in gardening, cooking, reading, sports, religion or gambling.

In the last thirty years technology has redefined social space by creating a digital meeting place. People could exchange ideas, photographs, and information with people who were ‘far’ as easily as they could with people who were ‘near’ and that has caused a revolution as the boundary between insider and outsider blurred without the restraint of a physical geographical location in common. Of course, it would be false to suggest that cyberspace has created a vast tolerant, humane and democratically-minded community. The Yes, Sir devotees may aggregate in digital cubbyholes that confirm their biases, just as the system challengers reinforce their value and belief systems inside the comfort of their own digital communities.

02

The point of the digital space accelerating in importance is that control over social relationships is more complex and far more difficult to administer for those running a Yes, Sir regime. Adding to the administration problem is the nature, source, and control of information. A Yes, Sir regime places controls on the media and press, what can be said and cannot be said, and what can be printed in textbooks, shown in cinemas, on TV and online. In democratic system the controls are less obvious but nonetheless effective to ensure that large commercial interest can shape the cultural message that reach most people. Information has been freed from the traditional constraints and can be accessed, stored, shared, discussed and debated even though it contradicts the narrative produced and promoted by powerful interests.

In theory, the ability offered by the Internet to plug into a vast information grid should be liberating experience. Instead, it has imprisoned millions of people up to their eyeballs in Lake Angry. Part of their anger arises from information in the digital world that triggers feeling of distrust, cynicism, and suspicion about official narratives. Many look up from their computer screen and feel they’ve been lied to, manipulated by the very institutions and elites their parents and grandparents had placed implicit trust in.

03

One result of the disillusionment is endless conspiracy theories and paranoia by those unwilling to employ the scientific method. The rational mind in cyberspace is less engaged in the information binging, but more in searching for an emotion kick from a clickbait about a sex scandal, violence, terrorism, murder or official abuse. It has been the walk on the irrational side; in the digital world is like watching millions of drunks, staggering from lamppost to lamppost looking for the lost keys to the city gates of the old Lake Wobegon.

Our social networks and information networks no longer support the Yes, Sir ideology; and they no longer support a democratic system featuring voting every four years. If you lose control of the social and information networks, you’ve lost the traditional basis of power. Where does that leave us? We are in between systems that can explain their role inside these networks. Without such an explanation that is credible, testable, verifiable, and editable, the legitimacy of those claiming the right to exercise power over others and the environment will continue to be attacked.

04

There is more to the digital space and network affiliations formed in that space that is at issue. The scientific revolution started in the 17th century but it is only within the last hundred years that the fruits of that revolution have engaged to the larger population. What science brought to the table was to introduce a new method and process for testing what was true and what was false. This new method was based on opening into an inquiry as to what the reality of a thing, process or event and how to accurately describe it, reproduce it, and give an explanation as to why the description should be taken seriously. The dawn of science was the dawn of investigations into what was the basis of nature, biology, chemistry, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. Previous explanations were religious conjectures based on gods acting as agents and creators. We can be smug about the pre-scientific system but that would be a mistake. These stories were foundational for Yes, Sir systems, and to question them threatened their legitimacy and survival. If the official narrative was false, then the elites had told lies or were stupid in believing in their own lies.

Science is an open system of investigation that follows a certain process and method. That is radical in itself but pales in comparison with the most radical idea of all—everyone can be a private investigator, and challenge a received truth. Anyone regardless of status or rank who can find an alternative explanation that better fits the current level of understanding of reality can overthrow an established theory. Someone who seeks to overthrow Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has a tough battle but won’t be burnt on the stake as a heretic (though he may be dismissed unless there is powerful evidence for his claim as a lunatic). Science changed the rules of the ruler’s game. Rather than oppressing challenges to official narratives, scientist were encouraged to probe the weakness of a narrative looking for flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and updating theories with additional information that could be replicated by others who carried out tests.

Science introduced the idea of editing and updating to the story-telling about how things are they way they are, and that no one had a monopoly on the truth or facts, and anyone regards of position could challenge the prevailing ‘truth’ or ‘facts.’ That is the base of a revolution that spilled over to the political realm. It was a small step to go from challenging the age of the earth to challenging the legitimacy of a ruler’s decisions about education policy. Planting the scientific inquiry seed into digital space and a new garden has flourished.

The Yes, Sir crowd sees weeds growing out of control in this digital space that should be pulled out while others see a field of flowers. If a bright young, commoner at the bottom of the totem pole, for example, investigates and discovers official misdeeds and shares those finding in digital space the official response is immediate and predictable—the person is a traitor.

And indeed in one way that is true. Anyone who challenges an official truth whether it is the place of the earth in the solar system or the place of a dam on a river is challenging the interest of those who are vested in the absolute truth. The truth and position are indistinguishable; like a treaty of mutual interest, truth and position march together, and to challenge of one is to challenge both.

The new role of millions of private investigators equipped with access to huge data exchanging information has destabilized the old alliance between truth-telling and ruling. It can never be quite the same again. Social, political and economic networks have broken out of the old analogue models. The horse has bolted from the stable. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess. But catching that horse with riders galloping after it from the Yes, Sir system or from the Liberal Democratic system is proving difficult. This digital rodeo is just starting. And it is one thing to round up the occasional straight stallion but when millions breakout there aren’t enough cowboys from the analogue world to rope them and drag them back to Lake Wobegon.

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Posted: 1/19/2016 8:05:02 PM 

 

An author’s reading list contains eccentric choices. This one is no different. Taste and interests are bound to diverge when it comes to books. This is a list of non-fiction titles. I will post a fiction list later.

My goal is to recommend twelve non-fiction titles that will stimulate thinking and broaden understanding of the current information debate and controversy surround the building blocks of knowledge in science, arts, technology, psychology, economics, and biology.

There is a Thai proverb, one I used to open The Risk of Infidelity Index (2008) about a frog in the coconut shell as a metaphor for the narrow, culturally constricted thought and knowledge space where we spend most of our conscious lives. The frog’s visualization from inside the coconut shell is psychological and cognitive limited. His access about life and reality is distorted and shallow.
A remarkable book allows the frog an expanded worldview, a deeper, more powerful explanation of reality.

The recommended books may help broaden and deepen your worldview like any good journey of discovery. That is a worthy achievement. No one breaks free of the coconut shell. But insights, scientific and technical developments reveal the nature of what is the ‘coconut shell’, its contours, shape and dimensions, and our place in it, take us to new frontiers of comprehension. <Comment: Not only that, but also opening a window into the larger world outside the coconut shell? Some may even offer and telescope, no?)

In a 2014 essay Beagle Sailing Lessons for Writing, I wrote about Charles Darwin’s five-year journey on the Beagle to find evidence that formed the backbone of Origin of the Species.

Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab.  Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.

Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.

Hopefully these books from writers who have taken their own personal and professional voyage and you can sign on as crew to follow that journey. The books are in no particular order of priority. Order them all or one or two titles, and begin your own Beagle voyage.

1. Thinking Fast, and Slow ( 2012) by Daniel Kahneman

This book may be one of the most important books about cognition and psychology written in decades. Everyone has them. No one is excluded. When someone says they aren’t biased, it indicates that person is blissfully unaware that is a cognitive bias. You can think of a bias as mental filter shaped by genetics, culture, beliefs, attitudes, training, brainwashing (collectively called cognitive biases). There are hundreds of them. They are key factors in the processing of information. They are responsible for the way we select, ignore, process, interpret, store and stream information, whether accessed from memory or from our sensory input. It is humbling and empowering to understand the limits of cognitive abilities. Even though we can identify the biases, Kahneman is the first to admit that such knowledge doesn’t mean that we can win the battle in overcoming them. If you’ve not read Thinking Fast, Slow, you should make a resolution to find the time to read it in 2016.

2. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip Tetlock.

Tetlock builds on Daniel Kahneman’s work of cognitive bias. Tetlock’s book focuses on forecasting and the qualities that make for a good forecaster. Whether it is forecasting a social policy, an election outcome, economic trends, or the outcome of a conflict or war, there is a mindset that Tetlock has discovered vastly increases the probability of accuracy. If I were recruiting someone for a policy making decision or trying to predict a variety future events, this is a book that I’d turn to for guidance as to how to increase the probability of selecting a future outcome.

3. Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom teaches at Oxford and is one of the leading thinkers of what is likely the most important issue of our time (and yes, there are many such issues to select from): the implications of developing a superintelligent artificial intelligent system. This is an important book like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is an insight into a future of intelligent machines. That future is already here for machines with narrow artificial intelligence such as Watson, which can now defeat any chess champion in the world. That is just the beginning, as next up is an artificial general intelligence. Once that happens, it is 20 to 50 years down the road, a superintelligent machine will emerge. Some of the book is technical, geek-like, but Bostrom has a dry sense of humour and ability to choose just the right metaphor to compensate for the dense, compacted ideas that will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.

4. Our Final Invention, Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era (2013) by James Barrat

Barrat, a journalist, who cover the artificial intelligence community and reports on developments. He’s not a scholar. He’s an accumulator of scholars and their opinions, research developments, and personalizes them. When can we expect AGI (artificial general intelligence) to arrive? We already have many examples of ANI (artificial narrow intelligence) and Barrat examines the line between AGI and ANI. When AGI arrives what are the risks? “It won’t be a Q&A system anymore. And we won’t likely be able to understand its processing or to audit that process.”

5. Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think (2013) Viktory Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cunkier

While AGI is in the future, Big data has arrived. Most of our institutions, policies, and beliefs are based on ‘small’ data. We take pride in decisions based on small, exact and causal-connected data. It’s because of the ‘small’ in small data, we have enjoyed privacy. Big data spells the end of privacy. As the authors demonstrate we use algorithms to give the probability of an event or an action occurring. Life insurance, health insurance, doctor’s diagnosis, bank loans, climate change, drug policies, and crimes all have a probability graph filled in by big data. What happens to the individual in the world of ‘big data’? Do we use preventive custody because the data indicates a high probability for the next five years X who is 13 years old will commit a crime of violence? Big data provides the tools to vastly accelerate the quantification of information and to understand correlations that emerge, and free us from the prison of causation, the hallmark of small data.

6. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined (2011) by Steven Pinker.

Our modern digital world with immediate access to breaking news creates the illusion that we live in very violent times. Headlines should never be confused with trend lines (a quote attributed to Bill Clinton). The reality is that we have never enjoyed a time with less violence, less risk of being murdered. The history of our species is written in blood. It is a book with many insights gathered from historical research into the history of violence. A couple of examples: “Defenders of traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy, indecency, and desecration of scared symbols. For their moral disapproval to have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as well. [R]etracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity details a reduction in violence.” Pinker details the steep decline in death resulting from murder, execution, and warfare. For example, the chances of a violent warfare related death in prehistoric times were orders of magnitude higher than in modern time.

7. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997) by Peterson and Wrangham

A book to be read alongside Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The male member of the species is violence prone. Our primate ancestors were similarly extremely violent. Wrangham’s research supports a strong evolutionary disposition towards violence. We wish to remain willfully blind to the intrinsic nature of our violence. The authors’ data on ape behavior are compelling evidence of the savagely violent nature of human history. What is genetic can’t be explained in terms of culture alone. History is a record of patriarchy and male violence.

Pinker’s history suggests how our branch of the apes has managed since prehistoric times to reduce violence through widespread domestication of the species. Like dogs, sheep, cattle and horses, our species has, to varying degrees, been domesticated. Modern States have found impressive ways to eliminate, control and subdue violence. This leaves a minority of people whose violent behavior has evaded the domestication and they receive a great deal of media attention. Wrangham’s message is clear: the violent animal history fuels aggression and can never be eliminated.

Publishers Weekly: “Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids, brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling, beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare, which would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated violence and hyenas’ territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding among the Yanomamo people of Brazil’s Amazon forests and other so-called primitive tribes, as well as to modern ‘civilized’ mass slaughter. In their analysis, patriotism (‘stripped to its essence… male defense of the community’) breeds aggression, yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, they reject the presumed inevitability of male violence and male dominance over women.”

8. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty

How wealth and income are allocated is a complex and important decision. Piketty’s book no doubt you’ve read takes on the considerable task of researching the history over a two hundred year period to show the political, social, cultural and economic consequences of wealth and income inequality. No one has been able to successfully counter the historical record unearth by Piketty. This book has been compared to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has received praise for bringing into public debate the reality of the .01% who have accumulated not only wealth but used that wealth for their own political and social benefit.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important economics book of the year, if not the decade… Capital in the 21st Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large sums of money and those who don’t.” (Matthew Yglesias Vox 2014-04-08)

“Stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years… Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.” (Timothy Shenk The Nation 2014-04-14)

9. Willful Blindness, (2012) by Margaret Heffernan

Heffernan is ex-BBC producer, and if there was one book every embassy person would benefit from reading it is her Willful Blindness. Here’s a passage that will bring a smile: (page 209): “This highly unconstrained travel, between points of view, is hard work, and it can be risky, not just because it can take you off of well-established career paths, but because it provokes questions that, as a Cambridge professor once sternly reminded me, ‘one is not invited to ask.’ Questions that one is not invited to ask make everyone uncomfortable, not least because they don’t easily lend themselves to prepared answers.”

You’ve proved over your years here your courage to travel that road. That makes you a very rare person and one to be highly valued. <<I don’t understand this para. It seems ill-fitting, and hanging mysteriously here.>

10. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by Lee Smolin

A cogent and thoughtful examination of the concept of time, the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. You thought that time was straight forward, right? Look at your watch and that is the time. It seems that our notion of time is far more nuanced and complicated.

Smolin is a good on the different arrows of time in our universe: the cosmological arrow of time, the biological arrow of time, experiential arrow of time, electromagnetic arrow of time, and gravitational-wave arrow of time.

“Evolving complexity means time. There has never been a static complex system. The big lesson is that our universe has a history, and it is a history of increasing complexity with time.”

“Time is about change, which means it’s about perceived relationships. There’s no such thing as an absolute or universal time. The observer’s situation in the universe must be taken into account including where she is and how she’s moving.”

11. Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Luican Freud (2012) by Martin Gayford

Man With a Blue Scarf may be one of the best books written about the creative process. Martin Gayford, a leading English art critic, memoir of his 18-month time sitting for a portrait carefully observes the artist Lucian Freud’s life. These observations slowly over time from Gayford’s conversations with Freud and others reveal the web from which creativity is spun.

Gayford has carefully constructed the various connected with relationship of artist to sitter, to family members, friends, bookies, gangsters, his contemporaries (Francis Bacon in particular) and famous painters from the past. The book is a portrait of the artist painting a sitter. A wonderful idea that is brilliantly executed.

Gayford’s book will broaden your worldview on the meaning of originally, the creative process, and what an artist seeks to capture in a portrait. This is truly a remarkable, inspiring and memorable book.

I have written an essay on the book: Man With a Scarf

Praise:

Excellent … Not only offers fresh insights into Freud but catches the tensions and drama inherent in the business of portraiture. –The Guardian

An unexpectedly moving investigation of the artistic process –The Economist

…stands a good chance of becoming a set work for students. It would be a rarity on a reading list – a book that’s

not just read but relished. –The Spectator

12. The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is (2015) by Nick Lane

It may have been years since you studied biology. Like most science subjects the scientific investigation into the biological mechanisms and the evolution of the molecular machines that build, monitor, repair and maintain biological systems.

The Vital Question begins like a great detective novel: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology. Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other ‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail? We don’t know.”

The Vital Question is an exploration into this deep historical mystery. It will expand your worldview on the connection of life and information, evolution, and the laws of physics. It is a book filled with memorable quotes: “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.”

“In every milliliter of seawater, there are ten times as many viruses, waiting for their moment, as there are bacteria.”

“A major problem with neurons and muscle cells is that they cannot be replaced. How could a neuron be replaced? Our life’s experience is written into synaptic networks, and each neuron forming as many as 10,000 different synapses. If the neuron dies by apoptosis, those synaptic connections are lost forever, along with all experience and personality.”

For those interested in understanding the complexity of biological life over a 4 billion year time frame, and why it only happened once and why it started to early, will treasure this book.

Praise:

He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense … intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so. (Peter Forbes Guardian)

Nick Lane…is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth…a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life (Clive Cookson Financial Times)

One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years. (The Economist)

One of the pleasures of good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding but always clear text, Nick Lane’s new book succeeds brilliantly … I cannot recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane’s vivid descriptions and powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader (Caspar Henderson Sunday Telegraph)

Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here… Like the best science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself (Matt Ridley Times)

this is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…The arguments are powerful and persuasive…If you’re interested in life, you should read this book…it does tell an incredible, epic story (Michael Le Page New Scientist)

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Posted: 1/6/2016 11:01:11 PM 

 

ArtificalIntelligencePainting

I’ve finished reading James Barrat’s Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era about the role of AGI and ASI in our future.

AGI is defined as Artificial General Intelligence as opposed to Artificial Narrow Intelligence you find, for example, in many places from your smartphone, car, Google, Watson (the chess champion program) Wall Street trading programs. It is vastly smarter than human beings but very narrow on what it can do. AGI has human-like general intelligence. ASI follows next. Artificial Special Intelligence or ASI is the big leap from AGI to an intelligent agent vastly beyond the realm of human beings. ASI will out-think and our-smart us. ASI is not the genius you remember from school with all the right answers in class and a perfect SAT score. ASI is several orders of magnitude beyond on our cognitive abilities. Next to ASI the metaphor is human beings are an ant-like intelligence compared to ASI, which experts predict may be more than million times more intelligent than Einstein.

Sounds like science fiction. Sounds like something a novelist would dream up.

But what if the best minds are signaling that this intelligence transition may happen in your lifetime, or that of your children or grandchildren? Would you listen? Would you care? What does it mean? What advance warning will we have and what is being done to prepare for AGI and ASI? These are some of the questions raised in James Barrat’s Our Final Invention.

The future is a big place that stretches to infinity. It would be useful to narrow down that window.

When in our future can we expect AGI and ASI? Opinion is divided. It is also divided on whether these developments will be safe for humankind or lead to its extinction. AI thinkers such as Bostrom, Yudkowsky, Vinge, and Musk, among others, fear whatever safeguards we device to manage and control such a super-intelligence is doomed to failure. When it comes to the target of social engineering, it will be ASI working our vulnerabilities with the relentless, 24/7 processing and memory capabilities a million times beyond our own. Barrat is also an acknowledged pessimist on the issue of humanity being able to organize and implement any effective system to safeguard against an intelligence that may destroy us.

How will we know when someone has achieved AGI level? What is the projected timeline between the creation of AGI and the emergence of ASI?

One possible hint of such an intelligent entity might first appear in obscure areas of mathematics. “In mathematics, a conjecture is a mathematical statement which appears to be true, but has not been formally proven. A conjecture can be thought of as the mathematicians’ way of saying ‘I believe that this is true, but I have no proof yet’. A conjecture is a good guess or an idea about a pattern.”

There are many open problems in mathematics. Wikipedia has a long list of conjectures that haven’t been formally proved. There are twenty conjectures in geometry yet to be proved.

And let’s say over a six-month period papers appear in obscure journals with proofs of half a dozen mathematical and geometry conjectures, which amounts to one proof per month. Then that doubles and doubles again until all the conjectures has been proved or disproved. This would be a sign that the preferred language of ASI is mathematical language and symbols. Our ordinary language whether English, Chinese, French, Spanish or German as used by human beings is too imprecise, vague, limited, narrow and can’t possibility describe the nature of the universe. I’ve talked with mathematicians who believe the universe is a mathematical object. There is no language other than mathematics to describe the universe. Most people speak the language of mathematics like someone who has had a two-day language course in reading, writing and speaking Thai. We might know our “to the left or right” or “straight ahead” and ask for a beer but soon run out of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.

In Our Final Invention, Goertzel, another AI expert, is quoted on the future of AI by reviewing the history of calculus.

“If you look at how mathematicians did calculus before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, they would take a hundred pages to calculate the derivative of a cubic polynomial. They did it with triangles, similar triangles and weird diagrams and so on. It was oppressive.” Barrat draws from Goertzel’s analysis the conclusion: “AI research will incrementally proceed until ongoing practice leads to the discovery of new theoretical rules, one that allow AI researchers to condense and abstract a lot of their work.”

What Barrat doesn’t discuss is the possibility raised in another point made by Goertzel: “We have a more refined theory of calculus any idiot in high school can take the derivative of a cubic polynomial. It’s easy.”

What if the refined theories aren’t easy. Not only can’t an idiot in high school not understand and apply the theory, not even the most brilliant mathematicians can.

Here’s a test run of how the future may unfold.

Sometime on the morning of 30 August 2012, A brilliant Japanese mathematician in Kyoto named Shinichi Mochizuki uploaded to his website 500 pages divided into four papers submitted as proof of the abc conjecture. As Nature reported, no other mathematician has come close to solving this 27-year-old problem. If Mochizuki’s proof turned out to be correct, it would be “the most astounding achievement of mathematics this century.”

The problem was Mochizuki had created a new mathematical language. His proof has become the mathematical equivalent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. You must master the new language before you can comprehend the story told in that language. Nature reported one mathematician saying that in reading Mochizuki’s proof that he became “bewildered” and “It was impossible to understand them.” “Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper appeared.

Or he might have said something similar if he’d read a paper produced by ASI.

Now imagine a series of such proofs that exceeds the scale and scope of Mochizuki’s proof and a new language is created which is not comprehensible to the world’s leading mathematicians. Imagine in twenty-four hours there is 500 pages of new conjectures, one hundred conjectures per page; and within forty-eight hours 1,000 pages until at the end of a month there are millions of pages of conjectures, and each conjecture has a proof or disprove. ASI finds a new mathematical language that incorporates all of the proofs. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer was ‘42’. No one is suggesting 42 is the answer. What is being contemplated is whatever the answer after the great intelligence explosion we won’t comprehend its meaning.

The Final Conjecture is a proof that describes the mathematical object that is the universe. ASI cracks the black box code that describes what is the universe with the new mathematical language. The moment when everything we know changes in ways like Mochizuki’s proof, will leave us bewildered, alone and locked out of the loop of knowledge and continue to exist knowing, in the large scheme of things, our intelligence indistinguishable from a dust mite. Now for the grim news—this is likely our best-case scenario once ASI becomes self-aware and self-improving. The worst case is ASI calculates from one of its proofs that the atoms in our bodies are more efficiently used as a cheap energy source to fuel the push to the Final Conjecture.

In the final proof, we aren’t around to find it incomprehensible. Or for a human being staring at the sky with a big smile at the irony of it all.

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Posted: 12/17/2015 11:46:48 PM 

 

“Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.” ―Voltaire

01

We all share a theory of mind, which provides us to with varying degrees of accuracy access what others are thinking, their beliefs, and knowledge. We survey the mental zeitgeist of others every day and rarely think what a special function this is and how it makes us uniquely human. We incorporate this insight into other people’s minds to determine their intentions and motivates for their actions. One of the most important uses of theory of mind allows us to predict whether we can trust another person.

Trust is a precondition to co-operation, and co-operation allows for collective, collaborative activity. The modern world as we know couldn’t exist without massive amounts of co-operation and ways to co-ordinate that larger collective unit for a purpose. Whether a new product, making a movie, solving complex economic problems, maintaining transportation systems, designing drugs, establishing institutions for health, culture, religion and, of course, waging war.

The fuel upon which the co-operation system runs is trust. The question of Who Do You Trust has been answered throughout most of history quite simply—Those Who Look Like Me. We trust members of our family, our circle of friends, our clan, and our tribe. Trust evolved because a band that was based on trust in its members to act on behalf on the band would be more successful than a band where no one trusted each other. Outsiders, strangers, Those Who Don’t Look Like Me weren’t trusted. The suspicion was such a person was dangerous. They had an incentive to betray you. It made sense over the vast course of the history of our species to kill strangers. In China, there is a sense of shame in distrusting. “It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.” ―Confucius

Brutality is part of our neuro-wiring and no one has found a way to edit the coding that triggers violent reactions to outsiders. In the New Scientist, an article titled “Is Evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality,” sums up the nature of the problem:

Humans evolved as ultra-social animals, relying on group membership for survival. Our tendency to group together is so intense that just glimpsing a flash of colour is enough for us to affiliate with a stranger sporting the same colour. Cognitive neuroscientist Julie Grèzes, also at the École Normale Supérieure, argues that belonging to even such a small and ephemeral group determines how we perceive outsiders. We feel less empathy towards people outside our group, and we can literally dehumanise them.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documents at length the homicide rates of early times was horrifically high. Perhaps one-third of males died a violent death. Pinker’s conclusion is that we live in the most peaceful of times and that the killing zone has been vastly reduced to a small percentage. After nearly two decades of terrorism have seen bombings in New York, Bali, London, Bagdad, Ankara, Mumbai, Bangkok, Paris, and Beirut, along with the upheaval resulting from the wars in Iraq and Syria, the impression is widespread that we are less safe.

Why are we more fearful than the statistics suggest that we should be? Eliezer Yudkowsky identifies part of the problem is highly human fallibility caused by ‘bugs’ in human understanding of the world called heuristics and biases. Our cognition is flawed but it doesn’t seem that way to us. We don’t feel or see a filter. That’s what makes it dangerous.

The instant communication through Social Media and the Internet filled with video footage and photographs causes an emotional reaction. We feel insecure. Governments respond with measures to make us more secure. Each bombing chips away more freedoms. It has been a meme that our fears are devaluing freedom in favour of security measures that can only operate if the space for freedom is reduced.

02

We are especially fearful of people who don’t look like us, who don’t share our beliefs or values, and who use violence to remind us exactly how vulnerable we are. Freedom is now seen as dangerous. Freedom is even seen by some as the handmaiden of terrorism. This will likely grow as the inevitable will happen—more bombing, more civilians killed in highly populated areas, a cycle of more retaliations followed by more terrorist attacks. More people Who Look Just Like Us lifeless on our computer screens.

The end of trust is the end of how we’ve come to enjoy freedom. In a simple formula: Distrust = Tyranny.

Trust like any other construct isn’t binary. Trust exists on an axis of highly unlikely to trust to highly likely to trust. How your theory of mind of the person you are dealing with will place him or her somewhere along that axis. Where the person fits is less a rational, deliberate decision than it is an emotional one. People Who Look Like Us is like looking in the mirror. As most people trust themselves, by extension they trust another looks like them.

This is our cognitive toolkit, and from it we make a presumption about how we related to and treat another person. We live in an environment filled with ‘soft targets’—concert halls, shopping malls, restaurants, office buildings, airports, train stations, hotels, and sports stadiums. Large numbers of people share this space. Freedom to move in and out of such spaces is something we don’t think about very much. When trust runs dry, the security arrangements make movement slow, difficult and cumbersome. Without security in place to check people, they may be too fearful to enter such spaces. They can’t trust an environment accessible to strangers who may wish to cause them harm.

03

The order of business is the same for the good guys and the bad guys. Many years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Johnny Carson hosted a TV show that captured the zeitgeist of the time:  Who Do You Trust? The modern zeitgeist is a world order not unlike that old TV show. Only our Theory of Mind, which evolved over tens of thousands of years inside a world of small, isolated bands has experienced difficulty scaling to a world of 7.3 billion people. Our original Theory of Mind falls short once the numbers run into the billions. We’ve not had time to evolve to assessing trust in a world populated by billions of people. We are left with our Theory of Mind default. And that has caused major problems. When you can no longer trust strangers the world becomes a place where freedom is rejected and tyranny embraced. Dictators offer the remedy for lack of trust: security. And security against any risk from an outsider is highly valued. Rights, justice, freedom, not so much. They are degraded as constructs outsiders use to harm or hurt members of your tribe.

The evaporation of trust comes at a time of accelerated dependence. Rather than withdraw from those who invite suspicion, we draw them into a kill zone loaded with weapons, toys, amusements and stimulations.

Trust worked wonders when we are small bands of 15 to 40. Scale up to 7.3 billion people and the concept of trust bends and finally breaks. As you say of the rednecks in West Palm Beach, “well they looked like wetbacks.” That is becoming a universal value. You can’t trust them. Those whom you can’t trust, you fear. And those you fear, you push back across borders, into the sea, into the flames. Walls are built to keep strangers out. Navy patrols stop ships with strangers from landing. Refugee camps are erected like prisons to house strangers who arrive from war zones. Our Theory of Mind when it comes to trusting strangers, targets them as objects of fear. Because objects aren’t human, they are, obviously, like a rock, a thing; they aren’t one of us. Send in the drones and the marines. Kill the bastards. As if that will restore trust.

What this means is that what is left of freedom will be just about enough to see us through to the end of our lives. There won’t be much left over for the generations to follow. Large-scale accumulation of human beings breaks the tribal model and there is no replacement other than concentration camps and murder. Security has become the substitute for lack of trust. But the dirty secret in the aftermath of Paris is that security doesn’t scale any more than trust. And the lack of scaling is for much the same reason. It is one thing to check identification and bags at airports and sports stadiums but another to assume this precaution translates into lowering the risk of an attack. We sacrifice freedom in the name of high level intelligence gathering, storage, and analysis to identify those who would kill us inside a soft target zone. That’s a fantasy. A delusion.

We live under the umbrella of a massive surveillance or intelligence system that promises security in exchange for our freedom and privacy. Can this Intel Empire erect to plug the gap in our Trust deficient pinpoint in advance the next eight fanatics who will co-ordinate an operation that takes them to multiple public places in a major city and who proceed to blow themselves and others up? In the time of massive storage, big data, and data mining programs, we are still left trying to find a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of 7.3 billion people have no intention of murdering others. There are likely many thousands who are in a high probability category and capable on any given day of launching a mass killing. The problem is no one knows until the killings occur which of the handful will act upon the murderous impulse. Once they are known, the question is why didn’t the police stop them in advance? The answer is until the act occurs there is no way of identifying them in a large group of people with a similar profile.

04

It turns out most of the eight suicide bombers in Paris were French. They had French or Belgium passports. But they were ethnically different, their names different than most people associate with someone who is French. France like many Western countries is a rainbow of multi-ethnic groups. The same is true in China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand to mention just a few. When the knee-jerk reaction of the Thai government is to tightened border and airport security, you start to understand people in position in power are either not paying attention to who were the bombers in Paris or they are using the Paris bombings for domestic purposes that benefit them.

Our literature, myths and fables are filled with stories of betrayal. From Shakespeare to Camus the theme of betrayal has haunted us.

“Et tu, Brute?” ― William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

“I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.” ― Albert Camus, The Fall

If we define betrayal as the violation or abandonment of trust, we come closer to understanding the tensions of our current world order. The divide is not between left and right, red shirts and yellow shirts, labour and conservatives. The divide is between those who distrust and fear harm from others and those who distrust and fear powerful institutions tasked with providing security. What is the likelihood and cost of betrayal in each case? If we distrust institutions, we accept a level of murder for religious and political reasons can, at best, be contained. Institutions are confined to planning containment and implementation. That’s a vote for the “Let’s Build Walls” policy. The historical examples indicate this doesn’t work in the long-term. The barbarians climb over the walls sooner or later. Giving a blank check to governments is a risky business. The consequence of betrayal may provide overall worse outcome than the cold-blooded murder of 129 people.

What we don’t like to hear is the truth—there is no easy answer or solution to terrorism. People are angry because they feel betrayed by their employers, technology, leaders, and politicians. We can’t change our Theory of Mind when it comes to trust. Having achieved a population level in the billions, our ability to assess trust has broken down. No one knows how to repair it. We are left with disappointment, disillusionment, suspicion and fear. As we strive for a risk-free, secure life, we throw our lot with leaders who promise to punish those who harm us and protect us from attacks. With each new attack we will react with frustration and anger, ceding away more freedom until in the end what governments are defending against no longer really matters as there is no longer any difference between those who participate in official and freelance murder.

William Blake wrote: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” Our circle of friends is dwarfed in a sea of potential enemies and forgiveness like trust is a shattered, hallow construct from a time long since past. We stand on the edge and we have no idea how far it is to the bottom where violence returns to pre-modern levels. Despite the rejection of change, there is no turning back. Just like there’s no way to build a bridge, hang a rope, or roll up a human canon to propel people to another side. We can’t be certain there is another side. Since we’ve come to distrust not just strangers but ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ that contradicts out beliefs, and we respond by relying on myth and legend. Whatever happens next will influence how we think about number of interconnected ideas—freedom, security, power, religion, outsiders, trust, reputation and co-operation. When the dust clears it is possible none of those concepts will survive in their present form.

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Posted: 11/18/2015 1:34:38 AM 

 

By Christopher G. Moore*

Life is a puzzle filled with paradox and contradictions. Trying to make sense of one’s life has been the preoccupation of poets, painters, writers, philosophers and playwrights throughout recorded time. When it comes to a person writing a memoir he or she is selecting a few hundreds pieces and leaving countless pieces inside the box that is his or her life. And from how those pieces fit, the public and private records matching, or colliding, the reader of the memoir is made to feel a whole life has been revealed, not in it’s entirety but in the salient, defining detail.

When a mathematician picks up a pen to write a memoir, there’s another language to draw upon—symbols, equations, axioms, conjectures, and theorems. Like music is a language structured by grammar and syntax. It is a rare mathematician who can accurately translate the language of mathematics into the literary language where metaphors and similes must carry the heavy weight of meaning from mathematical objects.  John Paulos has been in the forefront of mathematicians who have opened a vital channel of communication between the elite community who are fluent in mathematics and the rest of us who struggle with a small vocabulary sufficient to count loose change.

Behind mathematics are a number of concepts including scientific measurement, objectivity, non-linear dynamics, and Gödel's incompleteness.  Without mathematics the ability to make forecast, prediction not to mention innovation and technology would collapse back into the world of magical thinking, belief and faith. In Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up
brought the rigors of mathematics to dispel the delusions behind the idea of ‘God.’ In other words, Paulos has demonstrated drone-like capability of hitting long-range targets without the need to offer equations that explain the underlying mathematics of velocity. Irreligion was a tour de force in the projection of intellectual power.

In his memoir, A Numerate Life,
Professor John Paulos displays a rare combination of literary skill honed by a broad range of reading in telling his life story. Along the way he brings his professional knowledge of mathematics as a way to help us understand his way of selecting pieces of the puzzle. His books, essays and articles follow the tradition of C.P. Snow and Bertrand Russell, seeking to bridge the rest of us to the scientific community where mathematics is the crown jewels.
His best selling book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
established his international reputation as one of mathematics foremost explainers connecting the lay public to the world of complex math. His public role as a rational, scientific thinker offers an alternative to the perverse and misguided populist pride that celebrates innumeracy in the tradition of the ‘know nothing is cool’ crowd that one finds in certain social media quarters.

Facebook posters post messages such as: “Well, another day has passed. I didn’t use algebra once.” The irony that Paulos would appreciate is that it is neglecting on small feature: the Internet and all modern technology is underpinned by a deep understanding of mathematics.  The cognitively lazy are caught in awkward constructs where they are imprisoned by their ignorance paradox, the God delusion, and biases, beyond the reach of a meta-analysis.  The Numerate Life is a lifeline for those with an open mind and willingness to explore the nature of these paradoxes and puzzles that are all around us.

John Paulos’ memoirs A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours, His Own and Probably
is a highly original and creative self-examination of the forces in his life that have given geometry to his own thinking, preoccupations and perceptions. A Numerate Life is a rare glimpse into these life-defining forces that have shaped a world-class mathematical mind. The window of perception opens a world in which mathematics becomes the default mindset to solve puzzles, and think about the probabilities of things happening or not happening over time. What makes the book memorable is the author’s fluent prose style, his humor and his knack for finding the right metaphor or illustration. It’s a twisty journey along the author’s psychological Amazon with stops along the way to explore probability, coincidence, randomness, consciousness, memories, other travel, the experiences inside the cauldron of family, friends, children, domestic household, work, and the meaning of mortality.  And there are card tricks. Paulos’s psychological journey is also shows the role of chance. This memoir has a lovely recursive element of a mathematician explaining how mathematically thinking is the best we can do when dealing with chance.

When shuffling the deck that we all are given to play, Paulos’s insight into the game, the players, the phantom of rules popping into and out of existence, the bets we make and the basis on which we place those bets, or how others place them for us, makes A Numerate Life a powerful and enduring book. You will find the intellectual and emotional toolkit displayed in this memoir a celebration of wonder, chance, dedication, wit and a window that shows how one man has played his cards in public and how we all have come out the winner. As an example of a mindset honed to embrace complexity and uncertainty, the open-ended nature of life, A Numerate Life will shine a light along your path, letting you know that you aren’t alone. Read this book.  

 *Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 11/10/2015 8:06:30 PM 

 

by Christopher G. Moore*

01 

George Orwell in 1941 wrote an essay titled Wells, Hitler and the World State that deserves to be revisited in 2015. The re-examination is timely given the release of the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”

The reasons cited for the decline, include:

Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say. (2015 World Press Freedom Index)

Another freedom report for 2015 by Freedom House  also notes the trend of “discarding democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”

02

Freedom on the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”

George Orwell understood fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and vindictive.

The same was true in Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect beliefs.

In this essay, Orwell shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition. He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity. H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in which it applied.

Several quotes from Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the nature, role and scope of human emotions.

In 1941, Orwell wrote:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

*

The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own works are based.

*

He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

The modern world deceived the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in 2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly as Ebola.

“Science is fighting on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the hold of our emotions.

As in 1941, we struggle to accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our ancient past.

We have great works such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.

Superstition will, for most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies, which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate. “Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly small and narrow.

Orwell is too careful to dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last man, woman and child.

Nor would George Orwell be surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.

* Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 10/29/2015 9:45:36 PM 

 

I have lived in Thailand the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article, opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve heard all of the arguments against this practice.

01
By Stephff (used with permission)

The Usual attack on the dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory; (3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged the same price as everyone else.

None of the above arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of services on foreigners such as university fees.

The deeper question is why does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social media?

I have a couple of ideas to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude, a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets you fire.

Dual practicing doesn’t exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from the circle of being in the in-group.

In Thailand, the in-group bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs, language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.

For the Americans (and sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities. In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda. More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.

What makes the in-group bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.

Group Think is the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’ who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the basis of esprit de corps.

Groups which value consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines, assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition. It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information that may adversely influence the official consensus.

Philip E. Tetlock author of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, wrote:

“Groupthink is a danger. Be cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”

A high value is given to consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted. Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.

Dual pricing is the tip of the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the ‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is an important divide between the two.

The cost is not so much the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.

A problem yet to be resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection, certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas. The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change. The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.

Tetlock has a catchy definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’ to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change the order of things.

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Posted: 10/11/2015 8:55:23 PM 

 

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been the #1 bestselling non-fiction title on the Bangkok Post arts page for over a year. I’ve lost track it may have been two years. That is a long-time for a foreign title to occupy the top spot on a local bestseller’s list. Kahneman’s book reveals how people process thoughts and emotions and react to the constructs that thinking creates in their minds. It is also an extensive discussion, based on fifty years of research, into the cognitive biases that act as the filters through which our thinking passes.

When someone says I have a bias. I say that doesn’t go far enough. I have dozens and dozens of biases. Most of them infect my process operating system and until someone like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman comes along, shows the evidence, and I discover I’ve remained oblivious to the importance they play in the way I perceive and understand reality. It is a humbling experience to accept that you and everyone else suffers from the flaws and defects that cognitive biases cause in our assessment of evidence, facts, opinions, and data. To learn about biases is to recognize the role they play in your own life, inside corporations, governments, entertainment, sport and family life.

None of this begins to explain why in Thailand, of all places, it continues to be the top bestseller (if Asia Books bestselling list is to be believed). I’d like to explore a few ideas that may shed some light on why Thinking Fast and Slow has become and remained a bestseller even in a country like Thailand where one of the common expressions is “thinking too much makes one’s head hurt”.

We evolved over a long-time frame—200,000 years—into a species of fundamentally shaped emotional beings. Our emotions along with our perceptions and memory of the past are the building blocks of what we think of as ‘self’. If you want to a truthful look of who you are to yourself, take a day and audit the emotions you feel. Write them down. Write down the reaction to each of those feelings. And the stories you tell yourself to justify, explain, defend or advocate. Keep that list for a week. Then go back and look in that narrative mirror. That is you, how you react into the world. What sets you off, triggering the chemical reactions in your brain? We know what those chemicals are and a fair amount about how they work in the brain. That is, of course, a mechanical, science-based position. Others may think that emotions magically appear like forest fairies.

We have been first and foremost are emotional charged from the time we entered the world until the day we depart it. Our emotional life gives us a roller coaster ride and we make up stories to explain the spills and chills. The slow thinking, or the rational, empirical, deliberate thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It is cold, calculated, time-consuming, uncertain, complex and tentative—all of these attributes, when combined, construct a reality that can be measured, examined, tested, evaluated by others, who may disprove a widely accepted idea or show evidence of how it is flawed and how it might be improved.

This new, rational way of thinking is recent. Many people think today is a dividend of the Enlightenment. Newton came along in the 17th century, and with a new type of mathematics, was able to predict motion and velocity with precision. The 18th century saw a new breed of thinkers from Hume, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Musician geniuses like Bach, Haydn and Mozart emerged. In the 19th century scientific discovery bloomed through the empirical methods employed by Darwin, Maxwell, Tesla, Faraday, Kelvin, Boltzmann, Clausius, Doppler and Planck to name only a few.

If you picked two books that changed the ‘method’ of thinking it would be Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) and Newton’s Principa Mathematica (1687). The world of magic, faith, and belief became challenged, along with unquestioned authority as custodians of the truth. What was changed? Truth no longer had an official master whose stories had to be believed. Truth left the domain of Sacred Authority to be revealed in the labs by scientists with their charts, instruments, procedures, formulae, and methods.

Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow about our psychological limitation to understand the truth is a product of that Enlightenment process. We had a better understanding how authority had traditionally acted as the oracle of our emotional lives. It also manipulated those emotions to suit the aims of the powerful. The problem was that there was no scientific method or explanation. People lived in a world of ritual and ceremony, which channeled emotions as a collective, unifying activity.

Pre-Enlightenment was like a grandfather clock, solid, reliable time keeping device in well-off houses. The problem with such clocks was the degree of accuracy required for advanced technology need a more precise measuring instrument. Atomic clocks operate on a different mechanism than the grandfather clock. Kahneman’s slow, deliberate thinking incorporates a self-monitoring, self-correcting features that have redesigned how our grandfather clock of emotions works.

When we think our grandfather clock of emotions remains our timekeeper, what happens when a culture or civilization has by-passed the Enlightenment generated system of methods, process, and procedures? A case can be made that a large number of people will be unhappy telling time the old way. Because they live in a vastly more complicated and complex world where how a person thinks is key to innovation, creativity and scientific advances in biology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, and neural networks. The age of the grandfather clock, however, isn’t over. It continues to co-exist with the new realities. You see the evidence of this everyday in Thailand. And when there is a problem to be solved, confusion arises as to what problem-solving process should be used.

The Thais have embraced social media in large numbers. Given the recent political turmoil, and the attempt by coup-makers to turn the clock back, one would have expected more unrest. That hasn’t happened. Part of the explanation is that the Internet, games, and social media have provided a refuge, a place of escape from the messy, unpleasant emotional terrain of analogue life. The emotional transfer to the digital world has left a void in the analogue world. There may be few scattered demonstrations but largely, on the surface, people go about their lives as if disconnected from the political reality in which they live.

Then the junta was reported to have supported a proposal to reduce the digital interface into Thailand to a single pipeline. Suddenly all of those silent people who had disappeared from the analogue world of political discussion suddenly showed their anger. The DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that crashed many government and national telecom websites and hundreds of thousand tweets using the hashtag #SingleGateway showed a surprising degree of co-operation and collaboration to pull off the attacks. Whether this is the beginning of significant digital mass protest remains to be seen. The number of people involved in the attack is difficult to know. What is known is that more than a hundred thousand people have also signed an online petition to oppose the junta’s policy to install the Chinese-style “Great Firewall.”

Thailand’s digital community finally reacted. The emotional reaction leading to the in protest with the hashtag #SingleGateway found support on social media across usual political lines. It is difficult to find another proposed policy change that brought warring political factions to form a unified front. The opposition may have surprised the government, in any event, surprised or not, so the junta began to immediately backtrack on the idea.

Emotions about the Internet like all emotions are passionately held and defended. It may come as a surprise to the largely analogue core of senior government officials that a single pipeline would strike a nerve and an emotional reaction would spill over into the analogue world.

If the goal of the government has been to de-emotionalize the political discussion and to refocus that discussion to the grandfather clock era, the single pipeline policy proposal suggests a long, emotional battle may result. The most radical book in Thailand at present is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as it is a guidebook on the kind of biases exposed in the positions and postures of government policies and proposals. The critics with this new Enlightened way of thinking are online; on LINE, on social media, and they argue, debate, become emotional, friend and de-friend each other with a large degree of freedom. Removing that platform, this safe harbor for debate is no small change. The Internet is a symptom of something else that is happening under the surface. Many cultures seek the best of both worlds; there is an uneasy duality of process depending on many factors from international treaty obligations to the demands of modern technology, finance and communication systems in order they can be coupled into a larger international network.

Thailand is no different from many countries, which seek to balance problem-solving processes in a culture where dual mechanisms compete. There is the local environment where the rules and regulations, law enforcement officials, judges, and regulators, for purely domestic problems, use pre-Enlightenment ideas whether based on magical thinking, non-scientific premises, forced confessions, or evidentiary techniques of a prior time. It might be a news story but it hardly causes a ripple outside of the country. The Sacred Authority model was once the worldwide model. There was no other. The style of thinking that underscores Sacred Authority is incompatible with the thinking style that created a complex, diverse and ever changing digital environment with all the rough edged emotional tumble colliding with games, videos, talks, articles, graphics, photographs, on countless platforms seeking audience attention. It is a world of conflict, contention, trolling, emotional vetting, and diverse ideas, big data, and large information sinkholes. DDoS attacks are Thailand’s Millennial generations way of exerting their values and priorities. They hadn’t melted away; they had escaped to an online universe where they wished to be left to pursue their interests, grievance, dreams, and desires.

After the Enlightenment, (I am aware of literature of how National Socialism and Communist regimes used these ideas to cause massive destruction and suffering), The Empirical Model rose to challenge the Sacred Authority Model on a political, social and economic battlefield and largely won most of those battles. The evidence of those victories are everywhere in the way business and trade is conducted. If you wish to use slaves to catch and can fish as the business model in your fishing industry, you may argue that you didn’t do it, or if some meddlesome person has evidence that you did, the back up is your domestic industry standards is no one else’s business; it falls within your Sacred Authority.

The history of the West illustrates the Sacred Authority lasted long after the Enlightenment had begun. The US Supreme Court in the 19th century Dread Scott case didn’t prevent a slaveholder from a Southern State to reclaim his ‘property’, an escaped slave, from a Northern state where the slave had sought refuge.

Most countries have a blended system that draws from both the Sacred and the Empirical methods to solve problems. A broad continuum exist in most cultures and groups argue often emotionally as to what regime of methods and processes should be employed—with one side arguing the solution is faith-based and the other that fact or evidence-based problem-solving mechanism provides the solution. One expects to find, and is indeed not disappointed to discover that all kinds of contradictions, tensions and conflict arise. Sharia laws are an example of the Sacred Method and way of thinking. The problem solvers are clergy. The problem-solving mechanism is theocratic. The problem is cast in terms of doctrine to be interpreted.

The Sacred decision-making process is binary—good and bad, right and wrong. Applying that mechanism to, say, construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants is a frightening prospect. Complex and complicated problems require a different way of thinking. A process where those in charge are accustomed to an environment of uncertainty and doubt, and testing for weakness and defects is normal. Thinking about a problem where the process is created as part of the sacred means honoring boundaries of thought and inquiry, and the role of the authorities is not to test boundaries but to defend them.

Less extreme forms of the Sacred can be attached to flags or constitutions that make them above the profane of daily life. How we think about problems and the methods for solving them is a good indication of where it is placed along the continuum of Sacred and Empirical. For example, to suggests that evidence from other countries shows that banning or regulating guns or introducing universal health care in the United States would have a positive results in saving money and preventing deaths—and suddenly you have a fight on your hands. The Empirical Model vanishes behind a super-heated cloud of emotions and appeals to the Sacred appear as if the Enlightenment had never happened.

In the modern world, other countries, which had gone through the Enlightenment (and notice that they are the developed countries with money to buy large amounts of fish), will collectively act and ban the sale of slave caught fish. Thailand’s fishing industry, in response to international pressure from trading partners, seeks to find solutions that can be audited by others to eliminate slavery. The real problem lies in the absent of empirical experience and resources to detect, avoid, and monitor such problems. The failure is the failure of processes and enforcement mechanism that often uses aspirations of goodwill as a substituted solution. (Aspirational goals appeal to emotions and can work effectively on shaping public opinion in countries like Thailand, where having “good intentions” is more highly valued than the actual quality or effectiveness of the proposed policy.) A problem-solving mechanism that appeals to the logical, analytical aspect of our nature and demands a different kind of thinking. It will likely excite the emotions of those in the Sacred Method camp, on the basis such an approach is a provocation to their beliefs.

The same problem arises with rules governing aviation. If you wish to have a domestic aviation industry where planes regularly crash for lack of maintenance, that may be a sovereign right, but for international flights, the planes must comply with international rules for operation and maintenance and violation of those rules will lead to banning the offending aviation companies landing rights.

The number of cars registered in Bangkok now exceeds to number of people registered as living in Bangkok. Traffic is a domestic issue. No one in New York, Toronto or London cares about lost time waiting in Bangkok traffic or the lack of parking space. When transportation policy is decided under the Sacred Authority methods, finding a systematic, rational and efficient system becomes elusive. The empirical methods are not developed or trusted as they might spill over into other areas pushing back the boundaries of the traditional way of thinking about things that need attention. Law enforcement officials with inadequate training or tools are discouraged from seeking professional assistance, for example, in evaluating DNA and other forensic evidence to be used in a murder case, for fear of losing control of the case to foreigners.

Emotions cause the best analytical tools to be left on the shelf; the empirical studies filed in the office filing cabinet. Emotions dictate the storyline; not necessarily the actual evidence. The problem with modern technology whether it is transportation, education, fishing, or forensic science is that the line between domestic and global commerce, trade and communication has resulted in the construction of an international system, mechanism, process and methods that is very difficult to avoid, unless one decides to embrace something along the lines of the North Korean or Saudi models (to name just two). Those bucking this new international regime with the Sacred Model as the funnel for emotionalism have no way out. The ability to have the best of both worlds has collapsed. Governments, however, haven’t stopped pretending that they can go back to the past when such a distinction existed and officials had control over what could and could not be done.

What is destroying the legitimacy of governments is the absence of creating problem-solving processes. Most countries share similar problems. Most countries invest in research and development not only in identifying problems but in the development of cooperative processes where experts and large data can fine-tune the methods and process where new solutions can be found to old problems, and new problems can be unearthed that lead to more fine-tuning to the methods and processes. In other words, it is a constant, endless re-examination and critical questioning of how to improve the process of decision-making. Given the accelerated rate of technological change, methods and processes are soon outdated. Audit, evaluate, modify, replace, and adapt, replace a fixed, certain, stable Sacred Authority model where time on the grandfather clock no longer reflects the reality of how time is measured in the modern world.

All of this change pushes emotional alarm buttons. Elites, with a vested interested in the grandfather clock model, experience fear, anger, and hatred as to the new order sees them not as partners but obstacles to the world where questioning, criticism, debate, curiosity, and uncertainty are considered normal.

What the Enlightenment brought was the possibility that people might disagree on an idea, theory or principle. That debated wasn’t settled by blood, or by war and hatred against someone with a different idea. A space has opened up for those who disagreed to take a step back from their emotional reaction, examine their biases, and ask for evidence to support an argument. The future is for those who invite evidence that contradicts their theory; it doesn’t belong to those who only seek confirmation, and seek to stifle those with evidence to the contrary.

Will Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow continue to be number one in Thailand for another year? It is possible. Such a radical book has attracted a Thai audience is worthy of note. It may be some evidence that many Thais, especially those exposed to social media, are seeking to better understand how their emotional lives are connected to their thinking process. Understanding what goes on inside the brain and how our emotions and thoughts are processed is something no one has figured out.

We are left with a vague glimpse of what might be possible. But for now, it is enough to hope that the how we think when self-reflection and doubt are incorporated into the process will make us more aware of how emotions guide our perceptions, stories, and sense of self. , We can’t avoid our cognitive biases but we can recognize the limitations they impose. It takes a lifetime of work where we slow down our thinking and calculate more finely the options beyond what we instinctively feel at the moment. Even then, we will continue to ambush ourselves with all of kinds of great stories as to why we were angry with Jack, and hate Helen and honestly believe that no one in their right mind could do anything but agree and support us. Because we are human. We are feeling machines, retrofitted with a lever called logic. You will find it on your own console; if like mine, it is the one with cobwebs on it.

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Posted: 10/2/2015 4:28:22 AM 

 

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