31 August 2011

Now This is a Library (Stockholm's, to be exact)

Actually - an artist's concept to be even more exact, a proposal for the Stockholm library. Still, I like it.

30 August 2011

What Primate Are You? The Sex, Violence & Politics of Chimps & Bonobos

Frans de Waal gives us fascinating look at how we humans resemble the apes he studies. In particular, he contrasts chimps, bonobos and humans in his book Our Inner Ape: A leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. As does probably anyone exposed to the differences between these two, I couldn't help but wonder if humans are not just influenced by primal primate influences but are influenced in different doses. It seems like some people are more like chimps and some more like bonobos.

Chimps are strong and violent, whereas bonobos are more gentle and, well, the euphemism often used is "affectionate." While chimps resolve issues of sex with power, bonobos resolve issues of power with sex. Just about any bonobo has sex with just about any other bonobo. (The females migrate out to other troops around puberty and while the males have a strong relationship with their mothers, this is about the only relationship in the troop that doesn't include sex. So, bonobos are free-loving but not incestuous.) Nerves are calmed and bonds made through sex and affection. By contrast, among the chimps, alpha males have access to the females and the rest of the males have access to females only through the alpha's approval or out of sight of the alpha. Among chimps, sex is a reward for power. 

Chimps dislike the other. When they encounter another chimp group, it is not unusual for one troop of males to systematically single out and kill the males in the other group one by one until all the males are dead, at which point they take possession of the females and territory. Bonobos get frightened when they encounter another group of bonobos, threatening and posturing, but actual injury is uncommon and death rare. Not long after contact, the bonobos are often engaged in acts of grooming and ... well, they are bonobos after all .... sex. 

Finally, chimps are led by an alpha male. This is not a particularly stable leadership because the alpha male can be challenged at any time. This position comes with lots of perks and special privileges so there is great incentive to be the alpha. And these chimps are unafraid to rule by violence.  Bonobos, by contrast, are led by females who do as much mediation with grooming and sex as they do with any violence.  The alpha female is usually one of the most senior females and her position is relatively secure since leadership  appears to depend on wisdom and experience rather than strength and cunning. 

de Waal makes many fascinating comparisons between us humans and these other primates, but it seems to me that political parties could be put on a chimp to bonobo spectrum. Offended at bare breasts in public (whether on beaches or because of breast feeding mothers) but not offended that someone would carry a concealed weapon? You're likely a chimp. Tolerant of immigrants and see them as potentially valuable members of the community rather than threats? You are likely a bonobo. Puzzled that graphic violence is rated R and graphic sex is rated X? You're likely a bonobo. Convinced that sexual mores are too loose and the imposition of more law and order and more severe punishment would make the community stronger? You're probably a chimp.

And if there is truth to this difference - if indeed the differences between us are as ingrained as the differences between chimps and bonobos - it suggests that we're unlikely to change who we are. In fact, to move towards harmony, it seems to me that we have only two options: either the chimps kill all the bonobos, eliminating all the "others"  or the bonobos mate with the chimps, eliminating all differences between chimps and bonobos generation by generation.  Let's just hope that the bonobos take more pleasure in mating with the chimps than the chimps do in killing the bonobos.

Our Inner Ape

I read this fascinating book over the weekend, Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. Here are a couple of things you might find interesting.

Likewise, watching a group of people, one will quickly notice which individuals act with the greatest confidence, attract the most glances and nods of agreement, are least reluctant to break into the discussion, speak in a softer voice yet expect everybody to listen (and laugh at their jokes!), voice unilateral opinions, and so on. But there are far more subtle status clues. Scientists used to consider the frequency band of 500 hertz and below in the human voice as meaningless noise, because when a voice if filtered, removing all higher frequencies, one hears nothing but a low-pitched hum. All words are lost. But then it was found that this low hum is an unconscious social instrument. It is different for each person, but in the course of a conversation people tend to converge. They settle on a single hum, and it is always the lower status person who does the adjusting. This was first demonstrated in an analysis of the Larry King Live television show. The host, Larry King, would adjust his timbre to that of high-ranking guests, like Mike Wallace or Elizabeth Taylor. Low-ranking guests, on the other hand, would adjust their timbre to that of King. The clearest adjustment to King’s voice, indicating lack of confidence, came from former Vice President Dan Quayle.
The same spectral analysis has been applied to televised debates between the presidential candidates. In all eight elections between 1960 and 2000 the popular vote matched the voice analysis: the majority of people voted for the candidate who held his own timbre rather than the one who adjusted. In some cases, the differences were extreme, such as between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. And only in 2000 did a candidate with a slightly subordinate voice pattern, George W. Bush, get elected. But this was not really an exception to the rule because, as Democrats will relish pointing out, the popular vote actually went to the candidate with the dominant voice pattern, Al Gore.
pp. 56-7.

Anyone who works with animals is used to their uncanny sensitivity to body language. My chimpanzees sometimes know my mood better than I do: it’s hard to fool an ape. One reason for that is the absence of distraction by the spoken word. We attach such importance to verbal communication that we lose track of what our bodies say about us.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks described a group of patients in an aphasia ward convulsed with laughter during a televised speech by President Reagan. Incapable of understanding words as such, aphasia patients follow much of what is being said through facial expressions and body movement. They are so attentive to body nonverbal clues that they cannot be lied to. Sacks concluded that the president, whose speech seemed perfectly normal to the non-patients around, so cunningly combined deceptive words and tone of voice that only the brain damaged were able to see through it.
P 59

24 August 2011

Happy Birthday Borges!

For an example of how categories can be created, here is a delightful (and fictional) Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that Jorge Luis Borges pretends to quote, as follows:

"For your consideration, friends, the fourteen kinds of animals: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies."

Borges would have been 112 today which is, itself, somewhat absurd.

22 August 2011

A Quick Self Inventory - Using Covey's Four Elements of Being Human to Identify What's Missing

Sometimes you're just off. You're not even sure why.

Stephen Covey argued that we are made up of four large parts: physical, social / emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. And if you divide our humanity into a different list or add to this one to make it work better for you, great. The point is, you can use this list - or some variant on it - to assess how you are doing, to inventory what is missing. Sometimes you feel like something is missing .Other times you just feel like there could be more. In any case, here's a place to start.

The drive for, and realization of, these needs does so much to define us and our happiness.

Physical - you are a biological creature. You might be feeling spiritual or mindful but there comes a time when all that matters is finding a toilet or tree to hide behind.

Eating poorly? Short of cash? Craving food, sex, alcohol ... This physical piece can be the most obvious of the missing pieces. And, of course, it can also be a diversion from what is really bothering us - people looking for food rather than esteem, sex rather than affection, ... well, you can fill in the rest.

Social / Emotional - this is complex. Social is our relationship to others and emotional is our relationship to ourselves. Do we have friends or family who give us a safe place to be ourselves? People who support us and who we, in turn, support? People who cheer us and people who coach us, those who support and those who challenge?
Emotional needs are also complex but they might be defined by our self-talk as much as anything else. What is our internal narrator telling us? Is it nurturing or toxic? Is it reality based on dependent on denial and delusion?

Intellectual - this has to do with keeping our big brains occupied. What are we thinking about? What is structuring our consciousness? Are we focused only on things that are offered to us by media and tradition or are we able to create our way into unique thoughts and new learning?

Spiritual - this is the big one. What, finally, gives our life meaning? It could be traditional religion and its hopes and consolation. It could be a life of our own invention that we're creating in response to what we see as possible, exciting, or important. It is what gives us a sense of purpose, connects us to something bigger than our own life.

There is a great deal you can do with these four. For one thing, it might help you to understand what is missing is not what you've been focused on. Perhaps what you need isn't another intellectual challenge but instead a physical comfort - or vice versa. You might think that you're bored when you're actually lonely, hungry when you're bored, or think that your problems is that you're unable to make sense of what you're doing when in fact it is that you're unable to see how it matters, a failure that makes it nearly impossible for you to be engaged in it. Nothing is more frustrating, or fruitless, than trying to cure what ails you spiritually with physical needs or intellectual needs with the social. When you are feeling restless because your mind needs a new challenge, it's a bad idea to go visit familiar friends. When you are hungry, it's a bad idea to console yourself by reading new recipes. If you're lonely, don't try curing that by meditating. Identify what is missing and try to meet that need rather than distract yourselves from it. You can't always solve what's wrong with Ramen noodles or Netflix.

Covey suggested that you could use this checklist of four elements of being human to assess a job, for instance.

Physical: does your job pay you enough to live the life in the physical comfort that you want or need? Even if it does, you might still be unhappy if you don't like what it does to you socially or emotionally.

Social / Emotional: Do you feel good about the people you work with? Do you feel good about what you do? Even if you do, you might still be unhappy if you don't like what it does for you - or more likely fails to do for you - intellectually.

Intellectual: Are you learning enough to stay up with your field? Do you feel mentally challenged by your job? Is it engaging enough that you lose track of time or self as you do it? Finally, even if all three of these needs are met, your job may still not do it for you if it feels meaningless.

Spiritual: Imagine that you were paid enough, enjoyed your coworkers and were continually learning but every project you completed was looked at by your boss who then, with a smile, said "We can't use this," and simply threw your work away. After awhile, your work would seem meaningless and you'd lose heart.

Of course your job might not address all of these. Most of us for at least some part of our career find ways to address at least one of these needs outside of work. Sustaining happiness means finding some way to address these four needs.

This little framework doesn't solve problems but it can help you to focus on the right ones. And I find it is not a bad place to start when scratching my head about what to do next. An important step in problem solving is defining the problem. If one or more of these is missing, that's a problem. And if you could read this far and make sense of this, you can begin to make progress at addressing what is missing. And that might highlight the final important piece: faith that you and the ones around you are able to address these needs.

18 August 2011

The Importance of Failure

Behind every success are scores of failures and this might be the simplest reason that so many people never work to realize their potential.

Behind the world champion in major league baseball, the NBA, or the NFL are roughly 30 losers. You could say that the whole season was about determining the final victor but their victory would have been impossible without the dozens of losers.

As it turns out, life outside of sports is similar. Every successful business that actually creates jobs has emerged from a morass of dozens of businesses that flounder, hundreds of businesses started and failed, and thousands of businesses thought of but never executed. The same is true of inventions and ideas for social change.

Like an oak tree that drops thousands of acorns - only a few of which ever become trees - so is social progress. And I think this inevitability of failure is why so many people don't even try to accomplish more than what is prescribed by their roles as students, citizens, employees. Who wants to take on a game you'll probably lose?

Somehow we need to teach courage and intrinsic motivation, a love for what one is doing, that doesn't depend on success as judged by anyone else. Somehow we need to redefine failure as what happens when you don't try rather than what happens when you play in the regular season and never make it to the playoffs. Because the only way to have winners - the only way for all of society to move forward led by winners - is to have losers.

Perry's Vision for America

Rick Perry, governor of Texas and now presidential candidate, has "created" lots of jobs in Texas. By one count, about 40% of the total number created in the US.

The fact that Texas is an oil state helps, of course, but there is more to it than that. Perry's state employs people because it knows how to keep labor competitive. This from Harold Meyerson's column in the Washington Post

Consider the Texas that Perry holds up to the rest of the nation for admiration. It has the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state. It tied with Mississippi last year for thehighest percentage of workers in minimum-wage jobs. It ranks first in adults without high school diplomas. Twenty-six percent of Texans have no health insurance — the highest percentage of medically uninsured residents of any state. It leads the nation in the percentage of children who lack medical insurance. Texas has an inordinate number of employers who provide no insurance to their workers, partly because insurance rates are high, thanks to an absence of regulations.
And really, who wouldn't want to live in an America with those policies? 

5th Anniversary

This blog started 5 years - and about 1,400 posts - ago, on 17 August 2006. 
To commemorate this, I'm offering 50% off all blog posts for ... well, for another 5 years. 

13 August 2011

Tax Rates in Perspective

Just a dose of reality, for those of you still in the mood for such things. In a list of 34 of the most economically developed countries in the world, the US has the fifth lowest tax rate. Three of the four lower are Mexico, Turkey, and Chile - with per capita incomes of about $15,000 or less. Those hardly seem like good models for what Americans aspire to. 

12 August 2011

A Terrible Mind is a Thing to Lose - Bachmann Disapproves of the Renaissance

Here's a curious conspiracy theory for you.

What if the people behind Michele Bachmann's campaign were merely trying to bring in a candidate who would make Sarah Palin look informed by comparison? And what if even they never dreamed that Bachmann might be a front-runner?

As it turns out, Bachmann does not just believe that constitutional amendments should not be forced onto the states. She thinks that the Renaissance represents a wrong turn in the history of the West. Read this if you're prepared for some mind boggling. An excerpt:

Tea party queen and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is convinced that America is sinking into tyranny. Why? In a remarkable profile of the candidate appearing in the Aug. 15 issue of the New Yorker magazine, the artistic flowering of the Italian Renaissance takes a beating for having done away with the god-fearing Dark Ages.

It would be hard to condense more ignorance into one thought than to doubt that the Renaissance was a great thing. During medieval times lives and people were short and brutish, even priests often could not afford Bibles to read, witches and heretics (essentially anyone who suspected of thinking independently) were burnt at the stake, and even a serf's right to take his bride's virginity might be challenged by the lord who ruled the land to which he was bound. The Dark Ages were unrelentingly wretched and it was the Renaissance and its package of trade, exploration, reliance on the empirical, spread of books, and emergence of law and order in the form of the nation-state that changed this.

I wonder if anyone has asked Bachmann what her position is on reviving witch trials.

09 August 2011

ADD News Covers Causation

I remember once stumbling across two maps about the same time. The one showed European countries color coded by when the serfs had been freed. The next map showed those same countries color coded by per caipta income. To my eye, the correlation was striking. And it suggests that one of the best ways to raise income here in the 21st century is to free your serfs back in the 17th century.

So much of what passes for analysis today ignores causation that dates back much further than Monday. While this might make for some invigorating arguments, it does little to reveal any actual causation or, for that matter, suggest change of any substance.

There is one caveat to this. While creation is slow, destruction is quick. When an event is actually caused by some action only a short time before, it is almost inevitably destructive - at least in the realm of economics and progress.

08 August 2011


Guy inquires, "Must life always be hard? Is nothing ever easy?"
Badbuddha replies, "Your wife is easy."

03 August 2011

July Tweets

Geithner says he'll stay for 'foreseeable future.' Judging from how far he could foresee shortly before the 2008 meltdown, that's not long.

Today in his radio address, Obama used the "government is like a family" metaphor for budgets. 2nd recession here we come. Argh.

Idea for name of Greek restaurant: The Edible Complex.

At least for me, writing is about 25 parts defining what I need to write and 1 part actual writing.

Patriotism makes me uneasy. It makes me feel like someone is about to sell me an aircraft carrier. http://bit.ly/iHrkla

Ah San Diego. Weather forecast is warning us today that it'll be 72 BUT with a chance of sprinkles.

Idea for a green computer. Powered by the old carriage return arms from typewriters. Just hit it periodically to charge.

Any sufficiently advanced communication technology is indistinguishable from madness (if Arthur C. Clarke thinks you're talking to yourself)

Impossible is just the subconscious reminding you of what is most important: I'm possible. Inane or insightful? Impossible to say.

At what stage of life is one no longer tall for his age?

The book is published. The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization will be available on amazon sometime in the next 24 hours.

At mall. Potter fans lined up. Wonder if they know that in the end, just before he is about to fail, Voldemort gets bailed out by Fed.

Divide California into north and south? http://bit.ly/pXEiYe Wouldn't it make more sense to divide it along the San Andreas Fault?

Refusal to raise debt ceiling or taxes brought to you by the same people who gave us Iraqi invasion with a tax cut. What could go wrong?

Obama failed to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Is there anything he'll refuse to surrender?

"I woke up in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

Per Harpers. Women consider themselves old at 29, whereas men don't think of themselves as old until 58.

Tell me again, once you've taken the compromise out of politics what are you left with?

Is this an intentional Freudian mind game that therapist so easily decomposes into the rapist?

The longer you take to admit that it's probably going to take longer than you want to admit, the longer it's going to take.

Ready for a wildly optimistic book about the future? The Fourth Economy is now available at Barnes & Noble. http://bit.ly/rjjpTz

RT @samchaltain: RT @troyjones001: “@nickoleggett: Rupert Murdoch says he has been touched by messages left on Amy Winehouse's phone..”

The No. 2 pencil presumably added the erase feature. Wonder if the No. 22 pencil will actually guide your hand through tricky spelling.

In my seeming quest to continually get in over my head, I'm heading to Kuala Lumpur in September to lead a 2 day on Systems Thinking.

As yet, Republicans have not cut a dime from budget. This week, though, they did cut a quarter of a trillion from stock market value.

RT @iTweetYouLoL: little sister's password 4 Disney website: "MickeyMinnieGoofyPluto" asked why she said "They told me to use 4 characters"