Saturday, July 30, 2011

Co-evolution from another angle

As exemplified by this Economist cover article, the concept of the Anthropocene is getting lots of attention. While exemplifying the idea of co-evolution, that is that natural and social systems are engaged in a dance of mutual influence and shifting adaptive landscapes -- the primary focus is on how humans have altered the biosphere.

A recent NYTimes article takes a different approach, documenting various animal adaptations to the urban environment.
White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like bedbugs, rats and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years. Life adapts.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Punctuated Politics and the obligatory debt limit post

In light of the current food fight, see this discussion porting the idea of punctuated equilibria from evolution to politics.

Paleoclimate evidence on rapidity of climate change

How rapidly will climate change occur? Traditionally, the changes were expected to be linear -- that as the amount of carbon in the atmosphere went up, the temperature would rise proportionately. Over the past few decades, this view has increasingly been replaced with the recognition of tipping points and the possibility of comparatively rapid change. James Hansen and Makiko Sato have recently produced a pair of papers -- one technical and the other focused on a more general audience -- describing their recent findings suggesting that the bulk of change from certain feedback processes will occur in a period of decades rather than centuries. Here is the introduction from the non-technical version: Earth's Climate History: Implications for Tomorrow
The past is the key to the future. Contrary to popular belief, climate models are not the principal basis for assessing human-made climate effects. Our most precise knowledge comes from Earth's paleoclimate, its ancient climate, and how it responded to past changes of climate forcings, including atmospheric composition. Our second essential source of information is provided by global observations today, especially satellite observations, which reveal how the climate system is responding to rapid human-made changes of atmospheric composition, especially atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Models help us interpret past and present climate changes, and, in so far as they succeed in simulating past changes, they provide a tool to help evaluate the impacts of alternative policies that affect climate.

Paleoclimate data yield our best assessment of climate sensitivity, which is the eventual global temperature change in response to a specified climate forcing. A climate forcing is an imposed change of Earth's energy balance, as may be caused, for example, by a change of the sun's brightness or a human-made change of atmospheric CO2. For convenience scientists often consider a standard forcing, doubled atmospheric CO2, because that is a level of forcing that humans will impose this century if fossil fuel use continues unabated.

We show from paleoclimate data that the eventual global warming due to doubled CO2 will be about 3°C (5.4°F) when only so-called fast feedbacks have responded to the forcing. Fast feedbacks are changes of quantities such as atmospheric water vapor and clouds, which change as climate changes, thus amplifying or diminishing climate change. Fast feedbacks come into play as global temperature changes, so their full effect is delayed several centuries by the thermal inertia of the ocean, which slows full climate response. However, about half of the fast-feedback climate response is expected to occur within a few decades. Climate response time is one of the important 'details' that climate models help to elucidate.

For those who want the technical details, here is the abstract of the scientific publication.
Paleoclimate data help us assess climate sensitivity and potential human-made climate effects. We conclude that Earth in the warmest interglacial periods of the past million years was less than 1{\deg}C warmer than in the Holocene. Polar warmth in these interglacials and in the Pliocene does not imply that a substantial cushion remains between today's climate and dangerous warming, but rather that Earth is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate global warming. Thus goals to limit human-made warming to 2{\deg}C are not sufficient - they are prescriptions for disaster. Ice sheet disintegration is nonlinear, spurred by amplifying feedbacks. We suggest that ice sheet mass loss, if warming continues unabated, will be characterized better by a doubling time for mass loss rate than by a linear trend. Satellite gravity data, though too brief to be conclusive, are consistent with a doubling time of 10 years or less, implying the possibility of multi-meter sea level rise this century. Observed accelerating ice sheet mass loss supports our conclusion that Earth's temperature now exceeds the mean Holocene value. Rapid reduction of fossil fuel emissions is required for humanity to succeed in preserving a planet resembling the one on which civilization developed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Padgett, Part II: Emergence of Partnership

A previous post described the basic outline of one of the most important ideas I've come across in the past decade: Padgett's use of multi-network perspective to explain organizational invention. This post provides a concrete illustration of that perspective in action through the emergence of a system of economic partnership in Renaissance Florence. Future posts, exploring the theory in more abstract terms, will refer back to this material as a way of making the ideas more understandable. For more details .... read on.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jefferson vs Webster: America's First Global Warming Debate

Interesting article in the Smithsonian describing an early debate over human impact on the climate. Jefferson, measured the temperature on his farm twice daily for 50 years.
In his 1787 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson launched into a discussion of the climate of both his home state and America as a whole. Near the end of a brief chapter addressing wind currents, rain and temperature, he presented a series of tentative conclusions: “A change in our climate…is taking place very sensibly. Both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged. Snows are less frequent and less deep….The elderly inform me the earth used to be covered with snow about three months in every year. The rivers, which then seldom failed to freeze over in the course of the winter, scarcely ever do so now.” Concerned about the destructive effects of this warming trend, Jefferson noted how “an unfortunate fluctuation between heat and cold” in the spring has been “very fatal to fruits.”

Jefferson was affirming the long-standing conventional wisdom of the day. For more than two millennia, people had lamented that deforestation had resulted in rising temperatures.

Daniel Webster, best known for his dictionary, disputed the argument -- both in its traditional anecdotal/historical form and in the more empirical/scientific version that Jefferson and others made subsequent to the invention of the thermometer.
Webster concluded by rejecting the crude warming theory of Jefferson and Williams in favor of a more subtle rendering of the data. The conversion of forests to fields, he acknowledged, has led to some microclimatic changes—namely, more windiness and more variation in winter conditions. But while snow doesn’t stay on the ground as long, that doesn’t necessarily mean the country as a whole gets less snowfall each winter: “We have, in the cultivated districts, deep snow today, and none tomorrow; but the same quantity of snow falling in the woods, lies there till spring….This will explain all the appearances of the seasons without resorting to the unphilosophical hypothesis of a general increase in heat.”

Webster's arguments basically ended the debate and the idea that human activity significantly affected the climate was forgotten until the middle of the 20th century.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On badgers, coyotes, humans and the evolution of cooperation

A number of years ago scientists documented a strange cooperative hunting relationship among badgers and coyotes. While they are natural enemies -- coyotes sometimes eat badgers, it turns out they both eat squirrels, marmots and prairie dogs. Thus, rather than face each other down they, on occasion, cooperatively hunt together in order to take advantage of the particular skill set each animal possesses.

Badgers and Coyotes catch ground squirrels differently. Badgers usually dig them up, coyotes pounce on them or chase them. Ground squirrels often escape a digging badger by leaving their underground burrows and running away across the surface of the ground. These same ground squirrels escape coyotes by running into burrows and disappearing underground. A ground squirrel will theoretically have less chance to escape a badger and a coyote hunting together. If it runs away from the coyote by going underground into a burrow, the badger will dig it up. If it leaves a burrow to escape the badger, the coyote will run after it and catch it.

These cooperative relations are not short term -- out of 214 observed associations in one study, over half of them lasted more than an hour and 2 lasted for over five hours. A brief video on the phenomena is here.

This is just one of a wide range of phenomena discussed in The Unselfish Gene, an interesting article by Yochai Benkler author of the soon to be released The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Padgett, Emergence of Organizations and Markets, Part I

I'm an idea junkie. I have fairly diverse interests and scan lots of things. But, for the most part, the things I come across strike me as either generally similar to this or that idea I've come across before or interesting and novel but focused on a matter that isn't terribly consequential.

It is very rare that I come across something that strikes me as fundamental -- in the sense that it addresses a deep problem in a novel way that makes intuitive sense to me. I count three instances in the past decade:
1) Holling's conceptualization of the operation of systems in terms of panarchy.
2) Abbott's description of the process of knowledge change.
3) The ideas discussed in the rest of this post.

How do new organizational forms originate? As a visit to the Oil Drum, or virtually any other major environmental website shows, you see lots of calls for dramatic social transformation. And you can also find good studies documenting historical change in organizational form, for example Chandler's analysis of capitalist managerial organization. But these works, in a Darwinian sense, focus on the selection process -- why a novel form gets perpetuated -- rather than the innovation process -- how the novel form originated. While there is some discussion of where novel ideas come from, the focus tends to be on technological innovation. In many ways it makes sense to speak of bureaucracy as a technology, but it is profoundly problematic to think that the process of social innovation is just a mirror of the process of technological innovation. So, to summarize, a general recognition of the need for social innovation -- that is the development of new forms of social organization -- coupled with virtually no understanding of how novel forms of social organization are generated.

Into this gaping hole walks John Padgett and his collaborators with their forthcoming Princeton University Press title The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. In a work of stunning scope, they lay out a general theory of organizational innovation and then proceed to provide a diverse set of illustrative examples covering the sweep of modern history -- from early capitalism (the emergence of merchant banks, the partnership system, global markets and the joint stock system), thru studies of communist economic transition (China, USSR, Hungary), to the emergence of new linkages between science and capitalism (e.g., the emergence of Silicon Valley and other high tech research network clusters). While the book focuses on economic organization, there is no obvious reason the theory wouldn't apply to other types of organization.

In essence, Padgett translates the biochemical theory of autocatalysis, which Stuart Kauffman has argued provides a model for abiogenesis (the emergence of biological life out of inorganic matter), into a form useful for understanding the emergence of organizations. There are three key parts. First, there is the emergence of novelty. In the abiogenesis example, this would be the emergence of life out of inorganic chemicals. Second, there is the requirement of persistence through time. If life emerged, but failed to persist over many generations, then its development would be transient and not terribly important. Third, the new development must be consequential. The emergence of a single-celled living organism that persisted for millions of years but remained the only form of living organism, as significant as that example of life may be, is not as consequential as the development of a wide variety of diverse living organisms (cats, dogs, whales, people, birds, insects, etc.). I'm not talking about the value of the different organisms themselves, but rather the importance of a process which spills over into other areas and generates greater and greater variety.

In the process, Padgett comes up with a new way of thinking about individual humans: not as static, bounded objects but, rather, as dynamic flows of chemicals, energy and information embedded in networks. The implications for scholars interested in understanding conjoined socio-ecological systems, which have been plagued by the attempt to integrate ecology's focus on flows (energy flows and biogeochemical cycles) with approaches to human systems that emphasize the primacy of individuals and their actions, are hard to overestimate.

Here is how they organize the theoretical discussion:
First, we describe the problem of organizational novelty in the context of multiple social networks. Next, we explain our core dynamic motor of autocatalysis, at the levels of both chemical and economic production. Then, we extend the biochemical concept of autocatalysis to encompass the social production of persons. Fourth, we describe six network mechanisms of organizational genesis that we have discovered in our case studies. Fifth, we identify seven mechanisms of multiple-network catalysis that turned these organizational innovations into systemic inventions. Finally, we discuss the important outstanding issue of structural vulnerability to network tipping. This question of poisedness, for us, is the next research horizon.
There is way too much here for one post. So, there will be several spread out over time. If you can't wait, the key theoretical chapter is here. Padgett's homepage has links to other material, both published and unpublished, including several other chapters from the forthcoming book.  For an extended overview, including description of the multi-network perspective,  read on ....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Global Heating or What's in a Name?

As the global warming / climate change debate has become stuck in an intractable rut, people have started looking for different words that more accurately convey what is going on. Tom Friedman, for example, has proposed 'global wierding'  in order to focus attention on the proliferation of unusual and extreme climate events. Over at Tumblr, Andrew Revkin has suggested the term global heating and provided a wonderful graphic to back up the choice.

The diagram/term have two big benefits. First, it dramatically emphasizes the importance of the ocean as repositories of heat energy relative to the land and atmosphere. Second, it focuses attention on changes to the system  -- accumulation of heat energy -- rather than attempting to describe the consequences of that change.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Dynamics of Disaster

Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and Recovery

Edited by Rachel A. Dowty and Barbara L. Allen
London: Earthscan
2011, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781849711432

Here's a briefly annotated Table of Contents followed by a review of the volume as a whole.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

When The Water Ends: Africa’s Climate Conflicts

Here's a follow up to the previous post about climate change and war as threat multipliers; a link to a 2011 Webby nominated 16-minute video "When the Water Ends" produced by Yale Environment 360.

Here's a description of the video's content.
For thousands of years, nomadic herdsmen have roamed the harsh, semi-arid lowlands that stretch across 80 percent of Kenya and 60 percent of Ethiopia. Descendants of the oldest tribal societies in the world, they survive thanks to the animals they raise and the crops they grow, their travels determined by the search for water and grazing lands.

These herdsmen have long been accustomed to adapting to a changing environment. But in recent years, they have faced challenges unlike any in living memory: As temperatures in the region have risen and water supplies have dwindled, the pastoralists have had to range more widely in search of suitable water and land. That search has brought tribal groups in Ethiopia and Kenya in increasing conflict, as pastoral communities kill each other over water and grass.

“When the Water Ends” tells the story of this conflict and of the increasingly dire drought conditions facing parts of East Africa. — how worsening drought in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere will pit group against group, nation against nation. As one UN official told Abramson, the clashes between Kenyan and Ethiopian pastoralists represent “some of the world’s first climate-change conflicts.” But the story recounted in “When the Water Ends” is not only about climate change. It’s also about how deforestation and land degradation — due in large part to population pressures — are exacting a toll on impoverished farmers and nomads as the earth grows ever more barren.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Talisman Terry bites the dust

Two years ago Calgary based Talisman Energy created Talisman Terry's Energy Adventure, a coloring book featuring Terry the “fracosaurus.” Terry, depicted in hard hat and work boots, presents a simplified and propagandistic version of the natural gas extraction process and an optimistic portrayal of what land used for shale fracturing can be turned into. The coloring book has been widely distributed to children for the past couple years as part of Talisman's community outreach in the rural areas of Pennsylvania and New York where the company is actively engaged in drilling the Marcellus shale.

This past Monday (July 11), the Colbert Report poked fun at Terry. By Thursday, as reported in the Calgary Herald, he was history. Talisman Energy, as shown in the screen capture below, has done its best to erase Terry's digital presence.

If you're so inclined, you can check out the colouring book's contents here.

Defining Uncertainty, Difficulty, and Complexity

A useful taxonomy from Scott E. Page's Uncertainty, Difficulty, and Complexity (Journal of Theoretical Politics 20(2): 115–149 DOI: 10.1177/0951629807085815)
My point is that uncertainty differs from difficulty and complexity and that they too matter. ... (U)ncertainty refers to the absence of information about some relevant variable or what some call the state of the world – tomorrow’s weather, to give one example, is uncertain. Difficulty refers to problems that have many interacting variables. Developing a workable form of fusion is difficult as is designing an office building or writing a piece of legislation. Difficult problems have many possible solutions and no obvious best one a priori. When faced with a difficult problem, most problem solvers prove incapable of finding the optimum. They must rely on perspectives and heuristics (Page, 2007). Complexity in turn differs from difficulty. Complexity refers to dynamic environments that contain multiple actors who interact with one another. The response to a natural disaster like a hurricane creates a complex web of interactions whose outcomes are unpredictable. Complex environments cannot be solved in any sense. At best, the complexity can be harnessed (Axelrod and Cohen, 2000).

The relevance of the definitions is outlined in the abstract below:
In this article I clarify the often muddled distinctions between uncertainty, difficulty, and complexity and show that all three can enhance our understanding of institutional performance and design. To cope with uncertainty, institutions align incentives for information revelation; to handle difficult problems, institutions create incentives for diverse problem-solving approaches; and to harness complexity, institutions adjust selection criteria, rates of variation, and the level of connectedness. The distinction between complex systems and equilibrium systems also necessitates a discussion of the differences between the existence, stability, and attainment of equilibria and why, despite often being neglected, the latter two concepts are important to our understanding of institutions.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die

Continuing with the apocalypse versus optimism theme, here are two versions of Barbara Ehrenreich's summary of her latest book, Smile or Die. The RSA Animation version and the longer lecture that it was taken from.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Is for Armageddon

With all the doom and gloom of the past couple years, you can't blame Richard Horne (author of 101 Things To Do Before You Die) for taking the piss out of the doomsday message with A Is for Armageddon: A Catalogue of Disasters That May Culminate in the End of the World as We Know It.

As they put it over at BrainPickings,
From religious warfare to grey goo to deforestation, Horne combines science, superstition and sociology in a beautifully illustrated, delightfully dystopian guide to the apocalypse. Underlying the wickedly entertaining tone, however, is a grounded, non-preachy crusade for awareness that exudes the call of urgency none of us want to hear but all of us must.

Opening with a Table of Contents that riffs on the periodic table of the elements, this is a book that make you laugh while it educates. Lots of photos follow. Click on them to get to the full size versions where you can read the text. If you haven't had enough, be sure to check out Slavoj Žižek’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in One Minute (the Elvis of Cultural Theory only comes up with four impending catastrophes!) and, for an antidote, An Optimist's Tour of the Future.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Parenti on Climate Change and War: Threat Multipliers

Christian Parenti's interview on Democracy Now is a fantastic examination of the nexus of climate and society, in particular, the multifarious causal links between climate change and violent conflict. I recommend reading the entire interview as well as reading his book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

Parenti doesn't say that "climate change causes war." Instead, he looks at how states have already been weakened and destabilized by social conditions, e.g. IMF policies forcing "structural adjustments" that include the abandonment of small farmers, political collapse that leads to tribal conflict and a flood of small weapons, and then how climate change amplifies social breakdown and the proliferation of violent conflict. From the interview:

"The Pentagon, particularly around 2007, was putting out these reports and think tanks around them, realizing they were going to be called upon to respond to this problem. To their credit the armed services take climate change seriously, which is more than you can say for, say the GOP leadership in the House. And what they see again and again is not so much a future of interstate conflict, but of irregular warfare within states, social breakdown, increased banditry, mass migration. They realize they’re going to be called upon to respond to these low intensity conflicts and these civil wars, so front and center in their program of response is counterinsurgency.

This goes by different names — small wars, low-intensity conflict, counter insurgency. This is as part of the War on Terror become very important to U.S. foreign policy and I’m critical of that one, because I don’t think it will work. I don’t think it’s moral. But also, counterinsurgency, if you look at its record, what it does to societies is very damaging. Because the object is the population rather than territory, it leaves societies fragmented and vulnerable."

These themes echo the historical study of collapse that I have been reading in Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Civilizations.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Emergence: Spontaneous Order Theory

Most of the material I've read about emergence traced its conceptual roots to the natural sciences -- even when dealing with social creations like cities or the world wide web. But there is a significant tradition focusing on 'spontaneous order' traceable to Adam Smith (known for the concept of the Invisible Hand) and the Scottish Enlightenment. So, here is some links to that material

1) The online journal Studies in Emergent Order

2) A couple of papers in the journal that look particularly interesting:

Conflicts and Contradictions in Invisible Hand Phenomena

This paper makes three interconnected arguments.
  • Building off my other writings, in a world where there are many non-teleological complex adaptive systems exist, no automatic harmony exists between their different coordinating processes. This paper will focus on four of these systems: the ecological system at the landscape level, and three cultural systems, the market, science, and democracy.
  • Organizations originating within one such system but operating within more than one, will ultimately be dependent on one set of feedback signals over the others. When conflict between sets of signals arises, such organizations will disrupt, undermine, or destroy the other ordering processes.
  • Therefore a system of Hayekian spontaneous orders such as the market, democracy, and science, is not and cannot be sustainable based solely on their own internal characteristics because conflict between them is an intrinsic feature of social life. The same hold for any of these systems and an ecosystem. They need to be viewed within a larger context.
From Hayek’s Spontaneous Orders to Luhmann’s Autopoietic Systems

In this paper I contrast Hayek’s and Luhmann’s treatment of law as a complex social system. Through a detailed examination of Hayek’s account of law, I criticize the explanatory power of his central distinction between spontaneous order and organization. Furthermore, I conclude that its application to law leads to different results from the ones derived by Hayek. The central failure of Hayek’s failure, however, lies in his identification of complex systems with systems of liberal content maximizing individual freedom. Indeed, in this way, he can only account for systems-individuals and not systems-systems interactions. I introduce Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic systems, which I submit, can solve all the mentioned problems and seems a much more promising conceptual architecture to grasp social systems in the context of a complex society.

3) An annotated bibliography of works on self organizing systems

4) An article tracing the intellectual history of the tradition: From Smith to Menger to Hayek: Liberalism in the Spontaneous-Order Tradition

Friday, July 8, 2011

Climate Change Culture Wars?

Keith Kloor has an interesting post, Why the Climate Debate is a Culture War. In it, Keith explores the implications of a Yale university study. Here is the abstract of that study:
The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by the citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

Having read through the article, I find myself in a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, the study gets the big picture right. The empirical evidence that increased scientific literacy and numeracy leads to increased polarization over the reality of global warming rather than increased consensus, it is a devastating critique of the deficit model. Moreover, I agree with their emphasis on the importance of values.

But the paper goes seriously off track in its understanding of the dynamics of public opinion. At the individual level, the paper treats each individual as a little philosopher, rationally organizing their world into a coherent scheme. This is the same basic presumption that animates the deficit model. Except the proponents of the deficit model presume the existence of a universal rationality (science), leading to the presumption that greater scientific literacy will result in enlightenment. In place of a universal rationality, Kahan and his co-authors have substituted culturally specific (and, thus, not universal) rationalities tied to particular values. Everyone is still 'rational' and living in a world that is intersubjectively coherent and consistent, it is just that the shared consensus is within a particular group (people who share the same values) rather than the public as a whole.

This is true, and a big improvement on the standard story, to a point. The problem is they presume every individual is a little philosopher when the evidence is that only about 15-20% of the population is 'rational' in the sense of holding an ideologically coherent view of the world. Admittedly, this small slice of the public is disproportionately important because they tend to frame the terms of the debate. But in a democracy, where everyone's opinion counts, it is a mistake to treat all public opinion as a projection of the dynamics associated with the ideological minority. And this is precisely what Kahan and his colleagues, with their argument about the 'tragedy of the risk perceptions commons,' do.

Think, for example, of the classic culture war issue: the abortion debate. On the one hand you have a view that is ideologically coherent and privileges life. These people see abortion as murder and are opposed to all abortions. On the other hand, you have an ideologically coherent view that privileges women's control over her body and, hence, the right to choose an abortion if she wishes. On the face of it, this scenario conforms very well with the dynamics Kahan and his colleagues describe. You have two separate cultural value systems, each rational in their own way, and a debate framed in terms of the two conflicting cultural values.

But the vast majority of individuals do not hold ideologically pure and consistent views -- that abortion is always wrong or that it is always a choice to be made by the woman. The bulk of individuals have contingent and contextually specific views: abortion is wrong, but there are exceptions for rape or the health of the mother; abortion is a women's choice but she shouldn't choose an abortion for purely economic reasons, etc.

The little philosopher model of human thought argues that people have a coherent set of consistently prioritized values: a > b > c > d > e. Thus, they will choose a over c but prefer c to d. But, as the abortion example shows, this isn't the best way to conceptualize public opinion. The vast majority of people do not think in these terms. For most people, context and the specifics of the situation matter more than abstract principals.

Simply put, the cultural war model is a big improvement on the deficit model. But the culture war model has a significant problem of its own. It represents the public as divided into two mutually exclusive groups based on competing value schemes. A more accurate representation sees the public as divided into three groups rather than two: the two ideological factions who, despite being a numerical minority, dominate the debate and a third group, the bulk of the public who conceptualize the world in situational and contextual specifics rather than ideological absolutes and are increasingly disenchanted with the polarization of political discourse. Moving away from the deficit model is a good first step. But substituting the culture war model isn't the answer. We need a model of political discourse that doesn't presume everyone is a little philosopher.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The inevitable Casey Anthony post

What does my previous post ranting about the innovation killing potential of Google+ have to do with the Casey Anthony case? And why, when Google reports 40 million pages of material on Anthony, would anyone bother to write more on the subject? Read on .....

Three Ideas

This is the story of three things, how those things came to be in my mind at the same time, the associations/connections that my brain made as a result, and the implications of that set of events. What were the three things? First, there was the Casey Anthony trial. I didn't really follow the case much over the past 3 years. But the coverage leading up to the verdict was so frenetic I got hooked. Curiosity got the best of me and I spent hours watching the closing arguments of both the prosecution and the defense. As a result, I have a basic awareness of the overall case and the way each side framed it to the jury. I, like many of the talking heads, thought the prosecution presented a more coherent case. But given the number of 'uncertainties' and the general level of family dysfunction, I wasn't totally shocked by the verdict.

The second thing rattling around in my brain was a curiosity about the Knobe effect, an effect having to do with the connection between moral judgements and intentionality. This was not something I had ever thought about before, it was directly traceable to an article (The anatomy of intentional action) I read on the day the verdict came down. Conventional wisdom tells us that we need to know whether an act was intentional or accidental before reaching a moral judgement. If someone accidentally steps on the cat's tail, that is forgivable. But, to purposefully step on the cat's tail and intentionally inflict pain is cruel and wrong. This distinction lies at the heart of the Anthony trial narratives. According to the prosecution, Caylee was intentionally murdered. According to the defense, Caylee accidentally drowned and events spun out of control from there.

But, the article discussed research suggesting we're more likely to view an act as intentional if we disapprove of it. In other words, the research suggests that conventional wisdom gets the causal order wrong. Rather than our assessment of whether or not an act was intentional (cause) informing our moral assessment of the act (effect), the research shows that our moral judgement (cause) often affects our assessment of whether or not someone's actions were intentional (effect). So, putting the ideas present in the article together with the trial, we get a plausible account for the divergence between public opinion and the jury verdict. A large segment of the public is obviously upset with the verdict. And many of these same people are thoroughly outraged by Casey's "Bella Vita" lifestyle. Perhaps the research in the article explains the link: these people passed moral judgement on Casey's lifestyle choices and, as a result, attributed intentionality to her actions toward Caylee.

The third item rattling around in my brain was the arguments presented by noted sociologist Charles Tilly in a wonderful little book titled Why?. In it Tilly analyzes the reasons people use to explain events or behavior. The basic points of the book: 1) there are different "types" of reasons, 2) the different types are contextually deployed -- in other words, rather than always giving the same reason for a particular action, people will explain it one way in one situation and another way in a different situation, and 3) there are conventionalized expectations, based on the situation, as to which type of reason we expect someone to provide and, hence, it is seems socially jarring when they provide a kind of reason that differs from the type we expect. This last point explains much of the humor in The Big Bang Theory; humor that follows directly from physics geeks offering up socially unexpected/inappropriate reasons for their behavior.

Publisher's Weekly summarized the book as follows:
He (Tilly) lists four basic types of reasons: conventions (socially accepted clichés like "My train was late," or "We're otherwise engaged that evening"), stories (simplified cause-effect narratives), codes (legal, religious) and technical accounts (complicated narratives, often impenetrable to nonspecialists). He demonstrates that our social relations dictate the kind of reason we invoke in a given circumstance. For instance, we offer more elaborate rationales for our behavior—stories, rather than conventions—to those close to us. We invoke codes with individuals whom we have power over, but not those who have power over us.

Anyone who followed the Anthony trial knows that all four types of reason -- conventions, narratives, codes, and technical accounts -- were present in the testimony. Perhaps Tilly's ideas provide some insight into the jury's verdict. Take, for example, the treatment of the forensic evidence. Generally speaking, the prosecution engaged that evidence by way of technical accounts -- the testimony of various experts -- while the defense tended to make sense of the forensics with other types of reason. The duct tape on the jaw, for example, was explained by a narrative implicating Roy Kronk. Similarly, the defense used the code 'junk science' to call into question the prosecution's technical account about the amount of chloroform present in the trunk of the car. One of the main points that Tilly makes is that people tend to be persuaded by certain types of reasons more than others and, hence, that social scientists (a group of whose technical accounts are legendary for being uninterpretable to the general public) should develop better ways of communicating. Perhaps that is what the defense did. Perhaps the types of reasons the defense supplied more accurately matched the kinds of reasons the jury expected to hear given the specifics of the various situations.

When Ideas have Sex

But the point of this isn't to describe the mash-up of ideas floating around in my head. Nor is it to detail how the Knobe effect or Tilly's types of reason provide insights about the Anthony trial. The point is that, because these ideas were in my head at the same time, my brain was able to find connections between them. And, more to the point, the connections were innovative.

There are millions (billions?) of words on the web about the Casey Anthony trial. I'd be very surprised, however, if anyone else has written about the relevance of either the Knobe effect or Tilly's types to an understanding of the trial process. Put Google to work and see for yourself. With millions of people riveted on the Anthony trial and writing so many reams of material about it, you would expect -- like the famous typing monkeys that ultimately produce Hamlet -- that someone else would have stumbled on the same connections.

Again, the point isn't that the connections are particularly profound. It is that they are innovative and original. They are the product of the idiosyncratic mix of materials floating around in my head (a necessary condition -- if the ideas weren't in my head, my brain couldn't connect them) and one particular type of neural activity (the creation of a network linking them together). Put them together and you have innovative thought -- the meeting and mating of ideas that Matt Ridley discusses as 'ideas having sex.' Or, as James Burke puts it: 1+1=3. If you take two things (a bell and a push-button, for example) and connect them together you get a third (a door bell).

As anyone who watches Dragon's Den (aka Shark's Tank in the US) knows, not all innovations are good innovations. But having the idea is a necessary precondition to separate the wheat from the chaff. In Darwinian terms, evolution is the product of lots and lots of mutations -- most of them trivial and useless -- that the selection process operates on.

Getting into Gary's Head

So, it is the juxtaposition of two or more seemingly unconnected things that lets the brain make connections. If they aren't there at the same time, no connections will be made. How, exactly, did this odd jumble of ideas come to be in my head? As everyone knows, the Anthony trial is in the air and hard to avoid. And, as I mentioned above, the crush of attention piqued my curiosity and I invested a few hours in catching up on an event that many had been following for years.

The other material came to my attention more elliptically. I frequently visit the Resilience Science blog. A few days ago they had a link to an interview with TC Boyle discussing five books dealing with the relationship between humans and nature. When I checked out the interview, I discovered it was hosted on an aggregator site, The Browser, which had lots of interesting material. Over the next few mornings, I returned to The Browser and that is where, on the day of the trial's verdict, I discovered a link to The Anatomy of Intentional Action.

The path to the Tilly material is even stranger. I was engaged in a work related activity, looking for a picture of Erving Goffman. So I typed his name into Google and sorted for images. As I scanned through the images, I noticed a photo of Malcolm Gladwell. Curious about why a search for Goffman would bring up Gladwell's image, I clicked on it and traced it back to the source page, an article in the New Yorker written by Gladwell reviewing Tilly's book and comparing it to Goffman's works. While I hadn't heard of Why? before, I've read several of Tilly's other books and respect his work. So, I read the review and that's how I came to know about Tilly's types of reasons.

Anyone who has spent time wondering the web can give you similar stories about the non-linear connections that result. You start out looking for a recipe for Bánh mì and, through a series of connections that would make Kevin Bacon proud, you end up looking at Mike Carp's minor league batting average. Two things are important to notice about the process. First, while the individual actions -- clicking on this link or that -- are intentional, the search path as a whole is not. I didn't go looking for information about intentional action or different types of reason. I serendipitously discovered it through a process that involved scanning the environment and following up on items that aroused my curiosity.

Second, the presence of these three items in my mind at the same time was equally serendipitous. They were the product of three independent and unconnected scans of the environment that occurred within a period of 24 hours. Like the water flowing downstream in a river, the bulk of what I experience rapidly disappears from my memory. Within a couple days, I can't tell you anything about 95% of the movies I see. So, if one or the other of the thee scans had occurred a day or two earlier or later, its likely that the ideas wouldn't have been in my head at the same time. And I wouldn't have been able to make the connections that I did.

The Poverty of Push

To summarize, the likelihood that a particular individual will come up with an innovative idea is a product of factors influencing co-presence (getting multiple ideas into their brain at the same time) and juxtaposition (having enough points of similarity so that the ideas get connected, but being different enough that the connection results in an idea that is outside the box). Given that the complexity of the world's problems, what processes can we put in place that would improve the odds of coming up with innovative ideas?

Individuals who study information flows contrast two basic models: the push model and the pull model. In the pull model, the information consumer reaches out into the environment and pulls those pieces of information that are of interest to themselves. The scan and select processes that put the three ideas into my head illustrate the pull model in action. In the push model, information is pushed at the consumer based on a variety of pre-established criteria. Think, for example, of an RSS feed where a particular kind of information -- the recipe of the day or news about the economy -- are delivered to your inbox. While there is an initial pull -- the consumer has to established the criteria defining the types of information they want to receive -- once they have been set up, information of that requested type is pushed at the consumer.

Both models are equally good in relation to co-presence; they both connect the information consumer to a flow of information that puts ideas and information into their head. But they differ dramatically in terms of juxtaposition. Push processes provide information that neatly fits within particular predefined parameters. Information consumers who live in a push world may have access to enormous amounts of information, but that information all falls inside particular boxes. It is hard to think outside the box, when all the information you get is inside the box. Pull processes, as we have seen, encourage exploration outside pre-packaged information worlds and, as a result, increase the likelihood that in individual's brain will be inhabited by multiple ideas that provide the basis for interesting and innovative juxtaposition.

Obviously, any given individual uses both processes. But technological developments influence the relative proportion of information an individual gets by one process or the other. Up until now Google has been the preeminent pull technology. You type in a search term and Google pulls in the results for you. But as the company shifts to the social media emphasis of the Google+ paradigm, as suggested in the earlier post, I suspect users will live increasingly in a push world. And there is no way that a push world can replicate the quirky paths that put those three ideas in my head. And without those ideas in my head, we don't get the innovative juxtapositions.

No problem, you say. The ideas weren't particularly interesting. Nobody's paying attention. The world wouldn't be any worse off without them. But that isn't the point. We need technological products that will foster creativity and innovation, not ones that suppress it. It isn't about the individual results, but overall productivity. And, I fear, Google+ is a move in the wrong direction.

July 11 Update:

Since posting this, I've become aware of a book that makes a similar argument: Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. It provides an eye-opening investigation of how ultra-personalization is controlling and limiting the information we’re exposed to. "We’ve moved to an age where the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see." For those who don't want to read, you can get the basic idea from his 2011 TED Talk.

Toward a new economic system

Interesting interview with Tim Jackson, author of the acclaimed Prosperity Without Growth (which expands on this free earlier publication put out by the recently eliminated UK Sustainable Development Commission) . (Yes, the irony of trying to cut the deficit in order to get a sustainable economy by axing the Sustainable Development Commission is, indeed, palpable.) Here are some of the more interesting bits:
The European: When did that psychology come into existence? For much of human history, economic activity was not intimately tied to the idea of growth.

Jackson: That’s a very interesting question that I cannot fully answer. I have written on that topic in the past, and my sense is that our idea of progress derives somewhat from the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the 18th century, you see the emergence of the science of rational discovery and the project of improving man’s condition. And that was accompanied by shifts in religiosity and spirituality. By the time the Enlightenment met Darwin in the middle of the 19th century, established religion had become secularized at least in the protestant countries. That was a very potent mix in which our sense of spiritual progress disappeared.

The European: We began to think of our lives as finite existences?

Jackson: Right, the idea of the immortal soul lost its influence. That obviously placed a huge importance on our physical existence. So progress came to be framed within the context of those finite existences: Future generations deserved better lives, they deserved more than we had. We secularized the original idea of the progress of the soul. And in the process, it became very much tied to material possessions.


The European: Change is uncomfortable.

Jackson: It requires us to engage in a dialogue about power, about who we are and who we want to be in the world. For example: We are confronted with the question of what is defined as success: A big car? Material wealth? If we reject those norms, we have to accept the potential loss of social standing that comes with it. That is the paradox of transformation: People desire change but they are hesitant to pursue it because of the potential pitfalls and structural constraints. So for me the lesson is that agency is insufficient by itself in the context of mainstream change. I find it critically important that we reshape the framework itself.


The European: Still, we are left with the question of what such a structure might look like…

Jackson: We don’t quite know. It would do more to align rights with responsibilities. It would place less emphasis on private ownership over the returns of public assets. It would encourage investments into public goods. It has company structures that code social and ecological returns into the structure itself. It focuses on bridging the sharing gap between the individual and the community.

The European: There’s a lot of Marx in that statement. First came feudalism, then came capitalism, then we threw off the shackles. How would your idea differ from the very illiberal manifestations that grew out of Marxism?

Jackson: It is explicitly post-Marxist and post-capitalist. The Marxist critique of capitalism was probably right in many of its elements but wrong in its outcomes. The idea that the alternative to the market is simply state control fell foul for several reasons: Totalitarian states are suffocated by a large bureaucracy that surrounds the state. And they encouraged the animal spirits that Adam Smith originally regarded as the basis of capitalism. The idea of rights and responsibilities got lost in the process: People didn’t enjoy many rights and didn’t really care about the things that they were supposed to own collectively. I don’t want to return to that.

The European: So this is another attempt at pursuing a Third Way, but without the focus on growth?

Jackson: At any point in history you are a product of ideas and systems that came before you. I would argue that both capitalism and communism have failed as systems of social organization. There is a vacancy right now that demands new ideas. And if we are successful, we will achieve a genuinely different fusion of ideas.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Google+ goes Social: Why Should You Care?

Wired's Steven Levy has a long, but very insightful article, Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social, describing the company's recent rollout of Google+ and the company's long term plans to transform itself and its products in light of Facebook's success. This may well be great for Google's bottom line, but bad for humanity. Here's why.

Without going too deeply into the details of the new product vision (you'll have to read the article for that), there are two main components to Google+. The stream looks a lot like a Facebook feed: a stream of social information from friends and others -- but with a significant tweak. Google thinks they have solved the privacy issue by allowing you to easily create different 'Circles' of friends and, hence, share different information with different people. The second element, Sparks, is a stream of information on topics of interest to the user. But, unlike the results of the standard Google search, the Sparks search algorithms have been tweaked to deliver content that is fresh, visual and viral. In other words, there is a designed synergy: the Sparks stream brings things to your attention that you will want to share with one or more of your Circles.
Overall, the stream and Sparks are indications of how the need to respond to the social challenge has already changed Google’s philosophy. It’s almost as if the Emerald Sea team is creating an anti-Google. Before starting the company in 1998, Page and Brin had tried to sell their technology to portals like Excite and Yahoo, whose execs refused because the Google search engine was deemed too effective: It would fulfill a users’ requests and then briskly send them on their way, taking their lucrative eyeballs with them. Google insisted that search quality trumped stickiness, and built a business on the premise that users were best served by getting results that sent them off to preferred destinations.

But with these streams, Google is changing direction. Right now, the content from Sparks and the social stream is not intermingled, but it’s reasonable to assume that before long, the company will use its algorithmic powers to produce a single flow that skillfully mixes those apples and oranges. Google has already pulled off a much more complicated version of that trick with Universal Search, which includes web pages, images, videos, books, Tweets, news items and other formats among its results. And that’s only the beginning. With its deep resources of information about its users, Google is capable of delivering a comprehensive collection of information, tailored exactly to one’s needs and interests. “It’s the long-term vision that we have for that newsfeed, that stream,” Gundotra says. “We think long-term, four to five years from now, the system should be putting items in there not just from your friends, but things that Google knows you should be seeing.”
This mother of all streams would be the equivalent of an intravenous feed of information, with inclusion of all the vital content from our social graph and the world at large (Google calls this the “interest graph”). It would scroll forever, and everything would be relevant. If Google’s original goal was to expeditiously dispatch us elsewhere, with this near-clairvoyant stream, Google could turn us into search potatoes who never leave.

So, Google is changing its business model. Why should we care? To appreciate the significance of this, we need to take a short trip into the world of evolutionary anthropology. Conventional wisdom over the past 160 years in the cognitive and neurosciences has assumed that brains evolved to process factual information about the world. Over the past decade, that view has largely been displaced by the social brain hypothesis. Crudely put, the traditional view held that human information processing capabilities (our brain and related language skills) evolved in relation to adaptive pressures that favored the sharing of technical information and the ability to socialize came as an added benefit. The social brain hypothesis turns this explanation on its head: the selective adaptation was sociability -- specifically the ability to use language in order to bond in groups larger than than those of other primates which bond by touch through sequential grooming. According to the social brain hypothesis, the ability to share technical information is an extra bonus, not the primary purpose of language. This model corresponds much better with how people actually act: we spend 3-4 times as much of our day using language to socialize (How are you?) as we do using it to exchange technical information (That will be $29.95, please.)

In short, Google is recognizing that the primary focus of human communication is social rather than technical and adapting their product to take that into account. This could well be a good move for Google's bottom line, but it is a potentially bad development for humanity. We are facing a set of complex and interconnected challenges -- climate change, population growth, biodiversity loss, improperly regulated economies, new diseases, increasing inequalities in the distribution of income, the end of cheap energy supplies, the list goes on and on -- that require innovative thought and action to successfully address. And pretty much everyone who studies the process of innovation (see, for example, the clip below), argue that innovations come from places that allow ideas to have sex -- that is to interact with one another in ways that will generate something new.

In sum, innovation typically depends on connecting ideas that weren't previously seen as related to each other. The new Google framework, however, is designed to do the exact opposite -- to take all the information and knowledge that they have about you as an individual and deliver to you only those things they think will be of interest. I don't want to be a Luddite here. People are creative and will find new and interesting ways to use Google's social turn to their advantage.

But, everything considered, this development seems to negatively impact the likelihood that ideas will have sex in any individuals head in several ways. First, it turns an efficient search engine into another time suck. Second, while nominally facilitating connectivity (a good thing) it will actually tend to limit the breadth of information that the person receives and the types of connections their mind makes. Think, for example, of the difference between a) receiving a newspaper, scanning all the headlines and deciding to read something totally unexpected and b) receiving a feed limited to specific topics that, as a result, doesn't bring you the article in an area outside your interest. Third, it will take development dollars away from Google's previous focus -- technical search algorithms -- and, potentially, limit future developments in that area.

In a McLuhanesque sense, a new technology creates a new environment. My fear is that, everything considered, the environment created by Google+ encourages protected sex over unprotected sex and, as a result, is less likely to produce new offspring. In a world that desperately needs innovation, this is not a positive development

Sunday, July 3, 2011

NB Shale Gas Update

For those following the developments in relation to shale gas exploration in New Brunswick, several factors are worth noting.

1) More than $350 million in exploration funding for shale gas has poured into a tiny (population about 800,000) province with a relatively high unemployment rate (6.9 % in April), a concern about out-migration, a humongous hole in the provincial budget, and a provincial debt of approximately $10 billion.

2) The Quebec government just placed a moratorium on shale gas exploration, and the opposition Liberals, have called for a similar moratorium in NB. But there is little indication that the government is interested in a moratorium.

3) The New Brunswick Energy Commission recently recommended expanding unconventional gas development.

4) There has been substantial public opposition, organized in part by the NB Conservation Council (which produced this primer on the topic).

5) Much of the interest is the result of claims stemming from a Geological Survey of Canada estimate made several years ago that touted the amount of gas present in NB shale (67 trillion cubic feet, more than left in western Canada)

6) The New York Times has published a bunch of internal emails and oil industry documents showing that the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying. On the whole, the documents suggest that shale gas may be a Ponzi scheme investment bubble -- where estimates of large amounts of gas are used to generate investment opportunities and more money is made flipping leases than by producing gas.

7) As a result of all this, natural gas reserve estimates are under attack in the US.

8) Comments from a local industry executive (SWN General Manager Tom Alexander) on the implications of the NY Times documents are here.

8) Apache, one of the bigger players in the province (and, perhaps significantly, a US company), recently announced it was withdrawing from NB following disappointing drilling results.

Interesting times .... indeed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

2000 years of economic history

The Economist recently published this as their Daily Chart along with the following explanation.
An alternative timeline for the past two millennia

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person's life is just as much a part of mankind's story as another's. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already "longer" than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison's figures.

I've always appreciated Maddison's attempt to quantify global economic production and this chart is an interesting way to present his data. It can, however, be misinterpreted if you aren't careful. Specifically, a quick look at the graph makes it seem like things have fallen off a cliff. But that isn't the case. The graph is in percentage terms. So, the total of all the columns of either category (economic production -- dark blue columns or population -- the light blue columns) will always add up to 100. So, the 6% for the 21st century means that 6% of the total person years lived since the year 0 occurred between 2000 and 2010. As the 21st century goes on, the percent associated with this century will grow and, correspondingly, the percent associated with other centuries will decline. This will be most notable for the 20th century.

Once you understand that the 'collapse' is an artifact not worth much attention, two significant features stand out. First, after hundreds of years of not much change, things started to increase in 18th and 19th centuries and really took off in the 20th. Here we see the results of changes in social organization -- capitalism, the industrial revolution, and all that. Second, and much less appreciated, take a look at the switch in relative height of the two columns beginning in the 20th century. For most of the two thousand year period the percent of economic output was crudely one-quarter the percent of years lived. In the 19th century it rose to approximately 40%. They relative proportions reverse in the 20th century with economic output being crudely twice as large a percent as years lived -- a proportion that is even larger for the first decade of the 21st century. This switch captures the productivity gains associated with the switch from an economy based on muscle power to one based on chemical energy.