Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Cheer For Critical Thinking [O'Reilly blog]

Even in hard times we should still apply critical thinking to the strategy and products of science and technology, rather than being tempted to cheer uncritically. Read the full article on my O'Reilly blog page: 'Cheering For Green Tech - Critically'

Friday, January 23, 2009

Some Observations On Social Media

One of the advantages of living in San Francisco is that you can meet people who are in the thick of all things online and web 2.0. Over the last couple of days I have been to three different events with a social media or social networking focus. I shall be writing about these matters in more detail in the future, but for now, a few things seem clear(er):

1) Although there is a torrent of information about social media both online and offline and there are even ways of making money from it (indirectly) if you are good at SEO (search engine optimization) and SMO (social media optimization), the key for most people will be to stick to what you love - blog, talk or tweet about what you are really interested in and like doing. Be natural, don't try to fake it and don't try to sell anything too overtly - think about giving rather than taking. Blunt selling messages don't work, unless perhaps you are trying to sell your old sofa for five bucks (3.85 euros). Even then, CraigsList would probably be better.

2) The world of social media has not yet been professionalized and the worlds of marketing and advertising are still feeling their way. Somehow some of the services like twitter, Zannel etc are going to have to be seriously monetized, because as we saw in the first dot.com era and will see now even more, given the credit crunch and worse, if the tools that make social media possible don't make any money, ultimately they will go away. Advertising is not an easy sell in the social media context for many reasons, but maybe the confluence of many strands, including audio and video and various forms of interactivity, will make it possible for enough money to be made to keep the social media superstructure in development and maintenance.

3) Despite the missing business model and despite the grim times, the world of social media is fantastically vibrant and upbeat, especially here in San Francisco, where many of these services have started. Even so, I think everyone realises that at some stage the champagne has to be augmented with some meat and potatoes. From what I can see, the people at the forefront of social media were strongly involved in web 1.0 and many have quite fresh and hair-raising stories - and wounds - to prove it when things went wrong in 2001. Making social media financiall sustainable is a real and insistent question.

4) Audio and video recognition and search tools don't work very well yet, which may hold back audio-video from becoming a really integral part of social media. There is a lot of work being done on this and there should be no underestimating how difficult these kinds of pattern recognition problems are. The predictions of the 60s and 70s regarding voice and video recognition, not to mention Artificial Intelligence, have been hopelessly even ruinously optimistic. Even so, it would be great to see a lot of progress in this area (maybe some of the TARP money could be directed into this?).

5) At sfAMA Charlene Li talked about the need to tie different elements of social media together, including, for instance, single sign-on and cross-application information mining leading to applications being much more integrated. There are signs that this is happening with OpenId and ways in which Facebook and other similar apps can receive feeds from other streams. There are of course security and privacy issues that may be very knotty and should not be underplayed.

6) There is no substitute for real life. Believe it or not. But that can be a huge advantage of social media - it helps bring people together in real life, for talking, laughing, dancing, eating, you name it, and it keeps you connected in between. You don't have to join a mailing list, and you see (parts of) all kinds of conversations that can keep you in the loop, keep you feeling connected and belonging, and very often inform you of an event you had not heard of. In some ways, it's like being in an old fashioned pub - you hear a snatch of conversation and go over and listen or you see someone you were not expecting and are able to connect. People seem very friendly about this and non-cliquish, thank goodness.

In sum, there is a refreshing air of conviviality and inclusiveness about social media, especially twitter, which is so lightweight and inviting without being burdensome. Social media is about joining and belonging, and more than ever, in our fractured contractarian societies facing great economic hardship, anything that helps people connect in diverse yet guilt-free ways can help increase life chances and work chances.

I am willing to bet that through social media trust, social capital and mutual reciprocity are all being augmented, along with an increased awareness of common pool resources, but I don't have the data to prove it (yet), but I can say that social media are fun and an extraordinary resource and definitely increase levels of serotonin and oxytocin by somewhere between one and 100%. Or maybe more.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Great And Most Fortunate

The Great And Most Fortunate - not to mention Invincible - Spanish Armada set sail late in May in 1588 from the occupied port of Lisbon. Philip II was not pleased with Elizabeth I and was determined to put a stop to her activities by invading and conquering England. This would also disrupt some Dutch operations which were harming Spanish interests and prevent the British from attacking Spanish ships laden with gold and silver plundered from South America.

The slight problem was that the mission was an abysmal failure and helped to bankrupt Spain. Again. Yet Philip II later assembled more armadas which also failed. And his policies caused Spain to suffer more bankruptcies. Spain once had the largest empire on the planet, but it was based on flimsy economic foundations and poor policies and once decline set in Spain never really recovered.

Is Spain unique? No. Military adventures and associated expenditures have bankrupted or ruined country after country, and in even the more successful empires, the gains whilst impressive-seeming from some points of view, are always temporary.

It is possible that if someone is going to attack you, you might conclude that you had better attack them first rather than be slaughtered. This unfortunate and destabilizing behaviour seems to be inherited from some of our primate ancestors. However, it is not an iron law and it surely doesn't explain all modern military aggression, and even if it did, I think that rational leaders would look at the long-term costs and should conclude that wars don't pay.

In particular, the wars started by America since the end of World War II, seem to have been very bad value for money, even if to an increasing extent it was someone else's money. Looking at the fascinating and not much studied Bretton Woods money system, it is surely reasonable to conclude that whatever flaws it had (plenty), from America's point of view it was a very useful system and that it was brought down principally by the costs incurred by the Vietnam War.

It is possible to argue that the ending (officially in 1973) of the Bretton Woods agreement was one of the factors that allowed the recent, and now clearly disastrous, economic bubbles to form. However, it can also be argued that some of the seeds were planted by the agreement itself, in particular that Bretton Woods allowed the US to live beyond its means, a habit which once cemented in by the unique operation of the dollar, continues to this day.

In particular, America has used its special relationship with the world monetary system to build up a staggering and frightening military machine that it is all too willing to use overtly or covertly (by arms sales for instance). Few people think this is good for the world, and only a minority of Americans now appear to think it is good for America.

Why have such a huge and expensive military capacity? Which nation is going to attack the US mainland directly? The British tried it a couple of hundred years ago, but they seem to have been quite friendly lately. Mexico or Canada? Not very likely, since each nation is massively dependent on exporting goods and resources to the US, particularly energy resources.

Therein lies a clue. America's dependence on foreign oil imports is one of the reasons why it could argue that it needs a huge military. Interesting then to consider that the cost of running that military, not including the extra amount required for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the war on terror and the war on drugs) is about the same as the amount that America pays for all its imported oil - very roughly half a trillion dollars.

The good news is that if the Fed's printing presses ever run out of ink or the Chinese stop buying US treasuries, Washington could always put the military on unpaid leave for a decade or two and use the money to pay the oil import bill. Any pennies left over could be used to buy some wind turbines and solar panels, thus delivering both fiscal prudence and energy security, which should please politicians and public of every stripe and help America avoid the fate of nations that fight too many wars.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Terroir': Creating A Sense Of Place

"Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart or in the head? How begot, how nourished?" Shakespeare asks. And replies "It is engender'd in the eyes, with gazing fed."

Looking at the picturesque town of Epoisses in France I at least can easily agree with Shakespeare, and making a sort of bad pun for which the bard had a weakness, one might add it is fed by grazing too, since Epoisse is famous for its cheeses.

The picture shows the cheese-making enterprise of Jean Berthaut. Making this cheese is a complicated art, involving washing (the cheese) with salty water, then by a month in a humid cellar, followed by more washing, now with a mix of rainwater and a rather lethally strong alcoholic spirit called Marc de Bourgogne - not just once, but two to three times a week.

Much of this process is dedicated to the matter of ripening the cheese, called affinage. Quite reasonably enough it is carried out by an affineur, who also rotates and nudges the cheeses (a little like the remueur who twist the champagne bottles - a process known in English as riddling).

I tasted some of the rich and delicious Berthaut Epoisses cheese today (in San Francisco, not France) in the presence of the master cheese-maker himself, which is what prompted me to find out more.

French cheese is an ancient tradition, and like wine, terroir is a central concept. Terroir means land, but the real essence of the word does not translate into English very easily, but a key element is a sense of place, of being rooted somewhere. Terroir points to the unique aspects of soil, climate, situation and farming methods used to produce certain kinds of food like cheese and wine (though it can also apply to tea and coffee).

The quality of being 'rooted' is becoming increasingly rare for many of us, but the story of many of the old cheeses (and wines like champagne) is actually also one of serendipitous experimentation, which serves as a reminder that a sense of place and of traditions which in turn give people a sense of belonging all have to be invented by people trying different things out.

Many people will be trying new things out today, whether they want to or not, but one of the fruits may be new senses of terroir and belonging, as well as a renewed sense of the importance of local food whilst having the chance to learn from other places, directly and indirectly.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Getting To The 'Deeper Why'

A friend of mine said to me today that if Wall Street bankers were surgeons he wouldn't want any of them to operate on him. Yet almost no-one has been seriously taken to task and the banking system and the bankers who helped create the disaster look like they are about to get another 350 billion dollars - apparently with slightly more oversight this time.

I find all this quite mind-boggling. The amounts of money are staggering and the amount of planning and oversight seems to be absolutely minimal. I don't have any special access to Wall Street or Washington DC but I do know from former lives that what you read in the media is the acceptable face of some of the truth. The blogosphere helps, and things leak out onto the web that can shed more light on what is going on. But the thing that is missing - and which is so vital - is that so often we don't know really know why something is happening.

The 'deeper why' is hard to get at for all kinds of reasons. One might take the example of the Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute. I am not favouring one side or the other, but on the one hand, the Ukraine has been paying a really low price for the gas that it takes - or rather, it has not even been paying a low price, because it is badly in debt to Russia for what it has used. On the other hand, why did Russia wait till a viciously cold winter period to shut off gas, since the debt had been building up for a long time.

The matter is not just about natural gas and being a bad payer. Although Ukraine has few energy resources compared to its huge neighbour, it has one thing that Russia really needs - well located ice-free access to the sea. The Ukraine is also an important transit route from Russia to Europe for many things besides energy. Russia is therefore very alarmed by Ukraine's moves into western arms - if such a move were completed, it would have serious security implications for Russia, not least because the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is at Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The above analysis is all gleaned from public sources. I hope it gives a slightly better and more balanced picture than some media reports, but the 'deeper why', the real motivations and machinations will likely be hidden for decades or eternity. And so it goes for almost every other important issue in every nation on the planet.

Does not knowing the deeper why matter? For the serious historian, the answer is surely yes, but if one asks the question in a different way, I think the answer would be yes for all of us, at least in the future: does all of this covert manoeuvring lead to an efficient use of resources - especially money and energy - and good macro planning?

Surely the answer is no. What we need is a lot more transparency and the ability to ask more and deeper why questions. The next question is how to do this in such a complex society with so much at stake, and thus so much to hide. It would be so much easier if the surgeons of Wall Street were genuinely interested in the wider economy and society and would use their diagnostic skills to help the body politic. Since that is not the case, we need some new surgeons and some new approaches to anatomy that actually treat the body as precious instead of disposable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Take A Bike On The Wild Side: Making City Cycling Safer And More Convenient

I had already decided to change my homeward route to something both safer and with luck having fewer steep hills (going up that is). One of the advantages and disadvantages of riding a bicycle is that you get to learn the topology in a very intimate way - every downhill beckons like an old friend into a warm pub, while the uphills, though good for anaerobic stimulation, cause a sinking filling in that part of the brain set aside by nature for mapping bicycle excursions (unless you are a competition cyclist).

You also get to see the social ups and downs of a place, and something had told me that returning at 10pm via the road I had come along at 7pm would be a bad idea. It wasn't a good idea at 7pm, but I had no idea until I was actually going along it that I had picked a worrying street, and once on it, I didn't want to risk getting lost or potentially going into an even more alarming district.

So it just as well that I had worked out a quite different return route, because as I was leaving my meeting-which-turned-out-to-be-a-big party (put on by SXSW in San Francisco) a distraught young fellow asked me which way I was cycling home. He had a skateboard under his arm, so I spent a moment trying to do mental somersaults - did he want me to give him a tow home? Perhaps he needed directions, in which case I am about the last person on the planet to ask, unless I have a GPS device in my hand.

I told him I had arrived by the street behind us but was contemplating a different route. Then he blurted out that someone had just pulled a gun on him on that street, and he had fallen off his skateboard, smashing half his watch and catching some grazes. Mainly however he was scared - which seemed like a very sensible reaction.

I took his advice and mine, and went home in a completely different direction - which happily also avoided most of the hills. I was very wary all the way - always a good idea on a bicycle, though one is not normally, I hope, watching out for people with guns. But maybe city cyclists need a couple of extra markings on the cycling maps, beyond which streets have less cars on them: how about something to show the gradients of hills in flashing neon (there are a couple of maps with gradients marked, but the markings are too tame) and something to show which areas are not so safe at night. Both of these could be interactive, as long as the printout came out well.

Utilitarian cycling will just have to become much more popular for many reasons and it will be much easier to promote it if people, especially women, feel fairly safe whilst doing it, which in turn will make it easier to enjoy one of the great benefits of travelling without being sheathed in a metal box, namely that you can start to get to know your locale in a much more intimate and detailed way.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Significant Sorcerers, But Still Apprentices: How Nature Can Dispel Our Ocean Dead Zones

In pursuit of covering significant science stories I was going to write something about the perennial problem of excess nitrogen on the land, which I shall mention briefly, but the story led me to a reminder of a deeper principle, that should encourage us to analyse as much as possible before taking actions at scale.

Some scientists have been conducting a research program for more than decade to see whether nitrogen fertiliser might be useful in the struggle against climate change by aiding carbon sequestration in forests. It's in an interesting and potential important story, but the scientists caution that the systems they are dealing with are very complex, and that they couldn't be sure that their experiment would be net positive in terms of atmospheric carbon reduction.

A wise caveat, since unintended consequences have been a rising and unfortunate fact for us and our world ever since we started trying to control our environment and food supply, which appears to be at least sixty thousand years ago. However, sometimes what we might view as a negative event in nature has a useful unintended consequence, which is something that our scientific and policy analysis should also be watching for.

One of the problems of using a lot of nitrogen to fertilise anything, be it for forests in the research mentioned above, or for crops for humans, is that much of the nitrogen won't stay on the land, but runs off into the water system. As far as I know, absolutely nobody wants this to happen, certainly not the farmers, who have to pay a lot of money for something which mostly ends up in coastal oceans or inland seas. Whereupon, it often forms algal blooms which in turn take all the oxygen at the bottom of the water and thus kill off all the other life forms that live there, which then causes all the creatures which depend on them to die off. Technically this oxygen shortage is called hypoxia (a 'low oxygen event'), but in common parlance it's a dead zone.

Worldwide, these dead zones have increased from 49 in the 1960s to 405 now. Scientific American gives one graphic example of why dead zones are bad news:
A single low-oxygen event off the coasts of New York State and New Jersey in 1976 covering a mere 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) of seabed ended up costing commercial and recreational fisheries in the region more than $500 million. As it stands, roughly 83,000 tons (75,000 metric tons) of fish and other ocean life are lost to the Chesapeake Bay dead zone each year—enough to feed half the commercial crab catch for a year.
Various schemes are being put forward to reduce the amount of nitrogen being applied to the land (though the forest experiment I mentioned first would ironically add to the problem), but the article continues:
[efforts at nitrogen reduction] still might not solve the dead zone problem. So much nitrogen is now reaching...coastal waters that much of it ends up buried in sediment [and] even when new nitrogen sources are removed those sediments release that nitrogen over time, perpetuating the cycle.

That inability to recover is driven not only by the nitrogen buried in the sediment but also by water layers that don't mix with one another, despite the massive flow of rivers like the Mississippi. Instead, warmer, fresher water on the surface sits on top of cooler, denser, saltier water...

So what does it take to make that mixing take place?

...it takes the energy of multiple powerful hurricanes to blend the two.

And there's the paradox and complexity. Very few humans want hurricanes, but it seems that because hurricanes exist, time and co-evolving ecosystems have found a way of using this natural force:

For example, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Louisiana coast with its powerful winds blowing faster than 130 miles (210 kilometers) per hour, the monstrous tropical storm delivered a benefit: it mixed the warm, oxygen-rich surface waters with the colder, almost oxygen-free waters beneath, dispelling the largest dead zone in the U.S. for a time. Hurricane Rita followed and finished the work, ending early the seasonal dead zone that forms each year at the mouth of the Mississippi [at the top of the Gulf of Mexico].

That dead zone—which last year stretched over roughly 8,500 square miles or 22,000 square kilometres, an area the size of New Jersey, and is predicted to grow even more extensive in 2008, thanks to the early summer floods—forms because of the rich load of nitrogen and phosphorus the Mississippi carries down from the farm fields of the U.S. Midwest.

The dead zone in question is more than twenty times bigger than the 1976 event which cost half a billion dollars. The Scientific American article was written before the busy 2008 hurricane season really got blowing, so maybe the dead zone was dispelled early again in 2008.

The main point is that despite the extraordinary advances we have made in scientific understanding we keep finding out that everything in nature is more complex than we thought - it's like an endless Russian doll. That doesn't mean we should not keep trying to understand more, far from it, but rather that we should try to remember that large natural events that we find very negative will very likely have positive features seen from a larger systems perspective and that when we start interfering with those systems at scale, we are bound to be interfering with many dynamic systems we don't understand very well.

Thus, even at this late stage, beset with ever more urgent problems - a bit like the Sorcerer's Apprentice - we need to mix caution with innovation. That is not an easy task, though in a sense, all living things in every ecosystem are doing this, albeit unconsciously. We have the advantage and disadvantage of being able to analyse and plan. What we almost certainly don't have is a master magician waiting to bail us out, as it were, so the more we can find out about how things work and work with nature rather than against it the better.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Seeds Of Trust

Do you ever have that feeling that we're missing something? I don't just mean the troubling fact that not many in power seem to understand that the 21st century is not going to be a re-run of the 20th, that what the Club of Rome was saying is coming true and that the threat of oil decline is as real as climate change. I mean something deeper than that, something that we must have understood - and had - in order to produce what we call civilisation or indeed any sense of security at all. It's something we don't have much of now - at least not the right kind, though we do mention it from time to time. That something is trust.

In one sense we have never had so much trust - our whole industrialised system requires a kind of unexamined trust at every level: you have to trust that the food you are eating is safe (though in fact it is generally not), that it will be in the supermarket tomorrow (it generally is), that water will be in the taps, that there will gasoline or petrol in the filling station when you need it, that your home heating system will work as the temperature sinks below zero, that the cash dispenser will spit out nice crisp dollars or euros when you need them (working until recently), that the phone system will work, that the Internet will work, that the health care system will work when you get ill or have an accident. Well, Ok, in America the last one is a stretch if you are poor or unemployed, but the other items most people in the rich world take more or less for granted.

However there are many other areas in which trust is also vital where we have become less willing to suspend our disbelief, and none more so perhaps, than that of trusting government, especially, though not exclusively, in America. According to the literature, there was a high point of trust in government around 1960 then a major slide from the late 60s with a few blips of recovery since then.

It is tempting to jump to conclusions when trying to explain the decline in trust - a fall which is widespread across all sectors of society and in regard to all levels of government (and other institutions), and can also be seen in the European Union (especially after the EU Constitution debacle). Trust, however, is one of the most complex and fragile of human relations. Some scholars, such as Adam Seligman, suggest that in pre-civilisation groups it wasn't so much trust but group sanctions that held society, such as it was, together.

On that reading, trust is a relatively new development, and if so, then from an evolutionary point of view, it is hardly surprising we have trouble with it. Be that as it may, we plainly need trust now in places where it is eroded. Unfortunately, it has been discovered that one way to increase trust is to scare people with the possibility of an external attack, real or imagined. This may be part of the explanation of all the recent upticks in trust in government in the last half century, including around the early 1960s, when Cold War tensions were heightened by the Bay of Pigs and Gulf of Tonkin incidents.

It has long been known that a population scared by an external threat tends to rally together, which means that those in power are bound to be tempted to use devices to achieve this end, since it is easier to control a population when it trusts those at the top. It may also be that trust has been manipulated for political purposes in the opposite direction, producing a short-term gain for one faction, but paradoxically causing harm to the greater body politic in the longer run, affecting anyone's ability to rule reasonably sensibly.

Why on Earth would those in power want to reduce popular trust in government? It seems that amplifying or attenuating political trust - or at least trying to - can be used by both parties in America to further their different aims. However, if certain political scientists are right, in aggregate, reduced trust favours those on the right. The reason may be that contrary to conventional wisdom, a more trusting attitude to government can be a cause of a person espousing more liberal or progressive policy views, rather than the other way around.

Since politicians have been trying by almost any means, fair or foul, to influence the people in their favour since the dawn of democracy, and indeed before, any talk of conspiracy theories is quite misplaced. It is rather a complex matter of group and social psychology, and whether it bubbles or ballots, manipulating humans is the name of the game.

This is unfortunate, but in any organised system there will be channels of control, and in any human system, trust will be a vital part of just about anything we do. In the end it is self-defeating to produce a cynical and untrusting populous, since eventually it produces general misery and affects economic activity, possibly to the point of ruination.

Whilst it may well be possible to produce both a gullible and cynical society, I think that all leaders would be well served by trying all honest means to increase the level of trust in society for its own sake. There are after all some countries in which conservatives are the ones who trust government more. Furthermore distrust is a dangerous seed to sow, since you never know quite know where it is going to pop up next and what unpleasant surprises it will bring. In hard times with the body politic in a state of high fever, trust is a vital restorative medicine that should not be used as a mere tool of political expedience.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tolerating The Crooked Timbers Of Humanity

High up in the old library of the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded in 1551 by the first monk of the Catholic Jesuit order, Ignacio Loyola, lurk thousands of tomes in Chinese and Russian. They are not works of theology or literature, but books on political economy. Communist political economy to be precise.

Except in some places in South America, Catholics have not smiled on communism, to put it mildly. Indeed, in the past the Vatican has tended to lean in the other direction and Catholicism is not noted for being a radical religion. So why all the books on a system in this most Catholic of universities, teeming with hundreds of seminarians, monks and nuns?

The answer I was given was something that Sun Tzu or Machiavelli would have understood, namely that it is necessary to study the enemy, or at least those that hold very different beliefs. Now, fifteen years later, I am not sure whether those books are still in the library, but I have never forgotten the idea.

So it is that very often when I find a book, web page or online comment that I find rather unfair or based on false assumptions or even downright obnoxious, I often force myself to read at least some of it. For example, I recently looked at a book on population that blamed those who were worried about the planet's overstressed resources for failed population policies. I have also long been fascinated by texts which chart and praise the rise of the current world economic system - a system which it has suddenly become acceptable to harangue after a long period in which to offer even mild criticism was seen as indicating some kind of incurable mental ailment.

I often think that economic views and religious faith can have quite a lot in common. For instance, it is generally not possible to argue someone out of either. Keynes famously said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?", but this is rare, and Keynes though apparently referring to monetary policy didn't actually become a monetarist (as far as I know). The quality of being unwilling to change one's mind on core principles can certainly be beneficial, but in the matter of economics it can lead to some great unpleasantness, like this:
"The sub prime degenerate scumbuckets of America caused more damage and have cost more than the terrorist attacks and subsequent war on terror"
This is a quote from a blog, an American one I believe, written by someone who claims to be an economist - he or she doesn't give a name in the blog, but it can be deduced by other means. It makes me wonder if the author had never done anything silly which they had later regretted or been gulled by good or not so laudable emotions into doing something which seemed a bit risky at the time, but which many others were doing and wasn't illegal (indeed in this case was being highly encouraged from the president and Fed chief on down).

Many of the people who bought houses they couldn't really afford were surely just trying to provide a good home for their families and were following a dream which is drilled into people from childhood up - own your own home. It may or may not be a good idea in the greater scheme of things, but most humans need roofs over their heads, by some means or other.

The deeper question for me is one of tolerance and how will the lack of it that is too apparent in increasing areas of life play out in the coming age of severe resource shortages. A whole nation was founded on the idea of tolerance - namely America, and some centuries ago philosophers in Europe, particularly in Britain, worked hard to develop systems of thought that had both structure and flexibility. No system was perfect, but then as Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.

Reading the works of those one disagrees with, as I saw in the Jesuit Gregorian university, and trying to understand the preoccupations and assumptions of others can lead to all kinds of new insights - maybe one will change one's mind as Keynes said he sometimes did - and maybe not, but it could make it easier to cope with the fact that we are an awkward species with a lot of contradictions, and we're now in a tight spot where more understanding and tolerance of very different views and beliefs would go a long way.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Two Steps Towards Being Slightly More Sustainable

In order to cheer myself up from the unbroken stream of bad news arriving through the air waves - from more killing in the Middle East to economic carnage just about everywhere and a meltdown of the very media bringing us all the other bad news, I decided to pursue two strategies towards making life a bit more sustainable.

Firstly I went round (by bicycle) to the local cafe to read and listen to the ukulele class. And very charming it was too, and pretty much free of greenhouse gas emissions, as far as I could tell. It turned out that they were rehearsing for a concert, and the teacher was determined that they would play all the songs one after the other without a break so that he could time the whole thing in advance. No-one broke ranks, even to go to the loo. I fancied that Frederick Taylor would have been impressed.

Some of the songs were in Hawaiian and some were in English. After making myself a cup of non-Hawaiian Earl Grey tea (using fresh boiling water from the coffee contraption), I listened to the gentle strumming and singing for about an hour, while learning from my book that buttons made from the tagua nut tend to explode if washed and dried in the wrong way.

Another chapter in the book - Strategies for the Green Economy by Joel Makower - talked about sustainable consumption. It's quite true that the rest of nature must have been sustainably consuming for about the last 3.5 billion years, but obviously not at the rate we homo sapiens are doing it. Also I think there are some differences in the way we are doing it too. The fossil record does not support the thesis that dinosaurs drove Hummers or built large coal-fired power stations.

One of the most intriguing things that the author mentions is that, paradoxically, the more one owns, the less one wants to share or lend things. In fact, it seems that coveting other people's things actually appears to increase when you have lots of stuff already, leading of course to owning even more stuff. It would seem that some circuits in the human brain get bootstrapped into unfortunate positive feedback loops when it comes to increasing ownership. There is undoubtedly more to it than this, but it's an interesting notion.

So I came up with a potential remedy that is both simple and free (at least at the point of use), which I immediately put the test. I pedalled off to the library (located conveniently nearby) and firmly set about borrowing some books, music, films and even a couple of talking books - one by Adam Smith (some ancient history about the wealth of nations - not actually read by him of course) and Stephen Pinker talking about how the brain works, appropriately enough.

And voila! It worked. I had no desire to go and consume anything else and there is no point in covetting most things in a library, since you can borrow them anyway. Well that was the experiment, now all I have to do is come up with a hypothesis. Yes, I know this is the wrong way round and we have no idea whether I was going to consume or covet beforehand, but all that Hawaiian music had put me in a rather mellow and less rigorous frame of mind.

So my conclusion is that the way to avoid the drumbeats of news gloom and covetous consumption and be at least slightly more sustainable is to play the ukulele and go to the library. Not sure about how sustainable Earl Grey tea is, but it tasted jolly nice.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Separate Tables: Why Don't We Know More About Friendship?

According to many people friendship is one of the most vital elements needed for a happy life. And happiness, as the American Declaration of Independence helpfully points out, is one of the big items that inhabitants of the United States are supposed to be pursuing. I half remember a whisper that the word happiness was a late substitution for the word 'property' in 1776, but this is what it actually says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Some years ago when I was quite vigorously pursuing what I hoped would be an academic career, I looked into scholarly work on friendship (and happiness), and it seemed to be very thin on the ground (for both). On looking again, the situation does not appear to have improved much.

One sociologist who has studied friendship starts a paper published in 2002 entitled 'Towards a more significant sociology of friendship' by lamenting the way in which the language of social psychology has influenced sociological studies of friendship into seeing friendship as floating "freely from any connection with the broader social structure". Maybe that mirrors to a great extent the way in which late modern life is so rootless, but it doesn't help one understand positively what friendship is nor how to create it.

I think we are going to need a lot of friendship as we enter these new hard times, as we try, I hope, to share more, cooperate more, and compete just a bit less. As I believe the Russians say, if you don't have a hundred rubles, you need a hundred friends. Otherwise life will be lonely and indigent indeed.

What prompted me again to think about friendship in a more scientific way was seeing the film of Separate Tables. The film, released in 1958, stars David Niven, Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth amongst a stellar cast and was written by British playwright Terence Rattigan. Rattigan often deals with loneliness in his works, but in Separate Tables just about every character is suffering from terrible lack of friendship.

The director of the film, Delbert Mann, said that Rattigan based the main characters on stories from real life at the very retirement home in Bournemouth where his mother lived and that he often visited. Learning that fact added an extra layer of poignancy to a film that leaves one thinking hard about friendship and what the point of life is if you don't have it, especially when you are getting on in life.

The few studies I found in the academic literature about friendship almost invariably looked at children and adolescents. There is very little about adult friendship and nothing that I could see for people over fifty. But friendship counts at every stage in life, and whilst it is important in the heyday of one's working years, in some ways it is even more important in older years and, as we are starting to see now, when working life gets interrupted by an economic meltdown.

There is interesting parallel work in the area of social capital and social networks, but I think the lack of a major body of serious work on friendship in adults is unfortunate. We are after all reputed to be social beings, but too much of the time we seem to behave in rather unfriendly and anti-social ways. Maybe the rise of social media will trigger some new effort in both helping us gain a better understanding of this essential trait of being human and in how to make more and better friendships.

(There is a three minute video version of Chris De Burgh's song Separate Tables that uses some of the wonderful Burt Lancaster-Rita Hayworth scenes, but you might want to see the whole film first, lest it spoil the end for you.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Music In The Raw

If you have never sat at the keyboard console and pedals of a large pipe organ and felt the beast let rip with its 64 foot bass notes and myriad cascading pipes and voices, then there is something missing in your life. In this perhaps now passing era of extreme sports it cannot quite compare with bungee jumping I suppose, but it's pretty close. In the finale of Widor's Organ Symphony Number Five for instance, you can imagine yourself not merely standing near the Niagara Falls, such is the power of the work, but actually becoming the rushing water itself.

Now the wonderful thing about this experience is that you don't necessarily have to spend twenty years learning to play this complicated instrument, you just have to sit next to someone who can. This was the shortcut method I employed when I sat next to a friend from university as he played an instrument in one of the Oxford colleges. It is true that it made me really wish I could play the organ properly, but given that my inadequate keyboard skills almost cost me my music degree, I was grateful enough for this vicarious pleasure.

The composer of the piece I mentioned, Charles-Marie Widor, born in France in 1844, was a boy prodigy of the sort one seldom hears of today. His father and grandfather were both organ builders and players, and by whatever splendid mix of nature and nurture that took place, Widor was so good that by the age of 11 he was organist at the lycee in Lyons. He then went to study composition in Brussels and became the organist at the imposing if oddly asymmetrical church of St Sulpice in Paris. He remained there for 64 years.

Today, it's relatively easy to get a recording of Widor's work, especially the fifth and most famous of his ten organ symphonies, and that is certainly a fine thing to do. But to understand the full majesty of a large organ and this piece in particular, one really has to be close to the pipes and sense the jets of roaring air being transformed into music and at times raw vibration that shakes the walls. And it's a lot safer than bungee jumping over Niagara Falls.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Getting To Paradise On A Low-Carbon Budget

Yesterday I went with my small son to visit the wreckage of the first model aeroplane I had flown in more than thirty years. It wasn't a pilgrimage and to be honest these days with most model planes being made out of polystyrene instead of balsa wood and tissue, unless you achieve a really first class prang, the bounce factor is quite extraordinary.

In reality, this little 40" electric-motor powered model is mostly intact, but I don't have a workshop, so I have left it with Dennis, who runs his busy hobby shop with love and vigour. He will patch the plane up (again) and then test fly it to try to determine whether the problem is battery failure or pilot failure. I suspect the latter personally, and that admission led me to discovering an excellent remedy not just for my cack-handed aeronautical efforts but something rather more significant.

I realised today that we (or maybe 'they') could create an extension of my model 'remedy' that would have an immense benefit not just for the bruised wings of my hobby plane but for the whole global climate. Quite a sweeping claim, if I say so myself.

What can this miraculous cure be? One word: simulation! The answer to my pilot woes is a simulator - I tried one out in the hobby shop and it was quite remarkably realistic, even making a good graunching noise and shattering the propeller when I inevitably ploughed into a nice grassy field upside down. I pressed the red reset button, and was magically made whole again, and shot off into the ether for another attempt at safe flight.

So just think about it for a minute. The idea of a flight simulator is to help someone learn to fly without killing themselves or anyone else. And without damaging an expensive machine. But it also uses no jet fuel or kerosene or aviation gas. No fossil fuel at all. Just a tiny amount of electricity to run the computer - which when compared to a full-size aircraft would be infinitesimal.

Imagine then if we could simulate not just a flight but a whole holiday? At first when I had the idea, several hours ago, I thought it was amusing, and would make a quick and easy blog after my long labours developing ideas about deception, deflation and trying to find the bright side of the economic crash. But there is more to this simulation idea than at first I had thought. Tourism and other discretionary flights make up about 70% of all passenger flights, and flying is one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

With the downturn threatening to become a Depression, people are going to want something to be cheerful about but both the planet and our pocketbooks are finding the burden of our continually jetting off to paradise less and less sustainable. However, business executives are reporting that some of the new video immersion systems are staggeringly realistic and are beginning to allow people to feel more genuinely as if they are in the same room as someone, even if they are on the other side of the planet.

I am not pretending that there can ever be a total substitute for 'being there', but as oil production goes into long-term decline and carbon taxes inevitably get imposed, like it or lump it, we are going to be travelling less. Many of us know this is a good thing, but like St Augustine, we'd like to put off being 'good' for just a little longer. With this little bit of technology we could welcome being good: simulated holidays could become virtual vacations with the added virtue of minimizing the damage to the environment and your wallet.

In fact, with these lightweight escapes, we could take short holidays of say two days or even two hours. Just imagine - no packing, no flight delays, and no security frisking. Unless of course you buy a masochist's virtual vacation that includes those things, perhaps along the lines of the famous Monty Python five-minute argument sessions. Anyway, in this new Alice-in-Cyberland you could go anywhere and do anything (as long as it was legal).

In the meantime, I plan to get an inexpensive model flight simulator and start learning how to stay in the air instead of digging furrows. And by the time I am ready to pilot a full-size virtual plane (as it were), the virtual vacation business should be in full swing and I can make flying myself and intrepid family to Pixel Paradise all part of the excursion. If anything goes wrong, I can just press the reset button, which, by the way, also refills your martini glass.