Monday, 13 December 2010

How to grow a nation

An ecosystem is a network of all physical and biological factors in a particular area that takes on a certain describable form. Within an area it is the total of both the biological community and the physical environment. There is a great deal going on in any one ecosystem, huge amounts of feedback and dynamic change. Yet, there is no general overarching control scheme and the systems settle in seemingly well defined and fairly predictable states (a coral reef for example looks kind of the same across the world).

A nation is much like an ecosystem, they grow, develop and mature, have flows, connections and exchanges, continually vary in all sorts of ways. A good nation has stability, health, happiness and individual freedom. We wouldn't say a nation was working well if it was extremely chaotic, with populations of people dying all the time or huge economic booms and busts. Equally we wouldn't really say a nation was running well if it needed constant top down control, if every part of it was being described explicitly. This wouldn't be a group of cooperating (and competing) individuals with a common identity so much a machine obeying a fixed set of rules.

Ecosystems achieve stable states due to the properties of limited connectedness and redundancy. If I am a fish in a coral reef I rarely just eat one thing at one time, I also coexist with a few other fish that help me (cleaning my gills, helping me avoid predators etc) and I am preyed upon by a range of different fish. As a coral reef fish I have a wide range of immediate connections. Yet, these are immediate, if we go a few steps up the food chain to a big shark, the effect of a population of one species of fish most likely will have little effect on the shark (but not always). The shark also has many prey, needs his gills cleaned and the competition with other big sharks is fierce. At each stage the impacts of the loss or gain of any one species are spread out, thus they do not contaminate the system.

Our economic system is similar, but different in one key way, it has a unitary value. Everything can be transformed into $$$$. This means that there is no limited connectedness, I can sell my mothers wedding ring to buy food and drugs, and the drugs can be traded for guns etc. If the big banking crash should tell us anything it is that our economic systems are too connected, the breakdown of one part spreads like a plague to everything else.

The essential flaw in the banking system is a lack of redundancy, in a ecosystem or there are lots of critters doing very similar jobs. When one fails another can step in to pick up the slack (not that it is doing this consciously), equally if something dies it only effects a limited area as other species can simply feed on something else. The value of components in a ecosystem are strongly non linear, or to phrase it another way they matter more to some than to others. To an immediate predator a prey is worth a great deal, to a competitor they are worth a different (and negative) amount and to a primary producer they may not be worth very much at all (if anything it is through weakly diffuse interactions with other species). Money does not work like this. My £5 is worth the same to a banker as to an aid worker. I can shop around to get the best deal, but so can any sane person. The transferable nature of currency breaks down the steps of the ecosystem and links everything together much more closely.

This is why foreign aid, where huge sums of money are invested in a nation fails. I cannot build a nation with all of its strong flows, connexions and dynamics by converting it to one unitary value and attempting to dump it in. This would be the same as attempting to make a coral reef more productive by dumping billions of tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser into the sea. I call this the zombie approach to development:

'Nitrogen make plants grow, make system better!'

'Money make business grow and people happy, make system better!'

Unsurprisingly the zombie approach remains very close to the American modus operandi in Afghanistan. $52 billion dollars has been invested and people are calling it a remarkable failure. The method of investment has been the failure, the US works mainly with private development funds. These corporate entities engage in large scale projects disconnected to the local people. These types of projects are most vulnerable to corruption or even honest misuse by the people they are supposed to help. Why take tractor that has been bought for you when I can sell it to buy food. The unitary value of money allows all these schemes to be exchanged on the ground for short term wealth gain, often for a few individuals. Then the limited feedback and connections formed means that this process is unreported or ignored.

The US actively ignores NGOs in development because they are small scale and 'too idealistic'. These are exactly the qualities that development needs! The scale must be small so that local connections are formed, the formation of real connections through passionate idealistic individuals results in the creation of of non linear value (this isn't just a well, this is OUR village well and it is important!) this means that things wont just be converted into guns and drugs. This is the building of a society, an ecological society where the exchanges and connections between people and the world are of real value. This is why we have failed to rebuild a nation.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Action philosophers assemble!

Are there any real philosophical questions? A lovely, grimy and obscure question, just the kind of thing to get most Western style analytic philosophers quivering with excitement. It is also just the kind of question that has largely been ignored by Eastern religions and personal philosophies. Is this type of philosophical enquiry valid? Useful? Can we use pure logic and reason to wriggle out of tricky metaphysical problems. I don't think so, not that I believe it is a waste of time either!

Let us perform a thought experiment, maybe we gather together a collection of some of the past centuries most distinguished and logical minds in the same room. Let us start with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the master of language, his Philosophical Investigations often described as the most important book of 20th century philosophy. He would certainly have a few things to say on the topic.

Wittgenstein was an abrasive and passionate character, so we better round out our conversation with some more level headed investigators. Bertrand Russell the mentor of Wittgenstein applied cool logic and mathematical reasoning to a number of deep questions, as the leader of the revolt against idealism he should definitely be at our meeting.

Finally we need someone to weigh up all the evidence, compute a test statistic and determine if we have successfully answered our inquiry by disproving a null hypothesis. Karl Popper, the first philosopher of science is just the man for the job. We have gathered together our elite logical minds under one comfortable roof, provided ample seating and smoking facilities, prepared a nice log fire to set the scene and can now sit back and wait for the magic to happen.

What do we imagine to take place, what wizardry will our logical minds whip up on this vexing problem? Do we imagine they talk long into he night, the steady stream of pipe smoke slowly merging together into a giant cloud, their ideas gradually intermingle and accelerate until they arrive at a universal consciousness raising reality just as dawn breaks! Well done chaps, better write that down quickly and publish it for all the world to see.

Of course this exact situation did occur! On the 25th October 1946 the eminent three alongside a host of other philosophers were gathered together at Kings College in Cambridge. The exact details of the exchange are unclear yet it ended with Wittgenstein being ejected from the room in a rage. One particular version (that I like best anyway) is, Popper and Wittgenstein got into a heated argument, so heated in fact that Wittgenstein began wielding a hot poker directed at Popper demanding that Popper offer him up one example of a concrete moral rule. Popper countered beautifully with the line

'Do not threaten visiting speakers with hot pokers.'

At this point Russell had to step in to prevent the untimely branding of the chief philosopher of science.

(At this point I feel I need to quickly slip in this image! Don't get in a fight with Plato!)

This was the only time that these three great minds were in the same room together. What was the product? Anger, contention, sarcastic comments and not even the much valued logical ideals that we were questing for. Now I admire and respect each of these men in turn, their ideas were visionary, incisive and brilliant each in their own way. What did they get out of these ideas? Did they live any better or worse than anyone else?

It is primarily for these reasons that personal philosophies largely rejected their approach. Of course there were metaphysical arguments in Eastern religions but they were always viewed as interesting side points, funny little diversions from the way. I would never for a second suggest that you shouldn't read deeply and consider Western philosophy, just don't get too attached. You may one day be wielding a hot poker towards another human being!

Don't look for the meaning, look for the use. I have always liked this philosophy; to see what a particular idea gets you in the long run. How does it make you feel and view the world, is that personally and subjectively good, pleasant and enlightening? How does it make you treat others and the world around you, with peace and compassion? If not, let it go, simply find of way of thinking and viewing the world that makes you happy. Our philosophies are simply models for the world, riddled with inconsistencies and false assumptions, it is how we make our models work for us that is important. (The sharp Western philosopher will of course say that I have taken a metaphysical position here and that it is riddled with flaws. I say of course I have!)

Wittgenstein was an abrasive character and had a sad personal life. His brothers either died in war or committed suicide, he also thought about suicide, was once thrown out of a school for beating a sickly child to unconsciousness (he was the teacher....) and eventually had a nervous breakdown and needed total care. I hope that he remembered these words:

'Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those that live in the present.'

He should have, he wrote them in Tractatus, the work that got him his Ph.D. Yet thinking things and being them are two different things. This is the single biggest gap between personal philosophises and intellectual ones, and I think it makes a huge difference.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Because I got high

Across modern society everyone seems to want to get high. Now I am not just talking about people into drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Everyone is searching for that really big high. There are a great deal of people that would jump up at this point and say,

'Damn right Mark, we at the Housewives Against Teenage Marijuana completely agree with you. We need to stop these kids out there getting high.'

I think that this kind of response comes from someone who is really, really high!. These individuals sitting around having cups of tea and biscuits complaining to each other, are all the time getting more and more high. They all feed off of each other and reinforce their own highs.

Some people will tell you that moderation is the key in your drug taking you just have to get little bursts of high of different things, don't max out on one particular drug, then you will always be happy (Consumer society). Some people are so convinced of the merits of their particular drug of choice that they will tell you that their high is the best high ever. Gym freaks and fitness moguls will tell you that you can get healthy and really, really high.

Others come forward whispering secrets, saying put in some work now and then you can get so high that it lasts forever! That this particular high is the only high, the one true high! (Organised religion anyone). Life is a really sad party where everyone is rushing around pitching their particular drug of choice. People everywhere are getting high, getting hooked, crashing, coming down or frantically searching for the next high.

Now every so often in this big party some people who are rushing around chasing some new faddy high will notice someone chilling out on a sofa. There are these rare guys over in the corner of the room smiling and chatting to everyone, but they are not getting high. Some people gather round and say,

'Hey you should try this or this?'

He just shrugs and says,

'No thanks I'm cool.'.

Now most people don't believe him and simply say,

'He must be taking something, it cant be that he is just happy, that's not how the party works.'

But some others see the difference, they feel the difference by just being around this happy guy. All of a sudden they don't seem to need to get high any more, because the party isn't something to escape from. In a little while they can have a real conversation, not just running around getting high or engaging in all the endless negotiation to get new drugs. The first thing they say when they shake hands with the quiet guy in the corner is,

'Its O.K., its all O.K. isn't it!' and he smiles and nods back,

'It really is, it really is.'.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Life is change

A chap called John Webb has recently shocked the physics world by challenging Einstein (Which is perhaps one of the coolest things a physicist might ever do in his life!). One of Einstein's ideas known as the equivalence principle stated that the laws of physics are essentially the same everywhere. This idea has been called into question before and may be a big reason why Einstein (like literally everyone else in the world) struggled with quantum theory. The idea that the rules are different for small things is pretty baffling. Webb's discovery is that the rules may also be different for really big things too, it turns out that alpha (a fundamental constant that represents the strength of electromagnetic interactions) seems to change across the universe. I take a great deal of personal pleasure in the fact that a universal constant changes. T paraphrase the late comedian Bill Hicks 'Its irony on a based level, but I like it!'.

Personally I have always seen change as the only great universal constant! (My own little Zen koan for you). If I could say one thing with certainty (although I am open to changing my mind), it is that everything changes. I may be a humble biologist and therefore biased by my observation of life which cannot sit still for a second! Yet, the idea that everything changes all the time, not just life seems almost a given. Well physics and maths buffs will probably turn round at this point and say,

'Ah ha! Of course THINGS are changing all the time, its the RULES underneath that don't change. That is why the universe is the way it is, that is how we figure things out.'

In an ideal world I would of course blast back immediately with the comment

'So RULES aren't THINGS are they?'

whilst simultaneously delivering a kung fu slap (unfortunately university etiquette largely prevents kung fu slaps as a means of rebuttal). Because, that is exactly what rules are, rules are things, they are abstract little models that we use to separate out all this changing stuff to try to make sense of it.

Rules change all the time, when we get things wrong, when we discover new things and most importantly when we shift perspectives. The rules that are important at the heart of a neutron star are very different to those of a biological cell. Time plays a factor as well, the rules in play a femnto second after the big bang were totally different a full real second after. Now it seems that space as well plays a part, alpha varies across the universe. Now this has caused consternation for some, notably physicists who were attached to seeing the world in a certain way.

The nice thing about having the opinion that existence is all about change and transformation is that you don't really get wrapped up in it so much. If you thought something was a certain way and you turned out to be wrong, no big deal, things change. Understanding change is central to Taoist practices, and I personally think it is a great angle to view the world. Being able to see all of reality as a constantly changing interconnected web, rather than rules set in stone is immensely liberating. It is primarily through this method that Taoists aim reach a state of detachment and calm that Buddhists and Hindus called enlightenment. The more that one is able to experience the changes in yourself and the world the deeper the connection between these things seem.

Short break

Hi everyone, I haven't posted up for a few weeks and don't really have a good excuse I'm afraid. I have quite a lot of material ready and waiting to go, writing it up just takes time and effort! I have now spent most of an early Sunday morning writing up a few posts, so expect regular updates over the next week or so. So far I have had over 500 hits, which I am very happy with. Please feel free to post up and share your thoughts and feelings, I would rather respond to interesting feedback than stand on a soapbox all the time (although I am also very happy just ranting away to myself!).