Monday, June 05, 2017

Make the world a better place

On Earth day 2017, a march was organized by scientists, skeptical of the agenda of the Trump administration and critical of Trump administration policies widely viewed as hostile to science. The organizers state that an "American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world." More than a million people participated worldwide.
The Photo album (of the Montreal March) is on Facebook
See also: Something to celebrate

Friday, January 20, 2017

Virtual Politics - from Russia with..?

Anyone who witnessed the 2016 election in the United States can be forgiven for asking, "what just happened?!" There is a consensus that what happened was surreal - the word became Merriam-Webster's word of the year. But more specifically, with the hyperbole, the bluster, grandstanding, reality TV and yellow press influence, internet fakery, leaks, relentless below-the-belt tactics and much, much more, virtual politics may be a better description. The real politics were/are going on elsewhere, one assumes.

Bloggers do well to check whether their topic du jour has already been covered. So it was with 'virtual politics' - and not only did I find that it has been covered, I found that it was studied extensively by Andrew Wilson in 2005. Mr. Wilson is Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His book is titled Virtual Politics, Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. So while America sleeps, Russia adapts KGB-style maneuvers to sustain artificially the central authoritarianism that was the real, militaristic foundation of Kremlin rule in the Soviet, Bolshevik and even Tsarist empires.

As Wilson puts it, "Welcome to a paradise for the most brazen liars, where the most staid and respectable political technology agency in Moscow calls itself Nikkolo-M after Machiavelli, and uses his face on its business cards...Virtual politics is the way that elites seek to manage, manipulate, and contain democracy." Political technology is what consultants like Nikkolo-M engage in, engineering political 'reality' contests in which no hold is barred, and no trick too dirty. Wilson goes to considerable detail regarding the players and their often brutal methods. Indeed the book is highly specific regarding state interference measures that are now familiar in the west.

A list of some chapters will give an idea:
  • 1. 'Active measures': a Russian Tradition
  • 2.  Politics as Virtuality in the Post-Soviet World
  • 3. The 'Political Technologist': Machiavelli as Corporate Adviser
  • 5. Politics as Theatre, Disguising the State Holding Company
  • 7. Dishing the Opposition
  • 8. Inventing the Opposition  etc.
Whether or not Russia directly influenced the 2016 American election as alleged, is not the point. What is new is that US politics reached a new low of surreal dirty stunts, possibly inspired by post-KGB methods. The parallels between Wilson's post-soviet 'paradise' and the  so-called populist 2016 campaign can not be ignored.

Some Americans are already wising up; Rubio's questioning of Tillerson mentioned 'active measures' without being too specific, but the reference could only have been to the Russian practice. The FBI investigation of Paul Manafort and his work for Viktor Yanukovych may be a healthy sign.1 Yanukovych features prominently in Wilson's book.

What does this have to do with progress, or progress traps? One of this project's critiques of progress is that societies can become overly technocratic, fall into a progress trap and undo progress. Clinton's campaign had a staff of no less than 60 mathematicians and statistical analysts. One can become blind to the obvious when immersed in too much analysis. As they say at the Pentagon, "analysis paralysis". Another progress trap critique is that mental paralysis can then be swamped by crude passion,2 the kind that includes racism, intolerance and bigotry. As the world knows, these vices often don't end until they have played themselves out.

For a sense of where the United States may be heading, Andrew Wilson's book, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World is recommended reading.

2. Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 2005 Bantam Books

Friday, December 02, 2016

"This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive" - Stephen Hawking

Hawking at NASA, 1980s
On December 1, 2016, Stephen Hawking wrote in The Guardian: "The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
    This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive."

Hawking could have been discussing progress traps. He is on record as saying “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them."

Few other scientists have criticized science and technology in such uncertain terms, and one wonders why. Hawking has stature and knowledge on his side, and few would risk embarrassment by disagreeing with so fearless a contender with ALS, a disease that is usually fatal. But it is puzzling that he does not receive the resounding support of scientists and academics in general, in his questioning of progress.

Regarding the environment, Hawking writes in the Guardian article: "We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it."

It has always been the belief of this writer that if we understand progress traps, we can solve them. Whether we call them 'unintended consequences', 'ideological pathology', 'collapse' or 'escalation of commitment', these inversions of progress have recurred throughout history. So much so that the progress /collapse syndrome can be studied rigorously, its causes identified, and remedies designed.

It takes a suspension of belief in the sanctity of science and technology to take them apart, however. Or great courage, as with Stephen Hawking.

Joseph A Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Joseph A Tainter, Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2000

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. 

McGilchrist, Iain The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, USA: Yale University Press. 2009

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New York's Mount Sinai hospital schooled by South Africa's Mamelani Projects

The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York is one of the largest and most advanced hospitals in the world. And yet, it is being tutored in patient care by Mamelani Projects, a community patient support system in Cape Town, South Africa.

The PBS video shown here explains the challenge of having community health workers reach patients where professionals are not available: "Mamelani’s health coaches say that, just as in New York City, those realities are often best confronted outside the walls of medical clinics by bringing health education to areas that need it most. The women who’ve attended these classes are making lasting changes to their own health and in the wider community."

In Cape Town, the "health coach" has been effective in reaching patients who need help in managing their health issues such as diabetes, blood pressure, medication problems and chronic conditions. For New York's Harlem, with the city's highest rate of diet related diseases, the Mameloni model has inspired Mount Sinai Heath Systems to find out if the African methods can be incorporated in to U.S. health practices.

At a time when some students at the University of Cape Town have called for science to be decolonized, with the moniker #ScienceMustFall, it may be useful for them to learn that the dedicated health coaches of the Mameloni Project are doing just that, constructively, in helping New York scientists learn from South Africa's most challenged communities.

The full transcript of the PBS feature can be seen at

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Keeping vested interests vested and the status quo static.

Corruption is directly involved in the inhibition of true progress, in keeping vested interests vested and in keeping the status quo static.

How many societies have not been mired in violence due to bribery and arms trading? How many refugees would be spared the resulting voyage of despair? How many alternative energy innovations have not been stifled by oil barons? How many societies have fallen to decay because special interest groups called the shots?

One society that made a determined effort to prevent corruption from plunging it into a cycle of crippling debt was Lesotho, a small African state. When an international construction consortium provided illicit incentives to public officials responsible for their Highlands Water Project – the largest construction project in Africa – the Lesotho administration decided to act. This was a precedent-setting move, in that the defendants were powerful foreign companies.

A documentary on this campaign, called Pipdream,  is in the works. The clip below is a submission to a 'Pitch Contest', where the winner receives funding that will help the production to go forward. You can sample this documentary at or at

Ref: Prosecuting Bribery in Lesotho (11th International Anti-Corruption Conference, Seoul, Republic of Korea)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

A scientific paradigm shift in the making: climate change - beyond a reasonable doubt.

On September 20, 2016, three hundred and seventy five members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates, made history. They published  "An Open Letter Regarding Climate Change From Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences".

Their main concern was that in "the Presidential primary campaign, claims were made that the Earth is not warming, or that warming is due to purely natural causes outside of human control." Or, as some climate-change skeptics would have it regarding excess CO2: They call it pollution, we call it Life.

What was historic was their agreement that absolute certainty is not a prerequisite for environmental policy: "Absolute certainty is unattainable. We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real."

In science, certainty has long been a requirement. In brief terms, a scientific theory can be considered proven or disproven if the scientific method has been followed. The theory must be clearly stated, it must be supported by careful experiment or observation that provides precise data enabling a conclusion to be made with certainty. The conclusion will show proof that the theory is correct, or not. Moreover, the process must be capable of independent verification through a repeat of the steps, with results that confirm the conclusion.

This line of thinking has inspired modern society since the Scientific revolution in the 16th century, when the power of empirical and evidence-based data replaced the classical approach in which reason and argument would prevail. Objective data became the ideal, and subjectivity was to be avoided.

So powerful was the scientific approach that it became the foundation of policy and social practice generally, where the elements were quantifiable, technical and later industrial. Married to technology and industry, the whole of society became subject to the scientific paradigm and thus in danger of falling into a global progress trap. Even Stephen Hawking conceded in January 2016 that  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology." **

However in the legal field, the adversarial process remained standard, allowing each side in the argument to present their case. The conclusion would be a matter of judgement, by a jury, a judge, or sometimes a panel of experts. In criminal cases this judgement would be beyond a reasonable doubt.

Eventually it became obvious that the Achilles heel of Science was its insistence on absolute certainty. This can be seen in climate change policies, where skeptics and national leaders have been able to claim, successfully, that anthropogenic climate change had not been conclusively proven, and did not conform to "sound science". Countless products have been released into the global ecosystem unchecked because of the difficulty in proving with certainty that they are harmful. A few that were shown later to be harmful, after incalculable damage, were leaded gasoline, CFCs, PCBs and thalidomide. With the emphasis of 'absolute certainty', science inadvertently provided tools for stagnating true progress, especially in the gravely important areas of global warming and climate instability.

With the acceptance of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" the wise members of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of sciences, who wrote and signed the open letter, have provided a historic moment, perhaps even a scientific revolution*. The paradigm shift from obstinate objectivity to reasonable judgement is something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed, The University of Chicago Press, Chicacgo, 1970
** Most threats come from progress in science and technology (article January 2016)

Note: previous articles in this collection have argued for the application of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the context of climate change:

Monday, September 19, 2016

An uncomfortable truth about bigotry and the media

In a satirical article, the Onion has Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying contritely: "To those who were forced to read a headline they did not agree with when they visited Facebook yesterday, we are deeply sorry. It’s an inexcusable failing on our part if your viewpoints were not reinforced by what you saw onscreen. I want all Facebook users to know that you’ll never again encounter any ideas on our site that are in any way novel or ideologically challenging to you."

The satire was in response to Facebook's about-face on censoring the Napalm victim article, and Zuckerberg's actual claim that the company is a tech company, not a media or news company. The fact is that Facebook does tailor its newsfeeds and trending topics according to the individual client's disposition. It acts as editor, and shapes opinion.

But was the Onion article, however snide, a reflection of reality? The answer to that was provided, oddly enough, by Bill Clinton on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The former president, now 70, was Noah's guest a few days after the Facebook About-Face. In an eloquent reply to Noah's dismay at the ugliness of the campaign, Clinton noted “We’re getting siloed by the TV we watch and the web sites we scan...We’re less racist, less sexist, less homophobic and anti specific religions than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry: we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

With that insight, Bill Clinton warned against the kind of technical progress that provides information while reinforcing intolerance.This is what the world is witnessing with the resurgence of crude bigotry in today's most connected, informed arenas.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Each of us is a living miracle

The use of weapons (excerpt from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 6)
The reason that these points are raised here is that we accept that humans kill humans, evil though it may be, and this is greatly exacerbated by the use of weapons. Unlike other primates, we no longer confront the victim on an equal footing at close range, and our ingenuity allows us to kill in large numbers. The victims may not be weaker individually or even competing for resources... In the proceedings of the 1968 International Symposium on Aggressive Behavior, B. L. Welch notes in his summation:17
Intraspecific aggressive behavior is common and probably occurs in all species of vertebrates, but actual physical contact between animals of the same species is relatively rare. It is normally prevented by species specific conventions which redirect aggressive energies and permit the resolution of differences without bloodshed. We need to gain a better understanding of ways to build such conventions into the social structure.

His overview of the summary is eloquent: "We are fellow travelers at the beginning of a journey into regions where some of the best-kept secrets of men and animals are hidden…Those who are interested in making human social conditions more stable and wholesome will be particularly interested in the ability of environmental and situational factors to encourage the expression of aggressiveness in creative and beneficial ways."

We cannot flee from modern, industrial life and go `back to nature' but we can bring nature back into our lives. The culture of excluding emotion, spirituality, sensuality and intuition from daily life is destructive. Moreover, the idea that humans are like animals and survive mainly by competing against each other, is correct only with regard to our animal origins. It is incorrect with respect to human societies, which do not normally exterminate or isolate those members who are superficially different. We are aware that each human being is exceptionally endowed with a variety of skills. If one is not a good hunter for example, he is not eliminated, but encouraged to use other valuable skills. We are all aware at some level that billions of years of evolutionary refinement lie behind the talents that we share. Whether God created us or we developed through an evolutionary process, the net result is the same: each of us is a living miracle. We find it abhorrent that a group can be targeted for elimination on account of religion, skin color, disability, language or any other quality. Yet societies will do just that, very systematically.18

In truth, humans can tolerate anomalies and promote individual creativity, being fully aware that people are too highly talented to be cast aside on account of differences. It is essential to restore a sense of humane vitality to our daily lives, ensuring that the fruits of ingenuity are used constructively. If scarcity, weaponry and competitive elimination allow us to drift towards widespread elimination, a new species will surely emerge: one that will not be humane. Given our tendency to kill fellow-humans, and great skill in armaments, it is vital that the differences between technical progress and human culture be resolved.

17. B.L. Welch, ed., Proceedings of International Symposium on Aggressive Behavior, Wiley Interscience Div., New York, 1969, p. 369.
18. Wright. R.  A Short History of Progress, by , Anansi Press, Toronto, 2004, p. 121.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On Earth Day, let's all pat ourselves on the buck.

Unicorns aren't real, everybody knows that.  However, there are 146 private companies listed at the Wall Street Journal as being valued at more than 1 billion dollars each. At the top of the list is Uber, valued at $51 billion and at the bottom is a cluster of companies each valued at a mere 1 billion. That 1 billion mark is symbolised by the unicorn. Altogether the companies are valued at $537 billion.

It reminds me of 2008 all over again, when everyone knew mortgage backed securities were real and as safe as houses, until they weren't. Uber, the alpha unicorn, is still courting investors, even though it is valued at $51 billion. Obviously it's more about using investments to leverage new investors and less about running a healthy business. Sort of like a Ponzi scheme.

But what's troubling me is the nature of their game. Or perhaps the lack of nature. The business categories of these unicorns are:

  • Hardware, 6 companies, 
  • Consumer internet, 34, 
  • Software, 41, 
  • Aerospace and Defense, 1, 
  • E-Commerce 27, 
  • Healthcare, 11, 
  • Real estate, 1, 
  • Financial Services, 16, 
  • Entertainment and Games, 2, 
  • Energy, 1, 
  • Education and Media, 3. 

There is no Environment category.

Only one of the 146 unicorns could be described as having a 'green' objective. It's Bloom Energy Inc. The WSJ describes them thus:
"Bloom makes large stationary power devices that take natural gas as input and convert it into electricity without burning... In 2010, Mr. Sridhar appeared on '60 Minutes' and said he expected a Bloom box in every home in five to 10 years, but Bloom Energy is nowhere near that goal. The company has also raised far more capital -- at least $1.2 billion -- than the $100 million that Mr. Sridhar originally expected would be required."

Lesotho                            photo by Tom Philpott
The vast majority of the other unicorns are software/internet/e-commerce based. Why do investors like that? Because they need minimal human resources and infrastructure to scale up and go global. Consequently they are able to offer investors a much larger return than the stock market. Institutional investors such as city pension fund managers probably flock to companies like Uber. Maybe that's why city administrations all over the world are in a rush to enable such services. No-one even has to bribe them. Bernie Madoff must be having a good chuckle.

With all the green funds available from investors looking for a big return since COP21, we should be delighted. However 'green' might not mean the same thing to everyone, and some might not even see survival as a 'big return'.

Disclosure: I am the developer of a portable device that combines wind and solar electrical energy and stores it in rechargeable batteries. Project information can be seen at and yes, funding is being sought.