Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

What it means to have more people in the world

What it means to have more people in the world

Here are a couple of anecdotes of what it means to have more people in the world than seems possible.

Spiders

‘A-Ping’ are a popular edible treat in Cambodia. For the uninitiated, ‘A-Ping’ are fried tarantulas that are, apparently, irresistible. The females are especially prized. Apparently the eggs in the abdomen are the really good bit. This odd street food is popular enough for sellers to shift 100 spiders on a good day.

Loss of forest and over-hunting means that local supplies of tarantulas near towns and cities are spent. Supply is falling as demand grows and inevitably the price rises. Spiders are sourced far from the cities where people are poor so the high prices make collection attractive. Something similar happens in many parts of Africa and is labelled poaching.

The combination of demand, supply and price leads to what ABC journalist Zoe Osborne calls an unsustainable demand. More strictly is unstainable supply for demand is a function of the number of people (growing) and their purchasing power (rising).

Either way, it is bad news for tarantula species.

Side note

Tarantula is the term used here. Sellers fry ‘A-Ping’, the large hairy spider. There are over 800 tarantula species in the world meaning that numerous species make up the ‘A-Ping’ trade. Certainly, some of them will be rare naturally, even before the additional hunting pressure. Several species will be rare now.

Donkeys

The Norwegians can be a generous bunch. Turns out that Norway is in the top ten countries for development aid giving over $4 billion in 2018 putting them second to Sweden as a proportion of gross national income and first in dollars spent per capita. They are good folk.

Many years ago one of the Norwegian aid projects gave donkeys to the people of Botswana who are fond of donkeys. The herd boys ride them and they are often used to pull carts. It made sense to provide poorer communities with free donkeys.

The gift was well received and for a while provided the intended benefits. As time passed the donkeys prospered along with the Botswana economy — a coincidence not a consequence. Soon there were many more donkeys in Botswana than were needed as prosperity from diamonds gave the herd boys other things to do and donkey carts were replaced with four-wheel-drive trucks.

Spare donkeys became a traffic hazard for they are as stubburn as their mule cousins and refuse to get out the way of the aforementioned trucks zipping along at 140 clicks.

Then the Chinese decided that there was a huge market for donkey gelatin in their country where it is known as ‘ejiao’. It is better not to ask why but we are talking rice delicacies and use in herbal medicine to treat a range of ailments from bleeding, dizziness, and insomnia to a dry cough. The demand for ‘ejiao’ is growing rapidly thanks to population growth and affluence, in this case in China. As the Chinese prosper economically so the demand for remedies to improve health and well-being, proven or anecdotal, goes up.

A few years ago donkey prices around the world began to rise sharply due to this rising demand from Chinese herbalism. Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal banned donkey exports to China because, not unlike the spider example above, poor people could get a favourable price for their donkey.

Arguably the removal of donkeys from the roads in Botswana is not such a bad thing so long as the herd boys are still on the internet. But, as always, the disadvantaged are further repressed when they find themselves in need of draught power.

Photo by Henry Desouza Nelson on Unsplash

What it means to have more people

Spider species joining the lists of rare and endangered, cruelty to donkeys and desperate measures for rural poor.

Who would have thought it?

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

When does speed and certainty overide accuracy?

“…ours is a brain that is programmed for a combination of speed and certainty, not accuracy. Acting decisively in the face of a speeding truck can save your life, while trying to determine truth can leave you a splatter on the road.

Patrick King, The Art of Clear Thinking

Do you feel the truth in this? We are so easily a splatter on the road if we let our thinking brains slow us down.

So we don’t. We prefer speed for our own safety.

The instant we realise, getting out of the way of the pouncing lion is imperative. Instinct triggers the impulse to leap (speed) as a proven option for giving us a chance to escape (certainty). Given enough time to think about the lion, our brains would come up with any number of smart options to manage predator exposure in the first place, such as deciding who should be the lookout with sharp eyes willing to stay awake (accuracy).

Accuracy takes way too much time and effort so in the human brain opts for speed and certainty.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this as thinking fast and slow.

Accuracy that requires us to weigh up options, think through options and make evidence-based decisions just takes too long and too much effort on our part for the majority of everyday decisions. If we did it all the time we would grind to a halt from inertia. So the fast brain takes over. This gives us quick options and makes us intellectually as well as physically nimble.

In human evolution, this was essential and perhaps one of the things that made us so successful. We are fast thinkers. Our speed and certainty of thought give us a competitive advantage over most creatures, other tribes, and even human rivals in our own team.

Once we escaped the lion and were relatively safe around the campfire, so then we were able to ponder, remember and weigh up our experiences and, through language, share our ideas with others. This time to ponder set us up for big innovations and future successes that made evolutionary sense of having both thinking mechanisms.

It also gave us connections with each other. Slow thinking helps deepen the connections that allow us to build trust and organise the lookout roster.

All good so far.

Patrick King goes on to say…

In the absence of threats to your life, truth should always be the end goal, and opinions should be formed only after making an honest effort to pursue it.

Patrick King

This is a laudable suggestion. We would all do well to heed it for even if we are just aware that we have two modes of thinking that is a great start. And even if the longer one takes effort, the accuracy if offers should be attractive enough for us to use it more often. No matter how fast you think there are times when you will appreciate the heads up from the lookout.

So what happened to all that debate in the pub? Wither the discourse and thought about issues of the day and the future? Replaced it seems by cute cat pictures and a swipe right.

In our modern jungles, the benefits of the slower, more considered mode of thinking seem forgotten. Immediacy has again taken over from thought.

Ironically, there are a thousand discussions on this issue of how we became thoughtless and the conclusion appears to be that speed and certainty override accuracy because most matters no longer require serious thought. In the west at least, immediate needs are easily met with fast decisions — pizza or Thai? — the everydayness of everything. It is easy to get by without a nightwatchman.

When there are more serious matters, such as who should get my vote, the choices are lamentable with little payoff from seeking accuracy.

If we combine lack of need with a limited payoff then the call to ‘honest effort’ will ring hollow. Why put in the effort for no reward?

Enough.

If you have read any posts on this blog or anything by dozens of more erudite thinkers then you know this is not even a question. There are 7.7 billion reasons to make the effort and you are one of them.

Everyone has a duty to buck up their ideas, turn their thinking brains on every day, build strong connections, and find some solutions to the multitude of challenges presented by so many souls.

Help a brother by thinking about accuracy.

This is pivot day

This is pivot day

I don’t know why it’s this day, but today is pivotal.

It is the day when the past is very different to the future.

Today is when the passengers in the global busload of humanity wake and realise that the driver is heading for the cliff of chaos with his foot on the floor.

Today people realise.

They start to squirm in their seats.

This day they mutter amongst themselves, they tell the driver to apply the brake and steer away or else.

This is the day.

26 September 2019

Mark it.

Put a sticky on it, make a special diary entry, come back to note that this day happened, the day of the first twitch toward a better future.

Boris, oh my Lordy

Boris, oh my Lordy

What Johnson understood was that in the digital age, voters were behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate.

Matthew d’Ancona, Guardian columnist

In the early 1930s, the German people were trying to come back from the cost and emotional loss of the war to end all wars. Naturally, they were struggling.

The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 and the subsequent London Schedule of Payments from 1921 required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) to cover civilian damage caused during the war. That is a lot of money today, let alone 100 years ago when a US dollar would buy a six-pack and some change.

Most families knew personal losses from the war and carried a collective pain from defeat. Historians suggest that the German people knew they had to work hard to recover and investors, especially from America, saw the opportunity and poured money into the country. Then the Wall Street crash of 1929 hit and the decade long depression that followed scrambled everyone’s options.

The conventional wisdom is that these setbacks resulted in economic and social unrest, specifically inflation and high unemployment, a pattern that was repeated across Europe and the US. These were trying times everywhere.

The census of 1933 had the population of Germany at over 65 million people. In the previous year, there was an election. Many adults thought it wise enough to cast their vote for National Socialist German Workers’ Party who had made their ideology to strengthen the Germanic people, the “Aryan master race” perfectly clear. A third of the German electorate voted for the Nazi party in 1932.

Millions of sane people voted for “racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a collective subordination of individual rights, which could be sacrificed for the good of the state on behalf of the people”. What were they thinking?

Presumably, they were in a similar space to societies who allow crazy people with warped ideologies to lead them. Maybe they were a little lost. Scared, maybe given they had lost a world war and were struggling with the aftermath and a global economic downturn.

Perhaps they thought that the government could solve their problems. Maybe that gave them some hope.

Whatever they thought would happen not many would have predicted where the society would end up 13 years later.

In 1965, when the first electronic computers entered offices, Eric Hoffer warned in the New York Times that “a skilled population deprived of its sense and usefulness would be the ideal setup for an American Hitler.” That did not happen. Instead, people listened to Kennedy and went to the moon.

In the 58th quadrennial American presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 62,984,828 votes, 46.09% of the votes cast, even though his main rival received 2.1% more votes.

According to the electoral commission, the republicans spent $303 million on the election, less than half the democrat spend of $640 million. Presumably, this means you can’t buy happiness. It also means that nearly 63 million people though that what Trump had to offer via Twitter was what they needed to improve their lives and the fate of the country.

In 2019 there was another vote, this time in the UK to replace the prime minister.

Boris Johnson received 92,153 votes from Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 per cent of the British population and have far more men than women, are overwhelmingly white, and significantly more right-wing than the average voter. Handy for Boris and a bit of a nightmare for everyone else.

It would seem that money may not buy power but a minority will.

Each of these brief historical descriptions is a salutary lesson for democracy. It is quite easy for a sequence of events that appear of little consequence to reach far into very dark places.

Obviously we are in another of these historical moments.

Everyone should pay serious attention and become that engaged electorate. We all need to vote with extreme care each and every time that we can and, where it matters, speak out on the streets, on the web, and around the kitchen table.

The Germans didn’t see it coming, nor did the Americans or the British.

Do you?

Density and competition

Density and competition

In the second year of my PhD scholarship, I boarded my first aircraft, a bog-standard commercial flight from London to Rome but wow, what a thing?

The energy pushing you back into your seat, the stupidity of being suspended 30,000 feet up in the air and the impossibility of such a heavy tube of metal being able to get you and your seat up there. Just one experience I now take for granted that 30 odd years ago were a wonder to a youngster.

The journey was the first of many plane trips in my professional career, including some far more risky ones than a smooth jaunt across Europe. This first one was to attend a scientific conference, a meeting of minds for most of the world’s woodlice researchers. Some 50 people from all over Europe and North America who were into the behaviours, physiology and ecology of the terrestrial branch of Isopoda, an order of Crustaceans, the majority of whom live in water. The isopods that is.

So before we get to the publication, a brief ponder on the notion of a woodlouse conference. That humans, the most curious of beings, should have individuals dedicated enough to spend most of their waking hours understanding the biology of a peculiar group of animals that should be in the ocean but are not is quite miraculous. That these scientists can also be organised enough to get together periodically to discuss their obscure findings is bizarre too. This one in Urbino on the east coast of Italy in September 1986 was the Second International Symposium on the Biology of Terrestrial Isopods. It was a hoot, including a crustacean themed dinner with more than a dozen courses one of the very few meals from the distant past that I can still remember.

I was there to present some of my PhD research on competition and in the conference proceedings appeared my first single-author paper.

Dangerfield J.M. (1989) Competition and the effects of density on terrestrial isopods. Monitore Zoologico Italiano (N.S.) Monograph 4: 411-423

When reading this piece again for this post I could not even recall running the experiments the paper describes. It wasn’t until I read the methods of culturing broods of the tiny critters in plastic containers and feeding them uniformly ground leaf litter that it came back to me. The pots layered up on racks in controlled temperature rooms and hours weighing thousands of animals individually. Such is the dedication and forgetfulness required for higher learning.

A series of experiments tested the effects of crowding (although I called it density for formality) on growth, survival of young and the reproduction in adult Armadillidium vulgare, the common pillbug, with the general result that crowding matters. That is if you’re a woodlouse and you are around your woodlouse buddies too much they affect your biological success. The more is not the merrier for woodlice even if there is abundant food. Woodlice also compete against other woodlouse species, who doesn’t, only the win in the competition is affected by the size of the arena. It would seem that for woodlouse at least life is lived very much in three dimensions.

All up my conclusion and the most likely explanation was that there was interference going on in the cultures. The activity doing enough to generate measurable competitive effects. Noting that there was always enough food to go around, at least that is what I assumed. I remember being quite chuffed at this explanation because at the time the theory was that competition was not just about food but proving this was always tricky. So to have generated numbers suggesting it for such a lowly critter was fair play.

By Franco Folini – San Francisco, California, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=789616

It is hard to go past a simple experiment. Easy to design and deliver with all the satisfaction of hypothesis testing at the end. It’s the stuff of early career ecologists, they love it. I certainly did.

Did this science add to the pile of human knowledge? Well, not really, despite my enthusiasm over interference. It is likely that woodlice are competitive and these interactions can have consequences for their populations but there is also a lot more going on. Just because a mechanism exists does not mean it is important. But finding out that it is possible is worth the effort.

Later work could build on the findings but even in themselves, they show how complex patterns in nature can be. Today I would say that all of nature is constantly competitive. It is why we have natural selection and why there is so much diversity. Organisms become different to try and avoid as much of the constant competition as they can, usually with only limited success.

If nature is innately competitive, and we are of nature, not a rhetorical question, then we need not go much further than competition and how to avoid it as an explanation for many a human woe.

Back in 1986, that first plane trip got me started on my research career. My first single-author paper and a small but important step toward independence as a researcher.

Little did I realise how far and wide that journey would go.

Nobody knows because we are lazy

Nobody knows because we are lazy

It is hilarious when the ‘nobody knows’ card is played on the TV quiz show QI because it signifies trivia we do know is so obscure and seemingly irrelevant to anything that when the gotcha comes it is just weird.

What ‘Quite Interesting’ does illustrate beautifully, as it takes the piss out of our insatiable desire to know something nobody else does, is that humans are too curious for our own good. We rummage around finding out about the most obscure topics and then we remember large amounts of what we found. Staggeringly large amounts.

If you think about it, that a comic actor should know that ‘the Dyslexia Research Centre is in Reading’ is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. #RespectAllan.

We could dip into some evolutionary biology trivia. This will tell us the ability to seek, find and remember small points of difference in things is a core skill set for our success as a species. It meant we knew where to find food when it mattered, recognise danger from the smallest signs, to retain that information for a long time and to experiment with finding new resources. Add communication along with the division of labour to that mix and we’re off.

So our brains are set up to find and store detail. This is good.

But not everyone does trivia. No two faces are the same and neither are the brains that sit behind them.

Some people are really good at finding information and retain little; others can remember what their daughter was wearing to her friend’s birthday party three years ago. This is good too. It means that we have a range of abilities within the core skill set so that people can specialise in certain tasks. This makes tasks easier to complete if the adept person is the one to do it and provides the raw material for the essential division of labour.

Aggregate this across a modern society and we have any number of skills, trades, and functions performed mostly by the people best suited to them. This makes our systems efficient and also helps explain why humans have taken over the world.

So far this is a euphoric post, a vision of success through an explanation of why we hold on to information and anecdotes with no obvious benefit.

Only some people are not very good at trivia. They may have poor memory or just not inclined to widen their knowledge. They might be in the wrong place where their particular talent or inclination is not needed for any useful tasks or the system can’t match their skill to a need. No matching process can be perfect so we have to accept some errors.

So now, out of the blue, I’m going to suggest another reason. Perhaps some people are lazy.

Yes, it could be that the reason they don’t know is that they just don’t put in the effort. They don’t read, they don’t talk about issues with their friends, they don’t watch the news even though they rarely get off the couch. It is sad but true. Some of us are lazy buggers with no motivation to understand the magnificent world we live in.

Shame on us lazy bastards. Shame on our fat arses.

Get off the couch, go read something with evidence in it and then think about what you have read. Talk to your friends about it and argue with them. Debate the issues of the day and set that immensely powerful brain of yours to work on a challenge.

Please do this. Your life depends on it.