What Does it Mean to be Global Holistic? Sherman Alexie and His Very Long Day

Roseate Spoonbill Pantanal

Roseate Spoonbill, S. American variety, Pantanal, Brazil, 2006

I’ll tell you right off — I am a fanboy of Sherman Alexie, our nation’s pre-eminent Native American author.  And while I don’t think I’ve read everything he’s written, I think I’m pretty close.  I was introduced to Alexie kind of randomly through his book Reservation Blues, and connected instantly as a child from Appalachia.  In that book, Alexie, who writes mostly from a Native American perspective, makes the acerbic point that “white people want all the good parts of a being an Indian, but none of the bad parts.”  He talks about the reservation store and Wonder Bread, and crafts a truly integrated perspective on his own experience throughout his novels.  Alexis is at the top of the literary game, and has also  made a movie, Smoke Signals.  For a first movie, I thought Smoke Signals was pure genius.  His portrait of an Indian nerd rings true for any kid growing up in a tough background in a depressed area.

He’s got a new book out now, that I haven’t read, but it’s on the top of my stack.  Called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, it’s the story of Alexie’s childhood and relationship with his parents on the Spokane Indian reservation.  Alexie’s father was a well-meaning, likable, but fundamentally worthless alcoholic, and his mother was a cruel, and violent, but materially pragmatic matriarch.  I’ve gone to listen to Alexie speak many times, and his message is about as pan-cultural, leavened and holistic as it gets.

One of the things that’s already self-evident, just by listening to his interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Aire, is the pathway that Alexie followed to his own enlightenment.  He himself is bipolar, and has worked to process the crazy vicissitudes of the illness his whole life.  The interview is awesome, and I highly recommend it.  The link is below.


Why does Alexie’s story matter?  If you follow my relational empathy take on how one becomes Global Holistic, it clearly demonstrates one potential path to becoming an enlightened master, removed from the solely self-improvement, meditative path that folks like to trot out as moving toward higher v-Memes.  When you have parents that are seriously disturbed, and you are raised in a climate of constant violence, the first challenge in your own development is to realize that spending a lot of time in the lower v-Memes doesn’t help.  If your mother has a disordered personality, then all the beliefs about how great Moms are that society tells you to believe aren’t going to help you much. And if your father throws parties allowing access to pedophiles to the house, you quickly realize that if you don’t become data-driven and acutely empathetic in your relational mapping, things aren’t going to go well.  You don’t get to believe in Santa Claus for long, because you’re going to end up getting beat at Christmas.

What childhoods of abuse can do, as Alexie so clearly demonstrates in even this brief interview, is throw you rapidly up the Spiral.  No luxuriating down for too long in the Tribal/Magical v-Meme.  And if you listen to the designated Authorities, or follow the Rules, you’re more than likely to end up dead.  So you become data-driven at a very young age.  The problem with being young and rational is that, well, your brain is not designed for it.  Rational means merely using data to make time-dependent decisions.  And no matter how quickly a seven-year-old can intuitively learn some of these lessons, they still can’t discriminate between good data and bad data.   Scaffolding — and appropriate authority, and legalism matters, as well as creation myths that make sense, and some basic needs at the Survival v-Meme always being attended to.  At least for a less trauma-laden path to greater social evolution.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t appreciate Alexie’s enlightened, far-seeing perspective.  I absolutely do.  But I think it’s also important, especially as we grow our own emotional empathy, to remember that wisdom usually comes with a price.  The lower v-Memes are places to grow emotional empathy so that they more fully express themselves in the rational place-taking that one must learn from the exigencies of one’s trauma situation.  Alexie, in the NPR interview, talks about one of the last negative aspects of his personality that fell away in his most recent brain surgery (he was born hydrocephalic and has had multiple operations) was blind rage.

Yet the depth of his self-knowledge exhibit in the interview makes this a must-listen.  Evolving to a Global Holistic v-Meme doesn’t mean you are a holy man, or the as-yet-unannounced messiah.  Or even, necessarily, a pleasant person to be around.  What it means is that one’s mind has coupled deep reflection and their own experience with a connected honesty and grounding about the world around him.  Alexie has done that in spades.  I’m really looking forward to reading his book.

For those interested in the song by Dusty Springfield that Alexie named his book after, it’s below:

Postscript — Alexie is a graduate of my own university, Washington State University, and was likely saved through his connection to creative writing professor, Alex Kuo.  Good teachers can still make a difference in turbulent lives.  I believe it was Viktor Frankl who said all that one needed to get through the Holocaust was one sane person as your anchor.  Thank you, Dr. Kuo.  When we ponder what gets lost when we don’t invest in education, your example is tremendous.

Weight Loss — It’s in the v-Memes (II)

Adapted flycatcher Pantanal

Some type of evolved hummingbird, more designed to eat insects, the alternate food for hummingbirds, than sip nectar — Pantanal, 2006

One of the most interesting things when going through bird species is the different bills that birds have.  Each appears uniquely adapted for a particular kind of food — a prime example of species diversification and adaptation to habitat niche.  But bills are easy.  You can look at ones like the photo above, taken on a birding trip to the Pantanal in Brazil, basically their version of the Everglades, and guess what their favorite food is.  This one I caught with a bug in its beak.  Not that hard.

But how its metabolism works?  Not so easy.  The above species looks evolved from some kind of hummingbird, though.  A little known fact by most folks is that hummingbirds don’t drink nectar all day, every day.  They supplement their diet with bugs. or actually (more likely) eat insects, and supplement their diet with nectar. I’m not a hummingbird expert, but if you are, let me know in the comments!

One thing I’ll bet you don’t think every time you see a photo of a bird, like the one above, or a wild animal, is that the animal is dying of starvation.  Except for lions (cue the Lord Attenborough voice-over) we’re not conditioned by media or messaging to think of animals (including birds) as constantly starving and miserable.  Because, well, they’re probably not.  Their metabolism has adapted to their food circumstances for over millions of years.  And crippling hunger doesn’t serve any sentient creature’s long-term prospect. The food a wild animal seeks out is the kind of food it can eat, and thrive on.  If it doesn’t, then it simply can’t reproduce.  No one makes babies of any variety if they’re starving.  The energetics just don’t work that way.

And if you can’t cut it with your particular feeding/evolutionary strategy, then you go extinct.  Every animal’s presence on this planet is an exercise in ongoing validity.  Are hawks cold in the middle of the winter?  I’m sure that there might be days out there when it’s tough.  But if it were too tough, then the tough would get going.  They’d become migratory, as many birds have become.  And plus,  the more that is learned about birds show they don’t care much about cold.  Bar-headed geese migrate at 23000′ in altitude.  It’s never warm up there.

Why am I telling you this?  It’s because we don’t understand food for our own species in this larger context at all, as far as I can tell.  And don’t think I’m going to go all-Paleo-diet on you, either.  For those not in the know, Paleo is the latest diet that says you should eat what people ate 100,000 years ago.  Well, OK.  But as you read along, you’ll start to understand that just stating that alone is not going to get you where you want to go.  I’m sure there are more sophisticated variants, but without time-dependent behavior, you’re still down in the lower v-Memes, believing another Authoritarian with no sense of temporal scaling or connection.

And now, before you read any further, I want you to sit down.  Take a deep breath.  Close your eyes.  And breathe.  And in the process, move your mind out of the fundamental Belief-Based, Dichotomous, Two-Way Thinking mode that you (like me) and almost everyone else has been trained to think about food.  Food is something that is deep inside our brains — but not because of any Survival v-Meme programming.  What we know about food, and what we should eat, if we’re lucky, is mostly in our Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme minds.  If we’re lucky, there might be a little Performance v-Meme and Communitarian v-Meme stuff in there as well.  But mostly, food is built around shame, reward, and most likely, family.  And as the world has changed, framing it in these terms is absolutely killing us.  As I stated in the last Weight Loss post, a huge majority of us (especially in the U.S.) is fat, and getting fatter.  Stephen Hawking said it’s the chief peril to the survival of humanity, and he may be right.

So take that deep breath.  Because I’m about to lay a big truth on you.

You are not supposed to be hungry as part of a standard condition of existence.

Huh?  What does that mean?

OK, here’s an elaboration.  Your body can exist in homeostasis and 99% of the time not be hungry, and you can be healthy.  And it can take you there, even if you’re fat.  You DO have to follow the primal rules of your body.  You can’t get there through just any old path.  But you can do it.  

Well, that’s fine.  What does THAT mean?  It means that if you understand your body in the Survival v-Meme, when we were running around with 8-10 other hominids, your body evolutionarily adapted to that world, and that’s the body you have now.  And while it was decidedly low-empathy (empathy above mammalian attachment behavior, which can still be pretty sophisticated, was in pretty short supply) people weren’t miserable all the time.  They weren’t.  I’m not a fan of the blissful primal state, and I also believe that Ishmael by Daniel Quinn also made the point that we weren’t hungry all the time, but we weren’t hungry.  Just like that hummingbird flycatcher thingy above isn’t miserable all the time either.  Misery doesn’t drive upward social evolution for the most part (though Survival v-Meme crises can create neuroplasticity.)  You have to have increased energy to evolve out of that Survival v-Meme band, and when you look at the sophistication of native art, up one click in the Tribal v-Meme, it’s plainly clear that those folks didn’t nearly starve every year.

Sure, there was a distribution — some communities fell on hard times and such.  But it was far more likely that disease would get you than a lack of food.  And this is true for most species.  Every now and again, there may be a famine.  But I can remember reading a pine beetle irruptive population paper about 15 years ago.  What always got the pine beetles wasn’t a lack of food.  It was disease.  And with our own human cohort, it hasn’t been food supply that’s taken a knock in our numbers at any time since we figured out vaccinations and penicillin.

You have not evolved to be hungry as a standard condition of existence.

If we haven’t evolved to be hungry, then in order to understand hunger, we have to understand how we have evolved to be NOT hungry.  That’s a key insight.

Now things get tricky, because there are lots of stories about all of this.  And as with many human stories, there is some truth in most of them, (we learned that back in v-Meme 101!) but not total truth.  What we CAN learn from an Integral perspective, though, is how to pull the appropriate truths, in the appropriate order, apply the appropriate temporal and spatial scales, and come up with something that looks like an elephant.  It may be wrapped in spaghetti, and not simple.  But we can get there.  Bear with me.

In deep human/hominid time (depending on who you ask, at least .5M-1.6M BCE) we showed up on the planet.  We had the potential for memetic evolution, but really, we were pretty much working on our biological, genetic foundation.  Like most animals, we might have been reaching up there to the first two v-Meme levels (this was before solidified Tribal structures.)  But we mostly hung out and responded to the environment.  This is how we biologically evolved.  The rest of human history is a scant 10,000 years.  And while it may be having a profound effect on us, that part of evolution of humans as a complex, collective being is far more easily charted with v-Memes than with actual genes.  If a good looking human from 50,000 years BCE showed up, I guarantee they could get a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Even if there were some requisite time spent in charm school before you brought them home to the parents.  It might bring some different perspective, however, to the phrase “she’s a total ANIMAL in the sack!”

So what was that deep history life like?  Well, seasons mattered.  Different foods were available during the different seasons, and we likely adapted our diet to those different seasons.  Now here’s the key insight:  Not only the surface level characteristics of our bodies adapted, but our metabolisms also adapted.  We adapted both our habits, and switched our metabolic characteristics, to the seasons of the year.  And these effects came with intertwined timescales.  Not only did the Earth moving around the Sun matter.  As important was our ability to metabolically adapt to changing circumstances, which was much shorter.  It didn’t take all fall, or all spring, to take advantage of the change in food supply — or stop feeling bad because we couldn’t get any more apples.

The standard explanation of seasonal change in food supply is that we are supposed to put on weight in the summer and fall, when fruits were available, and then lose it, under stress, when they were not.  Nothing in that statement is new.  People have been saying that kind of stuff for ages.  Locavore blah, blah, blah. We lost weight in the off-times because we were starving.  And we had to put on enough fat to avoid starving in the winter. And so, implicitly, we had to have foods that help us put on weight.  Like fruits.  Or carbs.  Or whatever.

Well, maybe not.  Maybe there’s actually deep bullshit in that statement, that’s coded into our understanding of our bodies that comes from our v-Memes, and not our actual biology.  And maybe there are other timescales in play regarding food, than just the source.  Maybe adaptation time has something to do with it as well.

What’s really interesting is that no one talks about our bodies LOSING weight as part of the plan.  Or diet.  The whole idea is “we gain weight, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.” It’s just not considered that maybe losing weight is also part of our homeostatic trajectories.

I went looking for one of my favorite historic Nez Perce photos, of an entire tribal subgroup.  The Nez Perce were never a survival band — far from it, so please don’t misinterpret my statements.  But if you were to find a better-looking, cut-up band of body builders, you’d be hard pressed to do it.  This one below will have to do — you can still see that Charles Whirlwind’s (photo credit NPS) band is still looking mighty fine.

Charles Whirlwind

The Nez Perce never starved — they were salmon-based Native Americans, and had the empathetic development benefit of jointly harvesting salmon when the runs came up the Clearwater and Snake Rivers.  I can remember reading similar accounts of Comanche and other Great Plains Tribes, who towered in health and well-being over the U.S. Cavalry soldiers, who were often in poor health and a foot less in height.  Great Plains tribes ate buffalo meat.  U.S. Cavalry ate flapjacks and salted pork.  Nez Perce ate salmon — lots of it.  Save when the camas came in during the spring time, it was elk, salmon, and bison in the fall.

But let’s scroll life back far before that, to the African savannah.  There would be no winter season to fatten up for or starve.  There would be a wet and dry season, a season when plants would fruit, and then a season where you had to chase critters.  And during both seasons, our deep ancestors would have bodies adapted to their lifestyles.  But instead of assuming that they were starving during one season, and flourishing during the other, maybe what really happened is that they just changed their metabolism.  During the dry season, when carbohydrates weren’t available, they just didn’t eat them.  And maybe when they were, they had lots of sex, because we do know that elevated baseline fat level is important for estrogen, and therefore conception.  That’s a very different narrative than alternate starving, and worrying about starving.  Run around a lot one season.  Have lots of sex during the other one.  Or rather, have lots of sex period, but only have babies during the one, because everyone was fit and in great shape for the most part, just like animals usually appear in the wild, but energetic conditions were only right for making more humans during one.  That’s a really different narrative than the chronic suffering one we’re used to.

If there’s a Guiding Principle regarding weight loss that I’ve figured out while changing my diet to more protein and fat, it’s this.  I’m not supposed to be hungry.  I can lose weight and not be hungry.  I can harness my body’s deep memory that this might be the squirrel-chasing season, and not the apple-eating season.  And once I get closer to a healthier homeostasis, I can diverge from that for an evening out with friends without worry.  If I go back to eating lots of carbs, then I will shift my body to the primal state of eating apples and getting fatter.  If I stick with eating protein and fat, I will shift my body back to the primal state of eating rabbits.  My body will gear up to being more energetic because those little suckers are hard to catch.  And not only that — my body will want itself to be skinnier and lighter, because it’s easier to chase rabbits if I’m not dragging around my beer gut.  Or apple gut.  Or whatever.

These types of metabolic changes are what in engineering (or science) we call First Order Effects.  These are the primary drivers that affect how our body function, and they go back a long way.  Intrinsic in all this is that my body is healthy, and that it is capable of achieving homeostasis.  If I’ve already bunged up my pancreas, well, that’s a different story.  But if all parts are in good, working order, then this is the first big choice.

That’s NOT to say that all the other stuff doesn’t matter.  It does.  If you’re exposed your whole life to pesticides, the odds go up in the population that you’ll get cancer.  Exposure to preservatives, and how they affect the transition in hunger, and weight gain, are also likely very real.  If you’re insulin sensitive because of long periods of obesity and inactivity, certainly that matters.  But all these effects — UNLESS you have something non-functional with your core systems — are second order.  You can eat plenty of organic food-based carbohydrates and still be unhealthy and obese.  It’s not going to save you.  You can miss the boat with timing and the Paleo diet will do you no good.  Likewise, if you follow first-order effects and eat hot dogs and beans, odds are you’ll still lose weight and feel fine.  If you don’t drink a ton of water — definitely a first-order effect — you won’t feel fine no matter what you do.  If you never move around, you’ll always feel terrible.  You’re supposed to get up and get on it every now and then.  First order effect.

What’s the v-Meme path toward weight loss?  Start at the bottom with Guiding Principles — carbs to gain weight, proteins and fats to lose weight.  Mostly divided, and consumed at different times — they’ll have that effect.  Almost never be chronically hungry — that’s the truly unnatural state.  I’ve talked to enough people in the last couple of weeks about this to convince me that three, to at most seven days seems to be a magical number as far as metabolic shift.  I get my data from friends going to Europe, changing mostly their breakfast pattern, and walking around a lot.  Folks say they immediately drop 3 lbs.  So do I when I go there.  Your mileage may vary.

And don’t just leave out the knowledge from the other v-Memes.  As you move up, pick the Authority wisely that works for you. That said, Gwyneth Paltrow talking about buying expensive fairy dust is probably a worse choice than Steven Ilg, famous mindfulness athletic trainer.  Maybe you need a scientist.  Or you’re like me, and the Four Hour Body made sense.  Or you’re insulin-sensitive.  You can find your way.  I have faith in you.

But your body, if all systems are still go, has evolved to shift.  Your weight can easily go up — and down.  Because when the fruit rots, and there’s no more left on the ground, it’s time to stop laying around and having sex and start chasing those squirrels again.  Now you’ll to excuse me while I eat some organic beans and a Nathan’s hot dog.  I’ve got some weight to lose.

Postscript — fun Simpsons link.  I love Dr. Nick.  Definitely one of my favorite characters.



Quickie Post — Reading the Energy Tea Leaves/Media One More Time

100 Islands 2012 (1)

In 100 Islands National Park, Philippines, 2012

One of the interesting things to me about reading tech. media is how often the journalists get it wrong — usually on the pessimistic side of the scale.  And it’s easy in tech to point a finger at the journalist and declare “well, they just didn’t know enough about the tech to have an intelligent opinion.  If they only had XXX engineering degree, they’d have known whether YYY innovation was really going to happen or not.

I’m not one to completely knock having an engineering degree, having more than a couple myself!  But it’s important to remember that the degree provides the scaffolding for any analysis — a set of constituent knowledge parts that still have to be combined into that holistic narrative the makes sense of a potential change.  And that depends on the author’s v-Meme, which will then inform their endorsement or criticism.  Whether they’re promoting a solar satellite in the sky, or tiles on a rooftop spread by neighbors at roof-changing parties, Conway’s Law informs the implementation of the actual design by the design group’s v-Meme.    But the journalist’s background will tell you whether they like or dislike a particular technology, as well as inform on their ability to understand, or even comprehend how a given piece of technology will evolve.

For the most part, tech writing forever has been pretty utopian/absolutistic in nature, either positive or negative (think everything from Star Trek to Brave New World.) And not much nuance — at least until Philip K. Dick came along (the ur-author of the story the movie Bladerunner is based on) or maybe William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  But reporting on tech is still hugely dependent on the writer’s v-Memes — and that’s particularly noticeable in how the writer conveys the sense of innovation, change, and metacognition.

Energy issues are obviously one of the huge areas of tech-speculation, with any new announcement screaming out the v-Memes of the author.  If it’s all about how something large and centralized is going to save the day, I’d be willing to bet a beer that the journalist is an authoritarian/legalist.  Likewise if they say something like ‘large scale energy storage/base load is the thing that will kill renewables.’  Or if any introduced technology is immediately condemned because it can’t instantly replace all the current energy pipelines that run modern society.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to read a story from a naysayer that is starting to understand that change processes are key for technology maturation.  This article, from the online website Treehugger, about Tesla storage substations as replacement for small scale natural gas power generation, is a good example — and definitely worth a read.  The author is talking about the Duck, which is a tech term for the problem with renewables, that peak power generation demands are often right when the sun is going down and wind is dying, and people are turning on their A/C and cooking dinner.  You need some crossover support to make it all happen.

This TreeHugger has been forced to eat a lot of words recently after complaining how net zero building and rooftop solar was going to create huge problems; I noted recently that Tesla’s power wall “is a real game-changer, that erases so many of the problems I have had with rooftop solar and its dependence on the grid, the whole duck curve thing, just gone.”

Whether or not it turns out to be completely true, that Tesla concentrated storage will work to fix this problem completely or not, as all things in the future, has variability and probability attached.  That’s the truly evolutionary thing to say.

A view of long history can help.  One of my more lighthearted hobbies is reading railroad and model railroad magazines.  My railroad of fandom, The Milwaukee Road, ran through our backyard and through the headwaters of the St. Joe River, over St. Paul Pass.  The Milwaukee Road was an innovator, and ran electrified routes over the Rockies and Cascades, starting at Harlowton, MT, over to Avery, ID and on to Seattle.  You can ride part of the Route of the Hiawatha now on your bike, with a nice shuttle if you’re so inclined.  It’s lovely.   See below.

You actually get to ride on the abandoned railway and across the trestles — it’s that pretty!

But what was really interesting about the Milwaukee Road was that they timed their trains to provide peaking power back into the grid at the Duck.  In order to slow down, they would use regenerative braking, and feed power back into the system about the time everyone was frying up their evening hamburgers.  Talk about empathetic synergy.

So answers are often out there.  And often, as with all progress, unexpected and nonlinear in nature.  Just like creativity itself, if you need to get all hopey-changey-complex systemy- self similarity on yourself!  That particular solution was used, depending on how you count the years, almost 100 years ago.

If there’s a takeaway, it’s this.  Raise an eyebrow on anyone either unilaterally praising, or condemning any new technology.  The more things change, the more things change.  And like Yogi Berra said, especially about the truly large issues like Global Warming — “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

Quickie Post — Brother Leachman’s Thermodynamics of Creativity

Mike and Chuck Older - 1

That’s me and my older soul brother, Mike Beiser.  Though Jake did take this picture.  Who says you can’t have fun with your collaborators?  July 2016, Main Salmon River

Here’s another post from one of my chief collaborators, Jake Leachman, in the School of MME here at WSU.  It’s great stuff —  titled:

Social Thermodynamics: The mathematics of creativity

It’s not exactly for the faint-of-heart, so if you just got done with the Weight Loss post and thought I’d lob you another softball, well, uh, sorry.

For those who are into design, though, it’s great, in that it gives a field theory/probabilistic interpretation of averaged complexity that’s useful in creating larger organizational boundary conditions and forces for change.  As with all probabilistic modeling, it’s not so much descriptive on how individual actors inside a system work together to create new ideas.  But it’s more useful.  I’ve been badgering Jake to make up some Labview models of “virtual instruments”, with little dials and such on the front to show, quantitatively, how these variables are related.  Methinks a quickie creativity-meter looms in our shared future.    It’s a wicked combo — bright, innovative thinkers and me — the iconic old nag.

Contrast this with the deterministic work on creativity in social networks I’ve done, based on nonlinear differential equations.  One of the fascinating meta-things that this little comparison shows is also how the various v-Memes create knowledge structures that, over time, can converge to a larger truth.  Nonlinear differential equations are as Legalistic/Algorithmic as you get — one initial condition gives you one unique solution that may indeed be extremely complex.  But running a bunch of these to make sure it’s the only answer takes forever.  Contrast that to the probabilistic approach of thermodynamics, more at home one v-Meme level up, in the Performance/Goal-based heuristics space.  Here, thermodynamics inherently works on averages inside a larger system boundary.  More compact and potentially easier to calculate.

While both approaches give insight, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jake’s approach might be more useful for setting organizational policy, whereas the nonlinear ODE understanding is more useful in understanding individuals interacting, and create lower level training.  And that would also map to the insights of the v-Memes.  Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes for rules for an organization, and Performance-Based thinking for larger goal setting.

It’s all great!  We’re figuring it out!

Weight Loss — it’s in the V-Memes

Panda and Kitty Tuxedo - 1

My wife and I.  We like each other.  Most of the time.  2016

One of the things that I’ve struggled with my whole life is weight.  Too much of it, actually.  And I’m not alone.  If you believe the statistics, in the U.S., some 36% or so of us are obese (more than 30% body fat) and two out of three of us are overweight.  Even Stephen Hawking has weighed in.  From the previously linked web page:

““We eat too much, and move too little,” he says. He also offers the solution, which we all already know is true: “More physical activity and a change in diet.”

Well, we kinda know that that solution is true.  Except when it’s not.  What we really know is that mental model of that solution is widely accepted.  We’ve covered Stephen Hawking’s issues with aliens eating us in this piece.  So it’s pretty fair to assume that we know that he’s speaking about weight loss from the same Authoritarian v-Meme that he talks about how us plumping up making us attractive for the space alien barbecue.

The reality of weight gain, however, is far more complex.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s very poorly understood.  It’s certainly not as simple as calories in/calories out.  Here’s a statement from the same NIH page that had the weight statistics:

There is no single cause of all overweight and obesity. There is no single approach that can help prevent or treat overweight and obesity. Treatment may include a mix of behavioral treatment, diet, exercise, and sometimes weight-loss drugs. In some cases of extreme obesity, weight-loss surgery may be an option.1

That’s a rare admission from a Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme organization!  Always great to see scientists/doctors displaying some profound metacognition.  Though to be fair to the v-Memes, it’s no surprise that the good doctors at the NIH do interject their ultimate solution — weight-loss surgery — while not talking about anything else in this little blurb!  You can run from those v-Memes, but you can’t hide.

So what does the v-Meme landscape look like in weight-loss land?  Well, it’s pretty desolate.  People are desperate for answers, for one, because being fat is pretty much a constant, reinflicting trauma in our society.  There’s fat shaming, and skinny models, and ideals of femininity and all that.  There’s the actual trauma of being fat — pre-diabetes, leading to diabetes, and clothes that don’t fit or look terrible.  So you can assume that a lot of us that are carrying around more than a few extra pounds are deeply aware of it.  And the trauma may grow so great, that we’re dissociated from our actions.  Trauma is a mother-scratcher.  Ask Daniel Siegel.

So how did I come to realize that there’s a v-Meme problem with all the usual weight loss nonsense?  Well, once again, I’m just the crazy exception to the rule.  I’m a fit fat guy.  I love to ride my bicycle, and I’m a veteran whitewater junkie and Class V kayaker.  I backpack, and have cruised the backcountry of multiple continents, from jungles to mountain peaks.  I’ve also been told that I’m fat my whole life by my family, especially by my mother and father (that’s a book to unpack!) even though there were times when I was working out literally four hours/day, and feeling like Rambo.  Grad school, I miss you.  But now, I am fat — I’m 6’2″, and weigh 285 lbs.  And while I keep up the bike riding (1500 miles or so last year) and go to the gym, it’s pretty clear from all trends, save for a bad divorce and a depressive loss of about 40 lbs. (that happened!)  that I’m going to be a blue whale if I can’t figure this out.  The good news is that I think I have.  But that has to do with (you guessed it!) my v-Memes and my social network.  And empathy.

But back to the v-Memes.

If you’re severely overweight, and you think you’re going to die if you don’t lose weight, I think it’s safe to assume you’re in a deeply traumatized state, and down there in the Survival v-Meme.  That means you’re simply receptive to anything.  You go to a doctor, who’s an Authority, and if they recommend Gastric Bypass Surgery, you’re going to go for it.  You got there because, for some reason, you couldn’t avoid eating.  And as the Legalistic Authoritarians in the crowd will tell you, you’re a fat hog because you just couldn’t put down the donuts.  It’s a moral failing, and you deserve to be fat.  Your lack of restraint got you there, and now they’re going to replumb your system to prevent you from indulging your fundamentally decadent personality.  You deserve the muumuu you’re wearing.

And here’s the other ringer.  You’re just like everyone else who IS fat.  Except you’re worse.  You pig.  You don’t even get the lateral from the NIH in the eyes of society.  But here’s the thing.  That’s telling you more about the v-Memes of the society than your actual situation.

Moving up to Tribal/Magical, we see lots of interventions start appearing for your weight problem.  They’re not all dubious, of course.  Sometimes, herbal medicines work, and are the results of thousands of years of aggregated societal knowledge.  Much of Chinese medicine is a great example of integrated information that can have amazing holistic effect.  There are definitely advantages of 3000 years of stable culture, even if it’s narcissistic authoritarianism.  Because long-term, systems will get to the truth and ground themselves to reality.  Or they fail.

But more often, it’s stuff like this.   Amanda Bacon sells magic in the form of Moon Dust, Moon Juice and such icks.  If you’re desperate to lose weight, and you want to be as beautiful as this 34-year-old snake oil salesperson, who’s made millions and lives in a 4000 square foot home in L.A., then you can buy her stuff over the Internet.

Then there’s the Authoritarian/Legalistic niche.  First, the Authoritarianism’s main problem, which is the way that these social structures maintain power and control is, as we’ve covered before, through suppression.  Which leads too often to depression.  Which, well, can certainly lead to overeating.  Which then means you’re a worthless piece of flab.  And your problems would go away if you’d just stop eating so much!  Nothing like a little black-and-white dichotomous thinking to get your day going!  Now put down that bear claw!!!

Moving up into the Legalistic v-Memes, we now see that there are simple algorithms that explain your problem.  The calories you eat — easily calculable with a diet scale — are more than the calories you’re expending.  Also easily calculable!  There are tables for BMI, and one-size-fits-all!  If you’d just buy a Fitbit, or some other new, infernal device, you could track this down to the last microjoule!  Now, every 30 minutes, stand up and move around.  I do want to pause, and say that there’s nothing wrong with many of these things at this v-Meme.  But it’s still categorization and simple input/output relationships.  Hard to represent the extremely complex and complicated cause-and-effect of the human body, of which only 10% is you.  And the other 90% are those different biotic/bacterial systems that have co-evolved with us.

But if you’ve noticed — that would be you, you fat person! No one’s ever asked you how you feel.

And that right there is exactly what you’d expect out of all the v-Memes below the Trust Boundary.  We’re externally defined, and statically belief-based.  You’re a professional, you should know better.  You just have to get with the program!

OK.  It’s time for a little more personal background on me.  When I was young — like four years old — my father would grab the back of my head and stuff food in my mouth.  “You’re not going to starve like I almost did!” he would bellow.  He was an immigrant from Iran, and he nearly died during the Great Depression from hunger.  He’s since passed on, but he had a story of a time he was standing in a bread line, and a soldier behind him came forward to steal his loaf of bread.  He put up a fight, and the soldier attempted to stuff him in the bread oven, which happened to be lit.  His father, who was a colonel in the army, came out and beat the soldier to death in the streets.  And my mother also nearly starved during the Depression.  Her story (potentially apocryphal — gaslighting has a long history in my clan as well) was when her older brother offered to cut off his leg so they could eat it.  Epigenetically, it doesn’t look good for me and weight loss.  Compound that with big Scotch Irish genes from my mother’s side, add in a quarter of Swedish long sea voyage stock, and you’ve definitely got someone who could survive a cold dunking for a long time.  Fat?  You betcha!

And then when you add the fact my father would throw a large bag of Doritos at me for a treat, what can I say?  I definitely COULD have a tendency to overeat.  I COULD lack self-restraint.  I obviously wasn’t counting calories when as a 14-year-old boy, I stuffed a bag of Doritos down my gullet.

Except my siblings aren’t fat.  Just me.  Huh.

But back to the v-Memes.  Once we move up into the Performance/Communitarian space, there starts to be a little hope on the horizon for us fatties.  We’re individuals now, with our own histories, including family histories.  Yet at the same time, if you’re overweight, you’re interacting with medical hierarchies, who are all generating thinkers who are not interested in you as an individual.  Empathy is not their gig.  You might be symptoms, but we as a society have decided that, for the most part, being fat is a moral failing.  And just like smoking, you just need to quit.  You have a problem.  Look at me and tell me about your experience, you say to the doctor.

Except they can’t.  I just Googled up ‘percentage of doctors who are fat’ — and the number is 51%!  According to the NPR article, doctors who are fat aren’t comfortable giving advice on how to start losing weight.  Because, well, they’re in a hierarchical, status-based v-Meme of a social structure, and you’re supposed to feel embarrassed if you’re doling out health, and you turn out to be unhealthy.  Our doctors are all failed moral actors as well!  Talk about the Principle of Reinforcement!

So you turn to the nurses. More nurses are obese than doctors!  54%!  At least this article acknowledges stress as a potential cause.  Which would be expected, in the rigid hierarchies that dominate the medical profession.  Nurses, more predisposed to be empathetic, are under these doctors, that are all about their titles.  Not fair!  Give me a brownie!

But back to our more hopeful, empathetic, data-driven space.  People like myself are out there looking for answers, and being told the usual stuff.  You don’t exercise.  You don’t do the RIGHT kind of exercise.  You’re a moral failure.  And so on.  And after a while, at least in my case, you just accept it.  It’s out of your control.  It’s must be large scale environmental toxins, like endocrine disruptors.  Food additives.  Not enough organic food.  Something.  That’s a large scale systemic problem, our whole food system, and there is likely evidence that this is part of the problem, as well.  But overall, there are no answers you can use.  And the deprivation of agency is crushing.  You’re going to be fat forever.  At least you can be comfortable in your own skin.  See below.

Rat Park Lower Salmon

Someone’s got to be the paterfamilias around here.  2007?

The wildest thing in my journey, though, is that no one ever asked me the simple, empathetic question:  how do you feel when you’re hungry?

If any of my health care providers had asked me that question, I would have told them this:

  1.  I feel light headed.
  2. I feel ravenous.
  3. I want to cram food (especially carbs) down my throat until I feel beyond full.
  4. It’s especially bad after exercise.
  5. I can eat all the celery in the world and it doesn’t make me feel any better.

The end conclusion I’d tell them is that I become non-functional when I get hungry.  I feel miserable, and want to die.  (Think Survival v-Meme here.)  If I don’t have that Cheeto snack from the vending machine down the hall, I’m done.

The other interesting question no one ever asked me was this:  what meal makes you last the longest without feeling hungry?  I’d answer very simply: a sausage and eggs breakfast.  I can last almost all day on a good breakfast.

Now while I’m a very connected, self-aware thinker when I slow down, the reality is that I, like all of us, spend most of our time down in one of the 1st Tier v-Memes.  For me, I’m very Performance-oriented.  If you come to me with a problem, the first thing that will cross my mind will be “How can we get this done?”  That’s not, if you’ll note, particularly high on the emotional empathy scale.  I look at the person asking the question, and since I do have a highly developed sense of rational empathy, I immediately assess their needs (I’ve been raising kids since I was 9 years old — that’s a whole ‘nother story!) and then execute. So when the time window opened in my schedule for another opportunity to do more exercise, which, as we’ve been told, should lead to more weight loss (even though it never has for me!) I got the bike schedule out and got on it.  100 miles/week.  I love riding, so it’s not a big deal.  I write on the bike.

First week, no weight loss. Maybe I’m building muscle, I don’t know.  Second week, the same story.  Hungry all the time, light-headed.  All the usual.  At least I can rationalize that beer I want to drink.  Nothing tastes as good as a Bitburger at the end of a long day with exercise.

And then a strange thing happened.  My wife, who is Taiwanese, who was leaving for Taiwan, lined up a new set of vitamins on the counter.  A multi, of course, as well as some new D3 vitamins.  Always happy to have a little more energy.  And then one more — a magnesium supplement.  I’d never taken that before.  So as much to appease her as anything — Chinese people in general like talking about their health like Americans like talking about football — I took it.

And all the sudden, I wasn’t hungry any more.  Or rather, I wasn’t hungry like that.  I was just hungry.  And I could manage it.

I’ve had lots of education, so I started thinking about the Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which states that “growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor).”  Obviously, I was chemically imbalanced.

I turned to Facebook and friends.  One of my chief collaborators, who is just a little younger than me, recommended this book.  What’s interesting about this book is that the writer, Timothy Ferriss, has done a ton of research on nutrition and endocrinology, as well as run experiments on himself.  That means multiple things, from a v-Meme perspective.  One — from the Legalistic/Absolutistic perspective, is that reliability isn’t where you want it to be.  It would be great to see multiple people.  I think. To be fair, he has multiple case studies in the book.

Or maybe not.  If I’m experiencing an exceptional problem, part of the problem with gaining reliability is that you’d want people to have the same metabolic characteristics.  That’s the problem we have with understanding weight loss now. You put too many diverse individuals in the pool, and the real gems of insight are averaged out.

And when it comes to validity, reading the book, it seems like Ferriss is the real deal.  He meticulously tracks what he does, and is very data-driven.  And he is a white male, like myself, from Northern European stock.  So there are at least some genetic similarities.  He calls it a ‘slow carb’ diet, and it seems somewhat ketogenic in nature.  Deprive the body of carbohydrates, and the body relearns to burn fat, as well as burn some ketones in your brain.  You eat until you’re full, and you get to drink two glasses of wine per night.  When I read that, I thought — I can live with that!

So I started.  And returned to my social network.  A lot of the usual advice came through, but one old friend told me about her insulin sensitivity, and how she had lost a large amount of weight.  Now I have something to go back to the doctor’s and discuss.  One of my younger cousins, Ben Pezeshki, who is also a physician, said the same thing in a different conversation.  Reliability from the medical community.  And on and on.

During the whole time, I’m also reflective about the process.  What was also cool about cousin Dr. Ben Pezeshki (shout-out — Pezeshki means ‘Doctor’ in Farsi!) was that he was the first person to ever tell me that typical hunger pangs were relieved when the stomach was stretched.  Hence the eating of celery as a good solution to hunger!  Except for me.  And by knowing that, I knew that this was NOT what I was feeling.  And I could begin to understand myself as a larger system out of balance.

By bringing you this story, I’m harnessing my own development, and in writing, hoping to gain a little Bodhisattva elevation by helping others.  Once you get out of the lower v-Memes, and into the world of high-trust relationships, you can start discussing about your experience.  Which matters.

What’s the bottom line?  If there’s a better illustration of how perspective and social structure shapes the opinions of those telling you how to lose weight, or why you’re fat in the first place, I can’t think of one.  And if there’s one that isn’t more tangled up with who we, quite literally, are, it escapes me.  One might say “well, I’m being empathetic if I don’t tell this person that they may have a larger problem (like thyroid imbalance, or insulin imbalance.)  I can’t say.  But everyone’s different.  And it’s one of those large, wicked problems that are going to require some experimentation (shout out to Tim Ferriss for affixing a blood glucose monitor onto himself to get at some level of the truth!) and scaffolding.  But I think a big first step towards getting to the answer would be for the medical profession to ask each other “so, how do you feel when you’re hungry?”  Now that’s an empathetic ladder that would really help.

Postscript — I’m down 5 lbs. on a profoundly linear graph.  For me, this has never happened — it’s been crazy 5 lb. fluctuations, never ending where I wanted. Let’s hope when I’m writing 30 days from now, I’m down 30. I think that’s a lot.  But I’m keeping on it.  And I’ll keep you informed!



Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich — What it Means in Terms of Social Structure and Performance

On the beach - 1

On a very hot beach — Main Salmon, July 2016

I just finished listening to a stunning audiobook, Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich. The book is primarily focused on research done by the author, Norman Ohler, on Hitler’s personal physician’s records, but also covers other stimulant/methamphetamine across the Third Reich during World War II.  Germany had become the leader in pharmaceutical technology for lots of reasons, pre-eminently though from the loss of its colonies due to WWI and the need to produce synthetic drugs because of the cut-off of natural remedies.  Because of this, companies like Bayer, Merck, and IG Farben found themselves pressed to the service of producing drugs like Pervitin, a methamphetamine, as well as Eucodal, essentially oxycodone, since natural opium from poppies was unavailable.

The author makes the point that is fascinating from a performance understanding of Authoritarian systems that the initial push through the Ardennes by famous General Heinz Guderian was made possible primarily through the use of Pervitin.  Though Guderian was a revolutionary military thinker, first using the idea of mechanized armor leading infantry, instead of the other way around, it was hyper-medicated Wehrmacht troops that enabled the Blitz.  French troops in 1940 were caught completely off-guard by the accelerated timescale of the attack, and as such hadn’t even thought to look for the German attack moving through the Ardennes in the middle of the night.

The book is one for nightmares — at the same time, the extensive research done by Ohler is some of the most important done on WWII that I’ve ever read.  Why?  Ohler comprehensively dismantles any romanticized version of Nazism and the performance of their army.  It was the drugs that made for the seemingly superhuman battlefield performance at the beginning of the war.

In the background, Ohler does a fantastic job of detailing the corruption that is the natural consequence of any Authoritarian system.  Guderian was initially not held back by disobeying orders, which allowed his superior performance-based social organization of his Panzer divisions to capture France in 11 days.  The short version is he implemented two-way radio communication between units, and coordinated tank operations at the the point of attack.  From Wikipedia,

“Guderian believed that among those things needed for success was the ability of commanders to communicate with their mobile units. Guderian insisted in 1933 that the tanks in the German armoured force be equipped with radio– and visual equipment in order to enable each tank commander to communicate with his crew and with the tanks in his platoon and company.[14] Inside the individual tanks, the German tank crews worked as a team, and the tank commander had the means to communicate with each of his crew members. Moreover, the German tanks worked collectively as a team, working together for mutual protection and increased firepower.[15] Said Hermann Balck: “The decisive breakthrough into modern military thinking came with Guderian, and it came not only in armour, but in communication.”[16] Of those things Guderian contributed, Balck considered some of the most important were the five man tank crew, with a dedicated radio operator in the hull of the tank, and the operation of the signal organization in the division to allow the commander to direct the division from any unit. This allowed forward control of the division, which was critical to mobile warfare.[17] The German victories from 1939 through 1941 were not due to superior equipment, but to superior tactics in the use of that equipment, and superior command and control which allowed the German panzer forces to operate at a much higher pace.”

Pretty empathetic — talk about demonstrating the power of information coherence on performance.  But all of it was, of course, doomed through the fundamental dominant collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme that so thoroughly permeated the Reich.  Guderian initially obeyed orders to capture France, yet was held off from attacking the retreating French and British troops at Dunkirk for six days. A stop order was issued from Nazi High Command and Hitler himself, due to the corruption and status-craving behavior of Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, who wanted credit for destroying the retreating army for himself.  Churchill famously quoted the evacuation at Dunkirk as a “miracle of deliverance.”  But it was not — it was a classic failure of the Authoritarian v-Meme.  If there’s any lesson here, it’s that social physics, once understood, trumps spirituality every time.

The failing performance of the Wehrmacht as the war ground on was not just due to the failures of Nazi High Command and Hitler’s micromanagement of the battlefield strategy.  Instead, it was at least as much due to the fundamental mental diminishment that comes from using meth over a number of years.  One of the disadvantages of an audiobook is that I can’t look up the numbers of pills of meth that were made and distributed.  But it was staggering.  Between the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, there was almost an entire military force on crystal meth.

And the long-term side effects of meth are well understood.  One of my favorite pieces on WWII by Lee Sandlin, called Losing the Wara stunning piece of writing in the words of Sandlin known as belles-lettres, talks extensively about “berserker behavior” as a natural outgrowth of battlefield psychosis.  What is far more likely is that this behavior was chemically induced after extensive methamphetamine use.  Allied use is also documented, but not covered in the books.

The other pathologically fascinating profiling done in the book was about Hitler himself. As the war ground on, he was increasingly propped up by injections from his personal physician, Theodor Morrell.  Starting at first with vitamins, moving on to strange steroid concoctions derived from the endocrine systems of butchered animals — everything from bull seminal vesicles to pig pancreases– and then finally hooked on both Pervitin and Eucodal. By the time Hitler committed suicide, almost toothless and staggering, his blood was so think from the strange mixes of pig fats and hormones that he couldn’t even bleed.

The most fascinating part of this story also directly ties back to empathy — or rather, the lack of it.  Hitler, as one of the Great Tyrants, and a histrionic psychopath, lived in a state of completely collapsed egocentricism — where the only thing that mattered was his dissociated state and belief in victory, humanity (and survival of everyone else) be damned.  Two things struck me in listening. The first was a point Ohler made very strongly.  Hitler used drugs to maintain a fundamental homeostasis with his perception of the world.  The drugs did not make Hitler ‘psychotic’, as some might allude.  Rather, Morrell’s dysfunctional potions made the real consequences of Hitler’s psychopathy manageable for Hitler, and enabled him to continue ordering others to commit monstrous crimes.  Hitler, until the end, when the Eukodal finally ran out, felt great.  That’s the way it works with psychopaths.  It’s everyone else that suffers.

And that pharmaceutical support of Hitler’s all-encompassing collapsed egocentricity mirrored down through his supporters, with either fanatical loyalty, as was exhibited by most of Nazi High Command, and his SS units, or suppressed execution from those not bought into the paradigm.  Yet Hitler, ensconced in his top-secret fortress, the Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia (now Poland) maintained that singular Authoritarian v-Meme neural structure until near the end. With information, histrionic speeches and commands only flowing downward, in stark denial of the reality closing in, it’s an unbelievable disordered monument to the ability of systems to maintain self-similar homeostasis.  By the end of the war, you might think that it quite literally became impossible to maintain Hitler’s worldview, of a rapid, victorious end of the war.  Not all of Nazi High Command stay put in the Wolfsschanze.  Many ventured out into the middle of the burned and bombed-out ruins of virtually every German city.  Yet many people did.

It’s the Principle of Reinforcement, quite literally, on meth and steroids.

If there’s any takeaway from all this sadness, it’s that any time you get someone demanding overwork and loyalty without question in any organization, and you see people falling in line, get the hell out.  You’re not in a corporation — you’re in a cult.  As well, diversity rules with v-Memes, as well as with people.  And since it all boils down to information flows in the end, not surprisingly, the self-similar behavior in solution sets for the operation also are maintained.  Authoritarian systems, with their dichotomous thinking, are going to end in collapse.  And it’s not going to be pretty, regardless of the romantic, evocative distortion of the philosophy.

The Wisdom of Crowds – and Empathy

Hay Festival Downtown

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, May 2014

It was an interesting day this past Saturday.  It was WSU graduation.   Graduation for the longest time has always been held in Beasley Coliseum, the big arena on campus. And while I consistently attend the pre-ceremony line-up, I’m not much on going in and sitting in one of those tiny chairs for two hours.

As often happens in Pullman in May, it was cold and raining.  Not fun.  Usually, if the weather is good (meaning no rain, but usually cold) students line up outside, underneath the various disciplinary signs, and file in during the graduation procession, “Pomp and Circumstance” playing while the announcer declares the majors.  If it is raining, it’s a little more chaotic, but the same signs are used to organize students around the enclosed outside ring of the stadium.

This time, there were no signs. And not surprisingly, there was chaos. Because there was no directed ‘binning’ of graduates, everyone attempted to head for the main entrance.  It was what I call classic ‘crowding’ behavior, where people pressed toward the main entrance in the arena, pushing and shoving toward the one set of open doors, as well as adjacent to where students go to get their name cards, so when they show up on the big view screen above the crowd when they get their degree, their name is pronounced.  It was nuts.

I attempted to corral all the students that I knew — my goal, since I’m their capstone instructor, and the only faculty member that can consistently recite all their names — and hold them back from the rush.  It was unclear how there would be the standard line-up for the procession, but there was going to be no joy by pressing up closer to the main doors, which were also feeling an influx from the main outside doors to the Coliseum.

I found it was amazingly difficult to get the students that even knew me to hold back.  It was like there was an all-encompassing force driving those kids up where everyone else was.  Though no stampede occurred, you can see how people can easily get trampled in such events.  “This is not a wise crowd,” I thought.  Which got me thinking back to that catchphrase, which then led me to research who mainstreamed the popular phrase into the contemporary lexicon.

The answer is James Surowiecki, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, The Wisdom of Crowds.  Staring at the cover on Amazon.com, I think I’ve read it.  But I can’t remember!  Regardless, the Publisher’s Weekly review on the Amazon.com page sums up the four conditions Surowiecki lays out:

“Wise crowds” need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge.

Not surprisingly, since according to Publisher’s Weekly, the book is based on behavioral economics and game theory,  there’s no mention of empathy.  Instead, we get that surface-level description of dynamics (back in Mario Kart again!) instead of a deeper understanding.  But it’s actually a pretty reasonable one.  We covered the value of diversity of opinion when we looked at Scott Page’s work.  Independence of members from one another is a little more challenging, because higher levels of empathy do indeed require differentiation of self from others.  At the same time, it’s a little tricky because this factor might also imply a lack of connected communication.  But when added to #3 — decentralization — now that’s an implied diss on the old Authoritarian v-Meme.  Not too bad.  And lastly, a good method for aggregating opinions — well, ‘good’ is a judgment word.  But we could also rephrase this to mapping to whatever knowledge structure we’re attempting to use.

That’s a little more tricky.  Good in the sense of ‘how many jelly beans in a jar’ would map down to the Authoritarian v-Meme fragmented information knowledge structure, and mixed up with the other three conditions, would imply an independent guess of said number of jelly beans. You would want as many people guessing how many jelly beans as possible, with some nod to ‘grounding’ — that people had some independent, calibrated ability to sense or measure the jelly beans in a jar optically.  For higher level knowledge structures (algorithms, heuristics, and multiple heuristics) you’re going to have to have a more complex process of building shared coherence.

These happen, of course, in all sorts of design reviews, codes and standards panels and so forth.  Though we don’t think of existence of current processes that produce all sorts of knowledge as collective intelligence exercises, they are.  And they exist at all levels.  Our world runs, quite literally on codes and standards that are created by expert staffs from all sorts of industries, for all sorts of situations.  Besides the ones for roads and buildings, which most of us are familiar with, there are codes and standards for literally every part of every operation in high-throughput manufacturing environments.  My students once did a project with one of my collaborators at an oil refinery on welding an external, strengthening patch onto a gas pipeline while gas was flowing! Needless to say, the algorithmic/Legalistic v-Meme part of the wisdom of crowds is well-covered.  Considering how many bridges collapse in the U.S., algorithmically based collective intelligence is doing pretty well.

We can keep going on up the Spiral in our Theory of Empathetic Evolution, and get guidance on Surowiecki’s four points.  Such collective, error-correcting behavior becomes emergent when one considers that many of the various institutions are already ‘good’ because of some level of mapping to those four principles.  OpenIDEO is most definitely a collective intelligence exercise that maps in the Theory of Empathetic Evolution’s Communitarian v-Meme.  And it also follows Surowiecki’s direction for diversity of voices, attempting to get community, as well as engineering representatives, and considering that it is crowd-sourced, it has decentralization and independence of voices as part of the mix.  That’s definitely going to be a solid approach for the neglected and unknown environments and the design solutions they demand, and the solution diversity contained therein. OpenIDEO ran a design collaboration recently on helping people from falling down less.  Considering the breadth of that problem space — utterly massive — it makes sense to go with the collective.

Surowiecki didn’t have access to our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  Still, I think that his four points are valid excursions from Authority-based/Expert thinking for a large number of problems.  I’d argue, though, that understanding the underlying knowledge structure is a better bellwether of whether to poll a ton of people, vs. listen to a couple of smart guys or gals. And maybe the real key to whether you should trust experts or not, if we were to sum up in one fell swoop, is towards identification of the amount of metacognition and prediction of unknowns.  The short version — if it’s already known, your expert is your best bet.  But if there’s enough gray in the mix, go with the crowd.  Like “what’s the best pizza place in New York City?” Food critics, move aside for Yelp.

But back to that crushing crowd at graduation, indulging deeply in profound mirroring behavior, all headed toward oblivion in the nonexistent line-up for graduation.  Maybe the other lesson is to know when NOT to listen to the crowd.  And that’s pretty obvious — when it’s acting impulsively, with little or no empathy. Wisdom in crowds maps to wisdom in people and social systems in general.  And with wisdom, the more connection the better.  Empathy matters.