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

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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.

 

Quickie Post — Aliens are Not Gonna Eat Us (again)

Bird of Paradise Plant

Hawaii, outside Hilo, August 2014

One of the easiest ways to evaluate someone Value Memes (v-Memes) is to ask them the old ‘what would aliens be like’ question.  We tend to think that the best people to ask that question to and get a real answer are scientists.  Which, on the surface, seems like a good idea — at least if you don’t understand our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  If you’ll recall, you’ll remember, though, that scientists are mostly organized down in the lower v-Memes, and most are algorithmic processors with mediocre metacognition — that ability to know what they don’t know.  Exobiology, the study of what life might be on other planets, is in its profoundly nascent beginnings.  Yet I wouldn’t be surprised (I’ll be long dead, of course) that when we finally get off this planet, we’ll find that the physical processes for creating life are largely captured here on Earth, give or take a few molecules.  The emergence of life is a low-probability event, and we DO have a canonical set of planets right here that we can investigate.  Barring discoveries of rudimentary life on Mars, or the moons of Saturn (think Titan) it’s just hard to get the scaled fractal structures life seems to need, with the physics present on most of the planets in the universe.  Things are just too energetically violent.

That doesn’t mean that extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist.  Billions of galaxies, and potentially billions of universes, mean that E.T. probably is out there to Phone Home.  And I still maintain that the laws of information creation ARE constant across at least our home universe.  Which means that everything I wrote in this post is likely true.

Then there’s the movie problem with all our understanding of extraterrestrial life.  I’ve already ranted about the aliens-gonna-eat-us crowd.  But even when we stray from that, we don’t do so well.  Take the latest cinema offerings.  The biggest thing that gets me about recent movies like Arrival is that the aliens, upon crossing some major interstellar void, when they show up, they haven’t done their homework on how to talk to us.  And it’s us with flashcards that have to school our dum-dum E.T. pals on “me-man, you-woman” in order to teach them how to talk with us.  As if they didn’t have anything better to ponder while experiencing the effects of relativity hurling across the universe.

Well, now there’s a new book out, compiled by a quantum theory specialist, about what scientists think about aliens eating us.  (Spoiler alert — they won’t, because we’re not made from constructive amino acids.  Is that the only constraining force on us?  If so, your neighbor better watch out or he’ll end up on the grill!)  It’s all in good fun, and I don’t want to be too hard on the editors, but it really shows our static view toward social evolution.  The reasons are all like this — no animate life, because robots will live forever (people espousing these kinds of positions have never worked with robots!) , no theft of raw materials makes sense, and so on.

How do we get social evolution on the mental radar screens of folks, and the implications of Conway’s Law on technological development?  There are days I just scratch my head. Maybe it’s time for a little Back to the Future?  Arthur C. Clarke, where are you when we need you?  With maybe just a little less control in your make-up?

Does the American Finance Community Really Want Greater Productivity? Or do They Just Want Folks to Be Miserable?

quadcopter

Debugging the Executive Autopilot (again).  Brenna Meyer photo, April 2017

One of the challenges in evolving our society is understanding the role that money and its distribution play in moving us up or down the Spiral and Empathy ladder. Unlike the commonly held belief, money isn’t everything.  But money is more real, as part of deeper social dynamics, than almost any other artifact of our surface-level perception of actions.  It’s not all Mario Kart.  Money is our contemporary stand-in for energetics, and if you understand developed empathy (and the larger information coherence it brings) as being a function of larger spatial, temporal and energetic scales, then money matters.  It’s a whole lot easier to start on the path to global empathy when you can actually not have to worry where your next meal is coming from, or can afford some leisure and travel.  You can indeed get to greater enlightenment by meditation and hanging out with people in your home town.  But it’s just not as likely.

Plus, money at its most basic level matters as far as booting people up into higher cognitive space and v-Memes, where it matters less as part of one’s Survival v-Meme sense.  I’m not the first person to say this, and I think Daniel Pink’s video on motivation is very strong for understanding the v-Memes in the Performance/Communitarian range.  See:

The short version is this:  if you want innovation and creativity, you and your company are in a much better place v-Meme-wise if you’re up in the land of independently generated, trust-based relationships and the multiple solutions these bring.  And that means not worrying constantly about money.  Or rather, having enough money to meet both survival and status needs means you can focus on goals and community.

And though it may be hard to believe, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in.  A huge part of our current economic malaise is based on the idea that creativity is the province of the individual genius, and only a few sectors — mostly tech — with a focus on gadget-izing the world, absolutely need it. That means we’re ignoring the potential for economic return for creativity and individualization in, according to the US government, ~ 80% of the economy.  It’s just nuts.

 

A worrying precedent is the fact that the drift in income between rich and poor in the U.S. continues to grow, as can be seen by this short video.  This creates conditions for even less empathy, and more commodification of poorer individuals, which then leads to even less creativity, progress in our society, and social evolution.

The lack of money sinks more Americans down deeper into conditions that put folks down into the Survival v-Meme, with its incumbent peril for trauma, which then creates more traumatized children, who both experience abuse as well as receive transferred epigenetic markers that will decrease their ability to be resilient in the face of a rapidly changing economy and world information stage.  And it’s not just the U.S.  Here’s another video about the gap, and how debt service makes things worse, that highlights this as a global problem.

Why do the folks in finance believe that paying service workers of any stripe a decent wage is such a bad thing?  Maybe, because of their own lack of empathy, they just can’t see it.  That leads to a lack of recognition of empathy and its actual monetizing value, maybe?  What can we learn about them and how they see the world from their public statements and practices?

This article on American Airlines, at Vox.com, by Matt Yglesias, is a good start.  The short version, according to the article is this:  American decided to preemptively raise salaries for its pilots and flight attendants, making that judgment based on parity pay at American’s largest competitors, Delta and United. The pilot’s and flight attendants had no way to force a pay raise, since the contract was not going to be up for two years.  And since American had returned to profitability from bankruptcy, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker called the raises an investment in the company that will lead to better service by employees and, eventually, higher revenue.

Wall Street and the analysts from the various financial analysts were crying foul, saying that any money should go to the investment class first.  JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker (from the article) had this to say:

“We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups,” he wrote. It “establishes a worrying precedent, in our view, both for American and the industry.”

What’s interesting about the Wall Street commentary in the article is how consistently depressing and Authoritarian v-Meme it is, even in the face of short-term consequences to American if they had not raised salaries.  There’s a pilot shortage going on and had American not taken the pay action, they likely would have had to deal with empty pilot slots as pilots left to American’s primary competitors. And Wall Street’s outrage about American’s pay raise even ended up hurting Wall Street, with all airline stocks tumbling as Wall Street punished the sector for the pay raise.

What really needs to change in this picture is the Authoritarian, status-based thinking on Wall Street.  In classic Principle of Reinforcement mode, the folks on Wall Street, having lost any real grounding in what money actually means energetically, assert primacy and status over each other through numbers in bank accounts.  Think statements about profitability don’t have any power and control stuff in them?  This then leads to other connected behaviors in the v-Meme, such as conflict as a primary driver of behavior (let’s just let those unions strike if they want more money!) More maladjusted, egocentric behavior, followed by empathy-deficit victimization ranting — this one from Yglesias’ piece — (“This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again,” wrote Citi analyst Kevin Crissey in a widely circulated note.” “Shareholders get leftovers.”)  are just what goes along with all the other stuff. And true to form, we cannot expect that particular crowd to engage in anything resemble consequential thinking.  What’s going to happen if present trends continue?  Who cares?

The key thing here is to realize that it is fundamentally self-destructive for all concerned, including the investment class.  When Authoritarianism was the dominant v-Meme of the day, everyone, including the rich, had a whole lot less.  In the case of the airline case, it’s actually stunning.  Poor pay for pilots has been an issue for a while.  And while it may be true that captains piloting the heavies across the oceans make a good wage, regional carrier wages are terrible.  The longer-term consequences of the pilot shortage may be that parts of the country lose their air service, which has to mean less opportunity to make money for investors once again.  This from Aviation Week:

Too few bright-eyed students are opting for careers in the cockpit, despite the promise of readily available jobs. The crunch is already hitting regional airlines, which are losing increasing numbers of pilots to the major carriers and are not able to fill new pilot training classes. In some cases, regionals have had to park aircraft for lack of pilots. This should be a concern beyond the aviation world, too. The impact might lead to some smaller U.S. cities losing their air service. The dearth of pilots is a problem in other parts of the world, too, though the causes and potential cures will vary by country and region.”

If there’s an answer to this, it’s that the progressive investment class has to use their authority to counter the insistent, relationally disruptive message from the current batch on Wall Street.  We have to change the mental models of productivity and creativity to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.  That message from the progressive venture capitalists will still have to be Authority-based, because rationality is not going to win the argument in this political climate.  There are too many self-reinforcing, negative messages. Solutions will emerge, once we change hearts, minds, and v-Memes.

But they need to do it now.  Because commercial aviation is not the only sector where the group in charge is going to impoverish us, and create an even larger class of traumatized individuals.  And digging out of that hole may lead to far worse consequences than paying a living wage to pilots and flight attendants.