Friday, July 18, 2008

We Can Solve It

We Can Solve It

What I should be doing is writing to my friend Kayiwa Fred in Uganda. Kayiwa saw that I had mentioned that I was having a hard time locating his blog One Reaching Another and messaged me with the link in Google Chat. At the time the blog I was looking for was about a youth football league he's instrumental in called Kampala Junior Team. Actually both blogs are in my blog reader. I also had subscribed to an earlier experiment and never removed it from the list. Somehow when went to that outdated URL from my blogreader it blinded me to the presence of his current blogs. A friend of mine calls the tendency for men not to see what is right in front of their eyes, Male Pattern Blindness.

I should be writing him because he asked some specific geek-like questions. I'm no geek, and have told him as much. But his questions are such that I will learn a bit as I try to form some answers. Earlier in the evening I did a bit of research, and it's going to take a bit of work. Maybe I'll write him tomorrow. Ha, but at least I linked to his blogs which is something I've been meaning to do for a while. Hey, maybe I'll even update my blogroll one of these days.

I was looking for a specific post the other day at The African Uptimist and was shocked and embarrassed to see this blog on his blogroll. It's much easier for me to operate under the assumption that nobody reads this blog. The fact is that hardly anyone does, and that hardly makes a big difference. African blogs are of great interest to me and I value the bloggers who take the time to write them. It's about time that I contribute too. The wonderful thing about blogging is it's about connecting and community building.

My friend Pingting has quite gently told me I would do well to edit: less is more. Mercy, I'm afraid I've never gotten beyond the free writing style. As a result, only after a mountain of words do I get around to explaining the link at the top of the post. The link is to a video of highlights of a speech that Al Gore made in Washington on Thursday about energy. I like the determined optimism of We Can Solve It referring to the energy crisis and global warming, but it's hard for me to muster feeling really optimistic. Geez, when I went to YouTube less than 800 people had watched the video. Everybody knows that global climate change is a really big deal, but most of us seem confused that there's much we can do about it. An out of town friend called me up this evening. He likes to talk politics and the first thing out of his mouth was about Gore's speech. Then he asked about T. Boone Pickens. I've developed an aversion to Texas oilmen lately. My stomach also churns thinking of billionaires who think that water is the new oil. So I was happy the conversation turned from politics to the big news that my friends have rescued an unwanted pet.

My avoidance of the issue of carbon-based energy really is pathological. The word is out: "We're addicted to oil." So avoidance fits the pattern all addicts play in denial. When it comes to addictions, I suppose a good dose of resolve and some optimism are necessary. The first step is to admit there's a problem and we'd probably never get on the road to the first step without them. Ah, but right the first step in AA is not only admitting that our lives are in a mess, it's also admitting powerlessness over alcohol. Using AA as a metaphor, the road to recovery from addiction involves re-contextualizing the system of us and oil. And there's some higher power involved there too. Hum, not sure where this leads, except to say I strongly suspect that solving the addiction to oil will require much more than optimism and resolve.

Elizabeth Kolbert
seems mighty clear-eyed from this oil junkie's perspective. At least she's well on the way to understanding the how dire the consequences of carbon-based energy really is. Her writing at The New Yorker on the subject is the best I've read in the press. It can be depressing reading nonetheless, but her recent piece The Island in the Wind was encouraging. Gore proposes that within a decade all electricity in the USA should be produced from energy sources other than carbon-based ones. That seems wildly optimistic, and yet Kolbert's report about the Danish island of Samso shows that's more possible than I imagine.

One of the bits in her piece was about the 2,000-Watt Society. It's a vision that stated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ten years ago, but I'd never heard of it before. Kolbert writes:
One way to think about the 2,000-Watt Society is in terms of light bulbs. Let’s say you turn on twenty lamps, each with a hundred-watt bulb. Together, the lamps will draw two thousand watts of power. Left on for a day, they will consume forty-eight kilowatt-hours of energy; left on for a year, they will consume seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours. A person living a two-thousand-watt life would consume in all his activities—working, eating, travelling—the same amount of energy as those twenty bulbs, or seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours annually.
People in the "developed" world have got to get on this diet in short order, and for carbon-based energy addicts like me that means big changes.

I opened this post citing my laziness about not writing to a friend in Uganda. I am lazy. The more important part to me is my friends. Over the years via the Internet I've developed friendships with a few people in Uganda. These friendships mean a lot to me. The negative effects of global warming will impact everyone. But the cruel injustice is that already poor people will be very disproportionately affected. Having friends means I cannot slough that off. Most of my friends in Uganda consume much less than the 2000 Watts. As we in the West move to reduce our energy consumption for a sustainable future, the many in the rest of the world need more energy. We all need to invent ways of living within limits, and these inventions maybe implemented locally but must have a global focus.

I've got some things to say about injustice and responsibility, but I'll spare you until another day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Bloggers make a lot more sense when they blog a lot. I don't make sense, but suspect it would be worthwhile for me to start blogging more often. I do post fairly frequently within a social network called Ned. For many reasons it's hard to take stuff from one context and place it in another. Blogs seem to have a fairly inclusive context and social networks more exclusive. So it's a matter of finding the right pattern of correspondence. I suppose I won't find what's the right sort of stuff to put here unless I start putting stuff here again.

The many blog posts I read, and the conversations generated by them contribute much to my day. Among the bloggers I love reading is Phil Jones and his several blogs. Ethan Zuckerman has generated a great conversation about homophily; i.e. birds of a feather flock together, on the Internet. It's quite a stretch to say that Phil thinks like I do. Phil Jones is a computer scientist, I am so not. Then again, a recent post of his Why Geeks are doomed in a Suit world raises some points in one context that I'd been thinking recently about in another context.

Phil begins his post pointing to a critique by Joel Spolsky of Java-oriented Computer science education. Spolsky thinks that some culling of students from CS studies is necessary, not only for the future of Computer Science, but also for the happiness of would be computer scientists. Some people will never be happy in the field. I knew that for myself never even having to venture into a demanding CS class.

If you know about computer programming, I urge you to read Phil Jones. I don't know anything about it, but this caught my attention:
The Geek's job is to make the abstraction levels fit together. Of course the only way to achieve this is with an understanding of both the higher and the lower levels : simultaneously. And the easy shifting from one to another.
Via 3Quarks Daily a fantastic blog where I get a steady fix for my xenophilia jones, there was a link to an artcle by Paul Ehrlich in Seed. Cultural Evolution has the snippet at 3Quarks along with the smart comments there, and Cultural Evolution: Does human culture evolve via natural selection, as our genes do? is the link to the whole article.

I have enormous respect for Paul Ehrlich as a scientist and public intellectual. But this article seems so wrong and sloppy in so many ways. That alone probably wouldn't have bothered me much except for Ehrlich thinking that the article describes good science towards answering his question: Does human culture evolve via natural selection, as our genes do? I emphatically don't think what he describes is good science. That puts me in a peculiar position, on one hand is Ehrlich, an esteemed scientist and on the other is me, some blogger in a basement. Who will you believe?

Oh boy, where to start. Well, Phil's observation about making abstraction levels fit together very succinctly gets to the nub of my disagreement with Ehrlich's study. Ehrlich is interested in the question of whether human culture evolves via natural selection. Ehrlich begins:
If we wish to understand and predict culture change generally, viewing culture as an evolving trait in analogy with genetic evolution is a very useful place to start.
This seems very reasonable to me. But as Ehrlich proceeds, it seems obvious that he's not very careful about the in analogy part. In analogy seems a very particular level of abstraction. It's one thing to say, "Her hair is as soft as a mink's coat." and quite another to begin collecting her hair to make a mink coat.

Ehrlich's article proceeds to tell the story of some of the ways that cultural evolution has gone off the rails into absurdity by following too closely on Darwin's heals. I suppose that's necessary to assure us that he had no intention of falling into the same pits. He asserts:
There are clear patterns in cultural evolution, which are just as prevalent as those in genetic evolution.
Then he proposes that what's necessary is a simple hypothesis which can be tested. Rather implicit in what comes next is that Ehrlich has forgotten entirely the in analogy part; that is, his hypothesis presumes that natural selection works as the engine driving cultural evolution. My head is beginning to spin because I'm not sure what culture means to Ehrlich, for example on what scale, i.e. French culture as distinct from US culture. I'm also not sure at all what exactly culture is analogous to in genetic evolution. Is it analogous to the phenotype of an organism, to a species, to an ecological system, or what? Apparently I'm dense, because there is no attempt on Ehrlich's part to make this part of the analogy clear. Is it obvious? If it is, then surely the analogy must be that culture is a kind of species. Without thinking too much about it, that analogy will break down for many purposes. In any case at this point in the article a warning is flashing in my head: Abstraction level confusion!

Here is the hypothesis that Ehrlich came up with along with Simon Levin:
We believed that the evolution of technological norms would generally be more rapid than that of ethical norms.
It concerns me that "technological norms" along with "ethical norms" seem hard to rigorously state. What exactly are they? Can you look up a list of those somewhere? But the main problem is there is no attempt to connect what "technological norms" and "ethical norms" might be in cultural evolution in analogy to genetic evolution. What are they like? Perhaps organs of an individual of a particular species?

Ehrlich then describes his false starts in looking for data that might be used to test their hypothesis. He writes:
Unfortunately, ethnographies are written more like novels than scientific studies, and it is impossible to be certain of all the crops grown and the counts of deities.
My first thought was that was just a gratuitous zinger directed towards anthropologists--They're not real scientist! Unfortunate that Ehrlich seems not to wonder why he encounters stories, and finds it justified merely to judge them unfortunate. Where there are stories it's a sure signal of relevance. The judge inquires: "Quilty or Not Quilty?" It's no good to reply: "Your honor, I have long hair."

Ehrlich was determined to ignore all complications, and locates some data about the canoes of Oceania. With that data Ehrlich has a colleague analysis it into functional traits and symbolic traits. I'm wondering what are canoes to culture in analogy to genetic evolution? What do symbolic decoration on canoes tell us about "ethical norms" and how would we know? I have several more questions, but it appears that Ehrlich is content just to have these two invented categories of canoe traits to test his hypothesis.

The conclusion after studying changes in canoes over time is the decorations change much more frequently than the functional traits; ergo
The original Ehrlich-Levin hypothesis was rejected.
Even at this point I would have been happy with the piece if Ehrlich had stopped to wonder even a little how two famous ecologists could have muddled things so thoroughly. But no, Ehrlich concludes:
We directly tested a theory of cultural evolution. Our work has helped to uncover a piece of the larger, more complex process of culture change and has shown that it is reasonable to think of that change as evolution.
How has this research shown that it is "reasonable to think of that change as evolution?"

At every stage of this inquiry it seems to me that Ehrlich has paid little attention to levels of abstraction. And then having produced a muddled mess shouts "Proof!" It seems nuts to me, really nuts.

It's too bad that Phil's bosses don't appreciate where he's coming from. He does a good service in pointing to a reason why. I'm lucky I'm not a geek;-) It is quite upsetting to read an article by an eminent scientist discussing inquires into the nature of things with another very eminent scientist, enlisting colleagues from a prestigious University in a terribly flawed study and that along the line nobody said this is BS.

I flunked out my first go round in college. Logic was one of those culling courses Spolsky refers to, and I got culled, twice. So I'm not so sure about my abilities in handling abstractions. What I am sure is I expected better from Paul Ehrlich!