Sunday, December 30, 2007

Zig Zag Man

My friend G was one of the biggest guys in our school and yet displayed much speed and agility on the playing fields. His talents didn't go unnoticed and he was given a football scholarship to an American university. I went off to University in Toronto and enrolled in classes in philosophy, psychology and linguistics while he went south to play football and enrolled in classes in bowling and archery.

When I saw him again over the Christmas holidays that year I couldn't believe how much he had changed. He looked like he had packed on about 50 pounds of muscle. He wasn't shy or secretive about it, he told me that the team medical staff had put him on a course of anabolic steroids. This was just what every school did and every professional football player as far as he knew also injected himself with the stuff.

Ricky Williams has been twice suspended from NFL football for testing positive for marijuana use. This is somewhat bizarre since nobody is claiming that it has given him any advantage while working as a professional running back (unless it's actually what suppresses his fear while running full speed into 350 pound linemen). Meanwhile it is pretty likely that almost all of the larger players in the NFL and Major League Baseball have used or still continue to use performance enhancing drugs.

Unlike alcohol or anabolic steroids; marijuana is not known to make the user violent or aggressive. So it's use is quite irrelevant for a football player. It also does not make one particularly quick, either mentally or physically. This is why the Olympic people rightly reversed Ross Rebagliati's initial disqualification of his gold medal win in the snowboarding event after he tested positive for THC.

The video below could be made into a very useful public service announcement.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Santa Claus, Faith and Fascism

By the time I had reached grade two I had already decided that I didn't believe in Santa Claus. My ethnic immigrant parents didn't really know anything about Santa and my three older sisters made it clear by their words and deeds that it was just a fairy tale which was not to be taken seriously. On the last day of school before the holidays someone put up their hand in class and asked if there really was a Santa Claus. My grade two teacher laughed with incredulity and said "Of course dear. Santa Claus has been working hard all year and he'll be delivering your gifts on Christmas Eve".

This took me by surprise so I entered the fray and asked a series of questions "but how could he have the time to make the gifts for every boy and girl on the planet? Reindeer can't fly, can they? What about this chimney thing? I live in an apartment building, we don't have a chimney." The teacher proceeded to give a strained explanation for each of my objections while some of the more smarmy kids gave me the stink-eye, laughed at me and questioned my intelligence. Apparently this immortal being could work magically fast, had magical reindeer and seemed to be some kind of shape-shifting creature that could fit not only through chimneys but also through apartment ventilation systems or even door cracks if you didn't have a working HVAC system in your shack.

I loved and trusted my teacher and couldn't imagine that she would deceive me so I began to question my skepticism, especially when she said that it would only work if I truly and honestly believed in him. So as I walked home I tried to truly and honestly believe in Santa Claus. When I got home I told my family about what I had learned and my sisters laughed at me and my parents didn't show much support but I resisted the efforts of these unbelievers who were testing my faith. I insisted on leaving out cookies and milk for Santa. My mother reluctantly agreed to humour me but refused to remove the covering over the heating vent citing that if he was so magically gifted he could figure out a way around it. As the evening drew to a close I was doing all kinds of mental contortions to make myself truly and honestly believe in him. One part of me had serious doubts but the other side tried to douse them because I wanted it so much to be true. I really wanted to get those Rock'em Sock'em Robots and there was no way I was going to find them in my living room the next day unless I could somehow manage to truly believe.

I fell asleep squinting with the intensity of belief, struggling to throw aside any aberrant thoughts of doubt. In the morning I awoke and rushed out to our living room only to find that the cookies and milk were still where I left them and no presents were anywhere to be found. At first I was crushed by my inability to truly and honestly believe in him but soon decided that I had been duped. I don't think I have ever felt so foolish in my entire life and I immediately began to question the motives of my beloved teacher. If she lied about this, she might been lying about everything she's been teaching us. How could I ever trust her again?

I don't have children of my own but I was once a child. I would strongly suggest that if you do have children to not to extend the deception and let them know that there is a rational order to the Universe and that such magical powers are not possible. I'm not suggesting that you crush a child who willingly believes in Santa Claus but if they already have doubts then for the sake of their intellectual and emotional growth please don't try and convince them with faulty logic and science. What purpose does it serve? Children rely on us to tell them the truth. All you're doing is training them to force themselves to believe what is reasonably unbelievable. All that will do is create a generation of people who are perfectly suited to be swayed by political and religious extremists because forcing one's self to believe something just because you'd like it to be true is exactly how these groups operate, propagate and survive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Let's Put our Heads Together

Who's more likely to accurately guess the weight of a large ox; a livestock expert or a large group of amateurs? Francis Galton was surprised to discover that the average of the guesses of the crowd of amateurs was more accurate than the estimate of any single member of the crowd including experts. James Surowiecki has written a book called The Wisdom of the Crowds. The subtitle of the book is Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.

Western societies have an inherently dichotomous approach to authority. We believe fiercely in the ability of the individual to make decisions for one's self but we willingly acquiesce to the wisdom of the crowds that control the outcome of electoral democratic elections. We elect leaders by giving every single person the opportunity to choose not just professors of Political Science. So it's not difficult for us to accept that a very large group of citizens can arrive at a better decision than a group of oligarchs just like a small group of jurors can arrive at a better decision than a judge (or not).

The world of business has always at been at peace with this approach as it is just plainly true that whatever price a crowd of investors is willing to pay for a share is what accurately determines the price of that share. The futures markets essentially makes bets on what people believe will be the price of a commodity at a certain time in the future. These markets have been shown to be uncannily prescient in these matters as they tend to be incredibly accurate. Even futures markets that bet on who they believe will be the winners of elections have been shown to be more accurate than most polling results. But this seems to work well only when there is something to win or lose by the result of your prediction. People could respond to pollsters' questions in any number of ways but they become much more focused and accurate when there's something immediately at stake.

Businesses are now starting to apply this approach internally by giving away prizes like iPods to employees who can predict something like the date of completion of a particular project. The results they collect from the entries are much more accurate than the time-lines they find in the reports given to them by their subordinates.

Recent technological developments are giving rise to similar innovations in social and political realms. A mass of text-messaging teenagers are given the task of choosing the next American Idol over the expert opinions of that really mean Englishman panelist. A Wikipedia entry is not written by a single expert but is now the source most trusted to supply accurate information. The impressive adoption rate of Facebook gives us an unprecedented opportunity to apply this wisdom of the crowds in myriad ways to our everyday lives. The potential of a large network of individual peers to help us make decisions has not yet even been touched.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Future By Design

I just went to a screening of Future By Design by William Gazecki. It features the thought and works of an extraordinary 91 year old inventor name Jacque Fresco. This man still spends his days thinking about ways to redesign cities in a way he wants to resist calling utopian but I can't think of a better description.

When Sir Thomas Moore wrote 500 years ago of an island he called Utopia he was making a play on words: The Greek ou-topos, meaning "no place", and eu-topos, meaning "good place". It is an imagined place of perfection that does not exist and some would say cannot exist. The ideas brought forth by Jacque Fresco are all within the realm of possibility but so many factors stand in the way of them ever coming to pass. I admire the determination of such a person but can't help but feel sad for his quixotic quest.

I know we will need to make some radical changes to the way we build, consume, govern, and do business to save this world but I'm afraid we probably won't really want to do these things until we're on the brink or past the brink of disaster. Unfortunately that is probably the worst time to make reasoned and rational choices. In such instances immediate survival will be chosen over long term benefits which consequently could make it worse.

Another reason I'm saddened is that even if we could all agree that we needed to redesign our entire world the unintended consequences of such radical overhauls are bound to be disastrous in their own right. You simply cannot remake a world with a single blueprint. There are millions of competing blueprints from which we're all simultaneously building our world. Whenever a single design is chosen it is bound to succeed on many fronts but fail on countless others.

Some of the city designs which Fresco advocates are marvels of rational, mathematically rigid design. All the cities in his world would be nearly identical and their efficiencies would be vastly superior. But what would we also lose? The architecture of a city influences and inspires it's inhabitants. Such a rationally pre-structured design doesn't allow room for a natural cultural growth. In such surroundings one could imagine that the very innovation required to continue improving the world and to grow culture would be diminished or lost.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

This Week in Political Elections

Russian President Putin seems to have played every trick in the book to get a mandate from the people to remain as de facto dictator. Some complained that even elections under the old Soviets weren't this corrupt. Did anybody really think that someone like Putin was going to give up that much power that easily?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez didn't seem to cheat nearly as much as Putin did and consequently didn't win his bid to remain as dictator. He was holding a referendum to attain the power to remain as President for life, take control of the Central Bank and enact legislation at his discretion without parliamentary assent. He lost the vote 49% to 51% but remains in power until 2013.

Peter Garrett was the lead singer for Australian rock band Midnight Oil. The fiercely political singer was frighteningly energetic on stage when I saw them in concert about 20 years ago. He has apparently been in parliament for the past three years and was this week appointed as the Environment Minister after his Labour Party ousted the global warming denying and Bush ally John Howard.

Another pop star politician Gilberto Gil of Brazil is resigning as Culture Minister to attend to an illness.

Enjoy the videos below.

Vladimir Putin: Russia's New Dictatorship

Hugo Chavez vs Bush

Midnight Oil - Beds are Burning

Gilberto Gil - Turn Your Lights Down Low