Friday, December 13, 2013

Nelson Mandela's triumph of will proves nazis wrong

The world is marking the passing of a great human being.

The world was a very different place when he started his journey it is hard to imagine now. He did not have to take on the struggle. Instead he could have chosen a prosperous middle class life as a lawyer, but only by moving abroad or living in a country governed by apartheid—a system of laws designed to keep a white minority in power in South Africa, a system that treated others as less than human, more like animals.

Half a century ago some white South Africans used a corrupt form of Darwinian thinking to convince themselves that humans with different coloured skin are a different species. Maybe a different kind of ape like those species where the physically strongest becomes the leader of the troop.

Yet we are all apes—according to Darwin.

Nelson Mandela was strong. His was inner strength, willpower. So he campaigned, and when that did not succeed he started to fight for change.

Arrayed against him was the collective power of an organised society. A society that had the power to; make laws, build weapons and prisons, employ people to fight and to staff it’s prisons..

So Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned. Now his inner strength his personal power, came to the fore and was tested.

Though he was in prison his strength led others. His will to change his country was unbroken. He had been prepared to fight and die for freedom, and he still was prepared to die.

We are lucky to be alive in an amazing age. Even half a century ago people were already living a global village life. So more and more people learned of the struggle against apartheid. Mandela could be locked away but he could not be killed—for that would add to his strength.

Killing him would expose the then South African governments collective power, with its guns and prisons, was a lie if they did not keep their own laws. Some would have killed him if they could, like Steve Biko was killed.

All over the world people responded to the struggle. We stopped buying South African oranges. In Ireland women went on a long hard strike rather than sell South African products. IT became a struggle between two sets of collective power.

Still the South African regime tried to break Mandela. Denied toothpaste, perhaps they hoped he would become powerless as a toothless old man. He cleaned his teeth with salt from the sea. It was a struggle of human will.

After holding Mandela in prison for a quarter of a century the South African government was not stronger. Instead the country was isolated in trade in music in sport.

As a last ditch attempt his captors tried to soften Mandela’s will with a little luxury. But his inner resolve was still there his will held.

When he walked out of prison Nelson Mandela was met by the South African Prime Minister as an equal. But in reality Mandela was stronger.

The film ‘Triumph of the will” was a nazi paean to Hitler and the belief that some humans are less than others—not human, animals.

Yet if we are animals Mandela’s struggle of will shows that we are all the same species. Our global village one great troop of Darwin’s apes. For the struggle of will only matters if we are all the same. The alpha Baboon does not have to prove stronger than the Gorilla, just the other Baboons.

Mandela used the symbol of rugby, at one time the outcast sport of white South Africans, to reach out to the people who had oppressed him and people like him.

His struggle was over—won—all are equal.

Nelson Manuela's strength of will has shown that it is not race but people that matter: With will power, and the right cause, one person can change things, make the world a better place. It does not matter were you are born, or what you have, no matter the limitations, all humans are equal.

Monday, July 29, 2013

You had to be there

We may not always like to admit it, but someone who is eighty five years old may not be around for that much longer. Ennio Morricone, the great film music composer, was a few months short of that age when he conducted an orchestra and choir in Dublin recently. So why did more than a hundred people walk out to the bar during his performance of Gabriel's Oboe?

They were ignorant: Ignorant of the nuisance they were causing to other concert goers. Ignorant of the insult they were paying to the musicians. Most of all ignorant of what they were missing.

When I was growing up ‘ignorant’ was one of the strongest rebukes my parents used. An ignorant person is someone who does not know how to behave around others. They have bad manners and, worse, they are don’t know that they do.

So why were so many people, who had paid large sums of money for their tickets, so ignorant?

One thing that has changed since I was growing up is that now we are accustomed to using technology to record and replay our pictures, music and movies over and over again. If you wear headphones much of the day you learn that you can change, or replay, your soundtrack whenever you want to.

When you are used to the idea that you can pause or rewind at will, maybe what gets forgotten is that each moment is unique. Friends lives change, children grow up—‘I will someday’ becomes ‘I wish I had’ before you’ve even noticed.

Most of the thousands of people watching Morricone conduct on a rainy Dublin evening will never have had that experience before, and never will again. When the clouds parted and a rainbow arched over the stage we shared a moment of magic. You had to be there to feel the music then.

That is really what the people who trudged to the bar while the music played were ignorant of—physically they were there but they missed the experience.

Technology can help us to remember, but a recording is not a substitute for an experience.

Life comes to us in a series of moments, special times and special days, often shared with special people. These moments are fleeting, they pass, loved ones pass away, stolen by time.

We need the art of being in the moment to get the most from the chances we are offered—to share, to experience, to live.

You can press replay as often as you like, but you can never bring a moment—or a missing loved one—back again.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Living by numbers

When someone starts talking about data most of us switch off. If we think about it at all we imagine boring numbers. But data is power. Stick with me and I'll share the story of my introduction to the power of data.

Most of us will have  heard the saying that information is power, but we don't usually pay it much heed.

Even when it comes to sharing information, on social media for example, if we think about anything it will probably be about privacy. We pay some regard to who we share what with. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After all sometimes knowing something about you can give another person power. You will likely do better haggling if the seller doesn't know how much you are willing to spend.

But data does not need to be personal in order to be revealing.

My Introduction to the power of data

My first job out of college was working with transportation engineers. Back then, in pre-PC days, they used huge computers to make sense of road use surveys, and  build computer models to decide where to built new roads. That's power, but not the power I'm talking about.

The engineers had a problem, the models they built using the survey data just did not work. First they asked all the brilliant computer people to check everything, then their best engineers, nobody came up with an answer. As a last resort they piled big bunches of raw data on the desk of anyone who was not too busy. That's how I ended up looking at books and books of almost incomprehensible numbers. With no skill or training in the area I decided to see if I could find any patterns in the numbers.

That turned out to be surprisingly easy. For example in one spot the model veered off after ten pm.  I tried to figure out why. As a then recent ex student the only bell ten pm rang for me was 'time for one beer before the bar closes'. Now near the spot there was a big steel mill, and it changed shifts at ten pm.   The pattern in the numbers showed that the survey staff headed off early and missed the shift change. That helped make the model work and I was promoted.

The survey staff had not realised that the numbers could tell much more than how many cars drove along that road.

Revealing our secrets

Now the world is full of data gatherers, from smart phones to the  supercomputers. We leave a data trail everywhere we go. And that data gets used.

One US retailer can accurately predict when a customer is pregnant with such accuracy that they have to include irrelevant items in the offers they send out so as not to make customers feel like they are being spied on.

That data trail we leave can be used to create surprisingly detailed pictures about us.

The lessons 

There are two important lessons about the power of information.

First we need to remember why people collect data.   The answer is of course power.  That retailers wants to know when customers are pregnant so they can use insights from psychology to form lifelong habits in those customers. Or to put it another way apes who run companies want to use their super powers to be dominant: to have more resources, to get a  better choice of mate, to ensure their offspring are more likely to survive and prosper.

We should, I believe, be worried about how much power the data trail we create puts in the hands of the companies we deal with.

It's almost impossible to predict how information about us can be used. The survey staff could not predict that numbers of cars along a road could prove they left work early. A woman buying unscented soap can't tell if she is letting the store know she is pregnant.

In a world where companies change the rules about what information they store and who they share it with, understanding who knows what about you can be next to impossible.

What we do know is why the do it.

A criminal example

Sudhir Venkatesh studied the economic activity of people involved in criminality in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, drug dealers making less than minimum wage for example. Why did the leaders of a gang of drug dealers allow a researcher to interview the gang? To get more power.

Here's how they used that power. Venkatesh found that many in the gang supplemented their income by doing, often legitimate, jobs in their spare time. The gang leaders used that information to take a bigger cut of these peoples money. That is cutting the income of people who could barely afford to live independently.

Criminal; but we should not be surprised. We are not that many generations past a time when millions of people had no freedom. Their lives were totally controlled by a few powerful individuals. Those apes with power sexually preyed on and exploited their serfs and slaves.

Today, some estimate, that less than two thousand corporations control most of the wealth of the world. It is the same species of ape running those corporations. They are gathering data at an unprecedented rate. They have access to more information than the wildest dreams of a spymaster a century ago. That information is about billions of ordinary people.

Now imagine that the next time you negotiate your pay your boss has knows what you and all your family spend and how you spend it, all your secrets; matched to a psychological profile.

Do you think you would get a good deal?

Oh and the other lesson. Sometimes, as in my introduction to data, the information is wrong, but it still gets used.

DUHIGG, CHARLES. 2012. How Companies Learn Your Secrets. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 13]. 2012. How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 13].

LAMB , BRIAN. 2008. ”Q&A”: Sudhir Venkatesh. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 2013]. 2012. Other ethical problems in Venkatesh's research. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 13].

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is the Pope...

It is a difficult time to be Catholic, we have lived through a time when the leadership of the church has lost its moral compass. For a body that has acts as moral guide to its members this could be a fatal flaw.

And indeed people are leaving the Catholic church in Ireland—once its great bastions—in droves. I suspect though that more people are leaving the church because  a secular  scientific view of the world is becoming the norm. So why endure? Could there by any reason for clinging to a view of the world that includes religion? I think there are.

Now I am far from being a good catholic, and I certainly could not claim to speak for the Church, for example i don't think they would agree with 'lost its moral compass'.


Like gold, Christian teachings  have  central tenets that cannot be tarnished by the hands they pass through.  

A couple of things spring  to mind from what I have to learned from a catholic upbringing. 

First is community; 

 While we all tend to gravitate towards people with similar views and experiences as our own, we are part of a community with young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick. We can, and should, help each other when we can, for the day will likely come when we are the ones who need help.

That's not a call to give to charity by the way. A community based around church gives us a weekly reminder that we are connected to other people whose circumstances are different to our own. This has helped the survival and development of the interconnected society through which we all prosper. We would not have our super-powers without it.

Supporting individuals into old age helped developed the second evolutionary channel because they were able to remember, and tell stories to younger generations, so helpful ideas were able to survive for longer.

We are so used to measuring the world in our day to day experiences that we can forget to look at the evolutionary timescale that we are part of.  For example the Irish Catholic faith I was brought up in has helped my family survive through viking raids, the plague and genocidal famine.

The strength of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century was in part because the church taught farmers not to sub-divide their land, and this allowed at least partial recovery from  the mid-nineteenth century famine that halved the population.

Second is mindfulness;

Mindfulness seems such a modern 'alternative' idea that it is easy to forget that most  religions teach the need for a few  daily  mindful moments, and setting time aside once a week for joining the community in reflection.

Part of the Catholic weekly mass calls on us to make a sign of peace, today the shaking of hands, with our neighbours.  What better way of remembering that an un-natural peace in our communities is essential for the interconnected society that we all rely on for our well being.

We do not learn 'survival of the fittest' where the strongest ape can take all the food they want, though that is as true for us as it is for every other ape. We learn 'though shalt not steal'. We have created a negative word, and set of values which we as communities enforce, for normal animal behaviour.

If you do not think this teaching is essential to getting us where we are today try living without it.

Part of what I was taught was respect for others faiths. In fact I was told that, having studied the bible, respectful reading of the Koran could help deepen our understanding. So I do not claim these values as exclusive to one faith.

Well is the Pope..

My question is whether the new Pope is named after St.Francis of Assisi. Now I know I can search the web for the answer—as I could for the detail of the story I am about to tell. But I prefer to give it from memory.

Once St.Francis of Assisi was sweeping the floor. Someone came and asked him what he would do if he learned that judgement day was at hand, the world was about to end. St.Francis answered that he would carry on sweeping the floor.

What an ideal to aspire to: to be so sure of your place in the great scheme of things that you know you can face eternity knowing you have left nothing undone, and that what you are doing at this moment, no matter how seemingly trivial,  is the right thing to do.

My hope is that ideal is still alive in another two thousand years.

In praise of celibacy

 You won't have to look far for all of the good arguements against celibacy for Priests in the Catholic church, but I think it worth noting one in favour.

In the song about the Irish famine 'Fields of Athenry' there are the lines 'For you stole Trevelyn's corn, So the young might see the morn'. What parent would not do the same? In extreme situations we as individuals will adopt any survival strategies that will protect our offspring. That is how natural selection works.

Yet we depend on un-natural behaviour to sustain a second evolutionary channel which has given us collectively an enormous advantage compared to other animals. Just taking the food that was there at the time of the famine is the natural response. But long term it was the wrong response, there were too many soldiers with guns for one thing. Having men and women without their own starving children to feed gave just enough thinking space to come up with a solution that enabled the community to survive and preserved the values essential to its long term well being.

The community was, I'm sure, much more willing to listen when the men and women teaching this message have no children of their own competing for the same food.

It may be un-natural but men and women who give up having a family themselves, to preserve and pass on the ideas that help our societies thrive, deserve a little understanding.

One last thing

 Again my own memory of christian teachings, rather than looking to the source, tells me that forgiveness is a central part of the christian message.

We all get things wrong, make mistakes, sin. Yet we are not solely defined by what we have done wrong. We can realise our mistakes, say we are sorry, try to make amends, try to do better next time.

That is worth knowing about ourselves, and maybe remembering about the church.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ants and Pants

The first great scientist was almost certainly African.

The looked at nature, made an amazing discovery, passed that discovery on and they have shaped the world we live in to this day. They are the reason we  wear pants!

To understand how important their discovery was and is we need to try to imagine a world without it.

A thought experiment

Imagine an alternate reality, a world almost exactly the same as the one one we live it. There is just one minor difference. In the alternate world human mating is not private activity. In fact it is such a common public activity that towns and cities provide 'love benches' so couples can mate in comfort on the main street.

Does this world make sense to you?  I can't see it working. This little story illustrates why.

One day in this alternative world a builder named John goes into the city centre to meet Jane, the woman he plans to live with. He's walking down the street passing couple using the love benches, when he sees Mary, a model, coming out of a store. Mary is wearing t-shirt with an 'in heat' log, as is the custom in this other world. Almost instantly Mary draws a group of the immature young men who are hanging around hoping to mate. John is a builder, much more athletic than this bunch of guys, and he's confident. He moves to Mary's side and starts to shoo the rest of the pack away. But then Tom comes out of another store. Tom is a professional footballer, a local star. It's Tom that Mary choose to bring to a love bench.

Now John sees Jane up ahead, she's sitting on the side of a love bench. Robert, their accountant, seems to be walking away from the same bench, and he is fixing his cloths.

What happens next?

My guess is that an angry John attacks Robert, there in the street, and this scene would be repeated dozens of times in every town every day in this world. In fact I think that violent incidents would be so common that society would cease to function.

More likely a world where human mating happened in public would not have developed complex interconnected societies. They would not have become civilized!

The First Science

This is the connection our first great scientist made. That 'un-natural' behavior is necessary for groups of people to work together in harmony.

Maybe they started by looking at ants. What they would have noticed is how cooperative the ants are. Ants work together in large numbers to accomplish tasks that would be impossible if they were acting as competing individuals.

The first scientist possibly asked themselves why was this possible. Was there a connection between ants cooperative behavior and the ants lack of public sexual conflict? How could human society be persuaded to use similar cooperative strategies?

Surely one obvious answer was to reduce the number of incidents of violent competition for mates among humans.

Putting the first scientific discovery to work.

It is hard to know for sure when in our prehistory cloths started to be worn. Studies based on cloths lice suggest that it could have been seventy to one hundred thousand years ago. It can get cold in the rift valley in Africa, where we believe our ancestors originated, but the range of temperatures does not explain the need for cloths.

Clothing as  a conflict reduction mechanism offers another explanation.

If conflict reduction is the real reason for wearing cloths what else might we expect.

Genetic changes over time might show a reduction in hormones, like testosterone, linked with aggression in humans compared to near-relative species of apes. Maybe this is why we are hairless apes.

Without the open display of sexual organs we might see physical differentiation between mens and women's bodies, that can be seen at a distance. Mate or rival is an important question for all breeding animals.

Those are long term physical changes we might be able to detect, but what about how wearing cloths shapes society.

Our first scientist would have needed to persuade their community to go along with this new and strange idea. Of course the society would have had to quickly gain some survival advantage for the idea to persist.

The idea that wearing cloths is important for the survival and prosperity of the community needed to be passed through generations.

What if our first great scientist did not know about science? What if they believed that a God had revealed a great truth to them? An immortal God helping and guiding the community telling you what is right and wrong is a much stronger idea than someone telling you they can change make a small improvement to society.

So sexual behavior becomes linked both to the idea of a God, a moral issue, and the good of the community, a social one.

Passing this knowledge to future generations becomes seen as vital for their survival. So a multi-generation institution passing on moral and social teaching becomes a vital component of a successful society.

Suddenly, in the evolutionary timescale, we have become a very different type of ape.

Why do we wear pants?

We wear them because we would not be civilized without them. The idea is so embedded in our language that it's easy to see it as a cliche. Cliche or not it tells us an absolute truth about how our society works.

Wearing cloths is one element in the puzzle of why humans are different from other species, but like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle it has clues to what the surrounding pieces are.

So we  wear pants because we could not have developed the technologically advanced interconnected society we all depend on without them.

There is a different answer to the question though. A much bigger more exciting one. What is all this development, this civilization, this pant wearing for? 

Maybe it is the only way life can get off the planet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

No Superman

When we see that a small proportion of people have much greater wealth and power than the rest some of us jump to the conclusion that those people are in some way superior. It is important to explain why they are not. It becomes doubly important if we accept that humans have developed a second evolutionary channel.

As ideas from the Darwinian theory of evolution spread throughout human society they have been appropriated to justify many things. The idea that one group of humans has evolved, physically, to make them superior to others has been used in the century to justify, mass sterilisation, the banning of marriage between some groups and mass murder.

There are already enough people claiming that, for one reason or another, the group that they belong to is in some way superior to others.

The Seductive Idea

It seems to make such obvious sense: Humans are apes who have developed a second channel for passing advantage to their offspring. These advantages come in many form including goods and territory. Therefore in cold evolutionary terms it seems an individual with more territory and goods is a better prospective mate. In other words if you want your children to by rich you should marry a rich person.

From there it is a small intellectual step to think that an individual who has more is also more evolved, in terms of the second evolutionary channel developed by humans.

It is worth remembering that this understanding of the superiority of the wealthy is neither new nor restricted to a materialistic world view.

It has been present in the religious view of the world for a long time. As the English hymn "All Things Bright And Beautiful " puts it:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Where the Seductive Idea Leads

Remembering we have seen this seductive idea before is important because we have seen where it leads.

The gradual accumulation of wealth and territory over generations led, in much of the world, to the development of a special caste of the wealthy; Chieftains, Kings, Emperor’s—An Aristocracy.

The trouble with an aristocracy is, as the Danish writer Peter Høeg puts it, they dream that time will stand still. Whoever has power or advantage, wants to keep it. Change is not in their interest, so they are likely to resist progress for the rest of us.

What Must be Remembered

In human society these extra advantages; wealth, property, possessions, can only be held with by agreement. It does not matter how much money you have, you will starve, or you can persuade someone to share with you. You need that agreement to grow or hunt your own food, it takes territory to be self-sufficient.

Our ancestors learned that having a society where everyone fought for what they wanted did not give us the best chance to survive and prosper.

Second Channel Evolution

This learning, that taking by force is bad for everyone, has become a key component of humans second evolutionary channel. It has to form a part of the second channel, and may possibly be one of the oldest parts, because it directly challenges a property of physical evolution—strength. Though this second channel rule may have been able to develop because it compliments a property of physical evolution—intelligence.

This has led to a constant struggle in human society. Not that between brain and brawn, which is mostly a struggle between individuals. The constant struggle is that between those who are favoured in the present—who want things to stay as they are, and those who want change—because they will be more favoured in a changed world.

No Superman

The vast majority of us accept situations where a few hold onto unfair advantage over the rest of us because our second evolutionary channel can act as a damper against change.

Our second channel for passing advantage is evolutionary because it works at the level of passing advantage from generation to generation, over thousands of years. This does not mean that old money is better than new, though that prejudice is a common one.

The real advantages of our second channel evolution are in the learning that when we can cooperate, specialise, trade and help each other we all benefit.

It is not the wealth of the wealthy or the power of the powerful that demonstrate second channel evolutionary advantage. It is demonstrated in all who attend to the business of making our tribes, our communities our societies work.

We accept that a few may do considerably better so that the majority will thrive. But we have also learned that the majority can only thrive when there are strict limits to the advantages of the few.

We can only be super apes because there is no super man.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bear versus Superape

It was my second day on morphine when I first noticed the SuperApes—Apes with superpowers. Of course I was frightened. Not by the ones around me, they were using superpowers to help, but there were plenty of SuperApes with bad intentions. And we've just given them a whole new set of super powers.

People say that morphine can make you look at the world in different ways, but it wasn’t that. The view of the world I've been working on is already odd enough, anyway there I was thinking about bears. If a bear breaks it’s leg it’s chances of survival become pretty slim. The same is true for an ordinary ape.

To stand a chance of a full recovery from a simple injury an ape needs a lot of super-powers: From being able to travel great distances at high speed, or see through solid objects, to being able to transform rocks and minerals at will. Apes that can do that are truly SuperApes, and there I was surrounded by apes who can do all that and more.

Evolution of SuperApes

The theory of evolution tells us that we are a species of ape, but we have all of these powers, and more. We are so used to humans being able to do amazing things that we do not see ourselves as having super-powers.

 Our species of ape can fly to a different continent, or speak to a person on the other side of the planet and we accept this as ordinary. Humans have developed a system that gives each of us  vastly greater than biological evolution has given our bodies. As apes we can pass on our territory,  tools and our life learning to our great grandchildren.

What makes our species of ape different to other species is that we have developed a second way of passing advantage to our offspring. At its simplest this involves passing extra advantages, beyond the biological, to our offspring. The advantages come in the form of knowledge and rules.

Humans as SuperApes

Thinking of humans extra abilities as super-powers can tell us a lot: From why we wear clothes and don't have sex in the street—my inner teenager had been wondering—to why we have the types of laws we do. It might even possibly explain  why religion has been so important for the development of our societies. It can also tell us a lot about the conflicts that have shaped our society.

So if I was surrounded by ordinary people why was I frightened? It was not because they could kill or injury me. When you think about it you realize that SuperApes are less likely to attack than many other animals.

What is frightening is how the trade off of powers we make in order to get the benefits of relatively easy access to food, energy and all the other things we take for granted, make it possible for some individuals to dominate others Some individuals are able to dominate tens, thousands even millions of people. And the way our super-powers have developed means that domination can last a long time. It can last for decades,  generations even hundreds of years.

We are all vaguely aware that we each play a part in a system that lets us gain from advantage passed on by our ancestors. This brings most of us great benefits. The price we pay for that a few individuals are able to build up so much of a lead that their offspring can dominate societies for generations, sometimes for hundreds of years.

For me it carries a huge warning for where we are headed right now. We have added information

Bears versus Super Apes

How does a bear compare to a SuperApe?  Bears are big strong animals, in a fight they can easily kill a lion or tiger. So if you ever meet one in the wild it’s good to know that—while Darwin says you are only an ape—you’re an ape with super powers.