27 December 2008

Steady State Economics & GDP

Adbusters have named Herbert Daly as their Person of the Year. Daly has long been champion of the notion of the steady state economy. A former Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, Daly is currently Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Daly is no slouch: he has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award and the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science, the Sophie Prize, and the Leontief Prize.

Daly's ideas are nicely summarized in the Adbusters article, Towards a Steady-State Economy: (originally posted at the Oil Drum)
The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth, the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state – a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff.

Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state – seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.
Quality not quantity. What a novel idea. Or perhaps not so novel after all. Forty years ago, in his first campaign speech, Robert F. Kennedy put forward prescient comments on the Gross National Product. The video below is but two minutes and eleven seconds long. A good investment of time.

The video was produced by the Glaser Progress Foundation. If you want to dig deeper into ways in which we might better measure progress, their website has quite a good resource library. You might also want to peek here and here and here.

Cross Posted at Open Salon

08 December 2008

What causes hot flashes?

It's a common enough complaint - "Is it me, or is it hot in here?" Affecting about three quarters of all post-menopausal women, hot flashes are hardly rare. Yet the underlying mechanism is not understood as well as athlete's foot, or spider venom for that matter.

You might think that it is due to chronic lack of attention to issues of women's health, but this does not seem to be the case: using 'hot flash' as a search in PubMed brings up 1,937 studies, while only 1,466 studies have been published on athlete's foot and 1,402 on spider bite. Yet if you look at any recent review of the topic, you find only vague reference to a drop in estrogen levels, with little insight as to how this might affect dilation of blood vessels, alter thermoregulatory centres in the brain, or any of a dozen other underlying mechanistic questions.

So why is it that we don't know what causes hot flashes? The answer is at once surprising and obvious: we don't know everything about how the human body works. For all the advances that scientists have made, there are still enigmas in the world. [Actually, there are a raft of unresolved issues out there - Science recently put together a list of 125 issues that demand scientific inquiry over the next 25 years. Hot flashes were not on the list.]

Many people find it irritating when they have a malady that can't be treated. We somehow expect that in this day and age, if some part of our body itches, aches, oozes or is otherwise not working properly, medical science should have a solution. Unfortunately, reality tell us otherwise. 

Cross posted at Open Salon

04 December 2008

What do you notice?

There has been a flurry of activity on total recall lately. One set of reports arose in response to Der Spiegel's story about the travails of Jill Price, the 42 year-old California woman with perfect recall. Boing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder's post on the topic was followed in rapid succession by Andrew Sullivan's alert, and Jonah Lehrer's thoughtful follow-up, reminding us not only that it is hardly heaven to be saddled with perfect episodic memory, but that Luria described just such a case in his classic text The Mind of a Mnemonist.

At about the same time, James Fallows pointed out that #5 on IBM's list of "Five Innovations That Will Change Our Lives in the Next Five Years" includes technology that will allow smart appliances to record, store and analyze details of everyday life and provide them to us at the appropriate time and place.

In fact, it turns out that we already have the capacity to take in vast amounts of information. Aude Oliva and his students at MIT recently published a paper in PNAS with astonishing results. They showed people 2,500 photos over 5.5 hours, and then a clever psychological task was used to test whether they recognized images that they had seen. Remarkably, people could identify the image 92% of the time (for more information on how they did it, watch the video below from Science Daily). As it happens, the major challenge is not taking in information, but recalling it.

The paradox is that in the face of all of this information, we wander around in a state of seeming oblivion most of the time. We clearly have the ability to absorb it all, but to what do we choose to pay attention?


The deer that treat our property on Galiano Island as their own (I just have to finish that fence one of these days!!) love the leaves from our sumac tree. The other day, I watched as a small herd ambled across the yard, carefully picking out the sumac leaves but leaving the oak leaves behind. Earlier, I had walked across that same patch of ground and the presence of the leaves barely registered. They noticed; I had not.

A homeless guy wanders down the street, examining the sidewalk for anything of value. He knows which trash bins are likely to contain food, which recycling bins are best bets for bottles to return for their deposit, where useful items that have been discarded by the rest of us might be. He notices things I never see.

With all of our basic needs satisfied there is little that we have to notice about our surroundings anymore. And so we don't.

The people in our modern world who do notice things are artists. Take Mari Nakano for example (she created the image at the start of this post). She has devoted an entire installation to the subject of noticing things, and she tells us
When it comes to the news, images and headlines scream for our attention. But do we notice? Or do we just pass by because our eyes have grown accustomed to the facade of a newspaper? Do we go elsewhere to search for truth and stories? And if so, where are those places? We seek to know how the world is evolving around us, but are we really reading in–depth about the going-ons around us nowadays? If not, why not? And how, as designers, can we think of alternative ways of looking at the news? How, as creatives, can we better capture a viewer's curiosity in a way that will stimulate them the delve beyond a catchy headline?

What Do You Notice? was an attempt to reinterpret the way a viewer can enter the news. By adopting the goals of tenbyten.org, this experiential piece tried to translate the interaction that takes place on the web into an interaction that takes place in real life.
And then there is Bjork. Reticent and shy throughout this interview with Charlie Rose, watch how she lights up (about 8 minutes into the conversation) when he brings up the topic of sound. Bjork notices sound in a profound way.

The question stands.

What do you notice?

Cross Posted to Open Salon

18 November 2008

Recycling's Butterfly Effect

At first glance, you would think that the environment would be a big winner as the global financial crisis is felt by all. After all, excessive consumption is at the heart of our planetary ecological catastrophe (for one particularly distressing example, see here and here). Following on this line of reasoning, as people cut back their consumption, environmental pollution should also decrease.

The logic is fine as far as it goes, but it turns out that this does not work for one of the great success stories of the environmental movement, recycling. As commodity prices have plunged, so too have the prices of the materials that we recycle the most: aluminum and steel, paper, glass, and plastic.

I first noticed the problem when I went to the recycling centre the other day here on lovely little Galiano Island. We are environmentally conscious lot and recycle assiduously but the truth is we have no choice: there are no garbage facilities on the island, so we engage in Natural Recycling. But as a result of the drop in commodity prices, our self-sufficient little recycling centre is no longer able to sell many of the recycled items that were coveted only months ago.

A bit of research reveals the problem to be widespread. Recycling Today reports that:
"The drop in prices being paid by North American steel mills for ferrous scrap has continued in November, with scrap now trading at between $113 and $167 per ton. In early November, buyers paid roughly from $60 to $110 per ton less for scrap than they did in October... In the global scrap market, reduced demand from steelmakers throughout the world remained the key factor in the dramatic change in ferrous scrap pricing in the past 90 days."
Or take a look at Nine Dragons Paper, one of the world's largest cardboard recyclers (whose founder and Chairwoman, Cheung Yan, was China's wealthiest person a couple of years ago). The company had this to say when releasing their financial results for 2008:
"We are now experiencing challenges of a downturn in the global economy..."
One might argue that the laws of supply and demand should take care of matters. As people buy less stuff, they produce less waste and therefore the system will self-correct. Unfortunately, such simple solutions don't work in the real world. Not only is a critical mass of recyclable material required to make the entire enterprise cost-effective, the price of the underlying commodity must also be sufficiently high to warrant continuing recycling as a viable business. It appears, at least for the moment, that neither of these conditions obtain.

There is a bit of a butterfly effect about all of this. A few thousand people in Nevada buy homes on ridiculously cheap credit. A few years later, housing prices plunge and suddenly many homeowners owe more on their mortgages than the houses are worth. The mortgage rates begin to rise (apparently, no one read the fine print) and homeowners begin to default. At the same time, we realize that the geniuses on Wall Street have bundled these mortgages into complex investment vehicles, and nobody knows what they are worth today or, even worse, what they will be worth tomorrow. Banks begin to fail. The economy craters. Commodity prices drop. And our little recycling centre on Galiano Island is unable to sell scrap metal anymore.

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Cross posted to Open Salon

27 September 2008

Why do politicians try to lower expectations before debates?

Well before the presidential candidates took the stage yesterday evening, both of their campaigns worked hard (see articles here and here) to lower expectations for their performance. [Intentionally or not, Sarah Palin has done a masterful job of lowering, some might say demolishing, expectations for her performance, especially in her interview with Katie Couric.] It is a well-established tactic that now has strong support in fundmental findings from leading edge research in neuroscience.

For over 50 years, neurobiologists have been intensively studying an important network of neurons that use the neurotransmitter dopamine. A great deal of data suggests that these neurons are part of a system in the brain that encodes reward: drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine exert their addictive effects in part by increasing the duration of dopamine action in the brain, and, even more remarkably, rats will repeatedly press a lever to get a tiny jolt of electricity that activates dopamine pathways, even foregoing food and sex in favor of such self-stimulation.

The field was revolutionized by a series experiments carried out by Wolfram Schultz and his colleagues who showed that dopamine neurons don't respond to rewarding stimuli unconditionally, but rather do so in relation to expectations. The basic behavior of a dopamine neuron is to fire at a slow, steady rate; that is what is happening in your brain right now. If an animal is not expecting a reward (let's say a squirt of fruit juice) and it arrives, their dopamine neurons start firing like crazy, and their brains interpret this as rewarding. If the animal is already expecting the fruit juice when it arrives, nothing much changes; the dopamine neurons continue their boring, steady firing. The inescapable conclusion is that dopamine neurons do not encode reward per se - the fruit juice is the same in both cases - but rather compare expectation with outcome. And when we are pleasantly surprised, the burst of dopamine tells our brains that something wonderful has happened and we experience delight.

You can see this in everyday life as well. Imagine you come home from work one day and for no particular reason your partner has prepared a wonderful meal, there are flowers on the table and two glasses of wine sitting on the counter. A feeling of pleasant surprise washes over you and the evening is a success. Now imagine that this is the scene that awaits you every day; in short order you find it pleasant enough but its sheer predictability substantially reduces that feeling of delight.

By lowering expectations before the debates, political campaigns are really manipulating our brains in a fundamental way, priming our dopamine neurons to fire in a burst when the candidate performs reasonably well. Why should we care? What we really want to know is not how someone performs compared to our expectations but how they perform in some sort of absolute sense. The inherent wiring of our brains makes this a challenge, and lowering expectations makes it even more difficult.

The Vice-Presidential debate is scheduled for Thursday. Barring some dramatic change such as Sarah Palin withdrawing from the campaign this week, think about the role of your dopamine neurons in your perception of the outcome and try to evaluate her performance objectively rather than in relation to how (poorly) everyone expects her to perform. And if the pundits say she did better than expected, tell them that their dopamine neurons are modifying reality.


Cross posted to Open Salon