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