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We have known for a long time  Is right righteous?  How are humans different?  The undiagnosed   The best schools   Poisonous plants   Love of clouds  Melancholy Slavs  Nothing is perfect  3 interesting facts about leadership     Old clothes   America's image   

We have known for a long time

Do we have to learn about the dangers of torture over again every few hundred years?
  1. You can't trust the information you get though torture. The notion that coercive interrogation techniques (prolonged periods of shock, stress, anxiety, disorientation and lack of control) are more effective than standard interrogatory techniques in making subjects reveal truthful information from memory is not supported by scientific research. The opposite has been found. The captive comes to associate speaking with periods of safety and will say anything to keep the talking going rather than the torture. He is not motivated to tell the truth (or to lie) but just to talk and keep the interrogator interested in listening.
  2. You can't trust the captive's memory under torture. Extreme stress has a deleterious effect on the frontal lobe and is associated with the production of false memories. So that even in a case where the captive wants to tell the truth, they may still not be reliable.
  3. Not only are false memories formed but previous memory is lost. Extreme stress inhibits the biological processes that support and maintain memories. So that even in a case where the captive wants to tell the truth and is not confused by false memories, they may still not be able to recall the relevant memories.
  4. Torturers lost their ability to judge capture. One of the dangers in being complicit in torture is that the torturer comes to believe firmly in the guilt of the captive and this makes judging whether captive has information and whether what they say is true, practically impossible.
So that takes us back to what we knew and accepted for well over a hundred years: information gained under torture is not reliable. It will be some mixture of truth and fiction that is impossible to evaluate. Junk.
It is worth nothing, but what does it cost?
  1. Torturing destroys the international conventions that protect us from being tortured. This is one of the reasons that regular soldiers all over the world are likely to hate the idea of torturing. Either torture is beyond the pale or tit-for-tat happens.
  2. Torturing causes severe life-long physical and psychological harm to the captive and psychological harm to the torturer. It eats at civil society by increasing fear and hatred in the general population. People who feel identified with the torturer fear reprisals and people who feel identified with the tortured want revenge.
  3. Creating fear of torture is a form of mafia-like rule by terror. It weakens the sense of rule by law and of a moral and just society.
Torture is not only worthless but harmful to everyone involved and to society in general. This was known and accepted for over a hundred years too: torturing is generally harmful, is immoral and should be illegal.
But what about the famous 'ticking time bomb'? Well, just because the information is more vitally needed in a hurry does not magically make information gained by torture more reliable nor does it make the harm done by torture any less. What is more it is silly to make law or policy on the basis of hypothetical situations that are unlikely to happen more than very rarely. What is the likelihood that you know there is a bomb, and you know it is set to detonate in a short time, and you have a suspect that you are confident knows where the bomb is but will not tell you? A pretty small probability, one would think. What is more, this is just the sort of situation that ignores policy and law. The interrogator is as likely to torture as not if there is a law against torture; and is as likely to not torture as to torture if there is a policy encouraging torture. The situation is too extreme and the time frame too short for law and policy to have any effect on the interrogator's behavior. We should not make a bad law to cover a situation that is unlikely to arise and if it did arise would be immune to the existence of the law. We have known that for a long time too: don't base law on exceptional cases.

Is right righteous?
It is well known that the word 'right' is associated with all things good – life, correctness, positiveness, dexterity, goodness. While 'left' is associated with the sinister - death, clumsiness, negativity, and bad things. And for a long time it has been assumed that the reason is that culture and language has dictated these associations. People think that right is good because they are surrounded by a culture and language that has made that association in so many ways. Besides the words and phrases that include 'right', there are also rules like which hand is used for a salute. The idea is that although the goodness of right was originally caused by right-handers outnumbering left-handers each individual child learns the association as they are socialized and learn their mother tongue. Or some say it is the other way around – somehow right became good and therefore left-handedness was discriminated against and became rarer. This is less believable but still includes the idea that the meaning of right is learnt by each child as they grow up; that it is passed on culturally.
Not so. It turns out that left-handers, despite growing up in a culture and language that values 'right' over 'left' and that conspires against them in so many ways, do not associate right with good. They make the associations with left that are usually made with right and vice versa.
This really struck me when I read it. I had not noticed that I associated left with the better things; but, of course, people do not notice these sorts of association in themselves until they are shown them. I did feel that the association between right and the better things was quite arbitrary and probably a hangover from the ancient past that would not be made today. When I tried to 'experiment' with my own associations with 'left', they turned out to be pretty much as described. When I tried to imagine a similar association for a right-hander, I realized that this would not have seemed arbitrary at all. Far from being a hangover from long ago, this situation is being re-enforced every generation.

How are humans different?
People have been determining what makes us unique since the ancient Greeks at least. Here are some usual factors as they just come to mind. I have a couple of new ones that occurred to me at the end.
The intelligent animal: We certainly are a lot smarter than most other animals; smarter than our closest relatives, the primates, for sure. Maybe some whales are as smart as us but it is hard to say because their intelligence, physical bodies and environment have so little in common with ours.
The social animal: There are many social animals and many of them (like ants) are more social than us. But our societies are larger and more complex than any other. 

The talking animal: We are not the only communicators, but there is a difference of degree and of type between our speech and the communications of other animals. Taken together with our social nature, we are, par excellence, the gossiping animal.
The manual animal: There are other animals with dexterity in their hands, feet, faces, tails etc. but none equal ours. Taken together with our intelligence, we are the technologically inventive animal.
The running animal: Combining speed and endurance in our peculiar way of running, we can beat most animals if we choose the length of the race. Of course we can't fly so we would not be racing birds.
The traveling animal: We have walked ourselves to most every part of the globe – walked out of Africa and just kept going. We get attached to our home territory like other animals but we also seem to like to change our territory every once in the while.
The swimming animal: For a land animal, we are surprisingly good at swimming, although there are other animals that also enjoy swimming. We seem particularly at home on a shore but not dependent on it. The sound of waves is calming, we value seafood and fish, we holiday on the beach. We traveled the coast all the way from Africa to Australia.
The musical animal: Apart from birds and perhaps whales, we are about the most musical animals around. We sing and dance, play instruments and drum. We play together in harmony. We enjoy taking part and also just listening. Music seems to be a social glue and an communication channel for emotions.
The parenting animal: Connected to our intelligence is how helpless we are for how long after we are born. We simply cannot survive without a stable and dependable set of care-givers, family and social group members. This leads to us being the romantic animal. There are many other animals who have long-term exclusive mating habits and even joint living arrangements. But there are few that are continuous engaged in mating as opposed to seasonally interested. We are so involved with sex that we raise love and romance to an art form. Its good for the family. Baby sitting also gives us the grandmothering animal. Other female animals reproduce until they die. We save a bit of strength for grandchildren if we are lucky enough to live past menopause.
The playing animal: Lots of young animals play. But few continue wanting to play into adulthood. We enjoy a wide range of playing throughout our lives, it is really important to us. Play together along with gossiping has made us the story-telling animal. We are also the gambling animal and the sporting animal. Drama, racing, puzzles and all playing along with music making and dancing qualifies us as the entertained animal.
The fire-making animal: We are the only animal that controls fire. That accounts for us being the cooking animal and cooking has given us a better diet and cut the time we spend chewing and digesting. Some think that cooking was required in order to allow us the luxury of big brains.
So here is a new one: the drugged animal. It seems to me that humans have been doing mind altering things for a long time, jumping and twirling and starving until the world looks very different or we can hardly stand. We mediate. And above all, if we run across a plant that produces a 'high' of any kind, we cultivate it and pay a high price for it.
And another new one, we are the domesticating animal. It sounds so ordinary – sure, sure, we domesticated a few animals, yawn. But really, this is very remarkable behaviour. It started with the dog a long, long time ago. We have b
een with the dog at least 3 times longer than with anything else we domesticated. This sub-species of the wolf lives with us. It is hard to find a human culture that does not have dogs living among them and it is also hard to find dogs that are not with humans. I cannot think of another pair of mammals that are so bonded and yet so capable of being independent. It seems almost impossible that two separate species would come to live and work together. We, of course, changed the dog. It came to be more adapted to living with us than other wolves. But I think that the dog also changed us. It taught us how to domesticate and allowed us to tame all our other domesticated animals. It is lovely to think of being 'doggy' people may have been the first step to being farmers.

The undiagnosed
I had undiagnosed dyslexia. People knew my symptoms and they reacted in a helpful way usually. However, I was puzzled and so were they about what it was that made the contrast between my intelligence and my spelling/reading so striking. There was no word for it.
I believe that my brother had undiagnosed Aspergers. It was always a bit of a puzzle to anyone who knew him for any length of time that he had good intelligence and lovely personality but seemed to lack some ingredient. Maybe it was a sense of proportion that was lacking but not quite. Recently I read a description that put the lack as 'noticing the wrong things'. How much that reminded me of my brother.

“When Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic Tim Page was in second grade, he and his classmates went on a field trip to Boston. He later wrote about the experience as a class assignment, and what follows is an excerpt:
“Well, we went to Boston, Massachusetts, through the town of Warrenville, Connecticut, on Route 44A. It was very pretty, and there was a church that reminded me of pictures of Russia from our book that is published by Time-Life. We arrived in Boston at 9:17. At 11 we went on a big tour of Boston on Gray Line 43, made by the Superior Bus Company like School Bus Six, which goes down Hunting Lodge Road where Maria lives and then on to Separatist Road and then to South Eagleville before it comes to our school. We saw lots of good things like the Boston Massacre site. The tour ended at 1:05. Before I knew, it we were going home. We went through Warrenville again, but it was too dark to see much. A few days later it was Easter. We got a cuckoo clock.”

Page received an unsatisfactory grade on his essay. What’s more, his irate teacher scrawled in red across the top of the essay: “See me!” As he recalls in his new memoir Parallel Play (Doubleday, 2009), such incidents were not uncommon in his childhood, and he knew why he was being scolded: “I had noticed the wrong things.”
My brother would not have been able to write something like that but that is how he might of described something verbally. There are, I think, many people, especially older ones, that have dealt with an undiagnosed learning disability or other condition. They are functioning adults and overcame their disabilities themselves (with help from their friends but
no professional aid). Not just dyslexia and Aspergers but the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia, memory and attention problems to name a few common disabilities, plus many rarer and weirder problems. However, I sometimes feel that the most disadvantaged people are those that grew up in perfection: no learning disabilities, good-looking, healthy, smart, with excellent home life and family income, naturally popular etc. etc. Things can be just too easy for such people with nothing to fight against and overcome – no unique and difficult accomplishment.

The best schools
Finland has the best schools in the world according to several year's of student testing by OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). Finland rated higher than the rest of the developed world in science and reading. It came second in math behind South Korea.
Their high rating is associated with some unexpected virtues:
Poisonous Plants hemlock
When Socrates was condemned, he drank hemlock. There is a famous quote from Plato describing the death. 
“The man laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone.”
It appears that we have hemlock growing on our building site. I had assumed it was Queen Anne's Lace, but it isn't. We have both, hemlock in the spring and Queen Anne's Lace in the summer. It is a good thing that I didn't try e
laburnumating any of the Queen Anne's lace which is supposed to taste like carrots. I might have got hold of the wrong plant. 
The poison in hemlock is coniine, a neurotoxin that is similar to curare and causes paralysis and eventually respiratory arrest. A person can outlive the toxic effects on an artificial ventilator. 
So what happens after I realize I have hemlock – I notice a little tree hidden amongst some larger ones has just burst into a riot of yellow flowers. It is laburnum, another very poisonous plant. It's active poison is cytisine.

Love of Clouds clouds
The Cloud Appreciation Society is an interesting society of weathermen, photographers, poets and others who just love clouds. I think their manifesto is great.

The Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society

WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned
and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it.
Life would be dull if we had to look up at
cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the
atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of
a person’s countenance.

Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen:
Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds!

Melancholy Slavs
Harry remembers his father, with a friend, drinking and crying in celebration of Taras Shevchenko's life. And it appeared that his father and his Ukrainian friends enjoyed a good honest cry for the national poet hero. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy have given us the brooding Russian. Many feel that the music of this area is basically melancholy. Is this accurate? Do some Slavic people enjoy being miserable, savouring their painful memories?
Someone (Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross) decided to find out. They compared Americans and Russians. And it turns out that yes – Russians tend to think more about negative memories, they brood more often. But do they enjoy brooding? Well, they enjoy it more than Americans do. Russians do not come out of remembering bad memories with as depressed a feeling as Americans do. The trick is that Russians take a more distant look at their memories, more third person. Americans take a more immediate, first person look. The difference is melancholy, even enjoyable melancholy rather than painful depression.
Of course, this is the sort of study that needs to be taken with some caution. It is a mild, cultural tendency that is only  statistical, an example of the caricatures of nations.

Nothing is perfect
I remember a couple of conversations with co-workers at Health in Saskatchewan about the difficulty of regulating a health service by setting targets. The use of targets were being used in some other health systems and there was hope/fear that Sask would adopt them. It turns out that we need not have spent the time figuring this out – there was already something called Goodhart's Law.
Here is the problem:
  1. The government, management, top brass or whatever want a goal or standard G but G is vague and difficult to refine like say 'good health care'.
  2. So the superiors find something that is not vague and is measurable that correlates with G, say g, like 'life expectancy'.
  3. Now every area is going to be judged by the improvement in g in that area. Their budget will be affected by this statistic.
  4. Subordinates will try to improve g even at the expense of G. Maybe, they may close down a retirement home in their area so that they do not have the deaths of these older people on their books. Thus we come to have fewer homes and actually worst health care for the elderly in general.
  5. Over time subordinates will discover every way they can to reduce g. As they do this, the correlation between G and g breaks down. The g targets are no longer improving G. Goodhart's law states that once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.
What is the answer?
  1. If G is talked about and held up as the aim, people will notice that their attempts to improve g are counter-productive for G. Many professions almost brain-wash their members into attachment to a few Gs. If everyone accepts that G trumps g they are more like to stay correlated.
  2. If there are a lot of targets, g1 g2 g3 etc. and these are somewhat balanced, the worst problems may be avoided. An aggregate score with minimums for each g will stay correlated longer.
  3. Continually checking the correlation between G and g so that g can be replace if it is not longer giving results in G is another measure.
  4. Forget about measurable targets and go back to older management methods. But remember that targets were used to eliminate some other problems.

Three interesting facts about leadership
  1. Many leaders are motivated by wanting to help and improve things rather than wanting status and dominance. In recent experiments people who choose to take leadership roles were more likely to be pro-social rather than selfish. They seemed to sacrifice their gains to increase the gains of followers. It is also true that politicians tend to actually really like people – they enjoy the talk, the handshakes and the contact with people. We choose people to lead us that we genuinely like for good reason.
  2. On the other hand, it turns out to be true that power corrupts. Positive psychological attributes are eroded once people have achieved a certain level of power. A number of research groups have documented this. It seems people who attain power tend to be considerate and out-going but as they remain powerful, they because less sympathetic to others, more likely to use stereotypes and generalizations, more judgmental of others and less of themselves, more hypocritical. They are also more likely to cheat and lie. “The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude.”
  3. Other research has shown the 'glass cliff'. Although the majority of leaders are men, apparently women are likely to be chosen in a crisis. It seems this is not because women want such roles rather than non-crisis ones or because men are malicious in favouring women in these circumstances. No, it is because there is a different stereotype of a good leader in times of crisis and men are seen as lacking in the attributes needed in crisis. Men are seen as competitive and not collaborative, a no-no in a crisis. “Our findings indicate that women find themselves in precarious leadership positions not because they are singled out for them, but because men no longer seem to fit.”
Old clothes
I get a weekly newspaper about France but in English and in the page of art events there was a item on a painting exhibition.
“The history of blue jeans has been re-written in a Parisian art gallery. The cloth's linguistic origin is not a problem. Nimes gave its name to the heavy cotton we know as denim (de Nimes). Genoa produced the dye, imported into France as bleu de Genes. The English blue jeans comes direct from the French word for the Italian city.”
Although there is a story that the cloth originated in America in the 18th century, this has been shown to be wrong. An anonymous painter known as 'Il Maestro della tela jeans' (the Master of blue jeans material) painted in the 17th century.
A gallery owner, Canesso, has been finding and collecting paintings by
this artist. They are paintings of poor people at work wearing long skirts and jackets, aprons and leggings, of the familiar indigo colour. The rips show the thickness of the cloth and the lighter colour of the underside. Canesso is now showing his collection and some borrowed paintings all showing demin jeans cloth. The one here is Femme cousant avec deux enfants. 

jeans painting

America's image
Steven Hill wrote this on how the Conservatives in Europe are viewing America:

Like the rest of the world, Europe cheered the election of Barack Obama as a change from the economic and foreign policy disasters of his predecessor. Yet just two years later the US government is returning to Bush-lite. How could this be, Europeans are wondering? The American electorate is looking like a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, chewing its own leg off to get out of the trap.
Europeans are puzzled by the success of the populist Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies....
While participating in a conference in Budapest in September, where prominent conservative leaders and thinkers were in attendance, including the president of the European Parliament and two prime ministers, some of the most eye-opening comments had to do with new perceptions about America. One speaker, Christian Stoffaes, who is chairman of the Center for International Prospective Studies based in Paris, stated the "United States is in disarray, extremely polarized. It is practically a civil war there, and you can't count on it."
This theme was echoed by others speakers, who went even further. One said "We need to shift our emphasis eastward (towards Asia) and not wait for the Obama administration." I found these statements to be surprising, and even vaguely alarming, given the importance of the transatlantic relationship in the post-World War II era. But there was a widespread view that the US is being consumed by the severity of the Great Recession, brought on by a broken Wall Street capitalism, as well as by the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and an inability to change course.
Previously, Obama's failure at the Copenhagen summit on climate change to deliver a serious commitment to that agenda, and instead to strike a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing, was a real wakeup call to the Europeans. It was as if they suddenly "got" it, that it wasn't George W. Bush who was the problem, but something more profound about America's broken political system that prevents any leader, even one as talented as Obama, from delivering. That political system is marinated in money, is paralyzed by a "filibuster-gone-wild" Senate that has allowed a minority of Senators to obstruct all legislation, and is hamstrung by a sclerotic, winner-take-all, two-party electoral system that has left voters poorly represented and deeply frustrated....
Keep in mind that these were the conservatives of Europe venting at this conference, who currently are in control of the European Parliament, the European Commission, as well as the governments in Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and elsewhere....
But to the extent that the election of Barack Obama represented an American rejuvenation in the eyes of the world, this recent election represents a further loss of American mojo. Americans may shrug their shoulders and say, "We don't care what the rest of the world thinks"-- but that will only reinforce what the rest of the world thinks.