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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?
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
It is worth nothing, but what does it
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
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 been 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.
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:
- Students having trouble with a
subject should not be left behind the rest of the class but given
special help. To do this, almost every lesson has two teachers. The
additional teacher helps those that are struggling. But all the
students stay in the same classroom and move through the course work
together. There is no streaming.
- In Finland, there is no break in
education between an primary and secondary schooling, no move from
one type of school to another. The classes stay together over the
years, often with the same teacher for several years at a time.
Everyone in the class knows one another very well, including the
teachers. It is like a little community with bonds like those in a
little village or a family.
- Finnish students spend the fewest
hours in classrooms in the developed world; the school day is
shorter. As well, the children only start school after they reach
seven. At this age they are less likely to want to play all the time
but more eager and able to learn in a structured way. Classroom
atmospheres are relaxed and informal.
- Education is valued in Finland.
Parents take an active part in their children's learning and work
with teachers to help their children at home. Teaching is a
prestigious career with high standards of skill, respect and pay.
Money is spent on schools.
- Finland does not have the problems
of a divided culture. It is ethically homogeneous and fairly
classless. Education is therefore not a weapon in social struggles
or a political football.
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 eating 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.
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
and that life would be immeasurably poorer
We think that they are
and the most egalitarian
of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of
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
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
Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and
live life with your head in the clouds!
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
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
Here is the problem:
What is the answer?
- 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'.
- So the superiors find something
that is not vague and is measurable that correlates with G, say g,
like 'life expectancy'.
- Now every area is going to be
judged by the improvement in g in that area. Their budget will be
affected by this statistic.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.
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
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.