Archives for category: The kind of world we live in

Somebody asked, on his wall, ‘what do you like/dislike most about how people behave on Facebook?

Here’s my answer.

“Facebook presents us with huge opportunities.
For getting in touch with great ideas/very interesting people.
For con-artists to bamboozle other people’s minds.
What I like most? When people contribute. Ideas, feelings, whatever.
What I dislike? When people allow themselves to be taken advantage of.
You see, I could have said ‘I dislike people taking advantage of other people’. That goes without saying. Only telling a con-artist to clean up their act would be akin to asking a lion to stop feeding itself. That’s not gonna happen.
But we could train our minds to avoid being fooled so easily…”

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What better way to treat depression than visiting some of the great achievements of humankind?

Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, Machu Pichu, a selection of Europe’s Medieval Castles and Cathedrals, the Taj Mahal, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Golden Gate, Burj al Khalifa …

I should take my wife along, right?

1324 AED roughly translates into 325 Euros. Not exactly cheap but… one also needs to get there.

Good thing I haven’t bought the tickets for the Lounge yet… I must reschedule…

On the other hand, does any of this make any sense for any of you?

Five hours of traveling over the clouds at almost 1000 kms per hour costs the same as spending an hour and half in a bar half a mile up in the sky? OK, Wizz Air is a low cost company, you have to pay extra if you fancy any refreshments… but still….

I’m not at all sure this trip would do anything good to my depression.

Let me put my feet back on the ground first!
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/hepatitis-c-drug-prices/

https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1133913

Then, if ‘greed is THAT good’, why blame Big Pharma for ‘buying’ politicians in order to extract as much profit as possible from their work?

Specially when it does work as advertised?

We priced the product at exactly the same as the existing standard of care, which worked about 50% of the time, and are providing a benefit that, based on real world experience, works about 98% of the time. From our perspective, it was a very good value.

I think our failure, if I have to take a step backwards, we were unable to have a good enough conversation with the payers. Perhaps we were a little conservative about what we could have or should have said to them to allow them to prepare for the number of patients that came forward. Honestly, it was far more than we thought. We did not think the system could or would try to handle as many patients as it did. We essentially quadrupled the number of patients treated in a year. That surge really created a lot of pain.

Ooops… so it’s the ‘payers’ who are hurting, not the patients themselves…

Gilead’s CEO Admits To ‘Failures’ In Setting Price of $1,000-A-Pill Breakthrough

Hepatitis C Treatment Highlights Disparity in Worldwide Drug Prices

– History is the story of what we remember of what had happened, right? Based on our shared individual recollections, the ‘written sources’ we have at our disposal and our interpretation of any other material traces we might have found… and properly preserved…

– Yep!

– Then no history, no matter how diligent and well intended the historian, will ever be the actual representation of what had really happened, back then!

– Well, you seem to be quite familiar with Heidegger’s work.

– I can’t say that. Popper’s injunction that science is more about being prepared to acknowledge your ignorance than about really knowing is enough for me.

– Then we might be soon delivered from History, after all.
When enough people will share your attitude/paradigm – that no matter how hard we’ll ever try we’ll never know anything for sure… it will be impossible for any would be dictator to pretend they have the ‘right’ answer for any problem we might encounter.

There is a technical reason. And some subjective ones. Acting in a synergic manner.

Trump had bean the darling of the high ratings/low expectations media for most of his adult life. During this period he had learned how to use it towards his own goal – an ever increasing notoriety, and those involved in the media had learned to love him back for the amount of publicity they had been able to sell on his back.

Now for the subjective ones.
First of all, he is a very ‘penetrant’ person. Like him or not, but you can’t ignore him.
Secondly, he happens to be the most powerful individual on Earth. Simply because he had been elected the President of the United States of America. Which is not only the most potent/civilized/democratic/you name it country, but also the leader of the free world. Meaning that the rest of the planet, democratic or not, sets it’s time after America’s clock. Willingly or unwillingly.
So the rest of world is watching anxiously everything that is going on in Washington. Wondering whether ‘Trump-ism’ will spread around. Or will remain yet another measure of American exceptionalism.

Thirdly, but maybe the most important reason, Trump can be analyzed as a symptom rather than as a cause.
In fact, there are a lot of Trumps scattered around the world.
Basically, there is very little difference between Trump and Putin. Trump and Erdogan. Trump and Bolsonaro. Trump and Dragnea – the most powerful politician in today’s Romania, my country. Even between Trump and Modi. Only none of these countries is similar to the US of A. None of them has such a distinguished democratic tradition.
And this is why so many people try to understand what’s going on.
Is Trump nothing more than an unhappy accident? Or the visible symptom of democracy becoming decrepit?

PS.
Even Abe is showing signs of contagion.
Post WWII Japan had survived by feeding whales to its people.
Now it is going to resume commercial whaling. In spite of all other previously whaling nations asking him to reconsider.
Really Abe? You need whale meat to survive?

And no, this is no joke! Alas…

Populism is scientific because its ‘adepts’ have a very rational behavior and use scientific tools to increase the appeal of their public messages.
And, on the other hand, populism is scientific because its advent is perfectly explainable given what we currently know. About our society, about our brains, about our psychology….

Let me start from the beginning.
In Thomas Kuhn’s terms, the last 60 or so years have witnessed a tremendous paradigm shift.
Science has replaced religion as the main paradigm and ‘religion’ has been demoted to  ‘religions’.

Science becoming the main paradigm means that we have grown confident about our knowledge. We might be aware that we don’t know everything yet but we continue to believe that we’re able to learn everything. That if we are diligent enough we’ll sometimes be able to look under every rock that is.
This attitude has led us to search for ‘perfection’. ‘Efficiency’ has displaced ‘redemption’. We have ceased our quest for salvation and are now obsessed with ‘buy low, sell high’. In other words, ‘make the most of it but strain yourself as little as possible’.

Which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

A lot of sense… mainly when you no longer perceive the guy next to you as being a full-fledged member of your community. Your religious community, that is. Of your church.

You see, ever since Emil Durkheim, the sociologists have been aware that religion was not so much a story about the making of the world as a ‘common ground’. The ‘common core’ shared by the members of a given community. Which ‘common core’ makes it possible for those who share it to have respect. For themselves and for the other faithful members of the community. By sharing that common core, the individuals find their bearings in the ‘wide, wide world’ and, thus, know how to behave relative to their ‘neighbors’. With enough mutual respect among the individual members that the community is able to function. To survive, that is.

We no longer have that kind of community.
Our primary allegiance is no longer towards ‘church’. Most of us consider themselves primarily as members of a nation – something governed more by formal laws than by public sentiment, and only secondarily – if at all, as members of a ‘religious’ community.

Now, putting two and two together, it’s very simple to understand that in the given circumstances ‘populism’ was inevitable, right?

Too many of the would be leaders have no qualms about how they get what they want.
Power.
‘Buy low, sell high’ is the current mantra, remember? Accepted by all of us. Buyers, sellers, by-standards…
Too many members of the general public are willing to accept promises which are in line with their own expectations, even if those promises being put in practice means a lot of misery for OTHERS. Who cares about those others, anyway? They are not members of OUR ‘church’!

I’ll let you decide how sustainable is such a situation. I was going to use ‘community’ instead of ‘situation’ but it would have been horribly wrong. We no longer live in communities. We only happen to live in the same place.

For how long?

“Capitalism has generated massive wealth for some, but it’s devastated the planet and has failed to improve human well-being at scale.”

Drew Hansen, Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity by 2050,
Forbes, feb. 9, 2016.

I’m afraid we are dealing with a huge confusion.
Capitalism hasn’t generated anything and hasn’t starved, nor fed, anybody.
People did!

Capitalism is nothing more, nor less, than a particular manner in which we, ‘the people’, relate to property while ‘the free market’ is one of the manners in which economies are run.

And here’s the place where things become ‘murky’.

‘Oekonomia’ is Greek for ‘making ends meet’.

“The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.

According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776

The way I read it, Smith sees ‘wealth’ as people’s/nation’s ability to supply for their ‘necessaries and conveniencies’.
In other words, ‘to make ends meet’.

How we define our needs, the manner in which we choose to fulfill them and what we are disposed to ‘spend’ in the process… is our responsibility.

So.
What is it that we need/want?
A healthy planet? Clean air/water/soil and a fair opportunity for each of us to earn their keep?

Or a dog eats dog type of contest for ‘who has the biggest pile of money’?

Capitalism can encompass both.

Unfortunately, the second scenario has nothing to do with ‘making ends meet’.
On the contrary!

As I mentioned before, life is about individual organisms being able to interact with their environment and species being able to evolve as a reaction to what happens in the same environment.

Interaction between environment and individual organisms is based on sensations.
The organism ‘feels’ itself and its environment and (re)acts  based on the gathered information.

The (re)action ca be very basic – as in voluntarily abstaining from breathing when submerged in water, to utterly sublime. Writing a love poem or saving a toddler from a burning house.

Please note that only writing a love poem ‘demands’ a human being. Abstaining from breathing while under water comes naturally for all animals which don’t have gills while saving a toddler from a burning house can be very well ‘performed’ by a dog.

I mentioned earlier that (re)actions can be grouped in three large categories. ‘Mechanical’, ‘learned’ and ‘self-supervised’, a.k.a intentional.

The ‘mechanical’ ones being those also known as ‘instinctive’. They are practically inscribed in our DNA and constitute our default mode. None of us – plant, animal or human, needs any training whatsoever in order to ‘perform’ them.

The ‘learned’ – or ‘trained’, (re)actions are those which depend heavily on past experience. They start from the same kind of sensations as the instinctive ones but the organism takes the time to transform the sensation into a perception before (re)acting.
A very good example would be riding a bike. A child can learn to do it well before becoming able to entertain such complicated notions as ‘destination’ or ‘goal’. They are simply happy to do it. Same thing being valid for trained circus dogs or monkeys.

The really tricky (re)actions are the ‘intentional’ ones. Those which are performed under self supervision. Of which we are, at least perfunctorily, aware.

‘OK, very nice recap. You’ve already covered this ground. Get to the point!’

I’ve already reached it.
According to this ‘scheme’, given the fact that we pretend to be rational and that we all live in the same world, all of us should behave more or less in the same manner. Right?

‘Like bees? Or ants? Like a school of fish?’

Yeah, something along that line…

‘Or like Pol Pot/B.F. Skinner tried to teach their respective followers?’

You’re stretching it a little bit but yes, you could say that …

‘But this ain’t happening! Not even the most bigoted followers of any cult nor even the most disciplined soldiers will ever behave in such a manner…’

I told you we’d already reached ‘the point’! You made it yourself…

And here’s why:

Yes, we all live in the same world.
More or less…

But we shouldn’t forget the differences!

Biological ones come first.
Those which make each of us feel differently, even when all of us experience the very same conditions. Temperature, time past from the last meal, elevation from the sea level, etc., etc.

On top of those come the ‘social’ differences.
In this instance ‘social’ has a far wider meaning than in everyday life. Yes, there is a huge difference between individuals belonging to different social strata but that’s only a small part of what I have in mind.
‘Social’ differences means all differences consecutive to the ‘mere’ existence of human society.
Let’s make a thought experiment and evaluate the ‘social’ differences between a guy born in what we now call France some 20 000 years ago and another guy born in the same place 2 000 years later. What do you reckon?
OK. Now let’s consider a Frenchman born in 1920 – two years after the end of the WWI, and his son, born in 1947. Would it make any sense to compare the two sets of differences? Those between the conditions encountered by the two prehistoric guys separated by two almost inconsequential millennia and those encountered by the father and son born 27 years apart in the XX-th century?
Or we could compare a native of the Amazonian forest to a New Yorker. Both born in, say, 1999. Statistics have it that the Amazonian native might already be dead…

Small wonder then that perceptions are so different from one individual to another… given that individual perceptions depend on both our senses and our individual experiences – which, in their turn, depend heavily on where and when each of us have been born.

Right now I feel the need to insist on the difference between sensation and perception.
Sensation being, simply put, what we feel while perception is what reaches our conscious mind.

‘What?!?’

Yeah…  strange, isn’t it?
Let’s return to ‘riding a bike’ for a moment.
It was a big moment when your dad removed the ‘helper’ wheels and you soloed for the first time, right? Just as big as when you walked for the first time… only you can’t remember that, do you?…
You were paying very close attention to everything you were doing… while your father kept telling you ‘relax, you’ll be fine’…
And now – if you’re still riding, of course, you do it instinctively. You pay attention only to where you’re going, without bothering about maintaining the balance or other ‘mundane’ things like that. The whole process takes place ‘behind the scene’. It was you who had learned what to do. Consciously, of course. Only once learned, the whole ‘thinking process’ was moved ‘to the attic’. Out of the way, that is.
There are a lot of things which are done in this manner. Subconsciously and not unconsciously. Riding bikes, driving cars, operating machinery… perceiving the world…
We learn how to do it – according to some rules which depend on our culture, and then we continue to do it subconsciously. For all our lives or until something happens. For instance, until we move to a country where they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And we have to learn some new rules…

Otherwise put, ‘perceiving’ means subconsciously making sense of what we feel by using some previously acquired ‘rules of thumb’. Those who specialize in this field use ‘heuristics’ to describe them.
The problem with the rules of thumb being that they can very easily become ‘cognitive biases’. A.k.a. ‘fences’ which divert us from the ‘straight and narrow’. As in the situation when some of us feel uneasy in the presence of an unknown person with a different skin color.

‘But what happens when consciousness kicks in?’

I thought you’d never ask…

It depends.
On many things. Both ‘social’ and individual.
On the education experienced by each particular individual, on their ‘brain power’ and, last but not least, on something vaguely called ‘individual character’. Something which some people are convinced it can be educated, one way or another, while others are convinced it is ‘hard wired’ into each of us.
If you ask me, both are right. In various, individual, degrees. Character has as much to do with how each of us have internalized their particular experiences as it has with how much ‘spiritual stamina’ exists into each of our souls.

On the practical side of the matter, after each perception reaches the frontier of our consciousness, each of us starts digesting it in earnest. As in attributing ‘value’ to it. Determining whether what has just happened was a consequence of an intention or a happenstance.  Then whether that intention was good or bad. And, finally, the ‘judging’ consciousness establishes a plan of action.  Which can vary from ‘do nothing’ to ‘no holds barred’.

Which explains why no two people will ever react in exactly the same manner when confronted with the very same set of circumstances. There are no two individuals who feel exactly the same, have been exposed to the very same cultural influences AND internalized them in exactly the similar manner. Nor have exactly similar characters and amounts of brain-power.

But what was Mathew trying to tell us?
I’m afraid we are dealing  here with a badly translated metaphor.
‘Poor in spirit’ doesn’t make much sense… unless we consider it an attempt to dull our senses… which may make some sense in certain circumstances…
Only I’m more interested here to determine what Mathew tried to say rather than to interpret the intentions of those who had done the translation. And of those who had, manually, copied the many successive generations of Bibles which had been produced until Gutenberg had, for the first time, printed it in many identical copies.
So, the way I see it, Mathew was speaking of those who are able to stop their conscious mind from building far-flung ‘scenarios’ out of everything that happens to them. Or in their vicinity.

Very similar to the Buddhist concept of ‘non-attachment’?

Well… we do live in the same world, after-all… and we have been ‘made’, more or less, ‘the same’.
We might not be identical, nor having had the very same experiences during our lives… but we do have a lot in common. Despite our differences.

Every thing we may find around us can be stashed in one of these three categories.

Only the boundaries between them are not so clear as it may seem at first glance.

”Aphasic” means ‘being unable to speak, even though your ‘throat’ and your intelligence seem to be OK. By stretching the term, one can use it to describe the inability to get in sync with the ‘exterior’. To react other than in a purely ‘mechanical’ manner. Push back with an equal force, sneeze when inhaling an allergen… you get my drift.

‘Alive’ is, at least apparently, a little simpler.
There are many definitions for ‘life’ but none is considered ‘good enough’. Yet all of us are convinced they know what ‘alive’ means.
In my view, life is a multi-generational affair. For starters, Darwin’s ‘seminal’ book was “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. ‘Species’ and ‘Races’ mean genetic information transmitted over many generations. The transmission mechanism being accurate enough to preserve the species as long as nothing happens yet flexible enough to allow for evolution to proceed when the prevailing conditions allow/demand it.

‘Alert’ is even simpler.
Quick to see, understand, and act in a particular situation“.

As I mentioned earlier, these categories only seem clear cut.

While it’s obvious that a boulder, or even a fully functional gas engine, can be safely tucked away into the ‘aphasic’ drawer, what are we going to do with somebody suffering with senile dementia? And, for good measure, well past the ‘reproductive age’…. Can that person be considered alive? Truly alive?
What about the ‘brain dead’ – literally, those who cannot do anything by themselves, but who are young enough and otherwise able to procreate?
Furthermore, it is very easy to say ‘that kid is very alert’ when describing a ‘tomboy’. Or a trader dealing on the New York Stock Exchange Floor. But can we use the same concept when describing the fly which has successfully evaded all our attempts to catch it?

We, humans, pride ourselves on many things.

On being smart/intelligent. And on being the only animals able to brag about their achievements with their peers…

But what is it that qualifies us as humans?
That would, of course, depend on what a human really is…

OK, let me use another tack.
What are we really good at? What sets us apart from the rest of the animals?

Practical intelligence? Our ability to solve really complicated problems?

Then watch this wild New Caledonian Crow treating itself to a piece of meat.

new Caledonian crow

Our ability to figure new meaning and to overcome our natural impulses?

Then read about Sheba the Chimp using language to suppress her greed:

In a celebrated study that investigated impulse control, Sally Boysen of Ohio State University asked chimps to choose between two dishes of M&Ms®.

SALLY BOYSEN: Now, you watch real carefully. We’re going to put one, two, three, four down here. Are you watching, Miss Priss? Sheeby? And we’re going to put two in here.

Give those to Sarah. Okay.

Well, I have to give these to Sarah, and Sheeba gets two. So Sarah gets four and Sheba only gets two. Aw, too bad.

NARRATOR: The twist was that the chimp got the candy she didn’t point to. Could the chimp learn to resist her impulse to reach for the bigger pile?

SALLY BOYSEN: You want Sarah to have these? It’s okay, it’s okay. You get to have that one. Yeah, Sarah gets five, and Sheba gets one. Oh, that is such a shame.

NARRATOR: Amazingly, chimps never overcame their greedy urges. They always reached for more and, so, ended up with less.

SALLY BOYSEN: And Sheba gets two, so Sarah gets four. See?

NARRATOR: Impulse studies have also been run on humans. In a classic experiment from the 1970s, a researcher gave a four-year-old a simple choice.

RESEARCHER : So, if you wait for me to get back, I’ll give you this bowl with all of these gummy bears, okay? But if you can’t wait, you can push that button, like this, and then I’ll come back and you can have this bowl with just this one gummy bear, okay? Okay, I’ll be right back.

NARRATOR: According to an inconclusive but intriguing study, the longer children resisted temptation, the higher their S.A.T. scores were years later. In any case, the differences between people are small compared to the gap separating humans and apes.

BRIAN HARE: Maybe one of the first things that happened during our species evolution is we became much less emotionally reactive. And maybe that’s one of the big differences that may explain why we solve problems so differently. We sort of got control of our emotions.

NARRATOR: Can apes be given skills to help them master their emotions? Sally Boysen trained a chimp to understand numerals. Then she repeated her M&Ms experiment, but now offered different pairs of numerals rather than treats.

SALLY BOYSEN: You want to give two to Sarah? Okay. Two goes to Sarah, and you get six.

NARRATOR: Remarkably, chimps were now able to learn what they couldn’t before: point to the smaller number to get the bigger prize.

Symbols can make you free. They can help distance an ape from its impulses. But outside of the lab, apes don’t seem to use symbols. Still, ape minds seem to share many of the amazing features of the human mind.

There is a video which depicts all this. Click on this link and see if it’s available “in your area.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/ape-genius.html.

How about our consciousness? Our ability to ‘observe ourselves in the act of observing‘.
Well, that alone wouldn’t have made us any more special than an octopus…

self aware octopus

But what if our individuality resides in us having taken all three to ‘a different level’? One which hasn’t yet been attained by anybody else? Not necessarily higher, mind you!

I’ll deal with ‘trade’ now and I’m afraid you’ll have to come back for the rest.

‘Trade’ wasn’t even mentioned in those three examples?
What was the crow trying to do?
Feed itself? As in exchange matter with the ‘outside’?
What was Sheba trying to do?
Figure our what was going on? As in trading information with the surrounding world?

In this sense all living things are engaged in all forms of trading? And continue to do so for as long as they remain alive?
What did I tell you about us doing nothing really new? Only different?

OK, we had already figured out – long before Adam Smith described it as ‘division of labor’, that by dividing tasks amongst us we’ll be able to accomplish far more things than if we had attempted ‘individual autarky’. And then we had invented ‘trade’, as a manner of exchanging the different wares each of us was proficient in doing…
Wait! Even this is not really ‘new’!
Mother Nature had already invented sexual reproduction – a very extreme ‘division of labour’, a very long time ago…. but not before bacteria were already adept at ‘trading’ genetic information.

 

 

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