Daily Prompt: Disagree

via Daily Prompt: Disagree

Agreeable it is to agree; but comfort zone offers no growth.

The real question is, can I really listen to the other, or do my internal voices drown out all others?  Honest disagreement can be more constructive in sharpening an idea than agreement.  Learning to listen seems really hard for our poor brains: designed for hunter-gatherer life.  It is the power of words/ideas that allowed our species to organise: agreement is the norm.

Our hidden biases, mental flaws, and defective models can lead to poor decision-making.  By disagreeing we help our friends and family to better decisions.  With science banishing “Free Will” to myth, we still have free choice in our actions.  Ironically, believing that there is no FW, makes us behave worse – easier to give ourselves a pass.

If there is no FW, why do we allow Criminal Justice system to exacerbate the inequities and iniquities of our worlds?  And if we do not disagree with an unjust system; are we not then complicit in its evil?  To disagree is a core part of being human and seeking the better angels of our nature.  But like all human tools can also be used for bad.  The difference is perhaps our motive: from ego or alter?

Water is vital for life; sugary drinks not.

“Please give us nothing but vegetables to eat & water to drink” Daniel 1:12

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.  Daniel 1:15 (~600BC)

The book of Daniel, is not your typical religious text. It’s part of the Old Testament; part I of the Christian Bible. (In case you don’t know, part 2, the New, is a glorious story of redemption or being saved which may or may not be metaphysical.  It’s so hard to know with words, but the words are indeed very useful.  Which is why they survived.)

The core of the Old Testament is the 5-book Torah given to us by Moshe, our Father.  With no archeological evidence for Moses, could he be a scientific created of the Egyptian elite?  The timing fits with the reign of Akhenaten, the only monotheistic Phaoroh. After him, they reverted to the traditional Egyptian gods.  The speculation is that the religious monotheists established Israel as a colony of Egypt, allowing them to live in peace but away from the new regime of polytheism.

In contrast, Daniel reports a historical character. Like Jesus, Daniel’s story was written long after his death; in Daniel’s case hundreds of years.  The value of both stories is to remind of us deep spiritual and practical truths.  Such as diet health, and feeding our microbiota (bugs).  Eat your vegetables; don’t drink sugary drinks!

I found this pictures on Wikipedia; I hope they don’t mind me using it.  It highlights the simple but hard act of self-denial.  Rejecting sensual pleasure over health.  And his fellows behind him in the portrait show that that Daniel did not do this by himself.  We act best as teams.  And perhaps the result is the ability to go to the lion’s den, by himself.

Are you interested in following Daniel’s dietary advice, and tell me upon its impact on your health?  If so, the first step is: who is the team that will help you?   How can I help you?

And if you have the time, have a look at this project on vaccines as an educational tool.  And why am i vegetarian?.

You have been warned: don’t act, and face the consequences

But not all warnings are right; how do we know if we need to react?

HIV, SARS, Ebola.  These all emerged after some commentators thought that we had conquered infectious disease through hygiene, sanitation and immunisation. Humans face an ever increasing risk of new pathogen because our collective biomass is increasing.  This is not hard to understand if you think of all mammals as potential sources of life for micro-organisms.  I presume you have heard of the micro biome; the startling fact that you and I have at least 10 times more non-human cells than human cells that make up our body.  And that many of these bugs are essential to our health; and may in fact be driving much of our behaviour from the products of their metabolism.  It seems that even obesity may be, at least in part, caused by the bugs in our guts.  And that much as the negative impact of junk food may be through the changes in the microbiome that it causes.  Bugs love sugar!

For me, SARS was the alarm bell, the missed opportunity around needing to have better information systems so that we can deal with the next new bug.  Which could be as fatal as Ebola, but with the infectiousness of influenza.  Its emergence, just a matter of genetic roulette.  Once a bug that emerges that can feast on humanity, it will spread – see HIV/AIDS.

Ebola has rung a new alarm bell on the costs of failing to look after all our family – that we all face the risks caused by the weakest link in health.  But, I was prompted to write this not by this threat, but another one for which there is a much stronger case for a scientific warning.  That we must act upon, and yet much of the world, including many powerful people who really should know better, continues to deny.  Denial may the healthiest psychological strategy when there is nothing that we can do to reduce our risk.

And then there is the small matter of vested interest that makes us blind.  The vested interest in the comfort of today, for we know that is at risk.  And even if others are not so comfortable, that is really not our business, is it?

Well, that depends of your view of humanity and yourself.  Whether you accept the science that says we are all from a common ancestor, perhaps as recently as 50,000 years ago – maybe 200,000 years – the supposed time that modern humans emerged.  I have already made an implicit case for why we need to care about the other members of our family to protect us agains new bugs.  But what if we could have a Jesus or Buddha view of humanity, that saw our transcendent unity, and not just with the human family, but all of life, the whole universe itself.

The threat is the melting of the polar ice-caps, which is melting at an increasing rate.  A particular concern because 97% of the excess energy that humanity is putting in the atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans, especially the southern oceans around antarctica.  Once that is gone, and with it much of the absorptive capacity of the oceans – what happens?

Time will tell.  We are acting, but not nearly fast enough.  There is a prime villain here, and what will it take to act?  Especially if that action to decarbonise the economy is part of a radical transformation of production that is geared to people’s needs rather then profit.  With robotic production already here, this seems more possible than when human labour was essential to production.

And what will be human role in the new economy?  Why, to look after each other, as teachers, healers, entertainers.  Another Utopian dream?  Perhaps.  But, if our human family made a consensus decision to establish this new world, could we not just decide to do so from today?

To take back Abe Lincoln’s idea of democracy being the government by, for, and with the people.  Not the corporate interests that are paramount with the claim that this is essential for jobs. Not true.  The economy is not about money, it is about people and how they allocate the products of society.  Just because we inherited the capitalist model, does not mean that it continues forever – any more than feudalism; thought the legacy of that remain…

Technology offers new models of organisation.  Our planet demands it, as capitalism will destroy it – if it continues on the current path.  You have been warned.  Your call.

Moral virtues and intellectual vices: cognitive process tuning

Good parenting rewards positive behaviour, and ignores  the negative.  We wish to encourage our child’s moral virtues that we think of a character and tendency to ‘behave well.  We learn moral virtues through habit and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction.

Education is about learning to think.  To identify and the intellectual vices that arise from the design of the cognitive biases that our brain has in its ‘wetware.  These designs were well fitted to the hunter-gatherer with the complex range of skills that human societies developed, as our ancestors climbed to the top of the food chain, following their Cognitive Revolution of some 70,000 years ago.

The Agricultural Revolution of some 10,000 years as agriculture led to the emergence of surplus values and cities (civilization) .  Skill started to become more specialised compared to the multi-talented hunter-gatherers: growing seeds and fighting for control of the surplus.

A key aspect of the Cognitive Revolution was the development of ‘fictive language’.  Words that do not describe the natural world, nor social relations, but abstract concepts that only exist in the collective subjective.  Three of these, and their manifestation, have driven human history:  Money, Empire, and G-d.

The remarkable fact is that we can learn about, and overcome our cognitive biases.  But this is not an easy task for those who lack intellectual virtue.  We are born with intellectual vice; our brain is designed to fail the fallacy of ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’: ‘after this, therefore because of it’.

It is like the optical illusion: I sill see it, even when I know it is an illusion.

Aristotle described the moral virtues, and Socrates was the first to start the process of identifying our intellectual vices.  We can only start from doubt; hope our hypotheses are ‘good enough, and know that nothing can ever be truly known.  And from this strange base an impressive body of Western thought leading to our domination over matter, to the scientific sun.

But too many of us do not understand how our brains tricking us into bad decisions; and make us hate our brothers and sisters, because of difference.  How hard to love humanity close-up, compared from the benign self-feeling of loving the idea of humanity, said Dostoyevski.  But that is only one side of the story; for many in this world tread a path of love and selfless giving.

I want to walk that path; I know you do too.

Germ Theory of Disease

Until about 200 years ago, people did not understand the cause of disease.  In olden times, people thought that evil spirits caused disease.  Then it was ‘bad air’ also called a ‘miasma’.  (Malaria has been, and continues to be a major cause of human disease, disability and death.  It means  coming form ‘ bad air”)

With the microscope, we discovered bacteria and other ‘micro-organisms’.  A virus is so small, that it cannot be seen in a microscope, but its effects on cells can be.  And with special microscopes that use X-rays instead of visible light, we can now take pictures of viruses.  And now we understand that not only infectious diseases, but cancer and perhaps have these tiny germs as the cause of much human disease.

This germ theory of disease has enabled interventions like vaccines and antibiotics; clean water and sewerage systems; housing standards  that been very instrumental at improving human life spans from around 30-40 years to over 80 years today, for the best countries.

Why are vaccines so controversial, then?

Because of a cognitive bias: a problem with our ‘natural’ way of thinking.  This bias was described by the ancients – the fallacy of Post hoc, ergo proper hoc:  If an event happens after ‘hoc’ (a thing), so it was caused by that thing. This is because our brains are designed to find patterns where none exist, so that we do not miss potential associations.  This is why we need statistics.  But also structured logic to make sure that cause and effect are correctly understood (“Correlation is not causation”).

Since, nearly every child will have a vaccine, it is inevitable that serious and sometimes fatal events will happen after vaccine.  Vaccines are supposed to generate a reaction in the body.  Symptoms from such reactions may blur with a coincidental disease process, leading to even more conviction that it was the vaccine that caused the disease; even when it is ‘coincidental’.  Which just means that the two events (vaccine and problem), just happened to be at that time, and really unrelated to each other.

For example, the other day I had my influenza vaccine.  The next day, I slipped while walking on some steps in heavy rain with obstructed vision.  Could the vaccine have affected my balance, and be to blame?  The only way to know for certain is to do controlled studies when we can compare rates of events.  Many people have told me that when they get influenza vaccine, they get sick with influenza.  Well you can get some the symptoms of influenza infection from the vaccine; and that may be the explanation for some.  More likely, they just happened to get infected with one of the many viruses that causes an ‘influenza-like illness’.  And we know this because when we do controlled studies we see these vaccine reactions, but no increase in other infections between vaccinated and non-vaccinated.

Science is unable to ‘prove’ anything.  At best, we have working models that describe the world well.  We know, that sometimes these can work, even when they are wrong.  And the Universe seems to require paradoxical truths: light is both particle and wave.

Capital gains tax: “too blunt a measure”

Is this true?  Of course, it is – any single measure as compared to a carefully crafted range of strategies is needed to deal with the “Auckland housing crisis”.  The most important measure is to increase not only the quantity of housing, but also its quality.

The Housing & Health evidence is compelling: it can be a cost-saving investment, as well as improving health.  We need warmer and less damp houses, and make sure that we support the poorest to be able to afford enough energy.

So, why does the government not invest in quality housing?  The potential to design new communities always comes at a cost to the old.  And the benefits of the new not evident until it is built.  Can we re-design living around our biological needs, and not just profit?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs implies a certain standard set of needs that all humans need.  Shelter is but one of these, so why not design for the package of food, clothing, transport, and so on.  The main need now is connectivity for access to an incredible range of resources.

If we ask the question how can we most efficiently and effectively achieve this, the best answer till now has been the market.  The magic of the invisible hand that achieves optimal outcomes from individuals serving their own interests.  But new technology offers new opportunities; including to address the over-concentration of wealth in a hungry world.

One simple solution with profound impacts would be to move to a single financial transaction system for NZ.  This could make retail banks redundant;  the optimal solution?

The system would pay for itself by enabling a range of financial transaction taxes that would be collected seamlessly, replacing current income and sales taxes.  A capital gains tax, added to this regime, that would apply to the sale of houses (excluding first homes, unless over $2m) would be fair and appropriate way to reduce demand while the supply is built up.

Eating together: less cooking, more health and connection

Why is the standard unit for eating the household?  We have institutions that provide food to its inmates.  Sadly, the government just blocked a proposed law to provide breakfast and lunch for those who go to schools serving the poorest fifth of New Zealand children.  This is despite the OECD having advised that more redistribution of income would be good for the overall economy.

The primary concerns of maximising our time and our health are at a trade-off. We can optimise this by reducing the time we spend on preparing food.  If you are rich, you can employ people to provide you food.  (And we can all indulge in this luxury for one meal when we go to a restaurant).  But is there a community-wide way to reduce time in food preparation while improving the nutrition, and hence the health of the population?  If so, this would save all of us money, by reducing the burden of disease that we all pay for through our national health system.

Community kitchens provide food as a safety net to the homeless.  One reason for eating at home, is its convenience.  But if food could be provided as cheaply, as tasty, and also more healthy   – eating in a communal setting would meet many needs; especially for those with the least resources of both time and health.

Mass food production is usually with food that has had its nutrients processed out and additives to enhance taste or shelf life.  While this has provided cheap and tasty food, the adverse health consequences are increasing important as diet-related diseases account for large and increasing public health costs.  The other key aspect here, is that the food industry is such a massive enterprise.  Perhaps, the most powerful lobby in the US.

Can we change from food industry to food for health?  Can we develop communal eating options that can meet the needs of most people?  Perhaps the real question is why don’t we?