Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ecology & Geology: The world is my lab, the world is my oyster

I've been taking a closer look at different scientific fields recently. I'm trying to develop a better sense of how they differ from each other. I think the layman often thinks of scientific research in a generic sense, not really appreciating how techniques and lifestyle vary across fields. This was (and probably still is) me. But I think even professional researchers are often so involved in their own work that they don't develop a sense of how things differ in other contexts.

Today I was delving into the world of practicing ecologists. It doesn't exactly come as a surprise that they appear to place particular value on freedom, mobility and working outside. This impression comes primarily from the ecology subreddit. Among the commenters we have:

  • An environmental consultant who works on wetland delineations, threatened and endangered species surveys, habitat assessments, etc.
  • A postdoc who's following up two weeks of field work with two years of computer work and who values the outdoor lifestyle, creativity and mobility afforded to those with an MS in biology or ecology
  • An arborist who spends a lot of time climbing trees and describes it as the "best job ever"

This probably has something to do with natural environments serving as the ecologist's "lab". That stands in contrast to fields like biology, chemistry and physics, where more happens in a controlled environment. In that regard ecology reminds me of geology, which may be even more extreme when it comes to travel and working outdoors. It doesn't seem uncommon for geologists to spend a lot of time in the field searching for natural experiments and observing them. Geologists also appear to conduct some pretty sophisticated operations with heavy duty equipment, such as collecting cores and the like, which would make extensive field research that much more imperative.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine: Illustrations of Risk-Eliminating Psychology

I often encounter blanket attitudes toward whole groups of people. Yesterday I was struck by a couple examples from an NPR article covering shifting attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians toward each other:

  • An Israeli to a Palestinian: "Go away you trash. I would bury you in Gaza."
  • A Palestinian: "Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day."

How could it be all members of an ethnicity are bad human beings, or deserve to be buried? People will argue the accuracy of their gross generalizations. Underneath their arguments, however, there's something actually worth considering: the psychology of group politics.

A number of studies have touched on the connection between neurology and political convictions. I've seen them best summarized here, but these ideas have popped up across popular media over the past couple years. Some notable conclusions are:

  • Reliance on quick, efficient, and "low effort" thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
  • Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to interpret faces as threatening and expressing dominant emotions, while Democrats show greater emotional distress and lower life satisfaction.
  • Conservatism is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while liberalism is focused on advancing positive outcomes.
  • Conservatives tend to have a stronger reaction to threatening noises and images than liberals.

The overarching theme is that the attitudes we associate with conservatism tend to arise more from fear than liberal attitudes do. Or, to invert the chicken and egg, fear lends itself to conservative thinking. That holds true in the literal sense of the word "conservative." Fear drives us to conserve our positions, to seek to eliminate risk.

This risk aversion is what's behind the overgeneralizing rhetoric around Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine, and anytime and anywhere large scale conflict occurs. When someone says, "All these people are bad," I believe their brain has actually decided, "Some of these people might not be bad, but I associate enough risk with their group identity that I will act as though they all pose a threat to me."

If people were capable of expressing themselves in those terms, that latter sort of statement would allow for an honest conversation. It would allow for discussing whether that sort of risk-minimizing behavior is practical and ethical, instead of arguing over which ethnicities are good and which are evil.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Losing Face & Communicating Effectively

I'm starting to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a good communicator. To my mind I've practiced a few key skills for a long time - providing and seeking out feedback, expressing my plans and information to other parties in various ways, eliciting their plans, etc. - but at times I now think I missed the forest for the trees.

The key to good communication is not just observing best practices. That's certainly part of it and a good start. Without an explicit understanding of the overarching goal, however, those habits quickly descend into mindless process, so ritualistic in nature it cannot be intelligently applied to the unique circumstances of different situations.

To excel beyond that one must keep in mind that the ultimate point of communication is to ensure that all parties concerned have the same understanding of a particular topic. At the material level this is an isomorphic mapping of the most important features of the topic among the neurons of all involved. This is literally what the phrase "on the same page" means.

For a long time I thought it was sufficient to do my part to make mutual understanding merely possible. After that, the onus fell on the other parties involved. In some situations this is still appropriate. Excellent communication, however, requires that one go beyond that. In that regard, communication becomes much like more involved forms of education, where you ensure that your audience has retained the information you've presented to them. The sort of hands-off approach typical of laissez faire, college-level education isn't appropriate here. If someone has difficulty understanding the material, the responsibility to identify that difficulty and clarify the material falls with the instructor. As a result, effective communication should focus more on multimedia, take advantage of different learning styles, and more actively seek confirmation of understanding than the conventional course lecture.

There was one other thing that historically held me back from becoming a better communicator. That was my aversion to asking questions. Questions at some point in my mind had become the tool of those unable to pick something up the first time. I now see that I was wrong to be so absolutist in my attitude. Questions reinforce mutual understanding, serve as a mechanism for confirming it, and - to those adept at communication - illustrate intelligence and skill. If you're concerned about those who value sharpness as I did, making clear that you're asking questions to ensure mutual understanding can win you their esteem.

To the extent one reaches out to their audience and is willing to potentially lose face as a communicator, there is a certain selflessness in exercising communication skills. One might even think of it as a trade off between short-term and long-term gain. By taking the effort to establish upfront the certainty of details among all parties involved, one can avert costly mistakes and adjustments in the future.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Recreating Society & Organizational Behavior

Thanks to shows like Doomsday Preppers, the recent Mayan calendar scare and the general apocalyptic malaise of the post-financial crisis world, I've recently taken an interest in the end of the world and what it would be like to rebuild society.

Survival guides and a few reality TV shows (including my favorite, The Colony) already show us what we'd need to survive an initial catastrophe, but I'm more interested in what comes next. What would it take to approach what we have today and what improvements, if any, could we make?

A society is by definition more than one person, so you'll need some help along the way. Naturally, the first thing my mind turned to was group dynamics. After you've secured your basic needs - and even during it unless you're going solo - a certain set of norms for group behavior must be established and serve as a foundation going forward.


First and foremost you need to be sure that those in your immediate vicinity won't materially harm you. That requires one of the following:

  • Physical separation from threatful individuals and groups
  • An established history of peaceful coexistence or cooperation
  • Some other reassurance that someone means or poses no harm. This could take the form of a larger population on your side, rendering individual outsiders or groups of outsiders innocuous, or some notional reassurance, such as strictly observed symbolic codes (think truce flag).


This largely overlaps with security, but I feel that the word more extensively alludes to emotional and informational aspects. Trust is the concept that not only will someone refrain from materially harming you, but also that they are as they represent themselves to be and will maybe even help you in times of need.


What will keep someone in my community from riding on the coattails of others? We've historically remedied freeriding and collective responsibility in a couple of ways. One is community-based, in which a population is small enough to collectively understand how much any given individual puts into and gets out of the system. This allows a community to decide who can manage what according to their known circumstances. Perhaps a seemingly capable person would get a lot of flak for skimping on their investment in their community, but we wouldn't expect the same for infants and we'd expect compassion to come into play for elderly or sickly individuals. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests the number at which this solution breaks down is 150 individuals.

After it is no longer feasible to effectively track who gets what they give by means of relationships and gossip alone, we've managed by implementing my formal systems: central governments and courts for enforcing property rights, credit scores and background checks for establishing reputation, etc.

Humans have an innate sense of fairness that they seek to realize whether through soft means, such as peer pressure and retaliation, or through a more officially-recognized vehicle. In the context of our scenario, accountability will come naturally to a certain scale as individuals specialize and recover a previous standard of living. Obtaining it will then require more sophisticated technology or forms of organization.

The above characteristics are interrelated and by no means an exhaustive list. However, it has got me thinking about what it takes to make any team - in a survival scenario or not - to function effectively. It also seems that a key to instilling relationships of this nature is some sort of central identity, suggesting that tribalism, by necessity, is deeply rooted into what it means to be human.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Existential Order of the Internet

Real estate on the internet is primarily defined by its content. More so than for physical locations, which are bound to their proximity to other things and consequently more heavily influenced by their context, what matters most for websites is what they contain. Because the elements of the web are free-floating, and because the infrastructure exists to so easily facilitate it, human agents on the web break down into a few fundamental categories based on how they interact with content.


This is the most passive of the categories. Spend most of your time online watching Netflix on your iPad, browsing your Facebook feed or catching up on headlines? Then this is probably you.

The level of passivity each role exhibits diminishes as you ascend the pyramid. As for many material products, consumers tend to outnumber suppliers and producers on the internet too. Of course, how passive you are depends on the category of content we're talking about. But in the aggregate, you'll measure up differently compared to others, just as in the broader picture people can be closer to net producers or net consumers.


You can be an exclusive consumer, but except in the case of distributing content you've never even fleetingly examined, disseminators are consumers too. The crucial difference is that in addition to internalizing content themselves, they pass it along to others. You're a disseminator if you regularly share memes or repost your finds to Tumblr, Pinterest or a similar service.

Disseminators are similar to the Connectors and Mavens of The Tipping Point. More accurately, they don't just spam communities but have the sense to know what others will find appealing or, on occasion, viral. If no one reads your second-hand content, you're really just a consumer.


This hierarchy can really apply to any creative production. Originators are the inventors and designers that produce new archetypes in the struggle for prominence. In the context of this article, they are the bloggers, vloggers, more legit personages and online artists.

This is the apex of internet existence, one in which you no longer constitute a spectator but play an active part in the construction of the digital world. It's the end that ambitious fans of any trade - digital or otherwise - aspire to, myself included.

A fourth category

Although this isn't incorporated into my model, a fourth (and maybe fifth) category of Disrupters/Destroyers could be reserved for malicious hackers and for those edge cases when more typical users dismantle content.

Exclusively "X"

In practice most people belong to each category, but some more than others. However, as alluded to above, it is technically possible to belong exclusively to one category. Consumers most easily of all. The exclusive Originator is an anomaly and perhaps a mad genius - a hermit who has no uptake from the external world but can project his vision into it.

I don't think a hermit's approach makes for a very good originator though. In my opinion, it's usually familiarity with a wide range of topics and their recombination that make the most interesting content. Just as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs it's possible for a starving artist to engage in the pursuit of his or her passions to the exclusion of physical needs, but most people operate on more than one level and for good reason.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Privacy, Accountability and Sustainability

Big names, big changes

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the future is one in which people relinquish more and more privacy. With the successive changes that Facebook has implemented and its virtual monopoly over personal networks, he's gradually succeeding in making that a reality. One of the initial groundbreaking aspects of Facebook was its convention of displaying users' real names, as opposed to the fabricated usernames of more anonymous contemporaries, such as AIM and MySpace. That sparked the gradual process of deprivatization that today has culminated in the Timeline feature, which makes Facebook actions - particularly historical activity - more visible than ever before.

Zuckerberg isn't alone in his campaign to open up our online lives. Google's new privacy policy now permits greater sharing of private data across its network of companies.

Encouraging the greater disclosure of private information certainly makes sense for Facebook, Google and other businesses. They're no doubt looking for better indicators of individual preference, in order to make their ad services easier to customize, more effective and more appealing to advertisers.

There are also benefits to reap from the network effects of having more information visible. Tracking and broadcasting users' actions across a site generates more content and makes users more invested. It was the feature I recall as most controversial - News Feed - that transformed Facebook from a social networking utility into an entertainment destination. New features aim to similarly increase the amount of time users are on the site.

One big murder mystery

But what does online privacy have to do with sustainability? One of the obstacles to sustainability - and to any undertaking in a large society generally - is establishing accountability. In a complex, dynamic society such as ours, the volume of actors and interactions enables anonymity, which can undermine accountability.

To understand how anonymity can degrade accountability, destroy trust in society and pose challenges to it, you need only look to con artists. It's the ability to travel to untainted markets that allows the snake oil salesman to continue peddling wares that fail to deliver. If would-be victims could consult Yelp or some other fair assessment of the product or salesman, he would soon be unable to profit from fraud.

Along those same lines, The Economist recently presented a strong argument for why limited liability status shouldn't enjoy anonymity. Among other things, the combination permits entrepreneurs with a record of failures to conceal their past and, quite possibly, their incompetence, and makes lenders generally less willing to lend.

How do I know I can trust you?

Anonymity wasn't a problem in early societies and still isn't in sufficiently small or close-knit ones. Where communities are too big, mobile or loose to base trust on personal experience or communal knowledge, we have had to address the problem of anonymity by establishing alternative measures of reputation: brands, credit ratings, permits, certifications, criminal registries and other signals. In place of direct or second-hand experience, the solution has been to use technology to establish transparency. If current trends in privacy continue, we'll be able to do that much more effectively in the future.

As regards sustainability, the challenge has been in establishing what damages have been inflicted on the environment by whom. One part of this dilemma can be solved through science, by more accurately defining the health implications of a practice or substance. The other must be redressed by linking agents to the often nebulous environmental repercussions of their actions. The environment suffers because of the tragedy of the commons and the only way to resolve it is to establish a clear connection between individual actions and outcomes.

The above examples illustrate the trade-off between privacy and accountability, but it can permeate any sector of life. How can I assess performance if decisions are largely closed-door deals? How can I know whose interests a politician represents if he's funded through a faceless super PAC? And how can I know whether an employee or my kid's teacher is suited for the job if I cannot review and corroborate their past? In spite of these doubts, full transparency is not always desirable.

Challenges to transparency

Even though greater openness can minimize risk and deter crime, there are also justified reasons to oppose it. If you're a law-abiding citizen who doesn't conform to popular norms - if you're a minority in some way - that may be reason enough to advocate privacy rights.

Those reasons become further warranted when transparency is implemented asymmetrically. Imagine a case where potential victims of oppression or exploitation have the details of their lives open to scrutiny while the identities and doings of their oppressors remain unknown. This already happens. Intelligence agencies and secret police in authoritarian regimes are able to uphold the status quo partly because they exist in shadow, inoculating their members against individual culpability.

An Afghan officer using anonymity to her advantage.

The prospect of change and the imperative to forgive

Perhaps the most compelling reason to resist the dismantling of privacy, however, is its implications for the capacity to change one's life. Transparency already limits opportunities for ex-cons, which serves at least theoretically as a deterrent to would-be criminals, but consider apparent law-abiding citizens or victims of circumstance.

In The Road to Serfdom, economist Friedrich Hayek argues that one of the most crippling aspects of living in a communist society for both the individual and the economy is the lack of prospects, the virtual inability to alter one's position. Could extensive transparency in a free market democracy similarly limit the capacity for self-reinvention and sentence individuals to their fates earlier in life? It's a consideration that forces one to wonder at which point we're best equipped to make decisions and whether weighing earlier ones will make our lives more a function of our initial environments.

The need for feedback

There exists an optimal balance between privacy and accountability and it will hinge on delineating between what details are of import and which are not. Should it matter that I'm a Mormon? Should it matter what I download?

When it comes to material impact on resources, however, which is what public health and sustainability are fundamentally based on, I cannot conceive of an instance where that information should be kept secret. There's no justification for the Soviet Union delaying the news of the Chernobyl disaster or for private enterprise to underreport their resource use. Similarly, entities should get credit for improving quality of life where it is due.

I'm not a robot

But information on its own isn't enough. Many of us - including myself - often operate according to what's in our immediate interest, what we can get out of the system for ourselves with the least input, if at times at the expense of others. I shouldn't expect greater visibility on its own to compel people to act in the best long-term interests of what they hold dear.

At the same time, we often make decisions based on emotions and unexamined desire. I contend here, as I have before, that people are a social animal, willing to do that which will elevate their status in the eyes of those whose opinions they value. At that point, it's no longer about the environment as much as it is about sharing a common identity and showcasing accomplishments within that framework. I may not actually care about sustainability, but may care only about the approval of others who profess that they do. By necessity, there will also be circles that define themselves by being anti-environmental, regardless of whether they genuinely care.

In order to propagate the sustainability mentality then, it is necessary to establish it as an esteemed lifestyle and leverage humanity's social apparatus to encourage people to pursue it. Luckily, I don't think that behavior is founded exclusively on competition for social status. People are capable of reason as well and I believe it is this that will decide the conflict with those who define themselves in opposition to sustainability.

Data drowning

The issue remains of how best to convey information in a world drowning in data. Science and education can impart us with a sense of what's better for health and the environment, but the key will be conveying information in a conveniently digestible and meaningful packet.

That's been the aim of the new environmental rating system for cars, which permits comparisons across electric, hybrid and conventional models. The ranking is communicated according to a grade letter system that consumers are already familiar with.

I envision that products in the future will universally carry an assessment of their ecological footprint, in much the same way foods already display nutritional information. I also wouldn't be opposed to wearing some indicator of my sustainability on my sleeve. If that proves too much sensory overload, then perhaps in the same way technology is helping generate and disseminate data, it will one day improve our ability to process that information.

But don't rely on it. A few professions that you're overwhelmed by the complexities of today's world can easily double as an admission that you're not fit to make decisions in your own interest.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why is my biodegradable floss packaged in petrochemicals?

It's probably not a question that plagues you late at night but the short answer is the US government. A few weeks ago I wrote about my floss of choice. It's made of silk, which makes it nontoxic, renewable and biodegradable. That rose the question of why its so seemingly eco-minded manufacturers would package it in a plastic cartridge, so I shot off an email to Radius and here's their response:

The FDA considers floss a medical device and because of that they require anything that is sold in drug stores to be packaged in a plastic container. Since our products are sold in both drug stores and natural product stores we must abide by that law. We have considered creating alternative packaging for the natural product industry but since we also sell in drug stores we cannot have an entire cardboard container until the laws are changed.

I guess plastic packaging is one way to keep things sterile. And if it's plant-derived plastic that'll get shuffled into an indefinite recycling loop, then there's nothing technically keeping it from being zero-impact. But most plastics are still petroleum-derived, with Coke's PlantBottle as one highly visible (and recent) exception.

Is plastic really protecting me from my floss? It certainly can't be the first time the FDA's been off the mark. The typical tale is that regulations impede entrepreneurship yet are instrumental in protecting public health. I wonder to what extent regulation is impeding ecological sustainability.