Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The fallibility of the human brain

I posted a brain-teaser in Numbers don't lie?. Let me recap here:

Three men go to dine together in a restaurant. The bill comes to $25 and they each contribute $10. The waiter takes the money to the cashier, who gives the waiter the $5 in change. Being a non-assuming waiter he takes the change back to the three men. The men take back a dollar each, hence effectively paying $9.00 each, and they leave the $2.00 as a tip for the waiter. On their way out, one of them points out that they each paid $9.00 for the meal, amounting to $27.00, and the waiter was left with $2.00. What happened to the other remaining dollar? Did the cashier pocket it?

Before reading on, if you have not tried it, give this puzzle a go. I guarantee that you will have some amusing and illustrative time.


Lets’ analyze the puzzle a bit. Firstly the line of reasoning proposed in the puzzle is wrong. The three men paid a total of $27, of which $25 went to the restaurant, and $2 went to the waiter.

The equation is very simple:
$27 = $25 + $2

You CANNOT add $2 to $27. The belong to different sides of the equation, and the result is a meaningless number.

$29 is a meaningless number, and so is the $1. It is completely meaningless to ask what happened to it.

Now the crux of the puzzle. Observe how the question was phrased. The reader was asked to figure out what happened to the missing $1. It was an intentional device to mislead the reader to believe in a false proposition – and then asked to figure it out. This is a puzzle that has stood the test of time. Most people will fall for it because it worked on a fundamental mechanism of the mind.

I had some good fun teasing a few of my colleagues a while back - all of them are pretty good programmers. A new colleague who is a fresh graduate got it right away, so I got him to shut up.

After some 10-15 minutes of puzzled look and convoluted reasoning, a couple of them are beginning to get it. But then I interjected and reassert the question: "What happened to the $1", and all of them are hopelessly lost again. A colleague that catches a ride home with me could not get it even after 3 days. He is a brilliant programmer. But every time he is getting near, I would ask the magic question, and it would throw him back into bewilderment again.

This puzzle illustrates a fundamental mechanism of the brain. The brain is a habitual machine. It learns by repetition and reinforcement. The 'learned' skills/behaviors are stored in the mid-brain, which is usually referred as the sub-conscious or the emotional brain. Once something ‘learned’ it will continue to repeat and reinforce itself until it is being replaced.

It applies to our motor reflexes, our emotional responses, and as this puzzle illustrates, even our logical/reasoning brain. Once a false conclusion is accepted it seeks to reinforce itself – and everything is reasoned using it as a starting point. This simple puzzle is particularly illustrative. The mathematics is dead simple, but even though the false proposition is leading to obvious contradictions, many people are not able to resolve it. They would rather give up than resolving the inconsistencies.

I actually think that the term sub-conscious is a misnomer. The behavioral pattern of a person is completely obvious to everybody else. But for the person concerned it is quite automatic and no longer under the awareness of the discriminative part of the brain. It applies to believe systems as well as habits of reasoning. It is actually very easy to see the bullshits and inconsistencies that someone is up to as an observer, but it can be extremely difficult to have the person concerned see it himself or herself.

This is a survival mechanism. Without it we do we will not even be able to do simple things like tying a shoe lace or riding a bicycle. There are indeed people with such functional disabilities, and many are extremely gifted in other areas, the so called idiot savants.

This survival mechanism makes us extremely vulnerable and susceptible to being manipulated. This is why propaganda is extremely effective and dangerous. The message needs not be true. In fact the message can be completely wrong and evil, and often they are. All that is needed is repetition, repetition and repetition. With the right propaganda apparatus it is easy to drive the whole country into hating each other or even killing each other.

I have always advocated boycotting Malaysia’s mainstream media. And I will say it again. Stop reading those lies and bullshits. They have been screwing us up for the past 50 years and will continue to do so until we are wizen up. Save you money, save the planet, save your discrimination, save your sanity.

We have been under the spell of Barisan Nasional racial politics for far too long. There is a lot the different races need to work together to unlearn and undo. Every race and every religion has contributed their fair share of bullshits. Be strong with each other, but have compassion as well. The voice of tolerance and cooperation has to arise otherwise I don’t think we have any chance of surviving the current local and global crises.

All have suffered. All are equally full of nonsense. Therefore, in principle, there must be a new and universal politics — a politics of no praise and no blame. By these means, reconciliation must be achieved — cooperatively, in a disposition of mutual tolerance, trust, and respect.

Adi Da
Humankind Is Literally One Family

Monday, July 14, 2008

We've seen the future ... and we may not be doomed

The Independent, July 13 (Highlights by HumbleVoice)

UN report finds life is getting better for people worldwide – but that governments are failing to grasp the opportunities offered at 'a unique time'. Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen report

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Humanity stands on the threshold of a peaceful and prosperous future, with an unprecedented ability to extend lifespans and increase the power of ordinary people – but is likely to blow it through inequality, violence and environmental degradation. And governments are not equipped to ensure that the opportunities are seized and disasters averted.

So says a massive new international report, due to be published late this month, and obtained by The Independent on Sunday. Backed by organisations ranging from Unesco to the US army, the World Bank to the Rockefeller Foundation, the 2008 State of the Future report runs to 6,300 pages and draws on contributions from 2,500 experts around the globe.

Its warning is all the more stark for eschewing doom and gloom. "The future continues to get better for most of the world," it concludes, "but a series of tipping points could drastically alter global prospects."

It goes on. "This is a unique time in history. Mobile phones, the internet, international trade, language translation and jet planes are giving birth to an interdependent humanity that can create and implement global strategies to improve [its] prospects. It is increasingly clear that the world has the resources to address our common challenges. Ours is the first generation with the means for many to know the world as a whole, identify global improvement systems, and seek to improve [them]."

What is more, say the authors of the report, produced by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of the United Nations Associations, many important things are already getting better. Life expectancy and literacy rates are increasing worldwide, while infant mortality and the number of armed conflicts have been falling fast. Per capita income has been growing strongly enough to cut poverty by more than half by 2015 – except, importantly, in Africa.

Even better, it says, "advances in science, technology, education, economics and management seem capable of making the world work far better than it does today".

Medical breakthroughs, for example, are offering the hope of defeating inherited diseases, tailoring cures to individual patients, and even creating replacement body parts. And computers are spreading even to remote villages in developing countries and dramatically increasing in power to provide "collective intelligence for just-in-time knowledge to inform decisions".

The report reserves its greatest enthusiasm for the internet, which it says is "already the most powerful force for globalisation, democratisation, economic growth and education in history.

"The internet allows self-organisation around common ideals, independent of conventional institutional controls and regardless of nationalities or languages. Injustices in different parts of the world become the concern of thousands or millions of people who then pressure local, regional or international governing systems to find solutions.

"This unparalleled social power is reinventing citizens' roles in the political process and changing institutions, policy-making and governance."

And this is happening in a world that is already becoming freer and more democratic. Over the past 30 years, the number of free countries has more than doubled from 43 to 90, it reports, while those that are partly free increased from 46 to 60. Just over one-third of humanity still lives in the 43 countries with authoritarian regimes, but half of these people are in China.

On the other hand, the report warns "half the world is vulnerable to social instability and violence due to rising food and energy prices, failing states, falling water tables, climate change, decreasing water-food-energy supply per person, desertification and increasing migrations due to political, environmental and economic conditions".

These – and other threats such as increasing terrorism, corruption and organised crime – threaten to undo the improvements of recent years and blight the chance of a better future.

Food prices have more than doubled in a year and have already plunged 37 countries into crisis, greatly increasing hunger and poverty. And price rises seem set to continue because food production needs to increase 50 per cent by 2013 and double in 30 years.

"With nearly three billion people making $2 or less per day, long-term global social conflict seems inevitable without more serious food policies, useful scientific breakthroughs and dietary changes," says the report.

Global warming is occurring faster than expected. This could cause southern Africa to "lose more than 30 per cent of its maize crop by 2030" and help to increase the number of people facing water scarcity fourfold to a massive three billion by 2025.

The rate at which the world's ice is melting, it says, "has doubled over the last two years", and it quotes a US military report which predicts that global warming "can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide and the growth of terrorism".

Yet nuclear power – the solution increasingly favoured by governments, which are planning to add another 350 reactors to the 438 already operating around the world – will not do the job. "For nuclear energy to eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, about 2,000 nuclear power plants would have to be built, at $5-15bn per plant, over 15 years – and possibly an additional 8,000 plants beyond that to 2050."

The report says that there is not enough uranium in the world to fuel all those reactors, that another Chernobyl-type accident could halt the expansion in its tracks, and that the rapid spread of the atom around the world increases the chances of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

It estimates that there is a 75 per cent chance that terrorists will have acquired nuclear weapons within the next 10 years, adding: "Links between terrorists and organised crime are worrisome, especially considering that, on average, there were 150 reports of unauthorised use of nuclear or radioactive materials to the International Atomic Energy Authority per year between 2004 and 2007."

Organised crime, it adds, "continues to grow in the absence of a comprehensive, integrated global counterstrategy". It reckons that it is now worth some $2 trillion a year.

There are grounds for hope, however. The use of renewable energy is growing, and China's largest car maker plans for half its cars to be hybrids within two years.

But the report's authors say that governments are not up to the job: "Many of the world's decision-making processes are inefficient, slow and ill-informed, especially when given the new demands from increasing complexity [and] globalisation." They call on world leaders to do more long-term planning, and to join in global approaches to the interlocking crises. "Climate change cannot be turned around without a global strategy. International organised crime cannot be stopped without a global strategy. Individuals creating designer diseases and causing massive deaths cannot be stopped without a global strategy. It is time for global strategic systems to be upgraded."

Jerome Glenn, the report's main author added: "There seems to be an interest in creating global strategies, but it needs a little push. There's more within us now to collaborate in the face of shared problems."

Computer power

25 years until a computer's capacity equals the power of the human brain. After another 25 years, everyone will be able to access processing power greater than that of all the brains on Earth combined.

The great melt

5 years before the Arctic could be ice-free in summer. Sea-ice last year shrank to 22 per cent below the previous record low, a level that had not been expected to be reached until 2030-50, opening up the Northwest Passage.

Fossil fuel

850 coal-fired power stations are planned to go into operation across the US, China and India over the next four years. Each station would operate for about 20 years, greatly accelerating global warming.

Solar energy

25% of Europe's electricity could come from solar-powered stations in North Africa by 2050. African leaders and aid organisations are to invest $10bn (£5bn) a year in renewable energy over the next five years.

Note by HumbleVoice:
Read it again: Governments are not up to do the job. Not Barisan Nasional (Nasional Front), not Pakatan Rakyat (People Alliance). The political scene in Malaysia is absolutely disgusting now. The way we are heading, we will be like Africa before long.

Do I support Pakatan Rakyat? Yes. Do I believe that Pakatan Rakyat is able to run the country? No. I don't even think that it has enough expertise to form a functioning cabinet. But Barisan Nasional is rotten to the core - and I am absolutely certain that we are heading for doom if it continues to rule.

Our only hope is the people power. I will lend 100% support to Pakatan Rakyat. But Pakatan Rayat has to move beyond its cultism (PKR), fundamentalism (PAS) and chauvinism (DAP). It has to become a true alliance of the people and for the people. This is my commitment. I hope it is yours too.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A timeless speech

About 15 years ago Severn Suzuki, Canada, was 12.

At the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio she made a timeless speech to the gathered delegates and to the world. Her message is more urgent and more relevant now than ever...

Below is from an interview with Severn Suzuki 11 years later:

Severn Suzuki: Over the last few years, after Rio, I was invited to many, many different conferences. Over time I've realized: this is not where we're going to see change. We've seen positive activism happening in the last ten years at the grassroots level, in small communities. It's about the individuals that make up the statistics about consumption and pollution, as well as the people who feel the negative impact, who are actually going to be the change.

It is powerful, because you realize that each individual really does count. And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that each person is a role model to all the people around us. Not only the children, but everybody. That's how cultures evolve and things become cool--the influence of a few individuals that catches on. (Severn Suzuki 1992, 2002, 2003, 2007, NOW)

Yes, Severn Suzuki was talking about Makkal Shakti, the collective power of ordinary you and I. Real change is not going to come from our culture or political leaders, but from each and every one of us waking up and catching on. It will probably take a bit of time - but it is a lot simpler than it sounds.

Consider this little gem by a 12 years old girl. Subject matter aside, there is a timeless quality to it. It speaks directly to the heart. It touches something deep in our heart. It transcends all superficial differences.

There is a true power and an unbroken unity at the heart of every being. This is the time for it to come forth. It is the only real power that will carry us through this most trying moment in human history.