I just finished reading 1491 by Charles C. Mann, and I have to say, everyone should read this.

Columbus discovery of the Americas changed the world, but until reading this book, I didn’t have any clue of the degree to which the world changed. Before reading it, the idea I had of the Americas that Europeans discovered was closer to that of the noble savage than anything else. In my old, incorrect, paradigm, the indigenous population was destroyed by the genocide of greedy conquistadors and similar violence.

Instead, anthropologists now think that that the population of the New World rivaled that of the Old, but the people there lacked genetic diversity. An example of this would be the distribution of blood types. The A and B blood alleles were almost completely absent in Central and South America, so that the entire population had Type O blood.

As a result of this homogeneity, the lack of exposure to contagious diseases like smallpox and the plague, and the resulting ignorance of how to use quarantine meant that disease decimated 90% of the indigenous population before they even saw an explorer.

That information alone cast the native population in a new light. But this also means that the populations of the various fauna found in the Americas was much smaller than later observed. For example, the natives kept large animals like the bison a days journey from any village and kept their population under control.

Another story of the fauna of North America is the passenger pigeon. It is now extinct, but John James Audubon recorded watching what must have been billions of pigeons passing overhead for three days straight. The bird was not seen in this magnitude because the indigenous people kept them in check.

Finally, 1491 showed me that the foods from the Americas have become the staples of the world. Three of the top five staple foods that the world consumes — maize (corn), potatoes, and cassava — have their origins in the Americas. Mann asserts that the introduction of cassava into Africa made the later slave trade possible since it became the staple of choice in much of Africa.

I haven’t even talked about how great the civilizations in America were — empires rivaling those of ancient Rome grew and thrived and then died out centuries before the first explorer showed up. In the past, some people have floated theories of ancient European colonizers to explain the unexpected sophistication that we found among the “noble savages”.

So go get a copy of 1491. You won’t regret it.

File:Toyota_Robot_at_Toyota_Kaikan.jpgI was catching up on my reading this morning when I saw (via Patrick’s “Jobs worth doing” post) a Gizmodo article about things that computers are doing now, notably sports writing and filling out perscriptions.

These two cases aren’t terribly frightening: filling perscriptions is clearly something that should be automated to reduce the number of potentially fatal errors. And, as the article points out, most sports readers aren’t looking for great prose — they just want the highlights.

Now comes the question: What happens when computers take my job. Some people, (like this commentor) will see this as a good thing:

Tax the robotic factory well enough to give the unemployed decent wages for doing “nothing”. If you work you get paid very well. If you choose to go surfing every day and live off of the state you get a nice check to cover your living expenses.

I’m just as lazy as the next person — probably lazier — so I definitely see the attraction for being paid to surf. But I also think that humans are extremely creative and love to be challenged.

That, and I’m prejudiced: I’ve never been surfing. It could be that surfing poses new challenges every day. It would certainly challenge me if I were to try it.

And this, too, is why I’m not too concerned about a computer taking my job. If it takes my job, I’ll figure out something else to do. It may not pay as well, and I may end up hunting for feral cats to feed my family, but we’ll get by.

The idea of getting robot-run factories to just support people whose job has been “taken” by a computer job doesn’t seem reasonable (or scalable), though. In fact, it would probably serve to stifle creativity.

And it is here that my faith in people’s ability to creatively cope comes into play. When faced with elimination people have risen to meet the challenge. Which is not to say that everything will be fine and no one will suffer. Suffering is a given. Those of us who are suffering will probably use a lot of energy — all of it, sometimes — to deal with the suffering. But those of us on the edge see suffering and it motivates us to come up with new solutions, ways to escape the suffering.

Which is to say, those robots taking your jobs are (indirectly, at least) job creators

The Year of Open Source has discovered the $1500 brick press that Open Source Ecology has developed.

This got my interest because it uses dirt and an inexpensive 20-ton press to make bricks. I spent the summer of 1987 working at an orphanage outside of Cap-Haïtien using cinder blocks made on-site. Since the design of the brick press is available for anyone to use, I could see a village using a portable brick press to help build new buildings.

The cost of raw materials for cinder blocks is more than the pressed bricks — cement is needed for the cinder blocks, pressed bricks only need dirt — and the manpower needed looks roughly equal. The trouble comes because, as cheap as it is, the brick press is more expensive than the equipment needed for creating cinder blocks,

Still, I’m curious.

Monday, I announced MediaWiki 1.20.0, affirmed a six-month release cycle, and stated a plan for long-term support for the 1.19 series of MediaWiki. This is the first release that has been managed by a non-WMF employee, and I think it bodes well for third party users of MediaWiki.

I’m hoping that by working with Debian and other Linux distributor on 1.19 support, we can make MediaWiki more welcoming to new and old users. For example, by looking at some of the older MediaWiki installations recorded on WikiStats, I contacted a few wikis and encouraged them to upgrade to 1.19, especially some that were running ancient MediaWiki.

Long term support is especially important for people who customize MediaWiki for their own use. Of course, I would encourage anyone who adapts MediaWiki like this to use hooks and, ideally, share their modifications with us. But, as Linus Torvalds says, “reality is complicated”.

So, instead of saying telling users of MediaWiki “If you modify MediaWiki, we can’t help you at all”, I would rather say, “We’re going to support this version for 2 years, but you’re responsible for upgrading to the next release when the time comes.”

This gives people something that they’re able to plan around more easily than something that changes every six months. Using WikiStats, I’ll contact more MediaWiki installations that are out of date, encourage them to upgrade, and let them know how they can be notified of security updates and later long term support updates.

We have a really good tool, but we need to support users who aren’t the Wikimedia Foundation itself better. This is a start that should encourage the users of MediaWiki to keep their installations up-to-date as well as encourage wider use of MediaWiki.

File:MediaWiki_logo_1.svg.pngA week and a half ago, the Platform Engineering Director for Wikimedia clarified how he would like to see volunteers helping with MediaWiki tarball releases.

Instead of doing some other work I had planned for this weekend (Yay, procrastination!), I managed to put together a 1.20 RC tarball and announce it.

If you get a chance to test this, let me know. If you find a bug, file it in bugzilla. Hopefully we’ll have something ready for release in a couple of weeks.

Bill_Clinton_visit_to_Los_Alamos.jpgFrom perusing Reddit this morning, I learned that President Clinton gave a substantive speech last night during the Democratic convention. I didn’t see it, but from the comments, it looks like it was an objective refutation of some of the compelling speeches last week (like Paul Ryan’s) during the Republican convention.

That alone would be enough for many Redditors. But Clinton is known for being compelling and persuasive and, from the comments, it looks like he managed to sway some voters, too.

After I read some of the comments there, I caught up on some of my RSS feeds and came across this gem by Oliver: “Emotive Data and Baby Teeth”.

I’ll quote a bit that makes the point that I’m trying to — facts are great, but facts don’t persuade people to do anything — and shows why Clinton’s speech was (evidently) so great. But you should go read the whole post.

A good example of this is found in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and reduction in the United States. During the 1950s it became clear, academically, that the testing of nuclear weapons was causing problems…but nobody really talked about it, because academic data wasn’t something that led people in the know to emote, and it wasn’t sexy enough for the media to pick it up and carry it to people not in the know.

What changed that was Eric and Louise Reiss’s Baby Tooth Survey. Tens of thousands of baby teeth from various time periods were taken and tested for radioactive isotopes – fallout from nuclear testing. The results, published first in 1961 and then more conclusively in 1963, showed that Strontium-90 levels in baby teeth had gone up by over 5000 percent since the start of nuclear weapons testing. It was this study that finally pushed JFK over the edge to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first nuclear weapons treaty.

It didn’t succeed at this because the data was new. The idea that nuclear weapons testing might have an impact on health was already known. It succeeded because it was emotional – it was dealing with childrens’ teeth. Every parent who ran into it could suddenly imagine those teeth belonging to their child.

A_stunned_public_in_Washington,_D.C.,_were_grave_and_thoughtful_the_morning_after_they_had_been_informed_of_the_death..._-_NARA_-_520710.jpgOne thing to take away from the book “You are not so smart” (besides the fact that we humans are very good at fooling ourselves) is inspiration. For any unpublished writer, David McRaney’s story is inspirational. As he relates in the acknowledgments, he and his wife moved from Mississippi to Europe (seemingly on a whim) without a college education. By the time they returned to the States, they both realized how much they lacked in education and, six years after high school, when some in their cohort would be getting a graduate degree, they started college as freshmen.

The introduction to psychology professor was so compelling that he started his weblog and, from that, eventually the book was born.

Like many other books-from-blogs, this book is a series of essays. It differs from them in that it includes an extensive form of hyperlinks, in the more traditional form of a references for each chapter.

For instance, in the chapter on self-handicapping — creating situations for your own failure so that you can blame something else if you don’t succeed, or feel extra good about surmounting the odds if you succeed — David says that studies show men are more likely to self handicap than women, which made me wonder if this was different for different cultures, or if part of this was gender inequality at play: that the obstacles women face made it unnecessary for them to create artificial handicaps. Now I get to read the relevant studies and find out more information.

Overall though, my takeaway from this book was just to reinforce my prejudice against those people who are confident that their intelligence is a guard against stupidity. As he shows through study after study, no matter how much of a rational an actor we think we are, the situations we find ourselves in and the choices we make tend not to be well thought out, let alone rational.

Thank goodness economics is moving beyond this tautology.

B&W Happiness.jpgAdherents of the modern cult of reason see facts as much more valuable and useful than stories. “We are influenced only by reality, by the facts.” This tends to be the way they separate themselves in their narrative from those they refer to as “religionists”.

But this ignores what modern psychology has discovered and what ancient religions have capitalized on: No matter how rational we think we are, no matter how well thought out and considered we try to ensure our decisions are, we use emotion as the basis for most of our decisions. And emotional decisions are based on the story that plays out in our mind every day.

The book You Are Not So Smart ends its chapter about the Affect Heuristic, with the story of Elliot, a successful businessman who, as the result of the removal of a brain tumor, lost any ability to make decisions influenced by emotion.

He appeared normal and continued to score well on IQ tests, but after the surgery, his life fell apart. His wife left him and he lost his job. He went to live with his parents who were evidently the only people who could tolerate him.

We are often told not to make decisions based only on emotion — to be rational. But Elliot’s case shows us what would happen if we made decisions based only on facts: we would fall apart.

Our emotional self responds better to stories. For the past few hundred years, we’ve had tremendous success as a society building on the advances we’ve gained through science and a more rational approach to life. This has led some of us to think that stories aren’t useful for anything more than entertainment — certainly we shouldn’t let them guide our decision-making!

But in jettisoning religions and the stories that come with them, we’ll just end up creating new stories. The stories will be less mature, less developed, less well thought out and we’ll all suffer as a result.

I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that the stories that religions offer us are a deeper and more valuable form of truth. The affect heuristic and Elliot show us that the influence stories have on our decision making is far more important to us than any collection of mere facts.

Philly Thinker.JPGThe Introspection chapter of You are Not so Smart tells of a study where researchers asked people to rate five types of jam. They five jams the picked had already been rated by Consumer Reports as the 1st, 11th, 24th, 32nd, and 44th in terms of quality.

The asked the first group to provide a list of their preferences by rank without explaining why they ranked each one where they ranked them.

They requested an explanation for the rankings from the second group.

The group just gave a gut reaction came close to matching the rankings given by Consumer Reports. The group that was asked to rationalize their choice ended up being all over the map without any correlation to the ranking from Consumer Reports.

The appropriately-named study (“Thinking too much”) shows why it is dangerous to put too much trust in the power of reason to help us make decisions.

The very act of explaining why we make a choice will cause our decisions to degrade in quality.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a reason for our choices is a bad thing. People in the study were measured against those with experience in judging food quality, after all, so it is possible to be rationale about our decisions and still make good ones.

And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust the ability of untrained professionals. The people in the first group came to the same conclusion as the professional food testers.

Instead, I would suggest that this study tells us that the act of making rational, well-reasoned decisions is harder than we think.

Just because someone is able to explain their reasoning for their decision doesn’t mean that decision is any better than someone who is just going with their gut.

(Of course, the chapter just before the one on introspection was about normalcy bias and how it causes many people to not to act to save their own lives in emergency situations, so this shows us that just going with your gut doesn’t always work, either.)

Armored-car-Manila.jpgDerren Brown has produced a number of British TV Shows about priming that are really fascinating to watch. Even though he is a public figure, he is able to use priming to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, including, in one show, robbing an armed car.

I just started reading You are Not so Smart, and the first chapter was on priming, appropriately enough.

Priming is all about the subconscious — the extra-rational — something that, over the millennial, religions have adapted to. In the West, though, we don’t really seem to value things we can’t reason our way towards. You can see this in Christianity before the Enlightenment and even before the Protestant Reformation — even before the advent of Thomism — in the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

The Church saw “This is my body” and dogmatized the premise that made that statement literally true. Eastern Christians, who have been more comfortable with a mystical understanding of truth, simply accepted the statement as true without the need for philosophical and dogmatic exercises.

Over time, I’ve come to the opinion that the different directions the Eastern and Western churches took on the idea of what has come to be known as the “real presence” are reflected in a lot of other areas — including what I have been calling the modern Cult of Reason.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological priming?

Priming is what happens when you act in a way that is largely influenced by your extra-rational mind. Priming is dependent upon cues that come from your environment. Derren Brown is adept at creating these sorts of cues for people, but you can also see these cues in the Liturgy of any Eastern Church. The smells, sights and sounds (which have all been developed over the centuries) all prime the person and provoke an extra-rational response.

In the West, many protestant denominations explicitly shy away from creating this sort of “heavenly” environment. Many Mennonite churches, for example, explicitly shy away from any environmental cues. While they certainly are not as explicit in their rationalism as others – Presbyterians, for example — they’re like so many in the West who don’t seem to see any use in anything that cannot be rationally explained.

But, as You are Not so Smart makes clear, even in the first chapter on Priming, we are not the rational, thoughtful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.