Friday, November 20, 2009

Mutual dependence or slavery?

Joshua Klein asks whether crows could be enlisted to do stuff for us like recover the millions of dollars worth of coins humans lose every year.

Or perhaps crows could learn to collect and dispose of garbage, the billions of pieces and tens of thousands of tons of packaging hurled out of car windows, that despoil our freeways and roads.

Thanks to us, crows are thriving. They have adapted, like rats and cockroaches, to benefit from human activities. They live everywhere that we do.

Crows are really smart. Really, really smart. Klein demonstrates how they quickly learned how to operate a "crow vending machine" that dispensed food in exchange for loose change.

Crow power presents a unique opportunity to offer a universal, standardized service, wherever they are located, which is everywhere, just like the internet, electricity and roads.

Perhaps crows could be enlisted to perform the repetitive and scalable tasks that we don't want to do. Collect certain kinds of bugs that eat crops most prone to attack. Trim hedges. Weed gardens. Harvest crops. Or clear gutters.

But the question remains, would such a relationship be really equal, one of "mutual balance" between humans and crows? Or would we humans be guilty yet again of enslaving a fellow species for our benefit.

Here's a workshop to explore the issues:

1. What other smart creatures could we enlist to help us perform useful roles for humans in a kind of "mutual interdependence"?
2. What are some of the repetitive tasks that crows could be enlisted to perform on our behalf, with a little training?
3. What is the boundaries/differences between "mutual independence", "slavery" and "service"?
4. What might be the possible consequences of enrolling many more other animals to become our servants of "mutual dependence" in addition to dogs, pigs, horses, cows and ducks?
5. What ethical issues does this idea of new "servant animals" raise?
6. For a long time, humans have asumed that what makes us different from other animals is our ability to evolve culturally as well as genetically. If crows clearly learn from each other (as do dolphins, monkeys etc), what differentiates us from these animals?
7. If we are only different from other animals by a matter of degrees what gives us the right to enslave/co-opt other species? Give your reasons why or why not.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Something out of nothing

Authors create their own universes, their own cosmology, says Amy Tan the mischievous author of The Bonesetters Daughter, The Joy Luck Club and Saving Fish from Drowning.

Which begs the question, "if there is a creator of the universe, is she a writer?"

Tan explains the ambiguity of the creative process to the TED crowd using a curiously warped interpretation of modern day physics. She equates the nebulousness or indeterminism of the creative act with the uncertainty principle of quantum dynamics and the "11 levels of anxiety" experienced by a writer with the 11 dimensions of string theory.

Tan jokes that creativity has three sources. Nature, nurture and nightmares. Nature involves some inherited genes. Nurture is a dash of childhood trauma. And the nightmares are the psychoses, depression and the temporal lobes seizures she personally has experienced.

Encouraged as a child to become a doctor or concert pianist, Tan chose to ignore her teacher's assessment of her literary talent of B/B+/B- grades and become an "artistic arranger of words".

On stage she is a living, breathing version of her own story telling process. She starts with nothing except some ambiguous concepts which seem unconnected - accidents, serendipity, ambiguity, balance, intentions, and peripheral exploring - then weaves them into a compelling narrative.

The creative act, she says, is about answering three questions. Why do things happen? How do things happen? How do I make things happen?

She asks if ideas turn up serendipitously just when you need them or do artists simply discover new ways of seeing the world and become aware of patterns that were already there.

She surmises the answer could be either/both, (just like the famous experiment where light passing through a slit behaves both as a particle and a wave - my words, not hers).

Tan also reveals that as she writes a story, she learns from the "life" experiences and interactions of the characters, and in doing so, she "becomes the story".

Over time, each story develops it's own internal consistency. She tells the story of meeting a man who created towers of rocks, large and small, perfectly balanced, one of top of the other, who explained the principle that "there is a place of balance" for everything in life.

But Tan also says that a light touch is required. Push too hard and creativity is stifled. Write around the periphery of what you don't know and something new emerges.

So here's a workshop to explore some of Amy Tan's ideas about the creative process?

1. What is the something in your nothing? What unusual pattern or thing have you observed/noticed or been amazed about lately to which you are attracted? e.g. the chewing gum stuck to the pavement.
2. Thinking about your unusual pattern/thing, in what other situations have you seen such a pattern, and why might it be interesting to others? e.g. the mess we humans leave behind, which we ignore in our daily lives.
3. Create a minor solar system of characters, and a scenario, to explore your interesting pattern/thing. e.g. the derelict sleeping on the pavement with accumulated junk/garbage all around, who dreamed of being a.....
4. How did your character get to be in this stuation?
5. As you start creating your character and the story, what can you now observe around you that you did not see before?
6. As you start creating your story, what do you learn from the character, and especially how does this learning enrich who you are?
7. If you were now faced with death, what stories do you now feel compelled to tell, as urgently as possible to your friends, family, the world?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Compassion and peaceful co-existence

Religious Historian Karen Armstrong made a 2008 TED Prize wish that has resulted in thousands of people around the world joining together to collectively create a Charter for Compassion so we can live together in peace, and leave the world in a better state for our children.

At the heart of all the world's religions is a Golden Rule, to "always treat all others as you'd like to be treated yourself. Yet religious people often ignore the Golden Rule at the heart of their belief system and define themselves by how different and right they are compared to others, rather than what they have in common.

When we don't live a compassionate life and go back to being thoughtless, selfish, spiteful and egocentric, we ignite the flames of hatred or mistrust. Such differences become a major source of conflict between the world's people. Then, when we discriminate against people on the basis of some perceived difference - their sexual orientation or gender - we become less than what we can be.

Living the compassionate life is not about feeling sorry for another - a narrow interpretation of compassion - but having the ability to to stand in another person's shoes and know how they would feel, and to be sensitive to how they see the world. When we live the compassionate life, we somehow transcend or transform ourselves, and become of greater value to each other and to the world.

Here's a workshop to explore the issues:

1. Describe how you like to be treated by others.
2. Describe all the the different ways you would NOT like others to treat you.
3. Give examples of what Rabbi Hillel, the contemporary of Jesus Christ, might have had in mind when he says "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor" when describing the Torah and all its ramifications.
4. Think about someone special who is very different to you. Step into their shoes. Describe them, their mental models, and how they might interact with the world.
5. Imagine yourself standing in that other special person's shoes, how might you now perceive your own mental models/world view?
6. What can you and that special person focus on jointly, to become friends so you and your two worlds can live in harmonious co-existence?