World

The state of the world

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

Clare Hollingworth, “the most interesting woman in the world”?

Her obituary in The Economist reads like one of those Dos Equis commercials:

She gained the first interview with the last Shah of Iran in 1941; after his fall in 1979, he said he would speak only to her…she commandeered a British consulate car and drove into Germany from Poland. A gust of wind lifted a roadside hessian screen, revealing Hitler’s army, mustered for the invasion…Aged nearly 80, she was seen climbing a lamppost to gain a better look at the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

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Why voting doesn’t make anyone happy

The Exploratorium explains voting paradoxes, and why, no matter what happens tomorrow, no one will really be happy:

Or is it because society is too complex for us to even understand our choices?

“We’ve become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can’t make a connection between them,” he added. “And that’s true about everybody, as well as about the decision-makers, the policymaker. They don’t know what the effects will be of the decisions that they’re making.”

Kenneth Arrow even won the Nobel Prize for proving that when there are 3 or more choices, no system is guaranteed to choose an optimal winner.

Smaller decisions with smaller groups are more likely to work, but still fraught with peril. But go vote tomorrow, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Two Isolated Americas

This makes a lot of what’s happening today make sense.

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Designing better futures for Syria

My own career goal is to “help people think about the future.”

I can’t imagine a better application of that than a group from the University of Washington which helps Syrian refugee children design a better future for themselves and their families.

We asked the participants to work in pairs to fuel creativity and help ease literacy barriers. They used LEGO Mini-Figures and Bricks, art supplies, color pens, and FUJI Instamax Cameras to create the devices…

Magical devices often depict means of transportation…Mobility is a challenge in Za’atari for different reasons–many people have physical disabilities, exasperated by war trauma, and there is no public transport to assist with lack of roads…

Teams also designed devices similar to existing technology, such as Google glass, but that address particular needs in the camps. One team, who called themselves “Future’s Butterflies,” designed glasses that help discover and cure diseases.

The impact of the future

I recently read an article bemoaning the recent spate of dystopian and utopian movies; arguing that by visualizing dire fictional situations and how those characters get out of them, we dull our responses to the real-world dangers all around us. Rather than learning helpful attitudes and strategies, we learn to be spectators.

At least that’s what I think it said, because I couldn’t find the article again when looking for it. I did find several other interesting pieces referencing this topic, however, that are worth noting.

Todd Mitchell writes that “post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial“–specifically, the denial of deep-seated problems in our society, environment, and selves. He views it as a starting point for action:

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society.

Noah Berlatsky uses Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (on my nightstand now) to argue that dystopias, to the utopian protagonists, are not “not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all—and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.” To those who imagine a better world, a dynamic system is terrible–far better to get to a perfect place and never change a thing.

Claire Evans writes that what we need isn’t more far-future utopias or dystopias–rather, we need “something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality.”

But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources…

The point is to show them not just how the story ends but how we might get through the middle – while we still have a shot at changing it.

In response to the newest installments of Star Trek and Mad Max, Brogan Morris writes that dystopias and utopias face different challenges in impacting society. Utopias can give us a free pass to sit back and let problems inevitably solve themselves:

Glorious utopian visions like Star Trek’s, though, all too often fail to address contemporary issues. Such optimism tends to ignore problems by implying the future is rosy regardless of our actions today…

Interstellar’s conclusion is troublingly cheerful, though: when an advanced, spacetime-manipulating future race comes to the rescue at the eleventh hour, humanity is saved. A sideswiping twist, to be sure, but one based in impossible pseudo-science, offering hope that’s totally out of our reach. It suggests our survival as a species is inevitable, if only we sit back and wait for something other than ourselves to save us.

While dystopias can leave us too depressed to act:

In Fury Road, what’s left of the human race continues to wage war and wring the Earth dry of fossil fuels, even though the planet is already a desert as a consequence of man’s actions (and simultaneous inaction)…its subtext couldn’t be more serious: we either divest and disarm, or lose the world to more chaos, more hardship, more despair.

The best approach seems to be providing hope without a free pass; challenge without despair; a thread of possibility leading out of the darkness:

It’s difficult to measure the impact of dystopian fiction on film. We know 1983’s speculative nuclear holocaust drama The Day After so depressed Ronald Reagan that it convinced him to rethink his ideas on nuclear proliferation…Such concrete examples of dystopian cinema having a direct meaningful influence, however, are rare. The best dystopian films instead tend to contribute to ongoing discussions or create indelible images of our fears of tomorrow.

In Stuart Candy’s 2010 thesis The Futures of Everyday Life, he notes that there isn’t yet a great framework for measuring the impact of futures work (especially the experiential kind he practices):

To discuss such seemingly disparate configurations in terms of their experiential features and impact enables a perspective which has X-ray glasses with respect to conventional boundaries of discipline, medium and setting; boundaries that hide their fundamental comparability…

A valuable next step in the research agenda suggested by this would be to design and implement more systematic evaluations, such as ethnographic observation or post-intervention questionnaires of participants across different conditions.

Futurist pioneer Fred Polak noted in The Image of the Future that in order to imagine a different world, we must mentally separate ourselves into the real and “The Other”:

Man is only able to conceive of the existence of The Other, the something which is basically different from the here and now, because his mental structure has a dividing property built into it. … It is the capacity for mental division which enables man to be a citizen of two worlds, this world and an imagined world.

Does imagining the “other” living in a different world cause us to draw closer to it, or to give up our hope of reaching that place? The key seems to be connecting our real selves to that imagined place, perhaps through experiences of the type Candy designs.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon gives new insight into these issues. As Dinaw Mengestu writes, Joseph Kony turned out to be more than “a click away”:

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities…[But] no one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that.

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now…

If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.

At the end of the day, there is change that you feel, and change that you live. We need to find ways to create more of the latter.

Fossil fuels, our starter engine

The fossil fuel deposits of our Spaceship Earth correspond to our automobile’s storage battery which must be conserved to turn over our main engine’s self-starter. Thereafter, our “main engine,” the life regenerating processes, must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from the powers of wind, tide, water, and the direct Sun radiation energy. – Buckminster Fuller

I reference this idea often but had forgotten the source. Buckminster Fuller, of course.

Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

Growing block universe

This has always been my hunch for how time and space physically work. Apparently it’s got lots of holes in it but as Wikipedia says, it is “closer to common sense intuitions than the alternatives”.