Stability and its lack

I mentioned last week that I saw Dan Sperber at the KLI & thought his talk was brilliant. However, there was one thing that bothered me in it. Just a recent theory he's been working on / publishing for a few years -- I won't go into the details here, but it has to do with how modularity (the theory that intelligence is composed of a large number of relatively simple parts, which was the basis of most of my PhD work) might explain how culture is preserved by providing bias towards correct solutions. The reason you need something to do this preservation is because, as we all know, communication is very hard and people hardly ever The problem with this idea is that in statistics / information theory we know that the best way to recover a signal from noisy transmission is to not have any bias on the noisy part at least, and just recognize the consistent part is the signal.

I built a model of my theory this week (a new one from scratch in about 6 hours -- shows how good NetLogo is). I think in fact this regularity is one way that modern humans can share so many modules, we acquire them from culture, not the other way around. However, it is of course true that the less possibilities there are, the easier it is to learn which one is true, so there may be some feedback in the system. Anyway, I've submitted an abstract about it to HBES, which is in Japan. One of my colleagues told me it is a great meeting I should go to, and having looked at their journal I think I should probably be joining their society. I am interested in too many things. I also need to get to writing the full paper around that model. I have a ton of papers to put out, but I've been mostly working on programming lately, which to be fair was one of the reasons I needed to go on sabbatical. I hadn't had time to keep up with my students' code or to keep my skills up. It is nice to be getting back in the groove. But I do need to publish...

Thursday and Friday the KLI hosted a symposium on Interpreting Climate Change. I and a few other people were worried that this sounded more like post-modernism than theoretical biology, but the speakers were excellent. Surprisingly few people came, so on Friday we all just sat around the fireplace in the Lorenz mansion and talked about how to save the world. ("we all" == the speakers & the staff & fellows of the KLI). One of the big points of the symposium was that governments & such people are all putting all their money into trying to stop climate change. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow (which no one is talking about; they are lamely talking about going back to 1990 levels as if that were any good), the climate is still going to change at this point. So a lot more attention should be being spent on moving people out of harms way and preparing for mass migration. This will require major, major shifts in infrastructure and governance. And we want it to happen peacefully, as peacefully as possible. In Europe, war isn't something that happens far away and you lose the boys & wealth you send to it. It destroys your cities and your libraries and kills your civilians and changes where you live and what language you speak and sometimes even your religion.

Over Christmas I heard an example of a peaceful transition coming in an area I had been worrying about for a few years. I hope you all remember the dustbowl, the agricultural disaster in the midwest and southwest of America in the late 1900s. It is very, very likley that will happen again as the climate gets warmer. And meanwhile, Canada is going to be getting better agricultural conditions. So how will the US respond to Canada having all the farms? Well, maybe hopefully peacefully just buying food, but I was worried about this. But over Christmas we heard a rumour that NAFTA is going to turn into stronger and stronger economic union, so that eventually North America will be like the EU with a single currency. People like I used to work for in Chicago are already trading an instrument based on this idea, just like we used to trade "eurodollars" in the 1980s before the euro had been introduced. I had friend who traded eurodollars. So that is good news, it means that at least the US and Canada and hopefully Mexico are dealing with the coming situation in advance and so there should be well-ordered economic means to deal with the shift in where farming happens.

Back at the KLI, a lot of the speakers we had were people who were lobbying at the highest levels of government, but were frustrated because no politician could say "we need to prepare for the change." This is partly because of the way people trust Nature and it is wrapped up in their faiths. I mean, it used to be Republicans actually said we shouldn't worry about the environment because god would. But when you come down to it, dealing with the huge, long but regular and predictable shifts in life that the seasons bring is one of the things you need culture and religion to do. To get you to store for winter, to give you faith that Spring is coming so you don't do things you regret while you are hungry. So anyway, people want very badly to keep the climate like they remember it, so if you say "we can't do that, we have to start preparing for the change" it sounds like you are losing, you have lost, and losers don't get reelected.

I was arguing that although ultimately you want the governments to fix these things, it sounds like right now the lobbying there has gone as far as it can. Also, the general public is pretty well primed, knowing something is up. So what really needs to change is that we need more companies offering alternatives, being prepared for the changes, and then they would provide both services so that the population could start preparing, and they would offer additional lobbying voices to the government. Will said (yesterday) that I think like an American, and that in America in general innovation is often seen as coming from industry (which is just the general public when you come down to it, esp. now that so much industry is start ups etc.) But historically in Europe people think of it as the government's job to come up with the ideas as well as to fund them. I think this is very weird, but then I do work on intelligent control all the time. You want the control system to maintain order, you want other specialized modules (remember them?) to worry about actually doing the learning and acting.

Another thing I was confused by though was that everyone was talking as if working in the US system was the only way to address climate change. Two of the four speakers were American (and I am), but only one of all of us lived in the US now. I said "isn't the EU a bigger economic force now?" and everyone just looked at me. With the expansion of the EU it now has like 100 million more people than the US, so even if on average they are poorer and the EU control structure is more diffuse, surely overall Europe has more influence? Also, I just think the EC has some great ideas about how to spread science and innovation right now, whereas I've heard nothing good about how research funding is going in the US lately. (We also talked a lot about the problems of dealing with problems that fall between disciplines, who researches them, how are students trained to deal with them, who hires them after they have been.)

Anyway, this morning I just read that the euro zone alone (not the whole EU, the part that has he euro currency, so for example not the UK and not the Czechs) now has the world's largest economy, because the dollar has plunged so much relative to the euro taking all the assets denominated in that currency with it. So I was right, people just weren't used to thinking that way. Not that America doesn't matter, every country matters and America matters more than most. But it is not a stupid pipe dream that Europe might sort out its own problems locally and still have impact globally.

I was lying in bed this morning thinking about whether I should spend time trying to get models of the way the world will change out where people can play with them. I've argued for years that if people had experience of modelling they'd be better at thinking about this stuff. I'm currently working on trying to make it accessible to graduate students and advanced undergraduates, and hoped before I retired we'd have it for highschool. But now I'm thinking 20 years is too long and maybe I should be thinking about facebook applications or Google widgets. Or maybe I should be writing my papers. It's hard to know in times like these.

I'm going to be in Palo Alto though in a week and a half, and I've already met the head of Google research on previous trips. So I should really make up my mind about whether to write to him, and if so what, and see if he wants to meet up. I might see him anyway since Pearl Tsai is throwing a birthday party for herself while I'm visiting her.