28 April 2005

Junking infomania?

I foud my way to Does email really reduce IQ ? via Larvatus Proteo, where the New Scientist report on email gets damned as corporate spin.

I'm not sure the critique is persuasuaive. The Stroop effect has been known since 1935. Scientific American Mind carried a report on The limits of multitasking (subscription requird) that seems to agree with the infomania thesis. I'd write more, but some email came in.

27 April 2005

The benediction of peace

The Significance of Pope Benedict XV
I'm puzzled that so little is being said in the media about the historical significance of Cardinal Ratzinger's choice of Benedict XVI as his papal name. As a German, I think we can be fairly sure he is trying to remind the world of the tragic story of his predecessor, and how close he came to bringing World War I to an early conclusion. The story has specical significance for Americans.

In the spring of 1917, Pope Benedict XV called on the warring governments to make a peace of mutual forgiveness and forbearance. As a starting point, the Pontiff proposed the restoration of Belgium, disarmament, arbitration machinery to prevent future wars, and freedom of the seas for all nations.

To the Americans, the timing of the Pope's message seemed almost devilishly unpropitious. In Stockholm, international socialists had convened a peace conference to appeal over the heads of the warring rulers to the workers of the world. In Petrograd, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian revolution had already called for peace on the basis of no annexations and self determination for all peoples, and bullied the so called Provisional Government of Russia into going along with them.

The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians promptly accepted the Pope's proposal, although Berlin avoided specific commitments. The provisional Russian government also welcomed the papal mediation. The leaders of France and Italy, with largely Catholic, extremely war weary populations, were transfixed with alarm. They wanted a fight to the finish but they hesitated to take issue with the Pope. The English, even more determined to go for what Prime Minister Lloyd George called 'a knockout blow,' decided to let Wilson answer for all of them.

At first the president was inclined to say nothing. He seemed angry at the Pope's intrusion into the war. However, as the impact of the pontiff's appeal grew larger, Wilson decided he had to reply. The Pope was saying many of the same things Wilson had said before he opted for war. Now, as British ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice wryly pointed out, the president was doing 'his utmost to kindle a warlike spirit throughout [the] states and to combat pacifists.' No wonder the pope's appeal gave him indigestion.1

Colonel House strongly seconded this presidential decision -- and warned Wilson not to dismiss the Pope's proposals out of hand in his reply. The new Russian ambassador in Washington had informed House that alarming splits were appearing in the revolutionary government, with the call for immediate peace one of the chief issues. A dismissal could lead to the overthrow of Russia's moderate leader, Alexander Kerensky.

House also revealed that the Pope's proposal had evoked a sympathetic response in him. The colonel wondered if it would be a good thing in the long run if 'Germany was beaten to her knees.' That might leave a vacuum in central Europe which the Russians would be eager to fill. Before the declaration of war, Wilson had agreed with this balance of power viewpoint. It was the idea behind his appeal for a peace without victory.2

'Beating Germany to its knees' was not a good thing in the long run. Versailles proved a disaster. The peace plan of Benedict XV came to nothing. Sadly, it took until 1945 to work out that Quixotic idealism is often a lot more realistic than the gibberish spouted by alleged realists.

Now if only Benedict XVI remembers to apply the same principles in his governance of the church...

Except in the universe of discourse

Black holes 'do not exist -- These mysterious objects are dark-energy stars, physicist claims.

Black holes are staples of science fiction and many think astronomers have observed them indirectly. But according to a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, these awesome breaches in space-time do not and indeed cannot exist.

Over the past few years, observations of the motions of galaxies have shown that some 70% the Universe seems to be composed of a strange 'dark energy' that is driving the Universe's accelerating expansion.

George Chapline thinks that the collapse of the massive stars, which was long believed to generate black holes, actually leads to the formation of stars that contain dark energy. 'It's a near certainty that black holes don't exist,' he claims.

Black holes are one of the most celebrated predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity, which explains gravity as the warping of space-time caused by massive objects. The theory suggests that a sufficiently massive star, when it dies, will collapse under its own gravity to a single point.

But Einstein didn't believe in black holes, Chapline argues. 'Unfortunately', he adds, 'he couldn't articulate why.' At the root of the problem is the other revolutionary theory of twentieth-century physics, which Einstein also helped to formulate: quantum mechanics.

Evidently neither Chapline nor Einstein had ever encounted a an absolutely rock solid, ironclad commitment. And I'd better fight the urge to make dark energy into a second pun.

26 April 2005

Gorbachev and wet economics

Water Treaty
Mikhail Gorbachev
Chairman of the Board
Green Cross international

To the People of the World

In spite of numerous conferences, statements and declarations made by various institutions, including the UN Millennium Declaration, words have failed to produce the much-needed water For the 1.1 billion people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water, for the 2.4 billion who lack access to basic sanitation, this is an everyday reality.

The UN Millennium Development Goals set the target of halving the number of people without access to water services by 2015. There is a danger that this objective will not be met unless drastic changes concerning the way this issue is dealt with occur.

Access to water is literally a question of life and death. I first learned this through my experience as Secretary for Agriculture for the former USSR, when I inherited a crisis caused by the decision to divert the rivers which fed the Aral Sea. Decades later, this decision continues to destroy lives and has left an environmental wasteland. On the other hand, changing water policies for the better can have a positive effect on the environment, public health and education, and give people jobs and the chance to lead fulfilling lives. The world is at a crossroads. This is the moment of truth.

Faced with this reality, Green Cross International urges the international community to take initiative, to assume responsibility and to play their part in the mission enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals.

WATER IS NOT A PRIVILEGE, IT'S A RIGHT! This is the slogan we have chosen for the campaign and I am sure that nobody in their right mind would deny the essence of it.

And yet, the situation is far from simple. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to contribute to halting the water crisis that reduces the daily lives of millions of people to misery, and is fraught with large-scale conflict and instability. We must aim for universal access to water and basic sanitation - anything less is a violation of our civilization, our human rights, and our morality. ...

Mikhail Gorbachev

I think it'd be a lot better to add a right to water to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Constitution of South Africa speaks about the right to water:

27. Everyone has the right to:

(a) health care services, including reproductive health care;

(b) sufficient food and water; and

(c) social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance.

(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.

(3) No one may be refused emergency medical treatment.

Go sign the petition.

There's food in the pot and pot in the email

'Info-mania' dents IQ more than marijuana
The relentless influx of emails, cellphone calls and instant messages received by modern workers can reduce their IQ by more than smoking marijuana, suggests UK research.

Far from boosting productivity, the constant flow of messages and information can seriously reduce a person's ability to focus on tasks, the study of office workers found.

Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problem solving tasks, firstly in a quiet environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed.

Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points - double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users. But not everyone was affected by to the same extent - men were twice as distracted as women.

'If left unchecked, 'info-mania' will damage a worker's performance by reducing their mental sharpness,' says Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, UK, who carried out the study, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. 'This is a very real and widespread phenomenon.'

Slow Food Manifesto
Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model.

Slow Food
Long before demonstrators and police battled it out on the streets of Genoa during the G-8 summit, a potentially more influential attempt to guide the direction of globalization was slowly evolving about two hours' drive away in the countryside of the neighboring region of Piedmont in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the small market town of Bra, in an area known for its red wines and white truffles, is the headquarters of a movement called Slow Food, dedicated to preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food. If the French attitude toward globalization is symbolized by farm activist José Bové driving a tractor into a McDonald's, Italy's subtler and more peaceful attitude is embodied in this quirky and intelligent movement, which has taken up the defense of the purple asparagus of Albenga, the black celery of Trevi, the Vesuvian apricot, the long-tailed sheep of Laticauda, a succulent Sienese pig renowned in the courts of medieval Tuscany and a host of endangered handmade cheeses and salamis known now only to a handful of old farmers.

Founded in 1986, in direct response to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna, the Slow Food Manifesto declares that:

A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.

In its first years Slow Food, which has adopted the snail as its official symbol, was heavily concentrated on food and wine, and produced what is considered to be Italy's best guides to wine, restaurants and food stores. But in the mid-1990s Slow Food developed a new political dimension, called eco-gastronomy. "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals," says Carlo Petrini, the movement's founder, a tall, handsome bearded man of 54. "A hundred years ago, people ate between one hundred and a hundred and twenty different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most ten or twelve species."

Worrying about the fate of the Paduan hen might have seemed a quixotic and elitist concern a few years ago, but with the lingering panic over mad cow disease, the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the debate over genetically modified food, Slow Food--with its emphasis on natural, organic methods--has suddenly acquired a political importance and popularity that has surprised even its own leaders. Since 1995, when it began to defend endangered foods, the organization has grown from 20,000 to 65,000 members in forty-two countries. To press its political concerns, Slow Food has recently opened offices in Brussels, where it lobbies the European Union on agriculture and trade policy, as well as in New York, where it organizes trade fairs and tries to find markets for traditional food producers.

No more dog-eat-dog
The depoliticisation of work must be the most profound and enduring legacy of Thatcherism. She handed business the "right to manage", unaccountable to all but its shareholders. The strategy was to pit everyone against everyone else: competition between companies but also within companies, within departments, within teams. The message was clear: unless you personally and your company are competitive, you are history. Competition was the spur to productivity.

Parts of this legacy simply haven't worked. Our productivity is notoriously poor compared to that in Germany or Scandanavia, countries where (and it may be more than coincidence) the quality of working life has always been high on the political agenda, and governments - in alliance with employers and trade unions - have sponsored experimentation in work organisation and helped spread best practice. Other parts of the Thatcherite legacy were never more than myth and urgently need debunking, such as performance-related pay, which the research shows is based on a false premise - you can't measure an individual's output because it is always dependent on colleagues - and actually damages motivation.

Can you reasonably blog the virtues of the slow life?