Thinking about Facebook

We are now firmly into 2011, the kids and grandchildren have departed and the tumult and disruption have subsided…until 12 months hence of course.

Besides the obligatory grouch it was great fun while it lasted, but quiet and “normalcy” have their own powerful attractions for the fragile, mature neural system. One of the highlights of the holidays was a 24 hour stay with friends in the Imvubu Bush Camp in Rondevlei on the Cape Flats; see Flickr for some selected pics in due course.

But thinking about Facebook and its implications for this site is the topic du jour, so let’s start. Mark Zuckerberg has become unimaginably wealthy by catering to the human urge to communicate and to be part of a communication loop. A mixture of vanity, narcissism, the urge to belong and curiosity are the chief components of the fuel which drives Facebook, and (for the sneerers and sniggerers) these are part of all our make-up to a variable extent.

So why are we not all on FB and leave it at that? Well many of us are, of course, but many of us are frightened off by the complicated controls and cluttered appearance. Nevertheless, these are overcomable obstacles. More important is the hard reality that most of FB is incurably shallow, noisy and irrelevant to our interests. So can we recreate FB more in our own image using these blogs – namely, Transcognitive and Bonobotude?

I think we can and would like to set out here the way we can do it.

Firstly, the blogs must be visualised as the forum for a limited group of users with common interests rather than an all-purpose wall for any passer-by to scribble their random thoughts and doings. There are 3 consequences: limited membership, multiple authorship and broadly defined purpose. Let’s take each in turn.

A key element of FB is to increase the number of your “friends” as much as possible as a marker of status and popularity. I propose that these blogs aim rather at attracting not the largest audience, but the most interested and interesting. This is not intended to be exclusivist for the sake of exclusivity – let a 1000 flowers bloom – but simply to ensure that every time we go to the blog to read it we derive some pleasure and value.

And here the two blogs differ somewhat: Transcognitive is a blog devoted to “ideas” while Bonobotude is devoted to “activities”. The boundaries, as always are blurred, but I suggest we try to keep that distinction in mind without becoming paralysed by indecision.

Secondly, it is impossible for me alone to keep the blogs ticking over at a reasonable rate while still maintaining standards. In any case the idea is to showcase different perspectives and the activities of different people so as to stimulate and inspire the rest of us. Any subscriber can comment, and please do so, but those who want to post will require Administrator (that’s me) permission. I still need to get comfortable with the mechanics 0f this but the principle is clear. So please go ahead.

Let’s return to membership for a moment. For the present the blogs are directed at personal acquaintances and friends who conceivably may have an interest. Some of you will not find this sufficiently interesting in competition with all the other demands on your time and energy and will simply not subscribe and slowly drop out. On the other hand some of you will have friends who may also be interested and you should recruit them. This post sets out the purpose, MO and terms of the blogs; use it

JUST REMEMBER – IF THIS IS TO WORK AS A CUSTOMISED FACEBOOK ALTERNATIVE YOU MUST SUBSCRIBE AND CONTRIBUTE. WITHOUT YOUR CONTRIBUTION AND ENGAGEMENT, THEY WILL FADE AWAY.

My previous post on this (the Transcognitive) site was to introduce Michael Alfred as a co-contributor, partly under the name Gluckstein. So here are a couple of Gluckstein’s Reflections for your entertainment:

Even the best intentions become corrupt.”

Human insight preceded psychology by thousands of years.”

Reader discretion advised: “Self-help books don’t tell you how to deal with a wet fart.

all the best

Transcogitator

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Introducing Michael Alfred

I would like to introduce an old friend, a debating and sparring partner, a witty, perceptive and wry commentator on the human condition and much else besides,  who I hope will become a contributor to this blog. Michael Alfred (aka Gluckstein) and I go back to primary school, Yeoville Boys Primary School to be more precise, where for about two important years we were inseparable. Via the mysterious workings of human chemistry, we recognised in each other kindred spirits and formed a duo against the slightly alien mob (at least to my eyes) which constituted the main body of boys at the school.

In fact, they were not so alien and many went on to become respected and even respectable citizens, but we and they did come from one of the slightly rougher and modest suburbs.

Though after primary school our paths diverged, we kept up an irregular contact for over 60 years. Mike Alfred became, in roughly this order, a strapping, rugby-playing youth, a ladies man (of sorts), an industrial psychologist in a large firm, a family man with two children of his own, a successful, freelance consultant and now, a retiree, free to educate and nurture his grandchildren  and to continue to explore and express the different facets of his wide-ranging intelligence and concerns.

Flag of Johannesburg, South Africa

Flag of Johannesburg, South Africa

Besides an abiding love for the natural world and words, Mike is a sharp, dry – but never bitter and rarely sentimental – observer of his fellow humans, both current and historical. He has expressed his perceptions, wisely and wittily, in at three books of poetry and a collection of 10 short biographies of prominent Johannesburgers. For reasons of his own he has a soft spot for that seedy, violence-prone floozy though, I suspect, he harbours a secret lust for the glossier attractions of the Mother City.

Mike, together with his wife, Cecily, trades in antiques, books and various objets d’art at a number of markets in Gauteng and is a knowledgeable guide to Johannesburg, current and past.

He has recently sent me a summary of his accumulated wisdom (if I may be so bold), in the form of pithy aphorisms under the evocative title “Gluckstein’s Reflections”; Gluckstein being a paternal ancestor within the Alfred pedigree. There are too many to be digested in a single sitting, so will appear at intervals to enliven these pages. But in the meantime I will complete this introduction by quoting very briefly from Mike’s published writings. I trust the copyright Gods will forgive this mild transgression. I know Mike will, especially if you go out and buy one or more of his works.

Road to Tonteldoos

Whither the sign to Tonteldoos,/to Nooitgedacht and Sil’kaat’s/ Nek; those gravelled roads, those/ dust-cloud roads, the roads we seldom take? The roads that flicker/ under trees; they track the stream/ and course the hills, under a smoky/ moon. They’ll take you to the gentlest/ soul, a simple home by crystal spring,/ a valley shelt’ring mastodons and/ Volschenk, painting evening light.
They’ll answer all life’s riddles,/ cleanse you under clockwork rain;/ they’ll offer ten resplendent birds/ and many joyous years of grace.
Whither the track to Elandslaagte,/ by fields and and lakes and golden/ light? We know full well that magic/ road, the road we seldom take.

(from Poetic Licence by Mike Alfred, Botsotso Publishing 2007)

An extract from Lionel and Florrie Phillips:

Portrait of Lionel Phillips 1903 Oil on canvas...

Lionel Phillips

Sir Lionel Phillips was walking to lunch from the Corner House, corner Commissioner and Simmonds Street, to the Rand Club in Loveday Street, when a man pointed a gun at him. With typical courage, neither cowering nor fleeing, he advanced towards his attacker in an attempt to disarm him. He took a bullet in the chest, another in the neck, yet another grazed his temple. He fell bloody to the pavement. Onlookers grabbed and disarmed the assassin. Percy Fitzpatrick, his friend and business colleague, later to write Jock of the Bushveld, lifted him bleeding into his nearby car and sped to hospital. There the gushing neck wound was staunched and an unusu~l11y complex operation was performed to remove a bullet from Phillips’ lung. Unaided by modern medical sophistication, the well-known Randlord remained critical for some days. His wife was told by his surgeons to prepare herself for his demise, but he rallied and recovered. Fitzpatrick’s immediate action helped to save his life. He had survived one more confrontation with death.

(Johannesburg Portraits by Mike Alfred, by Jacana Media 2003)

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Race!

Changes in the number and order of genes (A-D)...

Image via Wikipedia

Go to any 10 South African “intellectuals” and, I’m guessing here, 9.9 of them (joke!!!) will tell you there is no such thing as race. If you insist that there are “races”, in the non-trivial sense that through the analysis of genetic variation at sufficient sites (not that many) one can demonstrate genetic clusters which unambiguously differentiate between populations, you will mainly get two generic kinds of reply:

firstly, that such genetic variation is biologically unimportant or that it is swamped by cultural-political differences and thus is, once again, utterly unimportant; or

secondly, and more commonly, flat denial accompanied by the suggestion that you’re a racist.

Both these answers are absolutely wrong, though one must take the more seriously the  cultural-political issue, which I will return to. For the technical basis for my assertion regarding “race” see the excellent post by “Gene Expression“. It may be a bit technical for some, but is as simple as it gets in this field. It is replete with links for those who wish to follow up some of the material and I strongly recommend the second figure in the post. I may also add that a recent paper demonstrates just how easily and unambiguously Ashkenazi Jews can be differentiated from neighbouring populations using genetic analysis.

Let me do “Gene Expression” the courtesy of quoting from his excellent post:

Let’s bring it back down to earth. Population structure exists. Phylogenetic analyses of humans are trivial in their difficulty. They track geography rather closely, at least before the age of mass migration. Additionally, they tend to follow endogamous social groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews. A South Asian is going to be more genetically related to a South Asian than they are to an African. There are many cosmetic differences between populations. But there are also less cosmetic differences which are very important. You can even assign different regions of a chromosome to different ancestral components.

Personally I have no problem with abandoning the word race and all the baggage which that entails. But there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water here. In the “post-genomic” era human population substructure is taken for granted. The outlines of the history of our species, and its various branches, are getting clearer and clearer. There’s no point in replacing old rubbish with new rubbish. We have the possibility for clear and useful thought, if we choose to grasp it.

Obviously, much more work needs to be done to map the fine structure of populations and to monitor changes over time. This information has immediate and obvious medical benefits in various contexts, from predicting the action of drugs in different groups to the discovery of medically useful genetic variants – eg. those conferring immunity or resistance to infectious or other disorders. And so on and on…this territory is ripe for exploration if humanity doesn’t get excessively diverted into the pursuit of material status and reward.

Such research is also tremendously interesting and valuable in understanding the history of human migration, interaction and population distribution. But let’s take a moment to look more seriously at the role of race in a political context, because that is where it possesses an evil potency. We can hardly forget the use the Nazi abuse of “racial science” to underpin one of the most ruthless and malignant mass political movement in history. We need to accept that “truth” does not always set us free, especially in the short-term. Partial understanding of truth is often worse than no understanding at all, and humans are capable of abusing truth and lies alike in pursuit of their own ends.

So, bearing this in mind, we can ask the question: does genetic clustering carry with it significant biological information? The answer to that question is unequivocally, YES. “Africans” are better runners and “Europeans” better swimmers due, at least in part, to differences in the leg:torso ratio. There are differences in disease patterns and in responses to medication – and this line of reasoning can be extended even at this stage of our knowledge.

OK, but what about IQ? … the hot question on everyone’s mind. The question itself is a reflection of a crude and incomplete understanding of intelligence and the factors which make for “success” – or even what the word “success” means. But let us take it at face value for now and then see where we go with it.

High IQ?

 

From what I have read, and my reading is very partial in relation to the size and complexity of the topic, I would argue that there is pretty good evidence for significant gradients between populations on the measure of IQ – understood as a general statistical measure of “intelligence”. There seems to be some biological substance to this statistical factor since educational-material-political “success” is correlated with IQ both between and within populations. This empirical fact (and others – see reference under IQ) has been seized on with glee in some quarters and despair in others, depending on orientation.

I would argue that both are premature and misplaced and I’ll mention the following reasons (doubtless there are others):

Firstly, the word success needs very careful definition. Are we talking about Darwinian success (in terms of relative net reproductive rates) or material success or are we talking of sporting success, or political success? Or indeed aesthetic preferences? And, if any one of these (or others), we need to ask what privileges it above other definitions and is the time-scale of measurement appropriate and just how reliable are the measurements?

For example, there is evidence that IQ measures are changing over time-scales too short to be accounted or by genetic changes and that many cultural, social and local factors can affect the measure of IQ? So we need more robust measures but a global trait like IQ will probably vary in response to a host of factors.

Even if we can satisfactorily deal with these confounding factors (and of course real efforts are being made to do just that) and come up with a reliable measure, just why should we privilege IQ above a host of emotional factors, other more specific cognitive-musical-artistic talents, physical factors and aesthetic abilities? Such abilities are undoubtedly significant in the life of individuals and communities and are susceptible to more-or-less the same confounding influences derived from social, cultural, political and physical sources. Surely it is time that attention is broadened to include a wider range of important behavioural and other characteristics which have a significant genetic contribution?

In short, we have very little solid understanding of what contributes to the “success” of communities or even how we should define the word productively and meaningfully, except in specified (and narrow) contexts. We certainly know that by altering the social, political, economic environment we can have a big effect on socially important outcomes. So it would seem sensible for the present that at the pragmatic, interventional level we must put our energies into those global factors which broadly impact on the lives of individuals and communities.

But, with real advances in genetics the possibility of timely and useful interventions of various kinds become possible. Some of this is already a reality but the field is wide open, and will need considerable thought from ethicists and others. What is not helpful is a knee-jerk reaction which refuses even to seriously consider the issues.

So the bottom lines are these:

1. Biologically meaningful races exist. It is important to study this further so as to extract value from such information for the benefit of mankind.

2. We are not sure of all the genetic-phenotypic factors that make for “success“. These are likely to be environment and context dependent and the word success needs careful operational refinement. We are not sure to what extent relevant human characteristics  may be influenced by the environmental route (and I’ve not even mentioned epigenetic variation) and how rapidly the genetics of populations are changing. We need to study all this further with an open mind while remaining cautious in the light of the limits of our knowledge and the complexity of the topic.

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BARCELONA

My own minor infatuation with Barcelona, or rather the idea of Barcelona, started with an Afrikaans setwork entitled “Sol y Sombre” (Sun and Shadow) written by Uys Krige, probably sometime before WWII. I was a senior schoolboy and, although I can hardly remember a single fact from the book, its evident passion and the quality of the writing has remained with me ever since.

So when the possibility of a family trip to Spain came up, I was determined to visit Barcelona. As luck would have it our close friends from Copenhagen, Ulla and Eric Magid, were available and willing to join us for a few days in early November, so we had the additional good fortune of spending our time in Barcelona with the most congenial travelling companions I can conceive of.

Erik and Ulla striding ahead down the Passeig de Colom

This is the broad promenade just outside our apartment and abutting on the waterfront. The next image shows Eric waiting patiently for us just outside Park Guell. This was to be something of a pattern since Sheila and I were dealing with the infections picked up just prior and during the trip which depleted our energy levels alarmingly.

Erik

My memories of Barcelona fall under the a convenient set of headings: fatigue; narrow streets and alleys beset by tourists and buskers, partly alleviated by some broad and spacious promenades and plazas lined with stately, traditional buildings; petty crime and some obvious poverty; some quite brilliant public spaces and institutions and exposure to the extraordinary genius and energy levels of artists like Antonini Gaudi, Miro, Mariscal and Picasso.

Narrow street in the Old City

I have tried to include as many photos as possible but the 40 odd will probably be too much for a single post. Go to my Flickr site to see them properly (bearing in mind I was shooting semi-blind with my most irritating Point and Shoot). The next little set shows some street scenes.

In the Old City

Levitation

Levitation

Buskers and tourists jostled together down the famous Avenue Las Ramlas and we kept a sharp lookout for pickpockets. We were lucky but Ulla and Erik were not so fortunate having been scammed/robbed of all their documents and cash before they reached the apartment. Someone else was actually mugged at the entrance to the apartments late one evening and we were witness to a petty theft at one of the stores on the Waterfront.

Fascination

Food quality varied greatly from little dives on the tourist routes to one really marvellous meal at an upmarket restaurant in easy walking distance from our apartment. That set me back R250 each which is not our norm.

One walk took us up Montjuic, a large but gradual hill, topped by a fortress and housing the Olympic Stadium and swimming pavilion plus a number of museums, including the one we went to focussing on Miro.

Squatters on the road to Montjuic

I found both the position and the contents really impressive and although tiring it was a throughly worthwhile excursion. We came down via the funicular, though there was a cable car which may have provided more spectacular views had we found it at the time.

The Miro Foundation

Miro was one of the 4 great artists (three, if one excludes the extraordinarily versatile Mariscal) we were exposed to in Barcelona. One of the most visible is Antonini Gaudi, architect and designer, whose work is all over the city. A visit to the famous Sagrada Familia was spoilt by the reconstruction in progress (seemingly forever) and the hordes of tourists. I’m not sure I liked the excessive ornateness and obsessive  fecundity of his decorations.

Detail on the Sagrada Familia

I prefer more spartan, linear architecture whether in gardens or in buildings.

On Passeig de Colomb

But here are some pictures. We also visited Parc Guell and Le Pedrera, both examples of Gaudi’s work and with much that is appealing.

On our last morning we visited the Picasso Museum and one night we walked the waterfront – impressively spacious and with imaginative and appealing modern design. The warm evenings were a delight for the visitor and local alike.

The explosion of original art brought home to me that artists and writers as much as scientists are engaged in a process of exploration and discovery; only their domains of interest and the tools they use differ – and even there considerable overlap occurs. But one thing is certain – exposure to the intensity and energy of true creative genius in whatever field is an exhilarating experience and intuition is at the core.

Sun and shadow defines Barcelona to this day

Contrary view

(as suggested by this image), but it seems that progressively the shadows lessen with Barcelona slowly revealing its glorious riches. May the process continue.

Once again go to my Flickr site for all the photos.

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