Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2008. I spent the last days of 2007 in Ouray, Colorado, a mining town that peaked in population back in about 1893, but is on the rise again as a tourist spot both winter and summer, with its hot spring pools, dramatic mountain setting, and access to both winter and summer sports.

Each year begins with an intriguing question at the Edge – this year it’s “What have you changed your mind about? Why?” – as answered by many prominent thinkers. I’ve only started browsing, and there’s plenty to ponder. To pick out just a couple so far…

Joseph Ledoux – neuroscientist

Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it.

Colin Tudge – science writer (on GMO crops)

But anyone who knows anything about farming in the real world (as opposed to the cosseted experimental fields of the English home counties and of California) knows that yield is by no means the be-all and end-all. Inter alia, high yields require high inputs of resources and capital — the very things that are often lacking. Yield typically matters far less than long-term security — acceptable yields in bad years rather than bumper yields in the best conditions. Security requires individual toughness and variety — neither of which necessarily correlate with super-crop status. In a time of climate change, resilience is obviously of paramount importance — but this is not, alas, obvious to the people who make policy.

Stewart Brand – innovator!

Good old stuff sucks. Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it’s just stupid.

Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers’ market, preferably), this-year’s laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs.

The Precautionary Principle tells me I should worry about everything new because it might have hidden dangers. The handwringers should worry more about the old stuff. It’s mostly crap.

(New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)

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  • Jim  On January 3, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Interesting! I have the following comments:

    Ledoux: something convinced him the brain works like a computer. This does not surprise me at all and I believe anyone who seriously addressed this question would have guessed it works this way.

    Tudge: he is obviously not concerned about feeding a growing population, which is consistent with “sustainability”. “Resilience” is of paramont importance if you are concerned only about a “village”. If concerned about mankind, “yield” is more important. Until we have a static population (possible?), yield is what we want to continue to address.

    Brand: this guys level of intellect is reflected in his first sentence where he uses the word (?) “sucks” to address an intelligent audience. “Give me…Genetically modified food (from a farmers’ market, preferably),…”, are you kidding me! Would make more sense if I believed he was trying to be sarcastic. “But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.” This is a subjective-absolute statement and is silly. I do agree “The Precautionary Principle” should be scrapped!

    Here is what Wikipedia says about him at the beginning of their article:

    “Brand is best known for the”Whole Earth Catalog” (a compendium of tools, texts and information primarily of interest to hippies).”

    I think he is still trying to appeal to the aging hippies!

  • Curt  On January 3, 2008 at 10:14 am

    I just pulled out a few sample comments – there’s plenty more there.

    Comments on your comments:
    Ledoux – I agree with you that the ‘brain as computer’ model has problems – but I have less confidence in your assertion that “anyone who seriously addressed” the issue would come to a certain conclusion – people come to all sorts of conclusions about everything!! (perhaps because their memories keep changing?)

    Tudge – it’s true that yield is important in a growing world – but I think it’s still worth considering possible downsides of certain strategies (and addressing them rather than ignoring them). And I guess it’s an interesting question when the world becomes a single ‘village’ – there’s no doubt that some areas are so far from self-sufficient that they are totally dependent on trade from other areas.

    Brand – he does come off very glib here, but I think he’s done a lot of interesting stuff over the years, not just ‘hippie’ appeal. For example, he saw back in 1973 how music would go digital – and his Long Now work is very thought-provoking.

  • Jim  On January 3, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I will look at more entries – they are thought provoking!

    Ledoux: my comment was they would have “guessed” that that is the way it works. To me, forgetting is the best indication of this, since if all knowledge was at a fixed location why would you forget some and not others?

    Tudge: I agree that when the world becomes a “village” – i.e., it cannot expand population any more for whatever reason, resilience becomes more important. However, I do not agree the world will ever become a “village” – we probably differ here – in that our innovative societies will go underground (“The Time Machine”)? or live in space (“Silent Running”)? or go to other planets (“Red Planet Mars”)? or go to other galaxies after we discover how to go faster than the speed of light – yes, physics is not absolute either!

    Brand: I will give him the benefit of the doubt! He’s done well in the free market and I have a lot of respect for that, as you know!

  • Jim  On January 4, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I hope Tudge reads this in the Financial Post today:
    Forget oil, the new global crisis is food
    I thought the article was interesting!

  • Curt  On January 4, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting… though the article seems mis-titled to me, since clearly the rising food prices are related to the rising oil prices, in several ways. Will we continue to subsidize ethanol to the extent that we end up starving people? Tough tradeoffs!

    Re: the ‘village’ – I think it very much depends on how you look at things… we are now in an era where a disease/virus could easily spread worldwide… and we see from the above how China’s consumption impacts our own situation quite directly.

    While it’s probably a bad idea to bet against the future ingenuity of mankind, I think it will be awhile before any society is able to successfully get off the planet (or under it!). Our evolution is intertwined with the specifics of this planet – the sun, the plants, the animals, the bacteria, etc. So I think you’d have to take a lot of that with you to live in any satisfying way (reminds me of stories that people recover from health problems better if they’re in a room with a view of sky and trees).

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