Size matters, at least in history

Quite some time ago, surfing the net, I found a gem named ‘Scale of the universe 2’. It is an amazing tool that allows you to visualise the incredibly huge disparity of sizes known to man. From the Plank length (1,6·10-35 m) —”the smallest distance about which current experimentally corroborated models of physics can make meaningful statements” [1]— to the diameter of the observable universe (8.8·1026 m). And in between, all you could imagine. A range of more than sixty orders of magnitude! You want to compare the Eiffel tower with the Titanic? No problem. You want to compare it to the Halley comet? Just use the scroll. It is beautifully intriguing. You can spend hours and hours scrolling and discovering endless information.

Image of the tool ‘Scale of the universe 2’. Click the image to access it.

This is an amazing tool which I keep on visiting from time to time, especially when I read or hear about huge or tiny sizes and I need to get an idea on where they fall. It makes interactive what the classic video ‘Powers of ten‘ showed already in 1977. Since then, other videos show more or less the same. But still, with the tool you can discover at your own pace or try compare what you are interested about.

I have always found it very interesting to be able to visualise in some way the magnitude of the things which are outside our day to day, outside our scale; to give them a context and place them in a general frame. But this is not always easy. For example, 10.000.000.000.000.000 is the same as 1016. Do you get an intuition of the magnitude of the number? I don’t really. The scientific notation at least makes it is easy to compare and operate with numbers of distinct scales, but intuitively the difference between 1016 and 1011 is not large, and yet there is a 100.000 fold difference.

Another “tool” that can help us place anything in a general frame, in this case in a temporal frame, is what is called ‘Big history’. Here you can see the Ted talk with which I discovered it. It is very interesting:

The history of our world in 18 minutes, David Christian in Ted

The guys from the ‘Big history project‘ have prepared a history course which is a bit special. This course starts a bit earlier than the typical history courses. It starts 17.3 billion years ago! They offer a course that can be taught in schools and also a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) in coursera.org. Since this project started, other institutions have also developed similar courses. I did a couple and they are fascinating! I recommend everyone to give them a try. They review the most important events of the history of the universe in an ordered and visual way. They start with physics and chemistry —with the beginning of the universe, the formation of atoms, stars, galaxies and planets—, then they continue with geology and biology —formation of Hearth, the evolution from uni-cellular to complex life—, and finally they end with (“normal”) history and sociology —appearance of the sapiens, conflicts and relations between humans—. They show how local increases in the universe’s complexity has led to us thanks to some delicate goldilocks. Here you can see (and download it as a 16 MB pdf file!) the timeline produced by the ‘Big history project’.

That’s again super-interesting and informative. You can easily ‘navigate’ through the whole history of the universe easily and with huge detail. The only problem is that the time axis is not lineal. This makes it is difficult to really get an idea of the real temporal scales. This scale can obviously not be lineal because the pace of relevant events increases exponentially when it gets closer to the present. But, what if there would be something similar to the ‘Scale of the universe 2’ but showing time scales instead of space scales? I had searched several times for such a tool but I was always unsuccessful. That’s why some years ago I tried a quick and dirty attempt to it. Curiously, I managed to obtain a pretty descent result using Prezi, the presentations software —I actually used the old version of Prezi; I don’t think it would be possible to do it now, but it still works and can be edited!—. I’m sure the creators of Prezi did not anticipate its tool would be used in such a way. What I did is a simple presentation with only a handful of events placed in a kind of an arrow of time. The beauty of using Prezi is that it actually allows you to zoom in and out at factors of 10. This let’s you actually place the events following a linear distribution. So, instead of using a logarithmic time axis to be able to properly place each event, it allows you to zoom in and out and place them in a linear axis. It is the same approach used by the ‘Scale of the universe 2’. The result is not awesome but allows you to easily visualise the most relevant “big-historical” events and compare their hugely distinct temporal scales. That’s enough description, just take a look at it!

Image of the Prezi I did. Click the image to view it.

I hope you like it; I am actually proud of what I did. However, I’d still love to have some kind of tool similar to this but much more professional, letting you navigate through all the events showed in the infographic above. This is why I wrote this post. Maybe someone with the skills and patience to do it sees it sometime and decides to go for it… Let’s see! Please, if you do, don’t forget to comment below and show me the result!

That’s all for today, stay safe!

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To meat or not to meat

I have something to confess: I’m not vegan; not even vegetarian. I know, shame on me! Well, maybe not. But in any case I’m not proud of it. For me, vegetarians and especially vegans, they are role models. I admire those people who gave up eating meat or using animal products in general only to follow their principles. Or, at least, I admire most of them.

But why should I admire them? They are so annoying! They make it always so difficult to find a place to eat out… and they passively point to us, animal eaters, as heartless beings capable to kill other sentient beings for the sole purpose of our enjoyment. My dear! This is not a nice accusation! Even when they don’t say it directly. We don’t like to feel like this! This is why part of the animal eaters disregard them as freaks, extremists, or even fanatics. This way we can ignore the implicit accusation based on who does it, not based on its content. That’s a good way not to think about the reasons behind being vegetarian or vegan. That’s a good way to lie to ourselves. Nevertheless, this accusation is true. We are killing other sentient beings for the sole purpose of our enjoyment.

Wait! Health! We need to eat meat in order to be healthy. Well, ask vegans how they feel… Sure, they are not really trustworthy, they are kind of freaks, right? Let’s look at it with another angle: in some states of India, at least 70% of the people are vegetarians, and 27% of the whole country are vegans [1]. Not enough? Then go to any dietitian and ask: if you are vegan you have to pay more attention to what you eat, since it is easy to lack vitamin B12 and some other nutrient. But with a bit of care and some nutritional technology —e.g. many plant foods are fortified with B12– this is not more than an excuse as they normally enjoy far healthier lives than meat-eaters. And, by the way, if you put as excuse that you want to be an all-natural, and that food additives are not for you, you can always eat insects. Eating insects basically is trolling veganism. It is not a way to troll it 100%, but it trolls veganism a lot. You eat animals but, how sentient are them? Are plants much less sentient than insects? Sure, you don’t need to kill most of the plants in order to eat them, but you do need to kill some. As I said, it is a very good way to troll veganism. And it is a really very good alternative to “normal” meat in all aspects. I may write about it in another post but, for now, if you care about sustainability, “evolved animals”, or your health: eat insects.

Fruits-and-Veggies

Let’s go back to the topic. Why do I admire vegans and vegetarians? –Sorry, let me group vegetarians and vegans in one name to make my life easier. From now on I will call them veggiers–. It is easy, what are the reasons to become a veggier?  The main reasons are: taste, religion in general terms (including traditions), avoid animal suffering, and environmentalism. Leaving the ‘taste-vegetarians’ aside –yes, this is the group I don’t admire–, all other veggiers are so despite the pleasure and convenience of eating meat. I will also let aside the ones who are veggiers for religious reasons; although this is not a strictly random reason –there are probably historic hygienic as well as ethical reasons behind it–, it is true that if religion would say the opposite, they would do the opposite without further thought. In any case, they deserve some respect for their self-discipline.

But what about all these incredibly wonderful people who are veggiers even though they might have loved to eat meat, even though they have probably tasted a wonderful slice of juicy Serrano, even though it is sometimes hell-difficult to find veggier options in restaurants? What about these incredibly annoying wonderful people who passively point at our selfishness because they stopped eating meat simply because they love animals? Or because they simply asked themselves why should they kill anything if they do not need to? Or because they know eating animals is (one of) the main source(s) of greenhouse gases [2]?

Yes, these wonderful annoying almost perfect people, they are scary. They frighten us because we see what they do and we cannot imagine any straightforward way to follow the same path. I propose to you, meat-eater, to change this fear for admiration. Or do you feel fear when you see, let’s say, Messi doing his magic? Or Elon Musk, or Yuval Noah Harari… or Chuck Norris?! Or do fear Emma Watson, Beyoncé, or Malala Yousifazi? No, we admire them. They inspire us. Many use them as role models to get better in sports, business, thinking, activism or life in general. And we don’t even dream to get close to their achievements. Let’s do the same with veggiers! And they are closer so we can ask them how they managed it. We will realise that it took most of them a long journey until they became veggiers.

pernil.jpg

And veggiers, please; don’t make it all so difficult! Don’t be so inflexible! Make it easier for the rest of us to admire you instead of fear you! This is a message especially directed to that small sub-section of veggiers which could be called angry-veggiers: those who make a whole group walk half a city in order to find a veggier-friendly restaurant, those who do not let flatmates have meat in the fridge or even eat it in front of them, those who try to make animal-eaters feel bad about it. Those are the ones who make all the group be feared by many animal-eaters. Think about it in tactical terms: do you want people to be veggier, or do you want to improve animal welfare and/or the environment? If your answer is the latter, then it is much more useful that everybody decreases their meat consumption to a 50% of what it was, than that a fistful of people uses no animal product at all. Make the numbers! Show us how easy it is to decrease our meat consumption to a fraction of what it was before. Show us that you can feel good with yourself while you enjoy a slice of Serrano. And enjoy it! This 0.1% of meat you will eat, will show the rest that being a veggier is not something absolute, it is not a cult. It is something to aspire to. A goal. An asymptote. What is important is not to reach zero but to get closer to it. And if your answer to the question was the former option… think again about your reasons for being a veggier and afterwards go back to the question again.

And meat eaters, did we ever ask ourselves why do we eat so much meat? Do we even enjoy it? I’m not asking you to give up eating good meat, or doing a BBQ from time to time. But all this meat we eat without even enjoying it? It is not even healthy! And many times we only use meat as a basis for sauce! If we want to eat meat, let’s try to eat meat which tastes like meat at least. What’s the logic otherwise? And let’s eat vegetables. Many more vegetables. It is easy! And they don’t need to be boringly boiled; they can be grilled, or steamed, or baked, roasted, or raw. Tasty! And fruits! I’m not a fruit man, I mostly find them too sweet and I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but most people have. And NUTS. This manna from the heavens! Really, all the money you will save not buying boring meat, spend it with nuts. Really, do it. Well, spend more!

Veggies

And, after a while, you, meat-eater, will realise that veggies are actually tastier than regular meat. I’m not speaking about good meat, here. But, please, don’t even try to compare a stupidly boring chicken breast with a plate of mixed veggies grilled in a pan. At that point is when eating meat doesn’t make sense unless it is special in some way. One way of it being special, don’t get me wrong, can be that you are hungry and there is no other option than eating meat. This is a perfectly valid ‘special’ occasion to me. So, as I was saying, at that point, when we are not addicted to meat any longer, is when eating starts to rock. Then is when you start considering whether to eat meat or not even in special occasions. We all care about the environment, even those who don’t –put them in the middle of a dumping site and ask them if they feel very happy there–. We all care about other’s suffering too. At that point is when you will start taking all that into consideration when you eat. Don’t fear this point, my friend. Because here is when you are really free. Being free means being able to choose. Until this point you, meat-eater, were not free. Society had stolen from you the chance to eat anything else than meat –well, it gave you also fries, boringly-boilded bad veggies, and sometimes a couple of salad leaves. At this point you will be free, and you will enjoy your freedom.

So, let’s all eat many more vegetables and much less meat! Our bodies will be healthier, our planet will be healthier and our animals will be healthier! And speaking about healthier animals brings me to yet another reason to aspire to be a veggier: antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most overlooked dangers for humans. In the next few decades many of our most used antibiotics may become almost useless due to bacteria growing resistance to them. It is a multifactorial problem, of course, and probably most of the guilt comes to our stupidly wrong use of antibiotics for human health. But another large source of antibiotic resistance is the animal farming industry. This industry uses antibiotics in order for the animals to grow bigger and as prophylaxis measure. Both reasons are crazily capitalistic! Medicate animals for the only reason that they grow more and faster? Medicate our animals preventively before they get sick because of their lack of hygienic measures and their crowding? Yuck! There is a huge problem here. And part of the reason for this problem is our addiction to eating meat.

Knowing all this let me go back to the beginning of the post. I’m not vegan; not even vegetarian. And I’m not proud of it. However, I don’t think I will ever be. At least not a strict veggier in any way. I don’t think I will ever decide that, if the opportunity of eating a wonderful juicy slice of Serrano arises, I won’t take it. What I will probably do when I have such an opportunity, is to think if the pleasure is really worthwhile. Or whether I have any alternative. Or whether I already had this opportunity too often. I will also not seek these opportunities. I hope. I don’t know. But I’m sure if we all eat more veggies and less meat we will all be more healthy, as well as the environment and the other animals. And we may collaborate to delay antibiotic resistance. What is sure is that I will continue admiring veggiers for their commitment and will power; that’s for sure.

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From the origin of the universe to the Economy for the Common Good

As you may know, the second law of thermodynamics states —in smarter words— that an isolated system cannot increase their inner order spontaneously. You may also know that what characterises a system’s complexity is, precisely, its inner order (in a homogeneous mix, you find the same regardless where you look in the mix, there is no order; however if you look inside your computer, you see very different components depending where you look at, it is highly ordered).

Then, an obvious question arises: What are we doing here? How is it possible to generate the extreme complexity represented by you and me? Or, in general terms, how is it that complexity seems to spontaneously emerge in the universe?

Well, as long as the ‘total order’ of the system does not increase, nothing prevents an increase in order locally within the system. Such increases in local complexity are extremely rare, though. They can only happen when the conditions are right: not too hot, not too cold; not too much of this, not to few of that. The conditions enabling the emergence of complexity are generally called Goldilocks Conditions, and the moments a new form of complexity appears are referred to as thresholds. With each new threshold, the going gets tougher; structures are more fragile and vulnerable, and conditions tighter.

First, the increases in complexity seemed to be driven by imperfection and random events. We don’t know much about the moment when the universe first appeared, but after a while, tiny inhomogeneities in the distribution of the particle mush lead to distinct clouds of particles which, in time, ended forming planets and galaxies. Threshold after threshold, complexity was increasing. Even until the beginning of life, where complexity grew driven by extremely rare errors occurring randomly in the copying of DNA, chance was the driver of these increases. Since then, however, a new driver took the lead: collaboration.

Universe timeline

Diagram of evolution of the (observable part) of the universe from the Big Bang (left) to the present – Picture by NASA/WMAP Science Team

This collaboration was, at the beginning, undoubtedly unintentional: very primitive cells merged —probably in an attempt of one to ‘infect’ the other— to form a more successful form of life; single cells collaborated to form simple multicellular organisms; these, evolved into large and extremely complex organisms. Such organisms are a symphony of collaboration between thousands of individual cells. From this point on, collaboration turns much more intentional. As we know, animals collaborate with their peers. Collaboration is not only convenient in the animal kingdom, it is mostly imperative, since most reproduction relies on mating and the life of the offspring depends on the progenitors for a period of time. These collaborations continued increasing in complexity; first, with the appearance of small bands, then tribes, then small villages… Cities, kingdoms, states, empires, alliances between nations; religions, companies, parties, cultures, or even wars are expressions of collaboration.

Physics led to chemistry, which led to biology, which led to history, sociology, philosophy, economy, politics… But this is not the end of the story. As we saw, the Goldilocks Conditions needed by higher degrees of complexity are tighter and difficult to keep. And we humans have an ever-increasing power to modify our environment. Some call our era the Anthropocene, where humans are the predominant driver of change at a planetary level. Hence, if we want to continue existing, we have the huge challenge to preserve the narrow Goldilocks Conditions that hold our existence.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has defined the boundary conditions we should not cross to keep our planet hospitable. They reveal our ecological ceiling, beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. Keeping the planet below this ecological ceiling is, however, not our only challenge. Our global society is extremely unfair, with huge differences in the well-being of their members. This, in our current global civilization and with our enormous destructive power, threatens not only the poor but the stability of the society as a whole. Therefore, there is another leg of the Goldilocks Conditions which hold the extreme complexity of our society and enable us to thrive. This leg is the social boundaries which allow for a decent life for everybody. They reveal our social foundation and are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards. Kate Raworth and Oxfam jointed these two sets of boundaries to form the Doughnut Economics diagram.

Doughnut economy

The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries (2017) – Picture by Kate Raworth

Between the social foundations and the environmental ceiling lies the environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive without threatening the conditions which support the complexity of our societies. Our extraordinary challenge is to keep us and our development within this space. Fortunately, there are a lot of movements in the world that are working to achieve this, either by working in one of its aspects or by working holistically in all them. Probably, many work for our society to lay well within those limits without being even aware they do. They simply work to make the system fair for everyone, sustainable, or for both at the same time. However, the best way to keep us within these safe conditions, is by realising we are dealing with a complex adaptive system which is constantly evolving. Therefore, we need to use systems-thinking to shape it to the design we want. We need to intervene, to steward it, to design it so it is regenerative and distributive rather than merely trying to avoid the boundaries.

This is precisely what the Economy for the Common Good (ECG) does. The ECG —which is gaining momentum every day, especially in Europe— advocates to work towards cooperation and the common good, as opposed to the current pursue of profit within fierce competition. The five fundamental values behind the ECG are: cooperation and solidarity, ecological sustainability, democratic co-determination and transparency, human dignity, and social justice. Based on these values they defined a series of measures which limit uncontrolled growth, reward socio-environmentally responsible products, and democratises power. Their approach is to set a global framework with the specifics decided locally in a democratic debate. There is still a lot of work to do, and it is being done by around 7 thousand people, which are actively engaged on a voluntary basis in more than 100 regional groups. The Common Good Balance Sheet is probably their flagship. It is an easy way for businesses to measure their contribution to the common good. About 400 companies have published their Common Good Balance Sheet or are ECG-members although it does not yet have any other benefit than the recognition of the work well done.

EcoGoodPetit

Economy for the Common Good trademark picture

Such measures as the ones proposed by ECG, put their effort in designing a distributive social system with a regenerative productive system. Movements like this one are essential in order to make sure we do not mess too much with the Goldilocks Conditions which are crucial to maintain our level of complexity. It is imperative for us to work hard, but we will hopefully manage it. Or not. But we must try and we will definitely have a lot of fun doing it. Believe me, it is such an interesting challenge! And, the best of all, you will work directly or indirectly with the most amazing people.

 

For more information on Big History (Goldilocks Conditions, thresholds and the evolution of complexity through history) watch this video or check this website out.

For more information on the Anthropocene check this website out or read this article.

For more information on the nine boundaries to keep our planet hospitable watch this video or check this website out.

For more information on the Doughnut Economics watch this video or check this website out.

For more information on the Economy for the Common Good watch this video or check this website out.

You can also comment the post to ask for more information, suggest an improvement, ask a question, or simply state your opinion. All the respectful and constructive comments are welcome, thank you.

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Distributive justice… of injustice

Translated from the original article by Bru RoviraJustícia distributiva… de la injustícia‘ in the Catalan newspaper ARA (05/02/2016)

 

There are more and more African governments in favour to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC) and create an own court, African, which will judge the crimes against humanity from their continent. The last summit of the African Union (AU) passed some days ago a proposal which opens the possibility for all the countries member of the AU to leave the ICC all together. The driver of this initiative is Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, a man who was charged precisely by the ICC, accused of promoting and financing the confrontations –with huge massacres– in the country after the elections of 2007. In 2014, however, the public prosecutor’s office of the ICC withdrew the charges. The legal ground to do so was the lack of evidences. The reality is that politics has prevailed over the law.

The arguments used by the African heads of state that want to exit the ICC make sense: they are fed up, they say, of being almost the sole countries which are prosecuted by the international law about crimes against humanity. They have a point: if the laws of the ICC would be applied in a fair and egalitarian way in all the world, today the main leaders of countries member of the United Nations Security Council should sit in the Hague’s court.

Every day, every new war, every new refugee’s crisis, the international law in defence of the human rights and the international criminal law get more diluted, ending solely in a political use, but barely independent of the main powers. The interests of the states, the ones with power, are immune to the universal laws they promote… for the others. Just one example: the outlaw summary executions became in a generalized practice in USA, Israel, Russia or France. Leaving aside the meaning of outlaw killing, this executions cause civil massacres and, very often, mad mistakes considering as military objectives innocent civilians.

Also, not everybody can be prosecuted by the ICC. China and the USA did not subscribe it. Bilateral help, cooperation agreements, etc., make it mandatory for African countries and the rest of the countries depending on the rich ones. Therefore, countries subdue international law not because of they believe in it but because they need to  get other advantages. And we all know what happens when interests are against convictions: just remember how the government of PP [Popular Party, the right-wing party in Spain] cancelled the cases opened in Spain under universal law, for example, when they believed them to be against commercial and political interests.

Obviously, if African countries exit the ICC it won’t be a progress for justice. The only thing which will happen will be that straps, the state criminals of this continent, will be able to continue their job without obstructions, without fearing the law. Without having the uncertainty about what will happen when they are not in charge any more (losing the power could lead to prison, there are many examples). What the African countries willing to exit ICC are aiming to, is to also be protected from their criminal actions. They just ask for equal conditions with the states which do whatever they please outside the international and humanitarian law, every time more jeopardized. An act of distributive justice… of the criminal injustice.

 

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