2005-12-31

Leftist countries grow more in Latin America

According to a report from the Economic Comission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), countries governed by leftist parties had higher economic growth in Latin America in 2005. In recent years (Cuba being the exception), many countries have elected presidents from leftist parties (Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and now Bolivia... the list keeps growing). Why? Well, rightwing governments seem to be less aware of the social problems that are common to all Latin American countries. At least they don't do much to solve the problems. A big one is the debt, that some of the mentioned countries have been paying in advance. Another is unemployment. (If you solve these, activating the economy, there is no need for people to immigrate). Hopefully, it seems that Mexico will join the list of leftist countries next year...

Now, I wouldn't say that socialist development programmes are the best for all countries in the world. Some really need dictatorships (otherwise there's only civil war and chaos), others do well with neoliberal models. But not Latin America. It is time for socialism (again!). During the Cold War, there were several democratically elected socialist governments (Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua...) that were then militarly fought with support form the USA, as a part of the Dirty War. Well, anything that could have a tint of communism in those days, should be stepped upon. I understand that the USA didn't want more Soviet camps in Latin America, and that it was a war after all. But please! The socialism in Chile of Allende was much more similar to that of today's Sweden or Belgium. Allende himself was against many Soviet ideals...

In any case, socialist governements in Latin America also failed because they did not have as much support as they have now in the population. The ideological war is over. Indeed, it's the economy, stupid! And if now socialist models perform better in Latin America, this is good even for USA. Nobody is benefited by a weak Latin American market...

Read more (in Spanish) at www.jornada.unam.mx/200...


2005-12-26

Evolution of Complexity Workshop @ ALifeX Conference

Tom Lenaerts and I are organising a workshop on the Evolution of Complexity

You can read more at ecco.vub.ac.be/ECO/

2005-12-25

The Gringan Wall...

Last weekend I read an article by Jorge Carrillo Olea in La Jornada. (The full article in Spanish is here)

It speaks about the big wall that USA intends to build along its border with Mexico. The author notes that Ronald Reagan (Bush's political grandfather, we could say), became famous (among other things...) for asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall... The article also reflects on the uselessness of other big walls throughout history (Chinese, Hadrian's, Israeli...)

Well, this just adds to the contradictions that the USA is used to do. Claiming to be the "land of the free", in the 50's people became blacklisted if they were suspected communists... speak about freedom of speech... They invaded Irak against the U.N. security council, with the excuse to overthrow a tyrant that did torture and other horrible things... I am not saying this is not true, but the USA does the same and worse things in Irak, Guantanamo, etc... that's called hypocresy in my ranch (Mexico City)...

The thing is that last year more immigrants died trying to cross the border than U.S. soldiers in Irak... of course, you can imagine who didn't make the headlines... Building a wall will not solve the problem. The problem lies on one hand on the inability of the Mexican government (lead by technocrats bred in U.S. universities) to produce employment for the population, especially in the agricultural sector. There is almost no support to peasants, compared to the generous U.S. subsidies. More than half of the food consumed in Mexico is imported, mainly from U.S.A. The ironic thing is that a great deal of that food is harvested by Mexicans, only that the profit stays in the northern side of the border. Another issue is that last year the main income of Mexico turned out to be: not oil, not tourism, but money sent from immigrants in USA to their families... With such a big dependency of the country itself on immigrants, it is obvious to see that a wall will not stop half a million Mexicans that each year cross the border. On the other side of the border, U.S.A. is in its own right to try to keep workplaces for its citizens (works that nobody else would care to do, you might say (or as our president Fox put it, "not even black people would do" (no offense intended, it is a manner of speaking in Mexico...))). But that doesn't give anybody the right to discriminate people that cross the border risking their lives not because they like it in the other side, but because there is no other option left to feed their families. There is the demand for mexican workers, otherwise they wouldn't go there. The fact that they keep going back is that they do find jobs. If there is a demand, supply will find a way. Building a wall is just shameful for both sides: the discriminated and the discriminating. Limiting human rights of immigrants (such as health, education for their children, driving licenses) will not stop them from coming, because they had no other choice to begin with, if they had to leave home and family behind. In Australia it's much simpler. If you want to immigrate there, good, do things by the book, and everything will go fine. Stay illegally, and you are breaking their law, they'll put you in a concentration camp in the middle of the desert. Rough measures, indeed, but people know what they are risking. Both economies of Mexico and USA depend greatly on immigrants (otherwise who would send money home? Otherwise who would do the harvesting and manufacturing?). So USA knows they cannot really stop immigrants from coming, it would harm their economy. All the measures they take (including immigrant hunting) are not to stop the problem, but to save appearances. Why not to accept the problem, respect one another, and set the rules of the game clearly? Hipocresy, I say...

Note: Why "Gringan" wall? In Mexico the term "gringo" was used for foreginer. But recently this has been restricted only to people from the USA. Why? Because it seems many people (including the guys who named the country) didn't realize that America is a continent, not a country. So, if you say Americans, you need to include people from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and the majority does not live in the USA. It is too cumbersome to call them "Unitedstatians" or something like that, so gringos has been kept for short... If we want to be posh, we can say our "northern neighbours", but in a conversation the interlocutor needs to know a) that you are a Mexican. b) a bit of Geography. So, that's why "gringo" is the most used word...



Rude times we live in...

Following Nadia's advice, I started reading "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door" by Lynne Truss. It is not a guide to good manners, but more of an exhibition of the rudeness ruling today's lifes, with a focus to the UK. Comparing with Victorian times, it seems that indeed we are going downhill. But if you go before, let's say French Revolution... I don't think that the aristocrats were polite to the paisans, nor vice versa... (Exquius mee, monsieur, vould iu bee zo keind too ghemoove iugh hat beefough enteghing de guillotine?).

All this made me think of what José Emilio Pacheco and other mexican authors said some months ago about empathy. Adding a bit of spice from my own sack, it was something like: "Empathy is lacking in our present society. This is a cause of crime and violence (and rudeness), because people cannot put themselves in the place of others. Otherwise, they would not be able to do it, since empathy would make them feel what their victims suffer. Reading is a way to cultivate empathy, and it should be promoted. Like this, increasing empathy, social problems could be solved much better than with repression, zero tolerance, or increasing the number of policemen."

I think that this phenomenon can be explained neurophysiologically with mirror neurons. These neurons are activated when one is performing some action (e.g. grasping), but also when one observes somebody else performing that action. If there are mirror neurons that become active with emotions, these should become active both when we experience the emotion, and when we observe some others experiencing that emotion. Now, with a bit of training, observing the emotion in others will trigger, via the mirror neurons, the same emotion in ourselves, and thus, empathy. When we read, we are forced to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters, so that we can feel how others feel, feeling at the same time. This trains us so that we can be empathic with others, and will not attempt to be rude with them, because if we offend them, we will also feel the offense. I am sure that mirror neurons are a big piece in the puzzle of the evolution of cooperation, but that's another story...

Now, it seems more than a coincidence that in Victorian times people tended to read more, independently of their class (no TV, you know). It should be tested, but there seems to be a very strong correlation of the average number of books read with the social problems of a country. Not only rudeness, but also violence, murders, rape, thefts, etc. Reading increases empaty and consciousness to others in a way that TV simply can't. Now, I wonder if in the Internet there could be some things that could cultivate empathy? The same for games... I suppose that kill'em all games will not help in this aspect, but probably some web-based games that require social interaction could take our societies out of the hole they are digging themselves into...

I don't have precise numbers, but I know that in the USA and Mexico the reading rate is very low, as well as the quality of life. I heard that in Iceland, to cope with those long and dark winters, people basically read and have sex. Result, one of the highest qualities of life in the world, in spite of not the best weather... In Scandinavia things seem to be similar, though I am not sure about reading, and I know Swedish have a drinking problem... In the Soviet Union, people also read a lot, and there was no crime at all (not that there weren't problems). After it fell, reading promotion stopped (and many many other problems came along), and crime rates are something to speak about... skinheads in St. Petersburg kill foreign students every now and then, and the police seems to be indifferent about it...

Religion and Science

We all know that Christmas is more than presents (tell that to a 5 year old, bombarded since October by TV ads)... I know that it is a Christian holiday, but I believe that in many cases it's more a time to spend together with family than anything else. (Also in Mexico we don't have Thanksgiving, and New Year is celebrated sometimes more with friends than with family).

OK, I don't have a religion, and many countries in theory don't have an official one either. (e.g. Mexico is a laic state, but December 25th is one of the five official holidays of the year) But I don't think that even if religions change, Christmas would be declared useless... Well, the same goes for religions. Scientific evidence against many strongly held religious beliefs demands a change in them: shape of the Earth, origin of life, origin of human species... (read Christian De Duve's "Life Evolving" (he's a catholic)). But the moral function of religions is not provided by any other institution, so that should be somehow kept, or provided by an alternative institution.

In the early days of religions (and philosophies), the way of convincing people was saying that their word was the absolute truth, unquestionable, and unequivocal (and then burning those who weren't convinced enough). But then came Science, questioning its own beliefs (at least in theory). It turns out that nowadays, with all the diversity of ideas we have access to, holding to absolute truths is simply blinding oneself. Religions need to admit changes within their beliefs, if they are to adapt to our current world. I respect religions, and I am not saying that people shouldn't believe. I am saying that absolute truths lead to intolerance to other people's beliefs. And we had enough holy wars in history, I feel...

2005-12-24

Complex Humour

I am busy with different aspects of complex systems (from scientific and philosopical points of view)
Some time ago (having nothing better to do, it seems), I made some complexity-related cartoons... Here's one of them:


Recent aphorisms...

“A happy life is full of sufferings”

“Only misery is for free”

“Even if you do everything a woman wants, it will not be enough. But of course, this is no reason for not doing it”

“Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstndings” -Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, Ch. 11, p. 146


You can find many more at http://homepages.vub.ac.be/~cgershen/jlagunez/aforismos.html
(since 1997)

My first blog...

What for to have a blog? Well, there's only one way to find out...