Meet the Human Race

This is quite possibly the most important video I have cut together to date. Not because I shot it. In fact, I’ve taken liberally from HOME, Journey of Man, and Short History of Progress.

It’s important not because the ideas are original. They are drawn from Leadership Calgary and from the work of the Action Studies Institute.

It’s important because it’s a vivid reminder to me every day that I am part of the human race whose history is my history, and whose journey is also my adventure.

I use to think my history was tied to who my grandparents were or where I was born. As it turns out, that is only a tiny part of my ancestry.

I used to just assume I was a global citizen perhaps because I’m part of that “new generation”. In reality, scientifically, historically, pragmatically we must learn to become global citizens.

And so this video is in a way an introduction to the human race and the situation we find ourselves in and the need to move forward.

I’d much enjoy hearing your response to it.


A Short Video History of Calgary

The city in which you are born is the one you know the least. It’s just home with its familiar cityscape, favorite locales and friends you’ve grown to know. What is common becomes unworthy of our curiosity.

I had a chance to renew my curiosity for my hometown of Calgary. I wanted to tell a story that connected our TEDxCalgary theme of “Breakthrough” speakers with the pioneering spirit rooted in Calgary.

So I took my camera to Fort Calgary and Heritage Park. I imagined standing on the same ground as the early immigrants and settlers would where instead of cars there were carriages. I imagined a place where Chinese was a dirty word. I also drove out to Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and tried to envision a prairie filled with a thundering ocean of bison. I even stood atop the Calgary Olympic Park to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over downtown Calgary.

Despite my Chinese ancestry, I realized in my little exploration that my deep affiliation has been with the snow-capped mountains, the cold winters, and mostly yellowish prairie landscape. To think that so many others tried to live here, eventually succeeding so that I might succeed here, feels humbling.

So here is my short history of Calgary:


Egypt’s Example for Us

I confess. I’m overwhelmed. In a month of catching up from my trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve witnessed millions of people rise up to overthrow their government, observed revolutions spread like wildfire sparking events as far as Wisconsin, and seen an earthquake and tsunami devastate whole towns. Humanity is experiencing shock, and it’s hard not to feel numb to it all.

So I want to stop for a moment to reflect on how significant the Egyptian revolution is to us. Even as Egypt fades from the headline news, the events continue their twists and turns. It would be a shame if we didn’t draw into ourselves the example that Egypt has provided for us.

If the revolution of Tahrir Square seems hazy to you now, then here is a good re-telling.

To start with, I find myself frustrated with the one-dimensional interpretation of Egypt. Trumpeting social media as the lesson learned from Egypt or fearing the revolution as a threat to US foreign policy doesn’t help us learn from the richness of all that it represents in this moment of history. Every image coming out of the Middle East should serve as a seed of thought that grows our caring and understanding of the world.

Here are a few seeds that sit in my mind:

  • The Power of Image to Reveal Injustice: When Khaled Saieed was dragged from an internet cafe and beaten in front of witnesses, the images of his assault spread on the internet to the Egyptian consciousness. This image later became the rallying cry of Wael Ghonim’s (Google VP) Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Saieed”. Images make it hard to deny injustice. Consider that it was the Kodak Camera that made the abuses of King Leopold in the Congo blatantly obvious in the US.
  • People Can Self-Organize (duh): In Tahrir Square, protesters with different views organized to arrange their own security detail and cleaning duties. They organized food, water, shelter and wi-fi internet all without a formal bureacracy. In an age where everything is run and organized by institutions it surprises us when people self-organize. Yet, that’s how human beings have done it for millions of years, and we should well remember that in our highly modernized and institutionalized environment.
  • People Learn from Example: I think it was Einstein who said, “Learning by example isn’t the best way to learn. It’s the only way to learn.” When you watch a revolution starting in Tunisia, spread to Egypt then to Libya, Jordan and other Middle-Eastern nations, you can’t help but notice how societies learn from the example of others. In this way, social media and the internet allow us to learn from others more easily. The protests and strikes in Wisconsin show that we have as much if not more to learn from them than they do from us.
  • The Revolution is Never Done: Despite the inspiring example of they Egyptian revolution, we have to remember that currently the military is still in control. It was because of their restraint that Egypt’s revolution did not turn into what Libya is experiencing now. One has to wonder why the army hasn’t intervened. The army claims that they will release power six months from now, but historically armies have not so easily given up their reins.
  • The Power of Delusions: C. C. Colton, an English cleric from the 18th century, said, “Power multiplies flatterers, and flatterers multiply our delusions by hiding us from ourselves.” Mubarak’s 30 years as a dictator had insulated him from the realities of Egyptians on the ground. Like Nixon’s slip of the tongue that “when the president does it, it is not illegal” or Wall Street’s rationalization of fraud, people with power often become enamoured with their greatness to the detriment of all. If this is the case, then it is up to all of us to see reality more clearly and demand it of the institutions we have built.

There is so much more to be said about the history of Egypt and the Middle-East that I do not understand. I hope that you will add your understanding and interpretation of the unfolding events below. Hear from you soon.



How economic myopia tells us something about rationality

Let’s face it. Conventional economic theory needs a major overhaul. I’m not here to debate Keynesian or Friedmann economics because that isn’t necessarily the most significant challenge. The most significant challenge is that economics has become the dominant mode of dealing with opportunities and threats on a global scale and the field has no idea how human beings work.

animal-spirits-antelope-oil-paintingUnderlying the dazzling mathematical models is a primitive assumption about human rationality, which is narrowly defined as purely objective and logical and self-interested. There are three serious flaws (among others) with this assumption: a) a person can never have “all the facts” to make an “objective” decision , b) even with the facts, human beings have a wide range of priorities not all of which are purely economic, and c) self-interest is only one aspect of human nature and certainly not necessarily their best quality.

All of these assumptions though lead to a system that reinforces the worst aspects of human nature. So we in fact have an economy that serves self-centred consumers who mistake impulsive decisions for living a wise life. The belief that people act primarily from economic motives is so ingrained in our culture that it has become heretical to shake.

Yet we know on a personal level that somehow the pursuit of money and material wealth degrades what it means to be alive and human. Much of what is important in life is immeasurable and intangible. Quality friendships, meaningful contribution, a sense of community, engagement in creative work are all well beyond traditional economic models. True, we need efficient ways to produce and distribute goods and services, but when economics becomes the only source of meaning, we are left with a desolate life and planet.

Robert Shiller starts to get at the nature of true human rationality. From How ‘Animal Spirits’ Destabilize Economies:

“If we thought that human beings were totally rational and acted mainly from economic motives, we, like Adam Smith and his followers today, would believe that governments should play little role in regulating financial markets and perhaps even in determining aggregate demand. But on the contrary, we believe that animal spirits play a significant and largely destabilizing role. Without government intervention, employment levels will at times swing massively, financial markets will fall into chaos, scoundrels will flourish, and huge numbers of people will live in misery.”

The idea of the “animal spirits” in us is an acknowledgment of our evolutionary past. More precisely, we are biologically wired for many kinds of rational behaviour at the level of small-troop primates. At this level, it makes sense to be loyal to family and kill any outsiders. It makes sense to be only concerned with being affirmed or achieving status within the troop.

In addition to the “animal spirits” human beings have the added ability to program themselves through socialization by their culture. Much of what we learn and what we think is important comes to us through our family, friends, books, schools, movies, and religious institutions. And as we know, that socialization may or may not be helpful. Objective rationality, sadly, comprises only a small part of how people make decisions, that same small part relied upon by economics.

What’s interesting about all this is that to a primatologist or anthropologist or sociologist, this aspect of human behaviour is hardly ground-breaking. Because of the massive amounts of knowledge available to us, we have a tendency to create silos around fields of study. You can spend your whole life studying economics, but never come to understand what life is about unless you draw from other fields.

To develop an economic model, promote it as they model to live by, and measure the outcomes by it’s own self-referential benchmarks degrades the human spirit and results in the kind of destructive behaviour seen on individual and organizational levels.

Perhaps economics is a better illustration of how we fool ourselves about how people behave than telling us about how we should or could behave.

Remembering More Than Myths on Remembrance Day

I was told as a child that Remembrance Day is about honouring the veterans and how they fought for peace. Sadly I have come to learn that this is a convenient mythology told to us so we can feel better about our history and not truly learn from it. It helps to remember that the 20th century saw some of the worst human rights violations and large-scale wars in human history. Clearly we are not remembering enough and learning enough from our past.

Here is a short list of some of the things that we should be remembering, and I’m hoping you the reader will contribute to this list so that we can have a true accounting of Remembrance Day.

We should remember

  1. The wastage of millions of lives from both our side and the “other” side on world wars that were less about peace and more because of short-sighted thinking and imperialist foreign policies.
  2. The genocides in Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, China…and many nations where often our forefathers have contributed to the problem.
  3. That we know more about destroying countries than we do about building them so that fundamentalism does not take root.

What else do you think we should remember?