2007-10-25

Fraude: México 2006

Next month, the film "Fraude: México 2006" by Luis Mandoki will be released in more than 200 Mexican cinemas. You can see the trailer in YouTube (in Spanish...).

This documentary gathers evidence filmed by hundreds of people about the fraud of the 2006 presidential elections. The Mexican supreme court already accepted that there had been severe irregularities, but in spite of that, we're stuck with a duck president (Felipe Calderón, aka FeCal), puppet of the people who managed to put him in power. Most recently, AeroMexico was sold to a business group who supported FeCal.

I hope that this film will inform better people. There is no doubt about the fraud, there is more than enough evidence for it. But many Mexicans don't know about it (TV companies invested a lot in FeCal), and most don't even care...

It is worth noting that Warner Bros, the original distributor of the film, tried to censor it, namely a part that compromises Televisa directives. When the director refused, Warner Bros withdrew their $upport. The film was completed thanks to thousands of private donation$.

Reducing Social Conflict: Lessons from Ecology

In ecology, one can see that if a species is too "efficient", it will exhaust its resources, and become extinct. This has led to the "prudent predator" concept: A predator needs to save some prey to subsist another day. Herbivores need to do the same with pastures, and parasites and viruses with their hosts. This is why deadly virus strains do not propagate much: if they kill their hosts, they cannot use them to spread.

We can extend this idea to social systems. For example, if employers exploit their workers too much, these will not be motivated to work well, and the company will go out of business. Certainly, there are exceptions: monopolies, where no matter how bad a service or product is, the consumer has no alternative. Another case is when there is a large workforce supply, i.e. high unemployment rates. If there are plenty of workers, employers will be tempted to exploit them, replacing the "weak" ones with those able to withstand their demands.
Still, overexploitation of workers will lead to a decrease in efficiency of the company. It is to the advantage of the employers to treat their workers well, just as it is to the advantage of parasites not to kill their hosts. Economy, just as ecology, is not about obtaining most profit now, but about reaching the highest level of constant profit. Too much immediate profit will lead to future collapse. And for this we can look not only at ecology, but also at history: this mechanism is precisely what triggers revolutions and social conflict.

What was said above about employers can also be applied to nation leaders: exploit the people now, you'll get a revolution tomorrow. Support the people, and your own power will grow. The same goes for international relations. I will limit myself to the case of U.S. and Mexico. For decades, the U.S. has been dominating Mexico politically and economically. The outcome: no development in Mexico, half a million immigrants to the U.S. every year in this decade, poverty and unemployment in both countries. If Mexico had the development level of e.g. Portugal or Spain, which have grown thanks to the European Union support, the economy of the U.S. would benefit greatly, since it would provide a huge market to sell their products and invest. They already dominate the Mexican market (more than half of Mexican food is imported from the U.S.... a large part harvested by Mexicans...), but it is limited to the low income of the average citizen. If the U.S. had allowed more development in Mexico, today both would be better off: Mexico with less poverty and higher income, the U.S. with less immigrants and wider market opportunities in Mexico.

Profit (economic, social, oligarchic, geopolitic) on the long term does not come from taking advantage of the moment, but from reducing frictions and conflict. If you want to have gains, it is foolish to try to take from others. The way to go is to build together with them... symbiosis constructs, parasitism destroys...

I am not naïve enough to think that conflict can be avoided. I am just pointing out that minimizing it brings more profits in the long term than fueling it.

2007-10-24

New eBook: Design and Control of Self-organizing Systems

My first eBook just came out. It is based on my PhD thesis, published by CopIt Arxives at the UNAM, which follows the spirit of Open Source. The editor is Octavio Miramontes.


Gershenson, Carlos (2007). Design and Control of Self-organizing Systems. CopIt ArXives, Mexico. TS0002EN

Complex systems are usually difficult to design and control. There are several particular methods for coping with complexity, but there is no general approach to build complex systems. In this book I propose a methodology to aid engineers in the design and control of complex systems. This is based on the description of systems as self-organizing. Starting from the agent metaphor, the methodology proposes a conceptual framework and a series of steps to follow to find proper mechanisms that will promote elements to find solutions by actively interacting among themselves.

2007-10-19

Competition and Development

One of the things I learned from years of competitive swimming is the following: you should not compete against others. You should compete against yourself. If you are first place or fourth or last does not depend only on how you perform, but on the people who happen to compete at the same meeting. You have no control on the others' performance, so you can only attempt to improve your own time: compete against yourself.
This idea can be extended well beyond sport. It is senseless to compete at school, work, or within family. Simply because each person has different abilities. We all start with different genes, different contexts, different backgrounds. If I try to earn more money than somebody whose family has been rich for generations, I will only be disappointed. And the other way around: If I compare myself only with people with a less advantageous position, I will be fooling myself and will never progress. Compete against yourself: Just try to earn more money than before.
Just as it is unreasonable for an amateur jogger to beat a Kenyan in marathon (or a Kenyan taking pride in doing so), it is unreasonable to compare yourself with any other person. The only reasonable thing to do is to compare yourself with yourself: effort counts more than the outcome. The effort depends on you, the outcome not only...

2007-10-12

Playing with Emergence

Last Saturday, Seth Frey organized an awesome party at his Cambridge loft. Different people were given different tasks, and I had the mission to "prepare an artificial life demonstration, using the actually living in your audience". I remembered hearing at some conferences (was it a talk by Eric Bonabeau?) about games where people follow simple rules, and then end up creating interesting patterns, independently of the initial conditions, without the need of anybody knowing what was expected from them.

I didn't find some examples online, so I devised a few games, which were played at the party by about 30 people:

  • "approach one": each player chooses another player, and approaches one step at a time (I did the synchronizing with clapping). I thought everybody would end up in the center, but actually a few clusters were formed.
  • "retreat one": each player chooses another player, and runs away. I thought that everybody would end up at the edges of the room, and they did.
  • "between two": each player chooses two players, and tries to step in between them. I had no idea what would happen, and everybody ended cramming up in the center of the room.
The idea of these games is to try to understand the relationship between local behavior and global patterns... plus they are fun...

So, preparing for the next party, I made a simple simulation with NetLogo. This repeated the results from the party experiments, plus I programmed more strategies, and the ability to mix them i.e. to have some players approach and some retreating. You can play with it from your Java-enabled browser, or download the source code here.

Screenshot

If you found this interesting, you need to check these out:

2007-10-09

Solutions for Global Warming

James E. Lovelock and Chris G. Rapley recently submitted a letter to Nature, suggesting the use of pipes to mix ocean waters to help them bloom pumping carbon dioxide underwater. Sounds much better than some others... but still, we should be cautious.

I asked Inman Harvey his opinion about it, and here's his reply:

On the one hand, my instinct is to be deeply sceptical and worried about *any* largescale attempt to modify a complex nonlinear feedback system barely understood, with not only known unknowns but unknown unknowns. I am somewhat sympathetic with a comment piece by Hari on
http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_a_l/johann_hari/article3024703.ece

On the other hand, compared with some other bizarre geo-engineering proposals, this is reassuringly lowtech, cheap, could be introduced and monitored in just one area initially -- and would be simple and quick to turn off if necessary. Rapid and scaleable and monitorable and turn-offable seems to offer more opportunities for deciding whether it might be mistaken and then modifying than the converse. So it seems at the lower-risk end of the spectrum of such ideas, and worth more consideration.

I don't know anything that Inman wouldn't be deeply skeptical about, so I guess this measure is worth giving it a try... Certainly unexpected things can happen, but you can start in less than a year with a pilot study, and scale it if it works... Of course, countries which produce more CO2 should pay for this... This shouldn't be an excuse to keep on pumping greenhouse gases, but we can see that even with our best efforts, global warming is already underway, and we can only attempt to mitigate the looming catastrophes...

2007-10-05

Different recipes for development

U.S.-led organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been "recommending" developing countries on how to improve their economies. However, the only countries that develop are the "developed" ones... very few developing countries have improved their economies. Moreover, those who have improved, especially in Latin America, have been precisely those who refused to follow the dictates from the U.S. Why? Because people at the IMF and WB thought for decades the following: "if this model of economic development worked for us, we should just export it to other countries, and their economies will grow as ours". What happened? Countries are very different. Moreover, the situation in Latin America (and the world) today is very different from the one the U.S. had when it had a similar economic level. We cannot assume that the same model will work again, just as it hasn't worked for decades. The cultures are different. Histories are different. Poverty levels, education, religion, mentality... they are all different. If a country like Mexico wanted to progress, it should follow better the steps of Latin American countries that have managed to pay their debts and a positive commercial balance, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. Their situation is much more similar than that of Mexico, and if it worked for them, why should we follow what hasn't worked for decades?

We could be naïve, and think that people in governments are silly and they do not realize these facts. Or we could be cynical, and believe that the elites do it on purpose for their own benefit. In any case, Mexico should look more to the south and less to the north. And the U.S. would benefit more from allowing the self-determination of countries than blunt interventions, just look at Irak: they were better off, the U.S. was better off.