Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ethical stocks!!!

I read a somewhat bizarre news item on the front page of The Financial Times yesterday. Apparently an ethical equity index has been launched "in response to increasing demand by investors for so-called ethical stocks in the wake of the financial crisis". The group of 533 European companies consists of companies that derive their revenues solely "from sources approved 'according to the values and principles of the Christian religion'".

Among the companies in the index are BP, HSBC, Nestlé, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Making money, as I have argued before on this site, is closely related to greed and, as I have also argued, I have the strong suspicion that when the brain's greed system is in operation, those parts of the brain that regulate ethical conduct are de-activated. Perhaps the greater the amount of money to be made, the greater the deactivation of the system that regulates ethical behaviour.

Now let me say that such an experiment has not been reported yet, to my knowledge. But I strongly suspect - just by watching human behaviour (and there has been plenty to watch in the past year alone and, as I understand it, there is a spectacle going on right now) - my conjecture will turn out to be true.

Perhaps it is wise to stop pretending - and fooling ourselves and others - that making big deal money can be made entirely ethically. Perhaps we should put money (and the greed that commonly goes with it) into separate compartments.

Of course there are rich individuals who have behaved entirely ethically and in accordance with the principles of their religion.

But I have not heard of many very big companies that do so.

Why not admit that greed is incompatible with high ethical standards?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I’m upset about Amsterdam

I stopped in Amsterdam on my way to give a lecture in Groningen, with the specific purpose of visiting the exhibition at the Hermitage entitled Matisse and Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art. I was in fact especially interested in seeing the Malevich paintings on display, since I am myself preparing a Malevich event for October (about which more later). But there was ONLY ONE Malevich in the Amsterdam exhibition, entitled Black on White. It is at the very end of the exhibition. I felt cheated by that…especially since Matisse and Malevich are advertised in letters of equal size on the posters. I wonder whether there is a Trades Description Act in Holland, equivalent to the one in England. If there is, I think that there would be a good case for saying that the act has been infringed.

The curators may have done this deliberately…and tantalized the visitor to the end, or they may have had another symbolic idea in mind. Whatever, I still feel cheated.

Of course I could have asked for my money back…but actually, the rest of the exhibition was very enjoyable, so I didn’t (not that they would have given it back, I imagine). There are some wonderful paintings from Matisse and Picasso, as well as many others. Perhaps the most memorable quote in the exhibition is one attributed to Picasso, which I had not encountered before.

Picasso, apparently, did not want to dissociate himself completely from depicting the external reality, as Malevich did. “You have to start somewhere” he is quoted as saying. “You can always erase reality later on”.

Interesting thought, that. I think that artists always do erase reality to a greater or lesser extent, and substitute their own reality – created by their brains, instead.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Zero and cognitive factors

I write about a topic of which I am very largely ignorant but which nevertheless seems interesting.

The overall question is: to what extent is our concept of zero shaped by religious, philosophical or metaphysical considerations and to what extent is it based on our mathematical sense.

The question came to me after attending a very interesting lecture/discussion on Indian mathematics given by Dr. George Gheverghese Joseph as part of the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary celebrations.

As I understand it, the concept of zero was developed in India in the Vedic period, which stretched from the second millennium to the 6th century BC.

It is strongly related to a concept called Sunya which means nothingness, emptiness, void, while Sunyata refers to “emptying the mind of all impressions”, presumably to achieve peace.

It is a concept that has been used to describe an important aspect of the arts, namely the capacity to realize the void and represent it, while within the context of Sunya, architecture is also related to the void – “It is not walls that make a building but the emptiness”.

Is there, one wonders, any relation between the concept of zero and these almost philosophical and quasi-religious views about emptying the mind to achieve peace?

The view held by the Vedic mathematicians is that the number zero, being no number at all, is the necessary condition for the existence of all numbers.

But our view of zero, unlike our view of other numbers, seems to have evolved. In the 19th century, division by 0 was considered to be a meaningless operation, while it is viewed differently today. It is indeed critical in computational operations.

But zero is apparently also linked to very large numbers, indeed to infinity, a question that fascinated the ancient Indian mathematicians, whereas the ancient Greeks, apparently, had a horror of large numbers and infinity, preferring finite geometrical representations.

All of which would seem to suggest that the number zero, unlike natural numbers, is one that is open to other influences and open also to conceptual modifications. Perhaps this is also true of infinity.

It is worth thinking about in the context of the mathematical brain.