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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

Emergence in Story and in the Hen House Flock

Emergence in complex systems in defined as a group of things becoming something more than the parts of that group can explain. A complex system can be any group of things that interact in nonlinear (not straight or direct) ways with each other, like an organization of human beings or birds sharing a Hen House.

If the mission for all the employees of an airline is to get the traveler to his destination with the most comfort in the least time possible, but the employees insist on sticking to their job description, what emerges is something not as friendly as intended. In many businesses, producing a reliable product can be forgotten in the name of making a larger profit.

What you do as a group, not what you say, is what you become. The soul of the group emerges, like the Hen House flock of geese, chickens, and ducks. The rules are simple: move over when I come to the feed dish or the pond and let me have a turn. If you don’t give way, I’ll give you a gentle nip with my beak.

Your organization has labored over a mission statement. Finally, it says what you want it to say--more or less. It's a bit idealistic, maybe it's a compromise for everyone who contributed to the big sheets of paper you pinned on the wall, but it's done, and it sounds good. It embodies in words what you would like to see your organization be and do, at least how you'd like it to appear.

A year passes, and the mission statement still sounds good, but does it describe what the organization has become? Or is the Bottom Line, like the Stock Price, used as the measure of that soul? Has your goal been to make the best product possible or provide the best service, as the mission statement says, or has the goal really been to make the most profit possible, so the stock price will go up?

What you do, not what you say will define the organization's soul. It will emerge, based on how individuals in the organization relate, how each person looks at the whole operation as well as each member's part, how much feedback is allowed, how much communication happens, how free each individual is to do his best at fulfilling the mission. It's all in the books. Check out the work of Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science.

The Hen House gang knows where to sleep—turkey and hen on roost, geese below in the Hen House, little duck in the dog igloo, big duck in the nest box. At dusk. Not ten minutes before dusk.

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Long-term Stability—Survival in the Anthropocene

The –isms are irrelevant. Socialism, communism and capitalism are all growth economies—stuck on the belief that growth is a panacea for what ails our Full Earth. A new ecological, full Earth, complex economy needs to focus on the long-range future and make a stable (no-growth) economy the primary goal of all nations.


Some places have already arrived with the primary driver in place—human population growth at zero. For them the opportunity is ripe for another needed focus—converting to a debt-free economy. Only then can a society hope to secure its future. Only then can resource use (and production) be reduced to sustainable levels for all time.
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Certainly Not Stagnation

Brian Czech in Supply Shock talks about "stagflation... a combination of inflation and recession..." an impossible situation in the steady state, where production and consumption are held stable at the standard of living chosen democratically and debt is a thing of the past.
To quote Shawne in Conn:The Alien Effect, the third book in The Archives of Varok, to be released this summer:
"The steady state means time to conserve everything and keep everyone working, sharing work hours, sharing big items locally, producing energy locally. Some people even understand the need for selective technology and replacement-only reproduction."

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Revisiting Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful—Economics As If People Mattered

Part II. In Defense of Science

On one point I have to disagree with Schumacher. He reacted to Sir Charles Lord Snow 's cry for education in science in order to avoid the split between scientists and literary intellectuals. The trend then was toward over-specialization. Also, the defense of science as neutral apparently enraged Schumacher, in the face of nuclear weapons development.

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Revisiting Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful—Economics As If People Mattered

Part I. It's Even More True 38 years Later

In 1975 this book made a huge impact in the U.S. on how we thought about our control and overuse of the natural world, inspired the Intermediate Technology Group in the UK, and initiated global concern about resource depletion.

In 1989 it was published again with extensive Prefaces by John McClaughry and Kirkpatrick Sale, who outlined its still relevant themes besides resource depletion: over consumption, human domination, the need to say "enough," the importance of human scale, the need for fulfillment in work, the needs to be close to nature and to live a good life, and the failure of traditional economics to take these factors into account when advising policymakers.

The Previews pointed out his weak points—his focus on greed, an unsupported attack on nuclear energy and a narrow Bertrand Russell view of science, and a naive view of government ownership and socialism.

However, his other teachings are even more significant in 2013, 38 years later, and are reflected in current statistics outlined in a concise text by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill, Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, in a detailed review of our current horrific situation by Brian Czech Supply Shock , and a confirmation of our danger in Richard Heinberg's The End of Growth.

Meanwhile, the work of the Schumacher Institute continued and refined its approach as have the views of Herman Daly and steadystate.org. The book Gaian Democracies by Roy Madron and Joy Jopling worked well as a text for a sustainable solutions course the University of New Mexico in Los Alamos, for it aptly applied complexity theory to the problem of redefining current economics for a full Earth. Other approaches incorporating the impact of economics as complex systems include the small book The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer and the award-winning fictional approach in The Webs of Varok and its series described at Archives of Varok.

A few quotes from Small Is Beautiful make the salient points in verbiage we deny at our peril, for Schumacher's concerns have only grown more urgent:

Page 21 "...the modern industrial system...consumes the very basis on which it has been erected."
Page 31 "...the idea of unlimited economic growth...needs to be seriously questioned on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources...[and] the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied."
Page 34 "...Gandhi said, that 'Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not for every man's greed."...what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us."
Paage 45 "...the fragmentary nature of the judgements of economics...give vastly more weight to the short than to the long term...[and] are based on a definition of cost which excludes..the entire God-given environment.
Page 48 "...cost/benefit analysis...is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price...what is worse...is the pretence that everything has a price...that money is the highest of all values.
Page 51 "[Economists assume that]...growth of GNP must be a good thing, irrespective of what has grown and who, if anyone has benefited. The idea that there could be pathological growth, unhealthy growth, disruptive or destructive growth, is to him a perverse idea..."
Page 66 "...it is not a question of choosing between 'modern growth' and 'traditional stagnation.' It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility..."
Page 108 "Among material resources, the greatest...is the land...the land carries the topsoil, and the topsoil carries an immense variety of living beings including man."

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Aging in the Hen House and Elsewhere

Gwen and Puddles in her maturity

What has the Hen house been telling me lately? Something about aging, I'm afraid. Should I blog about aging? In this culture? Maybe. But I'll do it anyway.

We're all aging, aren't we? Turkey's knees are thick with rough scales, and she has quit whining for her flock, content to hang out with the geese and chicken. Lucy is still a beautiful fat white goose, but she laid only a few eggs this year. Baby duck Puddles, now one year old, has sprouted lovely dark brown patches in her feathers. She is still laying one egg each day, more than her mother Khaki.

And the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz, can no longer fly all the way up to the stock tank for their morning swim. Even so, Ms. Ritz is sitting faithfully on several eggs I neglected to collect. I haven't the heart to take them away. Maybe they'll hatch. She's a good mom, but the Hen House is quite full enough. I don't know what I'm going to do.

What do I do if they don't hatch? She once sat for eight weeks on eggs that didn't make it while we were on travel. That's why I got her Meatball, a broiler, the only chick in the feedstore.

Back to aging. The dogs hips are arthritic, but they don't complain, like the rest of us. We're cutting back and looking for end-of-life options, so we don't leave a huge legacy for our children to cleanup. There are many different options for elder care. Most people wait too long, then move when they have to--when there's no time to make a comfortable choice. Here's a few links to start working on it. NACCRA or a 2010 overview

Our problem is that the Hen House birds could easily outlive us, and most Life Care campuses don't allow geese.

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The Brain Is Most Complex

The human brain has been called the most complex object in the universe. It deserves that title because its neurons have so many connections to each other. Suns and galaxies are relatively simple, with billions of objects interacting with fewer nonlinear options. The many types of neurons are not alone in the brain. They are enmeshed in a complicated arrangement of fine connective tissue and fed by a vast network of blood vessels and hormones. Recently we have discovered that they can grow and invent needed pathways. In the 1990's my daughter did her master's thesis showing that the neuronal growth hormone in rats spiked after nights of running on its exercise wheel.

Very interesting, but the point here is that brains, even small ones, are not simple. And they are not all the same. Birds, at least scrub jays, have a special lump of brain tissue that remembers where thousands of peanuts are hidden by our front porch. An entertaining read is Colin Tudge's The Bird .

Another case in point: though my Khaki Campbell ducks can't remember to go around the fence to exit the pen if the opening is not visible, they never forget that I'm the person who digs red worms for them. I suspect that evolution—selection working with the complex phenomenon of self-organization in the brain—has provided living creatures with a genius for finding and selecting good food.

Temple Grandin, in her new book The Autistic Brain , emphasizes that every autistic child is an unique case to be treated with specific care and directions. Behavior patterns labeled autism present a continuum of abilities and unique talents. Labels that categorize symptoms limit the imagination and endanger the treatment by those responsible for the care of individual lives.

We humans are addicted to simplifying. We lazily shelve ideas and concepts whenever we can, applying oversimplified definitions and questions to living beings, like when life begins. Every aspect of life is a continuum, a hierarchy of ongoing complex systems at many levels. Nature doesn't do categories. Though useful for organizing our thinking, they do not serve us well when we confront reality.

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Spring Fire--Evacuating Dogs and Birds

Safe in the hills above Santa Fe

Spring is done. One heavy rain, and now just wind and blue skies. Better stay organized for another possible evacuation.

During the Cerro Grande Fire in the year 2000, all we had to evacuate were a turtle, a plecostomas and two swordtail fish. They didn't like being evacuated, but at last I convinced them to stay in the largest salad bowl I could find--all but the male swordtail. I couldn't catch him, and time was ticking away. A huge plume of black, orange and white smoke rose overhead.

It broke my heart to leave the male swordtail behind. We spent five anxious days glued to a TV set in a friend's house in Santa Fe, while our aquatic dependents swam around in a cooler on the front porch. The second week we took off for our daughter's home in St. Louis, while a generous pet store housed turtle and company.

Many homes were lost in that fire, but an alert helicopter pilot spotted smoke opposite our canyon and saved our neighborhood. When we arrived home, we found the male swordtail hale and hearty. The female promptly delivered hundreds of offspring.

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Where Have All the Collies Gone—Hybrid Vigor Is In

Meatball at three weeks

How many people own or breed Collie dogs these days? You hardly ever see them on the street. Even shepherds like Boots, those wonderful, intelligent, sensitive ball-chasers, are more rare than they used to be. It’s all Labradors or a variety of short hair, middle sized dark-haired dogs—as if the flexible canine gene package has reverted to its wild mix.

Maybe more people are adopting shelter dogs, once roamers of the streets. That’s a good thing. It is probably good for the long-term survival of the species. Hybrid vigor may be working good things-though the specialties or unique beauties that result from inbreeding may be more interesting.

Too much in-breeding has led to a remark from a vet I know: “I can tell by the breed what disease to expect when they come in with an ailment.” That’s why people don’t marry cousins. Somehow, biologically, we know better--except for royal families who sometimes forgot that recessive genes can get together for ill effect.

By people of mixed racial heritage, there is a new recognition of hybrid vigor and the perks of being raised by two different cultures. It’s a rapidly growing population, exhibiting all the genetic advantages and getting together to share the experience. Biracial Meetup Groups

My first job was at a home for children of Asian-Caucasian mix. They were gorgeous, strong, healthy kids with a capacity for robust character and the healthy ability to apologize when called-for. I’ll never forget Jadine coming to me after I told her go to go to her room until she could stop screaming—her beautiful tan face turned up to me with wide, tear-filled eyes saying, “I’m sorry, Miss Almond.” I hope you’ve had the great life you deserve, Jadine.

In an earlier blog, I talked about chickens that have been bred for non-stop egg-laying, which seems to shorten their lives. They also suffer the horrors of selective breeding for fast growth (meat), which damages their ability to walk up hill on legs not designed to carry their weight. See my story about Meatball, the sweetheart rooster with the bass crow.(Week of April 19, 2013 Los Alamos Daily Post)

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Dogs and Lost Hens—Time Is Precious

DeeDee and Scooter in their prime

I should explain that the dogs do not reside in the Hen House, but they have a lot to do with it. They have a huge pillow bed and a life-sized artificial bear rug to sleep on under my desk-door-resting-on-file-cabinets and a closet devoted to the two-dog door system husband Don invented to prevent heat loss (into the closet, then outside).

The dogs’ job is to watch and protect the birds while they’re out in the yard. They do their job effectively, except when the hungry hawks that nest next door are on the hunt. They got my old hen Jupiter when the dogs were off terrorizing chipmunks in the woodpile. The hawk must have startled the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz. I hunted all over the yard for them. Finally I heard their quizzical quack and found them outside the back fence, waiting for me to let them back in. Some years later the hawk, probably a chicken hawk, got Butterscotch in a heavy rain, when the birds were hunched under an apricot tree. All we found was a small pile of feathers.

The dogs managed to kill a skunk one week, without getting more than a token perfuming. Poor thing. We hadn’t seen a skunk in the yard for several years. In the 80’s they lived under the Hen House, and in the ‘70’s our current dog Poncho was best friends with daughter Indra’s pet skunk Streak. Her story has been told in my weekly online column with the Los Alamos Daily Post. Search "Cary Neeper".
The gophers are also long gone from the yard, after a summer-long pursuit that left a six-inch deep trench in front of the Ponderosas that frame and shelter the Hen House. The one they caught was huge. Until this year, I haven’t had to clip the dogs nails since they were pups.

Now the dogs are aging. They don’t dig for gophers any more, and they are once again invading the yard. I’ll also have to get out the clippers soon. The dogs’ nails are long enough to make them skid and trip on the back stairs—not a good thing, for DeeDee’s arthritis is slowing her down.

So what’s the point of all this? Life is a strange mix of eat and be eaten, live and let live when you’re bonded as youngsters, survive when you can and enjoy the ride. Time is precious.

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