Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Will AI cause the extinction of humans?

Yesterday, at the 2011 FQXi conference in Copenhagen, Jaan Tallinn told us he is concerned. And he is not a man of petty worries. Some of us may be concerned they’ll be late for lunch or make a fool of themselves with that blogpost. Tallinn is concerned that once we have created an artificial intelligence (AI) superior to humans, the AIs will wipe us out. He said he has no doubt we will create an AI in the near future and he wishes that more people would think about the risk of dealing with a vastly more intelligent species.

Tallinn looks like a nice guy and he dresses very well and I wish I had something intelligent to tell him. But actually it’s not a topic I know very much about. Then I thought, what better place to talk about a topic I know nothing about than my blog!

Let me first say I think the road to AI will be much longer than Tallinn believes. It’s not the artificial creation of something brain-like with as many synapses and neurons that’s the difficult part. The difficult part is creating something that runs as stable as the human body for a sufficiently long time to learn how the world works. In the end I believe we’ll go the way of enhancing human intelligence rather than creating new ones from scratch.

In any case, if you would indeed create an AI, you might think of making humans indispensible for their existence, maybe like bacteria are for humans. If they’re intelligent enough, they’ll sooner or later find a way to get rid of us, but at least it’ll buy you time. You might achieve that for example by never building any AI with their own sensory and motor equipment, but make them dependent on the human body for that. You could do that by implanting your AI into the, still functional, body of braindead people. That would get you in a situation though where the AIs would regard humans, though indispensable, as something to grow and harvest for their own needs. Ie, once you’re adult and have reproduced, they’ll take out your brain and move in. Well, it kind of does solve the problem in the sense that it avoids the extinction of the human species, but I’m not sure that’s a rosy future for humanity either.

I don’t think that an intelligent species will be inherently evil and just remove us from the planet. Look, even we try to avoid the extinction of species on the planet. Yes, we do grow and eat other animals but that I think is a temporary phase. It is arguably not a very efficient use of resources and I think meat will be replaced sooner or later with something factory-made. You don’t need to be very intelligent to understand that life is precious. You don’t destroy it without a reason because it takes time and resources to create. The way you destroy it is with negligence or call it stupidity. So if you want to survive your AI you better make them really intelligent.

Ok, I’m not taking this very seriously. Thing is, I don’t really understand why I should be bothered about the extinction of humans if there’s some more intelligent species taking over. Clearly, I don’t want anybody to suffer in the transition and I do hope the AI will preserve elements of human culture. But that I believe is what an intelligent species would do anyway. If you don’t like the steepness of the transition and want more continuous predecessors of humans, then you might want to go the way I’ve mentioned above, the way of enhancing the human body rather than starting from scratch. Sooner or later genetic modifications of humans will take place anyway, legal or not.

In the end, it comes down to the question what you mean by “artificial.” You could argue that since humans are part of nature, nothing human made is more “artificial” than, say, a honeycomb. So I would suggest then instead of creating an artificial intelligence, let’s go for natural intelligence.

Monday, August 29, 2011

FQXi Conference 2011

We just arrived in Copenhagen after a 2-day trip on the National Geographic Explorer, a medium sized cruise ship, along Norway’s coast. On board were about 130 scientists and a couple of spouses in different sizes, plus an incredibly efficient, friendly, and competent crew that didn’t mind having nosy physicists hanging around on the bridge.

The 2011 FQXi conference turns out to be very different from the previous one (2009 on the Azores), and that not only thanks to the unique bonding experience of shared sea-sickness. As Sean Carroll mentioned the other day, during the organization of this conference on the nature of time, the FQXi folks were confronted with an application for a similar event with a similar topic and so they decided to join forces. As a result, this conference is larger and much more interdisciplinary than the previous one. Besides the physicists and philosophers, there are neurobiologists, biologists and psychologists, and a selection of guys interested in artificial intelligence from one or the other perspective, as well as a crew with cameras that are here for PBS I am told.

Among the physicists, the usual suspects are Max Tegmark and Anthony Aguirre, Paul Davies, George Ellis, David Albert, Garrett Lisi, Fotini Markopoulou, Julian Barbour, and Scott Aaronson. But there’s also Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute, Jaan Tallinn, one of the developers of Skype, and David Eagleman the possibilian, just to mention a few. Also around are George Musser from Scientific American and Zeeya Merali who is blogging for FQXi here. There’s a list of alleged attendees here, though some of them I haven’t seen so far.

It is an interesting mix of people. I do enjoy interdisciplinary events a lot because there is always some cool research to learn about that I didn’t know of before. I have however grown skeptic about the benefits of interdisciplinarity when it comes to pushing forward on a particular problem. Take a topic such as free will or the origin of our impression of “now” that might or might not be an illusion. Yes, neurobiologists and psychologists have something to say about that. But they don’t in fact mean the same as physicists and I am not sure that, for example, the question how we achieve to remember the past and imagine the future, or fail to distinguish between true and false memory has any relevance for physicists trying to figure out the relevance of the past hypothesis, the consistency of alternatives to the block universe, or the role of observers in the multiverse. In fact, you already have people talking past each other within one discipline: If you ask three physicists what they mean with “free will” you’ll get four different answers. And after you’ve spent a significant amount of time figuring out what they mean to begin with there isn’t much left they have to say to each other.

That’s the downside of mixing academics – in my experience it does not add depth. Interdisciplinary exchange however adds breadth. Talking to somebody who has addressed a question for a completely different reason and with completely different methods helps one look at it from a different point of view, opening new ways forward. In my opinion though the largest benefit of events like this conference comes from just getting together a group of interesting and intelligent people who make an effort to listen to and complement each other. After some years at PI and NORDITA I’ve pretty much come to take for granted having plenty of folks at my disposal to talk to should I feel like it, but after the baby break I appreciate the opportunity for such exchange much more.

The idea with putting us on a ship was clearly to get us off the Internet for some while. I personally don’t have the impression people on the conferences I usually go make obsessive use of the internet, but evidently some need to have an evil third party as an excuse for not being available at least for a few days. I don’t find it such a great idea to punish all of us because a few guys can’t live without their newsfeed. I wasn’t the only one with family at home who would have appreciated at least a phone. (For an appropriate price that is. If you really, really had to you could have paid for an internet connection at $10 per kB or something like that.)

These are some first impressions. If I've had some time to process what I've heard and learned I might summarize some of the main questions that were discussed. But now (whatever that might be) I have to locate my baggage which I've last seen this morning vanishing into a bus somewhere.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Away note

I'll be away for a week on the FQXi conference "Setting Time Aright." A significant amount of the participants are reportedly nuts, so I will be in good company. I'm supposed to moderate a session on "Choice" for reasons that are somewhat mysterious to me, but since I don't believe in free will I guess they had no choice, haha.

This is my first conference attendance since the babies and, believe me, it's required a significant amount of organization. It didn't help they're doing half of it on a ship and the idea of having to get around on a ship with a twin stroller didn't really appeal to Stefan and me. So I go, and Superdaddy stays with the babies while I'll cry over the no-signal sign on my BlackBerry. Side effects may include blogging congestion.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Physics and Philosophie

I'm looking for topics where theoretical physics has a relevance for philosophy, for no particular reason other than my curiosity and maybe yours as well. Here's the usual suspects that came to my mind:

  1. Are there limits to what we can possibly know? The human brain has a finite capacity and computing power. What limits does this set? Is it possible to extend? What is consciousness?

  2. Why is the past different from the future? What is "The Now" and why do we have an "arrow of time"? (Or several?)

  3. Is there a fundamental theory that explains everything we observe and experience? Is this theory unique and does it explain everything only in principle or also in practice?

  4. Do we have free will? And what does that question mean?

  5. Are there cases where reductionism does not work? And what does that imply for 3?

  6. What is the role of chaos and uncertainty in the evolution of culture and civilization? Is it possible to reliably model and predict the dynamics of social systems? If so, what does that mean for 4?

  7. What is reality? What does it mean to "exist" and can an entirely mathematical theory explain this? Does everything mathematical exist in the same way? Why does anything exist at all?

  8. And Stefan submits: What is the ontological status of AdS/CFT?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What makes you you?

Stefan's life is tough. When he comes home, instead of a cold beer (I support the local wineries) and dinner (ha-ha-ha) he gets one of the crying babies and a washcloth. And then there's his wife who lacks googletime and greets him with bizarre questions. What frequency does a CD player operate on? Something in the near infrared. How many atoms do you need to encode one bit? Maybe somewhat below the million it was in 2008. And why does he actually know all this stuff? Male brains are funny. He does not, for example, know that the Aspirin is in the medicine cabinet, out of all places. But yesterday he gave it a pass, so here's my question to you.

Suppose you have a transmitter, spaceship enterprise style. It reads all the information of all particles in your body (all necessary initial values), disintegrates your body, sends the information elsewhere, and reassembles it. Did you die in that process?

You could object that this process isn't physically possible, either theoretically or practically. Theoretically, there are for example the no-cloning and no-teleportation theorems in quantum information. But you might not actually need all the quantum details to reconstruct a human body. (I'm not sure though the role of quantum physics for consciousness has yet been entirely clarified.) And, if I reassemble you elsewhere you are arguably different in that the relative location of your body to all other objects in the universe has changed. But again, it doesn't seem like that's of any relevance. Or you could say that there won't be enough time to perform this process ever in the history in the universe or something like that. But these answers seem unsatisfactory to me.

Then you might say, well, if it looks like me, walks like me, and quacks like me, it probably is me. That is, nobody, including the person you have assembled could tell any difference. So that would seem like you didn't die.

On the other hand, the operation of your brain has a discontinuity in its timeline in the sense that it didn't do anything during transmission. That is in contrast to, say, anesthesia where your brain is actually quite active. (Interesting SciAm article on that here.) So that would seem like that what constitutes 'you' did cease to operate and 'you' did die.

But then again, who really cares if you stopped thinking for some seconds and then continued that process while in between you changed the set of quarks and electrons you're operating with. However, then consider now I don't send the information to one place, but to ten. And I assemble not one you, but ten. Which one are you?

Oh-uh, headache. I can understand Stefan does prefer to bath the baby. Now where is the Aspirin?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Was there really a man on the moon? Are you sure?

Some weeks ago, the tree octopus made headlines again. If you had never heard of this creature before, don’t worry, it is an internet hoax used for classes on information literacy. It is easy enough to laugh about the naiveté of students believing in the tree octopus. Or people believing in spaghetti trees for that matter. Scientists in particular are obliged to carefully check all facts they use in their arguments. But in reality, none of us can check all the facts all the time. A lot of what we know is based on trust and an ethereal skill called ‘common sense.’ We’re born trusting adults tell us the truth – about the binky fairy. Most of us grow up adding a healthy dose of skepticism to any new information, but we still rely heavily on trusted sources and the belief that few people are willfully evil. What happened to that in the age of the internet?

When I write a paper, I usually make an effort to check that the references I am citing do actually show what they claim, at least to some level. Sometimes, digging out the roots of a citation tree holds spaghetti surprises. But especially when it comes to experiments, fact checking comes to a quick halt because it would simply take too much time putting under scrutiny each and everything. And then peer review has its shortcomings. In my daily news reading however I am far less careful. After all, I’m not being paid for it and I have better things to do than figuring out if every story I read (Can you really get stuck on an airplane’s vacuum toilet?) is true. Most of the time it doesn’t actually matter because, you see, urban legends are entertaining even if not true. And, well, don’t flush while you s it.

I think of myself as a very average person, so I guess that most of you use similar recipes as I to roughly estimate a trust-value of some online recource. The rule of thumb that I use is based on two simple questions: 1) How much effort would one have to make to fake this piece of information in the present form, and 2) How evil would one have to be.

How much effort would one have to make to put up a website about a non-existing animal? Well, you have to invest the time to write the text, get a domain, and upload it. I.e. not so very much. How evil do you have to be? For the purpose of teaching internet literacy, somebody probably believed he was being good. Trust-value of the tree-octopus: Nil. How much effort do you have to make to fake some governmental website? Some. And it’s probably illegal too, so does require some evil. How much effort would you have to make to fake the moon landing?

Of course such truth-value estimates have large error-bars. Faking somebody else’s writing style for example can be quite difficult (if it wasn’t I’d be writing like Jonathan Franzen), but depends on that writing style to begin with. If you’ve never registered a domain before you might vastly overestimate the effort it takes. And how difficult is it really to convince some billion people the Earth is round? (Well, almost.) Or to convince them some omniscient being is watching over them and taking note every time they think about somebody else’s underwear? There you go. (And Bielefeld, btw, doesn’t exist either.)

The trustworthiness of Wikipedia is a question with more than academic value. For better or worse, Wikipedia has become a daily source of reference for hundreds of millions of people. Its credibility comes from its articles being scrutinized by millions of eyes. Yet, it is very difficult to know how many and which people did indeed check some piece of information, and how much they were influenced by the already existent entry. The English Wikipedia site thus, very reasonably, has a policy that information needs to have a source. Reasonable as that may sound, it has its shortcoming, a point that was made very well in a recent NYT article by Noam Cohen who reports on a criticism by Achal Prabhala, an Indian advisor to the Wikimedia foundation.

There is arguably information about the real world that is not (yet?) to be found in any published sources. Think of something trivial like good places in your neighborhood to find blackberries (the fruit)1. More interesting, Prabhala offered the example of a children’s game played in some parts of India, and its Wikipedia article in the local language, Malayalam. Though the game is known by about 40 millions of people, there is no peer reviewed publication on it. So what would have constituted a valid reference for the English version of the website? What counts as a trusted source? Do videos count? Do the authors of the Wikipedia article have to random sample and analyze sources with the same care as a scientific publication would require? It seems then, the information age necessitates some rethinking of what constitutes a trusted source other than published works. Prabhala says:
“If we don’t have a more generous and expansive citation policy, the current one will prove to be a massive roadblock that you literally can’t get past. There is a very finite amount of citable material, which means a very finite number of articles, and there will be no more.”

Stefan remarked dryly they could just add a reference to Ind. J. Anth. Cult. [in Malayalam], and nobody would raise an eyebrow. Among physicists this is, tongue-in-cheek, known as “proof by reference to inaccessible literature” (typically to some obscure Russian journal in the early 1950s). The point is, asking for references is useless if nobody checks even the existence of these references. Most journals do now have software that checks reference lists for accuracy and at the same time for existence. The same software will inevitably spit out a warning if you’re trying to reference a living review.

But to come back to Wikipedia: It strikes me as a philosophical conundrum, a reference work that insists on external references. Not only because some of these references may just not exist, but because with a continuously updated work, one can create circular references. Take as an example the paper “Moisture induced electron traps and hysteresis in pentacene-based organic thin-film transistors” by Gong Gu and Michael G. Kane, Appl. Phys. Lett. 92, 053305 (2008). (Sounds seriously scientific, doesn’t it?) Reference [13] cites Wikipedia as a source on fluorescent lamps. There is a paper published in J. Phys. B that cites Wikipedia as a source for the double-slit experiment, and a PRL that cites the Wikipedia entry on the rainbow. Taemin Kim Park found a total of 139 citations to Wikipedia in the fields of Physics and Astronomy in the Scopus database as of January 20112.

That citation of Wikipedia itself would not be a problem. But the vast majority of people who cite websites do not add the date on which they retrieved the site. More disturbingly, the book “World Wide Mind” that I read recently, had a few “references” to essays by mentioning they can easily be found searching for [keywords], totally oblivious to the fact that the results of this search changes by the day, depends on the person searching, and that websites move or vanish. (Proof by Google?)

While the risk for citation loops increases with frequently updated sources, it is not an entirely new phenomenon. A long practiced variant of the “proof by reference” is citing one’s own “forthcoming paper” (quite common if page restrictions don’t allow further elaboration), but in this forthcoming paper - if it comes forth - one references the earlier paper. After ten or so self-referencing papers one claims the problem solved and anybody who searches for the answer will give up in frustration. (See also: Proof by mutual reference.)

Maybe the Wikipedia entry on the octopus hoax is a hoax?

Take away message: References in the age of the internet are moving targets and tracing back citations can be tricky. Restricting oneselves to published works only leaves out a lot of information. Citation loops by referencing frequently updated websites can create alternate realities. But don’t worry, somewhere in the level 5 multiverse it’s as real as, say, the moon landing.

Have you cited or would you cite a Wikipedia article in a scientific publication? If you did, did you add a date?

1 And why isn't there a website where one can enter locations of fruit trees and bushes that nobody seems to harvest? Because where we live a lot of blackberries, cherries, plums, peas, and apples are just rotting away. It’s a shame, really.
2 From Park's paper, it is not clear how many of these articles citing Wikipedia were also about Wikipedia. The examples I mentioned were dug out by Stefan.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Condensed penguins

During my time in Canada, the coldest temperature I recall reading off the digital display on the way back home was -28°C. I couldn't help asking myself why did humans ever settle in such hostile environment (and wtf was I doing there). But if you think Canadians are though (and Germans wimps), hear the story of the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), that lives in Antarctica.

The Emperor Penguin's adaption to the cold, which can drop down to -50°C during the Antarctic winter, is plainly amazing. Feathers, fat, and their ability to increase the metabolism rate at low temperatures allow the penguins to survive. Equally amazing, but also bizarre, is the Emperor Penguin's breeding behavior.

Penguin colonies up to some thousands have nesting areas inland that are, depending on the annual ice thickness, 50-120 km away from the edge of the pack ice. At the beginning of the Antarctic Winter, some time in March or April, the penguins get out of the water and travel to their nesting areas, mostly walking or sliding on the ice. After mating, the female lays a single egg in late May or early June and passes it on to the male for incubation while she walks back to the shore.

In an environment of ice, snow, and the occasional rock the penguins can't build nests, so they balance the egg on their feet in their brood pouch. And, since there isn't much fish to find on the pack ice, they don't eat. Yes, you read that correctly: They walk a hundred kilometers, the female lays an egg and walks back a hundred kilometers, while the male sits on the egg for another 2 months, during the Antarctic Winter, in the dark, without the female, and all that without eating a thing. By the time the egg hatches, the male has fasted for almost 4 months, lost half of his body weight, and hopes for the female to return because he has nothing to feed the chick. And then he still has to walk back to the shore so he doesn't starve. But hey, my husband assembled the baby cribs!

There's a great documentary, "The March of the Penguins," telling this story:

But the penguins know some physics too!

While a single penguin is able to maintain its core body temperature in the freezing cold, this costs a lot of energy which he can't afford during his Winter fast. So what the Emperor penguins do is they form huddles. The density of the huddles increases with falling air temperature. If the huddle gets very dense, the penguins are in a nearly hexagonal arrangement. In a study from about a decade ago, researchers glued measuring devices to some penguin's lower back. They found that the temperature inside huddles can reach as much as 37.5° (Gilbert et al, arXiv:q-bio/0701051v1 [q-bio.PE]).

The penguins in these huddles do not stand still, but they move in occasional small steps which have recently been subject of another study (Zitterbart et al, PLoS ONE 6(6): e20260). The researchers shot movies of the penguin huddles and tracked the position of the birds. As you will easily notice if you read the paper, David Zitterbart is a condensed matter physicist who compares the huddling penguins to particles with an attractive interaction and the tight huddling to a jamming transition in granular materials. Just that the penguins manage to prevent jamming by coordinated movements. The little steps of the penguins propagate through the huddle like density waves. They measured densities up to 21 birds per square meter.

According to their paper, the penguins' little steps have a three-fold benefit. One is that they help the packing to get denser, much the same way like tapping a bag with ground coffee. The second is that they move the whole huddle, allowing huddles to merge and adjust position and direction. The third one is a turnover of penguins in the huddle, moving those from the outside towards the warmer inside. Though one might argue that what actually is responsible for the turnover is not the little forward steps, but the penguins on the front leaving the huddle and joining it (or another huddle) on the back. But without the forward steps, the turnover would make the huddle move backward.

The below movie from Zitterbart et al's paper (Yes, we live in the age of Harry Potter, where paper has moving pictures!) shows a time lapse of the penguin huddling (actual time about 1h):

I was very confused about the penguin turnover because in all the Emperor Penguin huddles in "The March of the Penguin" and photos I had seen only penguin backs and could not for the hell of it figure out where the penguins are supposed to go if they are all facing towards each other. So I wrote an email to David Zitterbart who kindly explained that there's two different kind of huddles that have been observed. Those that they've described in their paper, which have a forward direction, and circular ones that I had seen images of. He writes that no one really knows how the circular ones work, but they hope to find out with the next experiment.

Friday, August 05, 2011


This is the previously mentioned commentary on Mark Slouka’s article “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school” Since the article is quite lengthy, I’ve added a brief summary.


In his article “Dehumanized,” Mark Slouka argues that the US education’s focus on math and science and the neglect of the humanities spell the demise of democracy. The American education’s “long running affair with math and science” is “obsessive, exclusionary” and “altogether unhealthy.” And that is because the ways of science are “often dramatically anti-democratic.” “There are many things,” Slouka writes “math and science do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy.”

Referring to a quote by Dennis Overbye that “Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant,” Slouka complains that “To maintain its “sustainable edge,” a democracy require its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable… If the value you’re espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you’re useless.” Democratically useful are only humanists because “upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.” That is also the reason, Slouka explains, totalitarian societies are skimping the dangerously upsetting humanities: “Why would a repressive regime support a force superbly designed to resist it?”

The last thing his humanist colleagues should do, Slouka says, is to succumb to the capitalist’ demand of accountability and economic utility, and attempt to fit in by justifying their existence on the enemies’ terms. “In a visible world, the invisible does not compute… in a horizontal world of “information” readily convertible to product, the verticality of wisdom has no place.” And Slouka evidently thinks wisdom is in the domain of the humanities. The trend to math and science is “the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t” and clearly one that one should oppose.


Slouka sets out to make a case against neglect of the humanities in American education and ends up calling scientists the useless couch potatoes of democratic societies. But in his arguments he makes several leaps. Most importantly, he equates “the sciences” with “the scientists” and he mixes up the role of democracy in science and the role of science for democracy, two very different things.

The process of knowledge discovery in science is not democratic. It has never been, and I hope it never will be for it would be a disaster. It is useful to think of it from a system’s perspective. Scientific progress just doesn’t work by voting. I keep saying that it would be good if we had a better understanding of its working and what feedback mechanisms are beneficial, but we know that much. That scientific knowledge discovery doesn’t operate democratically however doesn’t mean scientists don’t understand democracy or its relevance. Science teaches you to look at the evidence, to search for causal relations, correlations, and to identify and fix problems. Scientists know about the limits of predictability and the inevitability of uncertainty. They know what that statistic means and how to read that figure. They know the value of checking the references and that of reasoned argumentation. (Well, we're all human ;-)) The evidence says women are safer drivers than men. Upsetting? Where would democracy be without scientists?

But yes, scientists aren’t the first to take it to the streets if the world doesn’t run as they think it should. The people you find in the streets, those who start a revolution and throw the stones, are in the majority young unemployed males. Something to do with hormones too I guess, I’m sure somebody somewhere wrote a paper about this. The people who like their jobs, they stay in the lab and crunch the numbers because, actually, the world never runs as they think it should, but isn’t it so damned pretty if you look at it through a microscope, telescope, or binocular HMD? So I guess what Slouka is saying then is that we need the humanities because people who don’t like their job are more likely to join that demonstration tomorrow?

Okay, I’m being unfair because I actually agree with Slouka that the trend towards measuring and quantifying everything including success and knowledge gain is unhealthy. The process of measurement itself disturbs the process it is supposed to help - a problem we have discussed several times on this blog. Though, according to Slouka, a scientist like me should be positive about this trend towards reliance on metrics. Considering how divided the scientific community is over the use of any such measure for scientific success, Slouka doesn’t seem to have bothered talking to his colleagues from the science departments.

Slouka’s main point was about the American education system, and he’d done better not to overgeneralize his argument. Having grown up in Germany, I can’t judge on the quality of the American education system. Clearly, you want to teach children how the society they live in works and that includes politics, history, economics as well as all aspects of human culture. Needless to say, many of these subjects are interrelated. The impression I got during my years in the USA is that many students there have little or no idea what democracy is or how it works, and even less so do they actually know what communism, socialism, and social democracy is – and what the differences. I talked to several people who actually thought consumerism is a form of democracy, and I vividly recall talking to one guy who thought Germany is socialistic. Such confusions explain a lot of nonsense I keep reading online and are certainly not helpful to informed decision making. I am not sure though how representative that impression is. Maybe the people who talk to me are just oddballs.

And isn’t it ironic Slouka is bemoaning the American educations’ failure to produce good citizens, since to some extend I own my school education’s focus on democratic values to the Americans of the last generation? The first time some US officer said to me “I’m just following orders,” I stood in shock, having be taught a million times since Kindergarten to never, ever, justify an action by referral to an order whose purpose I cannot explain and bring in line with my conscience. After several similar incidents, I thought that’s just me till somebody told me about their German friend who in reply to the same remark by an US officer uttered promptly “That’s what the Nazi’s said.” Which, even with German accent however, fell on deaf American ears. (And that hopefully explains why I give a shit about your so-called policies.)

The other day, I came across this article by Bruce Levine listing “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance” which you might like or not like, but point 3 “Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy” is interesting in the context of Slouka’s article. Levine lets us know that “Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.””

Taken together, Slouka makes some bad points and some good points, but he makes both badly. Trying to make a case for the value of good writing, Slouka asks “Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking?” In reply to which I want to quote Niels Bohr: “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.”

Monday, August 01, 2011

This and That

Some well-written and interesting paragraphs that I came across recently.
  • Steve Mirsky in Scientific American reports this amusing anecdote:

    I was reminded of preposterously precocious utterances by tiny tykes during a brief talk that string theorist Brian Greene gave at the opening of the 2011 World Science Festival in New York City on June 1. Greene said he sometimes wondered about how much information small children pick up from standard dinner-table conversation in a given home. He revealed that he got some data to mull over when he hugged his three-year-old daughter and told her he loved her more than anything in the universe, to which she replied, “The universe or the multiverse?”

  • Mark Slouka's article Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school leads a fundamentally flawed argument (which I might make content of a longer post), but is one of the most beautifully written texts I've come across lately. I particularly liked this part:
    Consider the ritual of addressing our periodic “crises in education.” Typically, the call to arms comes from the business community. We’re losing our competitive edge, sounds the cry. Singapore is pulling ahead. The president swings into action. He orders up a blue-chip commission of high-ranking business executives (the 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, led by business executive Charles Miller, for example) to study the problem and come up with “real world” solutions.

    Thus empowered, the commission crunches the numbers, notes the depths to which we’ve sunk, and emerges into the light to underscore the need for more accountability. To whom? Well, to business, naturally. To whom else would you account? And that’s it, more or less. Cue the curtain.

  • And David Eagleman's article The Brain on Trial that argues for "a scientific approach to sentencing" gives the reader a lot to think about.
    Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

    And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.