Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Turtles all the way down

Really good post at Cosmic Variance about the difference between physics and the sort of woo that goes into quasi-new-age philosophy as exemplified by the What the Bleep Do We Know? movie, quoting philosopher David Alpert:
It seems to me that what’s at issue (at the end of the day) between serious investigators of the foundations of quantum mechanics and the producers of the “what the bleep” movies is very much of a piece with what was at issue between Galileo and the Vatican, and very much of a piece with what was at issue between Darwin and the Victorians. There is a deep and perennial and profoundly human impulse to approach the world with a DEMAND, to approach the world with a PRECONDITION, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of OURSELVES. That’s the impulse that the What the Bleep films seem to me to flatter and to endorse and (finally) to exploit - and that, more than any of their particular factual inaccuracies - is what bothers me about them. It is precisely the business of resisting that demand, it is precisely the business of approaching the world with open and authentic wonder, and with a sharp, cold eye, and singularly intent upon the truth, that’s called science.
(Shouting in the original) I think this is very insightful and clarifying, although I draw somewhat different conclusions from it than the science guys.

It seems you can distinguish three very clear positions based on the above:

(1) the foundation of all being is the physical laws of nature as explicated by science. Intelligence is a contingent result of these mechanical processes, an epiphenomenon. This is the naturalist position.

(2) the foundation of all being is intelligence, which is somehow prior to the material universe. This is the religious position, seen in intelligent design theory and theology in general.

(3) there is no foundation, or none that we are have access to. This is the antifoundationalist position, seen in various philosophies (pragmatism, postmodernism, etc).

The appeal of quantum woo is that it seems to bridge the gap between (1) and (2). Certain other weird ideas in physics (anthropic cosmology) also seem to be somehow letting us have our cake (physics) and eat it too (give intelligence a central role). ID is what happens when believers in (2) try to ape the methodology of position (1), with generally laughable results.

Where am I? Well, I am in the position of a (1)ist with strong urges towards (2) deviationism. Humans are not the center of the universe, god knows, but they are at the center of something. As I said in the comments:

there is the physical world, which the hard sciences study, and the mental/social/cultural world, which is indeed part of and emergent from the physical world but is also in some sense a separate sphere, striving for independence from its physical substrate. This is the world people spend most of their time in, even physicists. In this world, people ARE the central and most important feature.

The relationship between these two worlds is hard to understand and What the Bleep sounds like an example of how NOT to think about it clearly.

Position (3) seems like giving up, or resigning yourself to linguistic gameplaying.

I just thought of position (4) -- there is a foundation, but it is not captured by either science or theology. I'm going to call this Taoism, but that is not its name.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Of Two Minds

Interesting dust-up this week about a guy who got a PhD in paleontology despite being a YEC (Young Earth Creationist). The arguments mostly revolve around whether this guy should or shouldn't receive a degree, since he apparently can act like a scientist, he just doesn't believe the science he is doing is true. I got into it with some YECs and IDiots here, and I was quite astonished at how ready people were to defend what has to be either hypocrisy or some extreme form of postmodern relativism. One of their weirder moves is to say that the anti-Ross forces are ignoring "objective reality" because in objective reality Ross did some science and got it approved. Of course, the more fundamental objective reality of the actual age of the universe doesn't apparently matter to them.

But mostly I don't care about whether he gets his official piece of paper or not. I just want to know what's going inside the guy's head. He's obviously split himself pretty radically. Everyone has different modes of thought in different circumstances, different frameworks they apply to different parts of their life, but few do it to this extent and get written up in the Times for it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Which side are you on?

A mailing list I'm on was having a conversation about the Catholic Church protecting child molesters which led to the subject of group formation and protection. I contributed this:
I vividly recall my experience when I first did extensive travel out of the US (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). This was during the Reagan years, and all of a sudden I, who had opposed Reagan and Republicans for all my life, was now being held responsible for him. A lot of my conversations with non English speakers went something like: "Oh, American! Ronald Reagan! Bang-bang!" Those were the friendly ones. Then there were those with more hostile European Marxists where I found myself in the unaccustomed position of defending the US. It was weird being a capitalist oppressor all of a sudden.

Remember Ward Churchill and his crack about the people in the WTC being "little Eichmanns"?

I just read this rather terrible book by David Mamet, _The Wicked Son_, The book is addressed to Jews who don't identify strongly with Judaism. The thesis is basically, everybody hates the Jews so you *better* strengthen your group identification. I heard a variant this growing up, roughly "you may not consider yourself Jewish, but
the Nazis will".

There's this awful dynamic of intergroup hostility leading to stronger group identification leading to collective blame of the other side leading to more intergroup hostility. A society of mixed, peaceful, weakly-identified groups can easily precipitate out into strong and hostile groups when conditions change. The former Yugoslavia may be the purest example, and then there's Iraq right now.

Then I saw the exact same issues come up at Abstract Nonsense, this time in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict:
Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post writes a wonderful article that aims to delegitimize every Palestinian political group, no matter how prepared it is for peace. The standard is always the same: nothing short of total acceptance is okay, and nothing short of total obsequity is peaceful. I see it among pro-Palestinian extremists who portray Israelis as uniformly oppressive, and among pro-Israeli extremists who portrays Palestinians as uniformly pro-terror....An Israeli who doesn’t refuse a priori to talk to anyone who’s more pro-Palestinian than Peace Now is seen as a traitor; a Palestinian who doesn’t refuse a priori to talk to anyone who’s more pro-Israeli than Rachel Corrie is seen as a collaborator.

Years ago I had one of those dumb/smart insights -- the real conflict in life is not between the obvious sides (Israelis/Palestinians, Shia/Sunni, whatever) but between those who want conflict because they thrive on it and those who want peace so they can get on with their lives. The problem is is that the peaceniks are naturally less prone to fight (of course) and it is difficult for peaceniks on one of the ostensible sides to coordinate with those on the other. There are groups that promote negotiation on an informal level, and then there are the sort of people that Alon Levy is talking about, who try as hard as they can to prevent well-intentioned people on different sides from talking.

One more example, from which the post title is taken.
Which Side Are You On?
by Florence Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle's won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Unions have their own rather specific history of building solidarity and defining the enemy, but that's a post for another time.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Web 2.0 in five minutes

If a developer was frozen in 1998 or so and just thawed out and needed to be brought up to speed quickly, you could show him this:

Or even better, a version that integrates form and content by allowing people to paste commentary balloons onto the video.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Psychological Warfare for Dummies

Somebody turned up a classified military PSYOPs manual, providing a fascinating glimpse into the vast and alien world of the military. All I can say is, if you thought programmers were acronym happy you haven't been in the army.

PSYOP are a vital part of the broad range of United States (U.S.) diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) activities. The employment of any element of national power, particularly the military element, has always had a psychological dimension. Foreign perceptions of U.S. military capabilities are fundamental to strategic deterrence. The effectiveness of deterrence hinges on U.S. ability to influence the perceptions of others. The purpose of PSYOP is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to U.S. national objectives. PSYOP are characteristically delivered as information for effect, used during peacetime and conflict, to inform and influence. When properly employed, PSYOP can save lives of friendly and adversary forces by reducing the adversaries’ will to fight. By lowering adversary morale and reducing their efficiency, PSYOP can also discourage aggressive actions and create dissidence and disaffection within their ranks, ultimately inducing surrender. PSYOP provide a commander the means to employ a nonlethal capability across the range of military operations from peace through conflict to war and during postconflict operations.
White, gray, and black products do not refer to anything inherent in the content of the product itself, but indicate the source of the product. Generally the content of a product is usually less truthful or completely fabricated when the source is misrepresented because the intent is to confuse or deceive the TA. Gray and black products are always covert because secrecy is key to their success. Credibility is key to successful products because the use and discovery of untruthful information irrevocably damages or destroys their and their originator’s credibility.
In Phase I, POs, SPOs, potential target audiences (PTAs), and MOEs are determined. A staff planner normally conducts this phase as part of the MDMP, and often with the assistance of the POAT. During this first phase, planners formulate the POs for the supported commander’s mission. POs are generally determined by the highest-level PSYOP element involved in the operation, and provide the framework for the development of the PSYOP plan. Upon approval of the POs by the SecDef, the SPOs are developed and the PTAs are identified. PSYOP MOEs establish a metric for evaluating PSYOP and are determined in a deliberative and methodical process in Phase I. Accurately assessing the effectiveness of PSYOP requires well-conceived MOEs, and the identification and early integration of organic assets and PSYOP enablers, such as intelligence, to satisfy the MOEs.