Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I had an unusual Sunday evening: I got invited/dragged to a Ramadan break-the-fast interfaith service, in a mosque just off of Market street in San Francisco. There were some speeches promoting interfaith understanding and the idea of a moderate version of Islam, a service in the mosque, and a vegetarian dinner (mostly Pakistani food). The first part succeeded in conveying that Muslims were normal people who could even tell jokes. The second part was the first time I had seen Muslim worship up close, and it both moved and disturbed me...the muezzin's call harking back to ancient desert tents, the women relegated to the back of the large east-facing room, the men prostrating themselves.

One of my companions mentioned that, for all the cultural similarities between Jews and Muslims, there were some key differences in their beliefs, which he boiled down to the idea that Jews are supposed to wrestle with god while Muslims are supposed to submit. The idea of submission has a powerful spiritual charge, to be sure, a form of or pathway to egolessness. But it's not really my thing, although I guess there's an element of it in my awkward dalliances with any sort of religious practice.

The prostration was the point at which my empathy dropped away and I felt momentarily that I was viewing something foreign and potentially dangerous. The moment passed, but left me with the realization that interfaith understanding and coexistence is not something easy and automatic, but must be laboriously constructed. And of course there is a whole network of people -- the "interfaith community" -- who do this on a regular basis.

There were quite a few references to the Cordoba House project, of course. I went to this event partly to spit in the eye of the repellent and harmful Islamophobia on display from the likes of Newt Gingrich. But it can't be denied that any religion has the potential to pose a threat to the liberal order of society, and while most Muslims aren't al-Qaeda they don't exactly strike one as fertile grounds for progressive values. So my feeling is, build the community center by all means, and encourage the more progressive elements in Islam and build dialog, but at the same time I can't entirely dismiss the fear that the right is mongering.

Oh well, to get the taste of submission out of my mouth, here's St. Yossarian:
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about-a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena, as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation ? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"   
"Pain?" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."   
"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain. Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He?"   
"People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads."   
"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don't they ? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead. His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It's obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!"   
Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. "You'd better not talk that way about Him, honey," she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. "He might punish you."   
"Isn't He punishing me enough?" Yossarian snorted resentfully. "You know, we mustn't let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn't let Him get away scot  free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and-"   
"Stop it I Stop it!" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. "Stop it!"   
Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. "What the hell are you getting so upset about?" he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."   
"I don't," she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be." 
Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. ‘Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,’ he proposed obligingly. ‘You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?’

-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Random related links:

Background on mosques in America

Asshole against coexistence

Islamophobia and Reality

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Philosophy bites, sociology sucks

I must be slow, because I've listened to the Philosophy Bites podcast for awhile now, and it just dawned on me that the name is a double entendre...their logo should have given it away:

I find it only sometimes of interest, but I appreciate the brevity, and it's a good test of a philosopher if they can make a sensible point in 15 minutes or so. The most recent episode (Joshua Knobe on experimental philosophy) was pretty good, particularly the "Knobe effect" which showed that people's models intentionality and of morality are all scrambled together in interesting ways. (My interpretation of the results is that people are just much more primed to assign blame, especially moral culpability, than they are to give credit).

I actually am kind of a fan of sociology these days, but there's an awful lot of fluff there, and the field has a bad reputation. Let's put it this way -- of any field, it has perhaps the highest gap between importance of subject matter and the intellectual tools available to grapple with it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The ship is sinking

There's a leak, there's a leak, in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God's away, God's away, God's away
On Business. Business.
Here's an economics guru predicting hyperinflation. I have no idea how much credence to put in this. But when combined with Glenn Beck's rallying of his idiot minions for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, in a gross parody of one of the sacred highlights of recent American history (MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech), I'm feeling kind of Weimar Republic today (as I did a year ago).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reasons to be Local

[Or "I hate economists", parts MMCCCXLI and MMCCCXLII.]

So here is Arnold Kling piling onto a discussion (he's 3rd in a chain that started in the NYT) of economists mocking locavores, people who believe it's gennerally better to eat food produced locally. The crux of the libertardian argument is that the price of a vegetable accurately reflects all the costs that went into making it, particularly energy, so that buying local (if it is more expensive) is not really any better for the environment and may well be worse.

There are at least three responses to this that I can think of (aside from "fuck off"):

- Economics takes as axiomatic that people's preferences are unassailable. So if some hippies want to pay more for locally produced produce, who are you to tell them otherwise? Obviously they get more utility out of it. It's not like it's hard to discern the sometimes vast differences in quality between locally-grown produce and stuff that's been industrially produced and shipped across the country.

- Underlying the locavore ideology is a set of beliefs that may or may not be accurate but must be addressed in any sensible discussion. Among these: the idea that prices do not accurately reflect energy usage because of the massive subsidies given to petroleum-based economy (including highway construction and fighting trillion dollar wars in the Middle East). Some locavores believe that it's a moral duty to compensate for these distortions even at the cost of paying more at retail.

- Another value underlying locavorism is that local is better because it's more reliable and there are fewer intermediaries between producer and consumer. There is actual value in being able to look the grower of your beets in the eye and converse with him. There is value in having a short supply chain because it reduce the potential for adulteration.

And there's the feeling of unease at the astounding reach and complexity of global economic webs. This may be easier to see in the context of manufacturing. Sure, it's nice to be able to afford cheap stuff from China, but (a) sometimes it has poison in it, and (b) it makes us dependent on a bunch of heathens who don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Validly or not, it is easier to imagine a farmer two counties over as being a good guy than one two countries over.

I myself don't entirely buy into this sort of view, which might as well be called localism, which underlies a lot of the ecological, foodie, and other movements, especailly here at the southern end of ecotopia. It has elements of fear and reaction to it; in its extreme forms you end up as a survivalist hoarding guns and trying to grow all his food in the backyard because when the apocalypse comes, you can't rely on anybody. And it seems to be somewhat of a conservative, romantic reaction to the triumph of globalized capitalism -- which needs a response, but somehow farmer's markets don't seem quite adequate.

The flippant, arguments presented by economists illustrate very clearly the extraordinary poverty of thought produced by the crappy economic ideology exemplified by libertards. They are just so enraptured by their abstract models of how markets work that they don't bother to see if they actually apply to the actual world.

On a slightly more elevated plane, here's a couple of comments I made on Robin Hanson's blog. Hanson seems a lot smarter than Kling, but in these posts and elsewhere you can see a deformation professionelle not very far below the surface, a determination to reduce the complexity of social dynamics to some kind of univariate maximization of "status" or "utility". Blah. Not that that is not a useful stance sometimes, but really, what a boring way to view the world.

[[update: I forgot to mention that Kling is a corporate shill who used to write for the propaganda mill Tech Central Station. This piece that trashes Open Source as communism and praises Microsoft is a good example -- that its predictions were entirely wrong is somewhat forgiveable given that it was written in 2003, but check out the ad banner at the bottom.]]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Doctors Within Borders

Russia has a "chief pulmonologist". What an interesting idea; maybe it's a holdover from communism. Every country should have a set of chiefs in charge of the collective organs -- a chief cardiologist, a chief neurologist, a chief gastroenterologist, dedicated to making sure the country is breathing, pumping, thinking, and digesting properly.

Then the next logical step would be this proposal to build cities in biomorphic shapes:

Once it's the idea is established that our communities, cities, and nations are living systems in their own right, we can become Odonians and establish an anarcho-communist society with a healthy collective metabolism and nervous system.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


[updated below]

is my vocabulary word for today (via). It's one of those things I feel I ought to have known many years ago. Wikipedia says:
Hylozoism is the philosophical conjecture that all or some material things possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter.
I was unusually moved to make some Wikipedia edits, and added two of my favorite intellectual weirdos to the list of contemporary hylozoics:
Architect Christopher Alexander has put forth a theory of the living universe, where life is viewed as a pervasive patterning that extends to what is normally considered non-living things, notably buildings. He wrote a four-volume work called The Nature of Order which explicates this theory in detail.

Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, based in the sociology of science, treats non-living things as active agents and thus bears some resemblance to hylozoism. This work has spawned a movement called Object-oriented philosophy which promotes the idea of a "democracy of objects".
And I see animism has a homepage.

I find myself attracted and repelled by these ideas; partly out of intellectual naughtiness -- they are very much not in the spirit of the nerdy materialist culture I was educated in. On the other hand, they aren't that far apart either -- you can see both strands of thought (mechanistic AI style and squishy panpsychic California style) intermingle over the years, for instance at the historical Macy conferences.

And of course, I'm a victim of the same tendency I criticized in this post on the Singulatarians. For some reason, everybody thinks its very important to get metaphysics straight, to know for certain whether mind or matter or life or god or whatever is the ultimate foundation of reality. On my better days I know this is a dumb question, dumb because unanswerable, and the question itself is just a reflection of the limited metaphors we use to construct our models of the universe. Perhaps the real foundation of the universe is status, and the real reason we are so eager to fight for our particular metaphysics is so that the intellectual tribe we identify with (eg, physicists, anthropologists, theologians...) can thump its chest and declare itself more important than the rest.

[update: this earlier post is on related themes...which I realize now probably falls under the rubric scientific romanticism. Here's no less a light than Freeman Dyson:
Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the twenty-first century, with the technological billionaires of today playing roles similar to the enlightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century? ... a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art...If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Singularity Summit Awards

Here's my highlights and lowlights of the Singularity Summit. All in all it was a better use of my time than I had anticipated. For better or worse, libertarian memes were not very visible (the Seasteading Institute had a table, that was about it). Links here.

Best Presenter:
Ramez Naam. The Digital Biome

I wouldn't say I learned anything radically new, but he had excellent slides, very engaging speaking manner, and gave a talk that was mostly grounded in the reality of actual environmental problems.

Most New Information:
Brian Litt, The past, present and future of brain machine interfaces
Lance Becker Modifying the Boundary between Life and Death
Ellen Heber-Katz: The MRL mouse - how it regenerates and how we might do the same

These were all actual scientists (including two MD researchers) presenting interesting new developments.

Most Annoying:
Michael Vassar, The Darwinian Method
Ray Kurzweil, The Mind and How to Build One

Partly for speech style (lispy and drony respectively); but mostly for speaking in huge generalities and saying nothing new.

Steve Mann, Humanistic Intelligence Augmentation and Mediation

For wearing computers on his head and playing a water piano. Weird in a good way. Runner-up: the guys making very lifelike and creepy robots modelled on Einstein and Philip K. Dick. Now that I think of it, there was nothing really all that weird, which was somewhat disappointing.

Person I would most like to argue with:
Eliezer Yudkowsky: Simplified Humanism and Positive Futurism

Highest BS level:
Jose Cordeiro: The Future of Energy and the Energy of the Future

For claiming, among other things, that in 30 years we will have unlimited free energy (from space-based solar, I think, but he was all over the place). Extra points for having an MIT degree and presumably capable of thinking more critically.
[[update: PZ Myers takes Kurzweil to town. I pretty much agree, but I've heard Kurzweil's kind of stuff for so long that I just screen it out. Still, I'd put the odds of whole-brain simulation somewhat lower than free energy in 30 years, so maybe Cordeiro has to share his prize.]]

Most Disappointing:
Irene Pepperberg: Nonhuman Intelligence: Where we are and where we're headed

I'd heard a lot about this research, but the presentation had very little intellectual depth to it. Yes, birds and other animals can do some amazing things. And this proves what, exactly? She didn't say. Could be the talk was just pitched at too low a level.

Most entertaining:
James Randi, of course.

Oh well, I'm never going to be a member of this church but I didn't mind visiting for a service, in the ecumenical spirit.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singularity Summit interim review

I'm almost disappointed, but the Singularity Summit (so far) has been decidedly less flaky than I anticipated. At least the talks were largely by actual scientists, with only a smallish percentage of random flamage. The crowd is something else again though -- the cultish aspects come through in my casual conversations with people. The speakers barely mention the singularity, confining themselves to actual technoscientific developments, but the audience has been murmuring complaints about this.

One particular event that was telling -- Anita Goel was one of the presenters, and she's apparently a very high-powered scientist, with expertise and work in medicine, physics, and biology. But at the end of her talk she dared to raise the possibility that the metaphysical foundations of this community were just wrong -- to be precise, she challenged the idea that information, mind, and consciousness were emergent phenomenon based on a purely material substrate.

I tweeted approval of this (I've been experimenting with live-tweeting during the conference), since this is something I like to think about. After her talk, which was about a great many interesting things besides metaphysics, she was absolutely swarmed with people who thought that within the space of 30-second chat in the midst of a mob they could get meaningful answers to whether she believed in God or whatnot. I was in the mob, and felt the impulse myself, but managed to turn the conversation to something more real (her Gene RADAR testing machine, which sounds intriguing).

Partly this is just because science is hard but everybody thinks they are a qualified metaphysician. And partly it's because what brought people to this gathering was a pseudo-religion and they are feeling like victims of bait-and-switch if all they get is boring, down-to-earth science.

This sounds like critique but it is only partial. I have nothing against a search for the transcendent; god knows I spend more energy on philosophy than science myself. I just think it needs to be labeled as such. The irritating thing about singulatarianism is not that it's a religion, but that it pretends not to be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sucked into the Singularity

Due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control it looks like I'll be going to the Singularity Summit this weekend (long story short, my son is in a program that was handing out free registrations for young up and coming nerds, and so I get to go as his chaperon). I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. The technological religion of transhumanism gives me hives, but OTOH there are many smart people doing interesting things drawn into its orbit, so maybe I'll learn something.

Anyway, it's a chance to dig a little deeper into what bugs me about this movement:

First: it's a scene. I'm just not a scenester, something I've grudgingly come to acknowledge at my late stage of life. I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member, etc. And it's a particularly cultish sort of scene, a pseudo-religion that elevates science and technology into god-like forces. If I want religion I prefer a real one; I've been working with technology too long to believe that it can produce transcendence.

Second: Here's a post from leading singulitarian Eleazar Yudkowsky entitled "Politics is the Mind-killer". Like many of Yudkowsky's posts, its insightful and well-written, but it gets things exactly wrong. Or slightly more charitably, it goes in the exact opposite direction that I want to go in. Latour is all about the underlying politics of science and everything else. Ainslie is all about the internal politics of what happens within a singe individual. Politics, war, and conflict are central to existence, central to any comprehensive model of the universe. Denying the political is a trick used to disempower people; to make them accept existing power relations as somehow laws of the universe.

What happens when you have a movement that despises politics? Why, libertarianism of course, the default politics of geekdom and something I've talked about too many times to do it again here. One pithy description of libertarianism is the (absurd) belief that you can replace politics with economics. This conference is going to be crawling with libertarians of the most irritating sort. Such as seasteaders, a movement that just so perfectly captures something -- this ludicrous idea that utopia is to be found on a sterile metal platform sitting in the ocean, that by removing themselves from land and life they will leave their (admittedly shriveled) humanity behind. That it's run by the grandson of Milton Friedman is just nanoparticle icing on the synthetic cake.

What I'd like to see is a bunch of technofuturists who aren't playing at a kindergarten level when it comes to politics. Hm, maybe these so-called "technoprogressives"? Or the more extreme endpoints of the Government 2.0 movement, building the operating system for the society of the future?

OK, now that I've got the negativity out of the way, what do I like about these guys? Well, there are a lot of young, smart, idealistic, activist types circling around this movement. They even occasionally do things other than flame about the singularity. And, shit, they may be right -- it may in fact be the case that technical progress is accelerating to some sort of climactic, nonlinear, unimaginable state-change. Maybe science fiction novels are a good guide to the future. The Gulf of Mexico looks like a setting for a Bruce Sterling story, but that's not the kind of SF these guys have in mind. No, they think the future is gonna be bright, they are going to freeze their heads and download themselves to super-powerful computronium substrates that can be launched like seeds into vast depths of space to colonize the universe -- and that this is somehow going to be an answer to the problems of existence. Such naivete can be annoying, alarming, or occasionally charming.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Speaking for Nature

Awhile back I made the point that social construction is not arbitrary -- that is, when people talk about the social construction of knowledge, they don't generally mean that in such a way as to imply that knowledge can be just anything at all -- a point which seems to elude many participants in the science wars. Also, I commented on the Climategate affair, noting that it was a pretty good example of the Latourian view of science -- exposing the messy human processes by which scientific knowledge is made. Well, I have Bruno Latour right here and he agrees with me on both counts:
What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press [to Climategate] was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).
from An attempt at writing a "Compositionist Manifesto" (pdf)

And, in the first chapter of his book Pandora's Hope, he pokes fun at those who seem to doubt that he believes in reality:
Has reality truly become something that people have to believe in, I wondered, the answer to a serious question asked in a hushed and embarrased tone? Is reality something like God, the topic of a confession reached after a long and initimate discussion? Are there people on earth who don't believe in reality? ... I could not get over the strangeness of the question...If science studies has achieved anything, I thought, surely it has added reality to science, not withdrawn any from it. Instead of the stuffed scientists hanging on the walls of the armchair philosophers of science of the past, we have portrayed lively characters, immersed in their laboratories, full of passion, loaded with instruments, steeped in know-how, closely connected to a larger and more vibrant milieu.
I am kind of smitten with Latour lately, not sure why. He seems to have gone from anthropological studies of science that gleefully undermined naive notions of realism, to philosophizing on a much grander scale, where he attempts to undo the whole structure of modernity and undo mistakes that he traces all the way back to Socrates. And for a French philosopher, he's engaging, and usually quite comprehensible, although sometimes the abstractions veer off into the ether. Unlike many cultural theorists, it seems like he's trying to be clear rather than obfuscatory; he even includes a helpful glossary of his technical terms in the back pages of Pandora's Hope. But I can't quite figure out if he is useful, if these radical reconceptualizations have any implications or applications to how science and/or democracy is done.

One of his goals (as far as I understand it) is extending politics all the way down to the supposedly inanimate world of objects. Or more precisely (and this is exactly the kind of subtlety that confuses his critics), he wants to reveal the existing politics that inhere in our view of nature and society and the relations between them. Science, as it is while it is being constructed, is a set of networks that connect people, institutions, representations, and objects. These networks are often in political contention until one emerges as the victor and we now have Sicentific Knowledge with a capital letter. The connection to objects (aka "nature" or "reality") is crucial, of course, and it distinguishes science from mere politics. Social construction of science is not culture making up arbitrary stories; it's a way to let nature speak, to enter into discourse and society.

But Latour goes beyond this. He's not willing to let science take the role of spokesman for nature (which reduces nature itself to an inarticulate and lifeless thing), but wants nature and objects to not only speak for themselves, but act for themselves. Hence his idea of actants to describe the various human and non-human entities that form networks of knowledge and influence. The BRAF gene (eg) is just as much an actor, with goals and interests of its own, as the scientists to work to uncover its functions.

This sounds a bit crazy, but less so on reflection. From the strict materialist viewpoint, there are no actors and actions, just a seamless web of strictly deterministic causality. The stories we tell about each other involving selves, beliefs, intentions, choices, and actions, are just so many useful fictions imposed over this clockwork reality. Given that, why is it any less legitimate to extend these stories to what we normally think of as the inanimate?

For the record, these issues have been obsessing me for awhile. A section of my long-ago dissertation (ostensibly about educational programming environments) dealt with the conceptual underpinnings of animacy and its role in computation. I've moved on professionally to other things but the ideas won't leave me alone, hence this blog.