Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Sum of Parts

This Wired article got me riled up today. Of course I encourage you to read it, but I'd probably summarize it even if I did think you would.

In essence what it's saying is, using Google's statistical analysis approach to marketing as an example, we are getting to the point where we have so much information available to us that we no longer need to generalize when we talk about "the way things work". Scientific theories and models, schemas and mental archetypes, all approximate reality in an inaccurate and ultimately incorrect way. What we ought to do, says the article, is work to describe things as they actually are, now that that's becoming more possible. Throw off the mentality that we need to theorize about causation, and focus exclusively on correlation. Use data and statistical summaries to measure and essentially report the measurements, not our interpretation of those measurements. With enough data, our mathematical summaries could be descriptions of reality in a much more truthful sense than our verbal ones could be.

The article suggests that science and the scientific method are becoming outdated; they're tools of a technologically inferior age, where estimation was necessary.

I find this notion distinctly unsettling, partly because it seems largely true. Why should you talk about the "circulatory system" if you can talk about where a cell is, where it's (statistically likely to be) going (based on where it's been) and where it's been. Why generalize when you can be specific? Part of the response could be that we simply can't handle such specificity as humans. We need schemas.

But computers don't. Computers can be accurate in gigantic and minute detail. Do we need to talk about why things happen at all? Can't we just talk about what happens, and what is likely to? Isn't that the point of explaining things in the first place? Prediction? Why do we need to understand the "grand scheme of things" when we can accurately and quickly describe exactly how things are?

Partly, I would seriously lament the absence of curiosity. If our understanding of the world was as simple as asking where a thing is and will be without really caring about where it's been (since that's the computer's job, not ours), there's a huge portion of appreciation missing. Without caring about the "big picture" I have a real fear that things will spiral into a world of self interest and economic morality. That does sound a little funny coming from a Utilitarianist.

Curiosity and respect are important parts of humanity, necessary for moral and responsible lives, as well as personally fulfilling ones. The anti-scientific pro-statistics outlook sound to me like a marketing firm's dream, where perspective doesn't matter, only numbers and profit do. Now, I'm the first to say that emotion and beauty in all their glory can indeed by reduced to statistics and ratios. But I don't think we function that way cognitively. Part of reductionism's appeal is it's predictive potential, but part is it's ability to open vast chasms of respect and wonder for the intricacies of our world. If we see those intricacies but don't marvel at them, I feel like we've lost something. In order to marvel and understand, numbers have to be simplified into some sort of recognizable system. One that can be compared to others. Awe is a product of exploration, not description.

There's another problem I have with this approach. The world does work in systems and rules. I have a very hard time letting go of this idea. It's all around. Things are predictable. There is some sort of rule to the way things are. At some core, there is a model to be described. Without one the universe would function as a chaotic, entropic body of effect with no cause. We observe that this is not the case. At the very least the human world, the existence between our ears, is not one of fleeting, momentary description. We thrive of making connections between one experience and another, and require to some extent cognitive schemas to stay sane and function day to day.

So although it is true that there really aren't "recessive" genes, there isn't really a weather system that moves accross the globe, and most of our existing models for human behavior or ridiculously oversimplified, that doesn't mean that there aren't rules and models and structures to the world. Rather than thinking that computers will do away with generalizations, maybe we should embrace computer data as extremely complicated and deep generalizations.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Immigration Nation

Ok... so i received this as an email from... well, i can't tell you. Please read and discuss. I think the comparison is absurd, but i'm curious to see what you all think.
Let's say I break into your house

A lady wrote the best letter in the Editorials in ages! It explains things better than all the baloney you hear on TV.

Her point:
Recently large demonstrations have taken place across the country protesting the fact that Congress is finally addressing the issue of illegal immigration.

Certain people are angry that the US might protect its own borders, might make it harder to sneak into this country and, once here, to stay indefinitely. Let me see if I correctly understand the thinking behind these protests.

Let's say I break into your house:

Let's say that when you discover me in your house, you insist that I leave. But I say, “No! I like it here. It's better than my house. I've made all the beds and washed the dishes and did the laundry and swept the floors. I've done all the things you don't like to do. I'm hard-working and honest (except for when I broke into your house).�

According to the protesters:
You are required to:
~ let me stay in your house.
~ feed me
~ add me to your family's insurance plan
~ educate my kids
~ provide other benefits to me & to my family
(my husband will do all of your yard work because he is also hard-working and honest, except for that breaking in part).

If you try to call the police or force me out,
I will call my friends who w ill picket your house carrying signs that proclaim my RIGHT to be there.

It's only fair, after all, because you have a nicer house than I do, and I'm just trying to better myself. I'm a hard-working and honest, person, except for well, you know, I did break into your house, but what a deal it is for me!

I live in your house, contributing only a fraction of the cost of my keep, and there is nothing you can do about it without being accused of cold, uncaring, selfish, prejudiced, and bigoted behavior.

Oh yeah, I DEMAND that you learn MY LANGUAGE,
so you can communicate with me.

Why can't people see how ridiculous this is?!

~ Only in America ~

If you agree, pass it on (in English).
Share it if you see the value of it.
If not, blow it off . . . along with your future Social Security funds, and a lot of other things.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Okay, so there's this weblog: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.org

It's basically a site that makes fun of the stereotypical white person. Take a look at it if you want. I think it's funny....but is it offensive?

At first glance, one might think that it's "okay" to make fun of white people because hey, they haven't suffered the inequalities that other races have. Making fun of them is just harmless fun.

But I thought about it and I don't think it's fair to make fun of someone even though it's not based on years of oppression or injustice.

Maybe stereotyping of this kind is harmless if it's taken ironically by all parties involved (the joke bieng how obviously racist and ridiculous said stereotyping is) but that can easily be misconstrued and taken literally under the former context. (it's okay to make fun of white people)

Honestly, there would never be a weblog called "stuff black people like" because...wow. But THIS blog has been made....and it seems just as bad to me.

I dunno, maybe I'm suffering from "non-white guilt" (i.e. I'm just as bad a racist white person back in the day, only worse because we all should know better)

What do you all think?

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Big One

What does moral behavior look like to you?

The difficulty of defining "morality" is an issue that I think is taken for granted entirely too often. We discuss what is "right" in abstract, complicated terms and at the same time make quick snap judgements about what behaviors are right and wrong.

Often, identifying moral or immoral behavior seems to be an easy task. We think of issues like "it's wrong to steal and murder" as good examples of how you really don't need a complicated, concrete definition in order to live well and be a good person.

But there are times when one person's obviously right behavior seems much less obviously right to the rest of us. A man from Borneo was interviewd for NPR today and said that people should uphold their traditions. While that may not strike you as a moral statement, I think it indeed is. Saying what we should or should not do is a moral judgement about what is right and wrong. Even "I think" statements regarding optimal human behavior are assertions about morality.

So, what do you think of morality? Is it a feeling? A philosophy? Is it a truth and we're just trying to define it, or is it a construction that we devise to help ourselves live?

How important is it to be moral?

Are there things outside the bounds of moral judgement; can there be things that are too subjective for a moral assessment to be made?

Monday, December 31, 2007

the palestinian situation

i spent christmas break in palestine and in jerusalem (israel). (bethlehem, ramallah, jericho, and jerusalem) while there i witnessed the absurd suffering of the palestinians, and the absurd rule of the israeli government. on relating some simple stories to some friends back home (like: palestinians have to have different color license plates, and have to drive on different, unpaved, 5x as long roads to get from point a to b. they cannot visit jerusalem without a permit, and if they are also muslim (many palestinians are christian) they cannot visit jerusalem at all, and so on) my friends said they had never heard of these injustices towards the palestinians. they are in essence treated as second class people, denied many civil liberties, and are quite desperate for liberty and peace.

my question is: what do you know about the situation? and how did you learn about it?

i am curious if your experiences from: academia, the news media, or the internet has shaped your views on israel/palestine, and how?

from a peace rally in jerusalem
jewish women protesting the occupation in palestine

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sentience and Robots

So, over dinner last night Vince brought up a concept that he's planning to fill out into a concept album/EP. One which I fully support and will spend good chunks of time daydreaming about: Sentience in robots, and what that would sound like.

My post is brief because my question is thus: what are interesting nuances and themes Vince can use?

Such hits have included:

  • At what point would robots be too similar to humans?

  • Conscious "othering" of robots

  • Anthropomorphizing robots

  • What does switching on / shutting down feel like?

  • How does a robot mature? Are there noticeable changes? And would the robot be aware of this?

  • Given the sudden self-awareness of said robot, what kind of issues might it have?

Friday, November 9, 2007


This has been bugging me since the middle of college, and I find that every time I hear about Congressional conflict or Pakistani strife or donate a dollar to a food service at the super market I'm reminded of it.

What is the goal at the end of social activism? What do we want the world to be like?

And don't you dare give me an answer that begins and ends with "equality" or "and end to hunger". Does equality mean we try to dissolve cultural differences? Does an end to hunger mean global Communism? I want to know what you really think the best possible world would be like.

For example, I was thinking about Heaven. People sometimes point out that Hell sounds much more interesting than Heaven. Eternity wihout conflict sounds very boring. Similarly, I wouldn't wish for a world without pain or strife, as those things are essential to understanding ourselves, and are valuable experiences.

But, if pain and suffering are valuable, why change the way things are?

Well, I think pain is valuable, but suffering less so. Something of an ideal world would be a place where we are free to have all sorts of experiences, all sorts, but there is always hope and the sense that they will not last forever (and indeed they would not). The tragedy of poverty is that it is so difficult to overcome. Starving children will die and not have a life. The cessation of suffering is the most important thing in the world, but the absence of any suffering is the absence of part of our human identity.

So, take any topic, be it racism, poverty, ignorance, boredome, consumerism, whatever, and try to imagine what you REALLY want the world to be like. When you say "I want to make a difference", what is it that you're striving toward.

What will the world look like when we decide we can stop trying to change it?