Tuesday, February 27, 2007

a little tip...

Some websites you'll be excited about someday in the future... if you're not already:

www.joost.com (sorry, only beta testers at this point, still in release. 0.8);

one that I thought had great promise but now looks to me as dying is www.newsvine.com (too much associated press content).

Happy browsing!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

On the happiness of nations

Mahalanobis is discussing the happiness, or reported subjective well being, scale. The subject has gained a lot of momentum since The Economist did a story on its special, years end, issue and David Cameron argued that SWB should influence policy:

"It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being," he said.

"Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.

"Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

Tom West, in a comment in Marginal Revolution, brings out this intriguing point:

I get a strong feeling that happiness research is frowned upon by a lot of economists because it threatens the motivation behind the one thing they know how to do well: create growth.

There's pretty strong evidence that the ideal conditions for creating growth (such as insecurity, high labor mobility, and increased inequality) are not conducive to happiness. If one decides that even the desired end-product doesn't produce happiness, then it's a pretty short road to asking why we're making ourselves miserable pursuing an outcome that doesn't make us happy.

And if we do that, then a lot of economists holding hammers get told that the world is not necessarily a big nail.

In any case, it's always nice to have a glimpse at how nations compare in the happiness scale, as measured in

Marks, N., Abdallah, S., Simms, A, Thompson, S. (2006).
The Happy Planet Index. London: New Economics Foundation

So here it is. [
I'm sure readers will understand that, for reasons of space, I had to make a random, arbitrary, cut point.]

Nation SWLS Score

UAE 247
USA 247
OMAN 243
FIJI 223

Friday, February 23, 2007

Here's to the Fruitcakes!

Overcoming bias is discussing a very interesting thing for those who (eventually) teach (or lecture or do consulting and so forth). How to overcome bias in the classroom?

Imagine I’m a professor who is going to lecture my students on global warming. Further assume that after carefully looking at the evidence I conclude that there is a 60% chance that global warming is true. So if I was the only one to lecture on global warming I would devote 60% of my lecture to evidence in support of the theory and 40% to evidence opposed to it.

But now imagine that I know that most of my students will be taught about global warming in other classes. Further assume that all the other professors at my college are 100% certain that global warming is true. These other professors, therefore, will only present evidence in favor of global warming. To cause students to get as unbiased a view as possible of global warming (from my prospective) shouldn’t I devote my entire lecture to criticizing global warming theory?

Imagine a professor has some ideology such as libertarianism or Marxism that is unusual at his college. The professor has this view because after looking at the evidence he decides it provides the best explanation of how the world works. The professor thinks that 20% of an unbiased education would consist of learning his ideology. But the professor knows that students won't encounter his ideology outside of his classroom. Doesn't this mean that to help the students get what the professor believes is an unbiased education the professor should devote far more than 20% of his lecture time to discussing his ideology?

I think this is a very good question. How is one to decide how much to throw of each subject? Everyone has a bias, and the metaphysical dream of a god's-eye 'view from nowhere', of completely overcoming them, is, of course, for dreamers from fantasyland. It won't be unbiased in a crystalline sense. The best achievable is some balance of sorts.

So what to do? Do you go with what you believe and screw the textbooks and others opinions? Or do you take the easy path and surrender to Dr Groncho's classic textbook, "because that's how it's done"? The textbook certainly will be balanced, otherwise publishers wouldn't throw it on the market. On the other hand, precisely because it is meant for an immense audience, it ridiculously throws controversy to a footnote here and a footnote there. So you might have a full chapter mentioning X as fact; another chapter mentioning Y as fact, but there's no way that X and Y can be true simultaneously in this universe. Textbooks discuss one in isolation, then another, then finish up. They never go into the real issue, the controversy, the things that make blood flow.

The economics of textbook publishing make them uncontroversial: the more controversy, the more people get annoyed. So it makes economic sense for textbooks to minimize controversy. At the other end of this scale is the PhD thesis, a controversial document made for a dozen or so people. But the PhD thesis, that's the type of document that universities are about, right? Universitas magistrorum et scholarium: Masters and Scholars, right? I can't view universities as textbook-(sp)reading joints. So my view here is just screw them all. Go with the latest thing, the latest data and theory, and bring the controversies up. Don't "chapter 3 now, people". Someone in Overcoming Bias's comments points out that you might need tenure for that; but I don't think so; all you need is guts to face whomever may eventually come with those 'where's the textbook' or other petty administrative remarks.

When Doug Hofstadter was at MIT, I remember someone commenting on one of his talks (I think it was about Gödelian self-referential loops and consciousness, but I could be wrong here): "I just came from this most fantastic of talks from Hofstadter. It was crazy and awesome. The funny thing about it is: I don't know exactly what he was talking about, and neither does Hofstadter!" There were no words yet to describe those concepts and relationships, so Hofstadter, like all good philosophers, was talking about something, but we don't know exactly what. In 15 years time a new field with a new name will have been established, but up to that point, people just got flabbergasted when following his reasoning.

Another tale from DRH: I recently was attending one of his seminars, about designing ambigrams. There were people from all over the place: philosophy, psychology, art school, computer science and cognitive science. I didn't learn much about designing ambigrams; but it was, for me, a grand experience in comprehending the subcognition of intuitive perception. If you're thinking that for that one you need tenure, perhaps you might want to consider his seminar in Geometry: One class session was completely in the dark, while a theorem was described and people had to visualize the line intersecting the triangle at a specific point and so forth. In another session, students had to find proofs for some theorems, but had to write them as poetry! But then, when you finally think that this guy has really gone fruitcake; he pulls of his thoughts on subcognition and what must have been going on in your mind while you were doing that. Suddenly things fit, in an odd way, and you can see new things you were blind before. And you know that nobody will find those insights from textbooks in cognitive psychology or cogscience, or whatever subjects.

I had never heard of Dr. Robert Geroch (which I'm guessing is from Univ. of California); but Aeolist discusses in a hilarious post, Bob Geroch's course in mathematical physics:

In typical Geroch style, there is no textbook, no syllabus, and basically nothing certain except for the fact that there are going to be grades of a sort. “I’ve tried not saying anything about administrative stuff before, but in my experience it seeps in over the first three weeks, and people start asking questions like ‘is this course going to have grades?’” said Geroch, apologising for taking time to explain that there were indeed going to be grades.

I’m relieved that I understood all the math that he did today, which was simply to introduce n-charts and manifolds. I very much like the metaphors he used, which I found to be of a more insightful nature than those I’ve been getting in classes taught by pure mathematicians. The only problem is that he tends to get more excited as the explanation proceeds, and starts talking faster and faster, so that it becomes impossible to both take notes and listen.

Then she moves on to describing other students opinion of Geroch's course:

*A sampling of comments from those lucky enough to have taken that course while Geroch was teaching it:

  • could have been a bit more normal
  • Course started out great. Then we got to rigid bodies. All I got to say: I want someone to rotate on my rigid body.
  • This man should teach all of my classes. [Ed.: I concur.]
  • Don’t tell students to buy the text book. It is useless. I don’t even know what it looks like.
  • I have this strange feeling that we didn’t follow the standard 185 curriculum
  • He is a fruitcake

No syllabus, no textbook, no 'administrative remarks'. I found myself cheering at Dr. Geroch's style, and I just must compliment him for having the guts to be a fruitcake.

A historic day for the internet! Or did I say hysteric?

Intuition is about "situation understanding", and that situation understanding has to do with how one perceives things. How one classifies events and the stuff in them. I've commented previously on the initial perception of the iPod. But when I did that comment I did it in hindsight. So, I guess it is only fair to analyse a controversial event that just happened today; and is making the alpha geeks crazy about it. Some, like me, say it's historical, full of hope; others say it's hysterical, full of hype. A couple of years from now and we'll know who's right.

Google made an announcement, quoted in full here:

Google Introduces New Business Version of Popular Hosted Applications

Mountain View, Calif. - February 22, 2007 - Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) - today introduced Google Apps Premier Edition, a new version of Google’s hosted services for communication and collaboration designed for businesses of all sizes. Google Apps Premier Edition is available for $50 per user account per year, and includes phone support, additional storage, and a new set of administration and business integration capabilities.

Google Apps™, launched as a free service in August 2006, is a suite of applications that includes Gmail™ webmail services, Google Calendar™ shared calendaring, Google Talk™ instant messaging and voice-over-IP, and the Start Page feature for creating a customizable home page on a specific domain. More than 100,000 small businesses and hundreds of universities now use the service. Google Apps Premier Edition now joins Google Apps Standard Edition and Google Apps Education Edition, both of which will continue to be offered for free to organizations.

"Procter & Gamble Global Business Services (GBS) has enrolled as a charter enterprise customer of Google Apps, a successful consumer product suite now available to enterprises. P&G will work closely with Google in shaping enterprise characteristics and requirements for these popular tools," said Laurie Heltsley, director Procter & Gamble Global Business Services.

"So much of business now relies on people being able to communicate and collaborate effectively," said Gregory Simpson, CTO for General Electric Company. "GE is interested in evaluating Google Apps for the easy access it provides to a suite of web applications, and the way these applications can help people work together. Given its consumer experience, Google has a natural advantage in understanding how people interact together over the web."

Google also today announced that all editions of Google Apps now include Google Docs & Spreadsheets™. In addition, Google Apps now supports Gmail for mobile on BlackBerry™ handheld devices.

"Businesses are looking for applications that are simple and intuitive for employees, but also offer the security, reliability and manageability their organizations require," said Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager, Google Enterprise. "With Google Apps, our customers can tap into an unprecedented stream of technology and innovation at a fraction of the cost of traditional installed solutions."

Features unique to Google Apps Premier Edition include:
  • 10 GBs of storage per user – Offers about 100 times the storage of the average corporate mailbox, eliminating the need to frequently delete email.
  • APIs for business integration – APIs for data migration, user provisioning, single sign-on, and mail gateways enable businesses to further customize the service for unique environments.
  • 99.9 % uptime – Service Level Agreements for high availability of Gmail, with Google monitoring and crediting customers if service levels are not met.
  • 24x7 support for critical issues – Includes extended business hours telephone support for administrators.
  • Advertising optional – Advertising is turned off by default, but businesses can choose to include Google’s relevant target-based ads if desired.
  • $50 per user account per year – Simple and affordable annual fee makes it practical to offer these applications to everyone in the organization.
In addition to Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk and Start Page, all editions of Google Apps now include:
  • Google Docs & Spreadsheets – With this addition, teams can easily collaborate on documents and spreadsheets without the need to email documents back and forth. Multiple employees can securely work on a document at the same time. All revisions are recorded for editing, and administrative controls allow organizations to define limits on document sharing. According to custom analysis of Nielsen//NetRatings MegaPanel released this week, 92 percent of users of online productivity tools last October used Google Docs & Spreadsheets, making it the number one product in its class.
  • Gmail for mobile devices on BlackBerry – Gmail for mobile devices provides the same Gmail experience – such as search, conversation view and synchronization with desktop version – on BlackBerry handheld devices for users of Google Apps. Gmail for mobile devices joins a list of other mobile options for Google Apps and BlackBerry users that already includes a Google Talk client and a variety of calendar sync tools.
  • Application-level control – Allows administrators to adapt services to business policies, such as sharing of calendars or documents outside of the company.
"When it comes to our email systems, our doctors don’t have the time or the budgets to deal with managing technology or defending against spam," said Andrew Johnson, chief information officer, San Francisco Bay Pediatrics. "With Google Apps Premier Edition we don’t have to worry about downloading the latest spam filters or navigating unwieldy servers. This is where we let Google do what it does best, so we can do what we do best – help our patients."

In addition to Procter & Gamble Global Business Services and San Francisco Bay Pediatrics, other early adopters of Google Apps Premier Edition include Salesforce.com and Prudential Preferred Properties in the U.S., as well as Essilor and Mediametrie in France.

To provide more options and value to customers of Google Apps Premier Edition, Google Enterprise Professional partners like Avaya and Postini are developing a variety of solutions based on our APIs, including email gateways, enhanced security, Google Calendar synchronization, third-party integration with Google Talk, as well as offering deployment, migration, and additional support services.

Google hosted applications are available in many local languages, such as French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Please visit http://www.google.com/a for details on the product, local availability, partners and customers.

Techcrunch called it historical:

[Google's] nearly full-service suite of sophisticated, integrated online services is something of historic proportion. Google’s technological brilliance is only beginning to be recognized. What do I mean by that? I mean that with its powerful algorithms to analyze and contextualize information, combined with its growing catalogue of information to analyze - Google is an epoch defining company. Send the world’s business communication through Google and the machine gets a whole lot smarter.

The New York Times said it challenged Microsoft:

Google is taking aim at one of Microsoft’s most lucrative franchises.

On Thursday, Google, the Internet search giant, will unveil a package of communications and productivity software aimed at businesses, which overwhelmingly rely on Microsoft products for those functions.

The package, called Google Apps, combines two sets of previously available software bundles. One included programs for e-mail, instant messaging, calendars and Web page creation; the other, called Docs and Spreadsheets, included programs to read and edit documents created with Microsoft Word and Excel, the mainstays of Microsoft Office, an $11 billion annual franchise.

Unlike Microsoft’s products, which reside on PCs and corporate networks, Google’s will be delivered as services accessible over the Internet, with Google storing the data. That will allow businesses to offload some of the cost of managing computers and productivity software.

For corporate technology staffs, “we think that will be a very refreshing change,” said Dave Girouard, Google’s vice president and general manager for enterprise.

Yet, among the alpha-geek readers of Techcrunch you can hardly find any positive comment:
What is so innovative here?
with respect marshall, how much hyperbole!
I’ve said it before: Google haven’t innovated for 2-3 years now.
As others are saying, this is just more “me too”

When the 1st iPod was launched; Apple’s fanatic fans were downplaying it enormously. Now it seems that everyone around here thinks Google hasn’t done much (to say the least). To me, this is something of groundbreaking historical proportions, and people are not understanding that because, well, they’re making bad analogies. There are many different things to consider in this announcement:

(i) Google’s guarantee of 99.9% uptime. This does not mean 0.01% downtime. It means that Google is willing to back up the promises they make; and that, in the long run, will bring confidence to business. I’ve been frustrated once or twice about contacting my bank, after some years long relationship. But that frustration for their “downtime” does not necessarily mean changing provider.

(ii) The IT guys (that would be laughing in a comment above) should really be the first ones to start crying. This is more an attack on them than on MS, and in the economic inefficiency of every single company having to buy a bunch of servers, maintain those, update them, and of course hire hire and hire a bunch of expensive people to run email & calendaring.

(iii) To compare this to ms-office is to misunderstand the whole thing. It’s like saying an iPod can’t write songs; can’t compose music. The minor announcement that docs & spreadsheets were now integrated is not even close to the real issue. They are neat tools, great for collaboration. I can imagine a manager in the morning emailing people about some problem they face and the whole group putting their views on a doc, instead of emailing opinions and arguments back and forth and back and forth and back and forth; by the end of the day a collaborative effort brings up a rough sketch. That is a productivity gain.

(iv) The docs & spreadsheets integration is a MINOR issue. The MAJOR issue is that, soon, we should see blogger integration, google reader, a presentation-sharing tool, picasa web photos, wikis, and a whole lot more I don’t remember at this precise second. All of them improve productivity, and, when taken together, when a click away, and after people have learned how to use them, then the productivity boost is really huge.

To say that this is an attack on microsoft office and therefore it will fail, is, to me, very myopic, just like those iPod skeptics that thought “this thing will never sell”.

Yet, years from now, Ms-office might just be a tool for “polishing” up documents. Then again, not all documents need to be polished; and, moreover, other companies that integrate their offices with Google’s tools might just make it a whole lot better.

When thinking about tech, we can’t just think where it is; we need to think where it’s going. What the potential is. This thing today was of incredible historic proportions. Not because of what’s on offer–though the offer is already great; but because it will only get better. People will be more productive AND costs will be saved. Laugh as much as you want; but think again when you start to see big corporations jump into Google’s efforts, both to improve productivity, and to save dozens of millions of bucks per year.

The IT guys in the backrooms better stop laughing and better get prepared.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What, me; paranoid?

Neuroeconomics at GMU is discussing an intriguing study concerning predispositions to pessimism:

Apparently, we’re all wired to be downers in a world characterized by pervasive ambiguity. Somewhere in the course of human evolution, though, people’s views toward their pessimistic peers have changed – whereas downers of the distant past likely served to possess and distribute valuable information, they’re a drag in 21st-century America. What used to be an advantageous survival strategy is now, at least in well-off societies, a social nuisance and an object of mockery. Is this transformation not a testament to how well off we have become?

In fact, Overcoming Bias was just commenting on a similar issue: our natural paranoia.

If the project of ‘overcoming bias’ is rational correction of the biases of spontaneous human cognition, it may hit a limit when it comes to ‘theory of mind’ inferences such as evaluating the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other humans. For instance, trying to answer the question – how paranoid should I be?

We cannot know for sure whether other people intend to harm us, given that such intentions are concealed. If we are too-paranoid we will miss-out on potentially valuable alliances and waste resources on pointless precautions; yet if we are not-paranoid-enough then we will be harmed or even killed (especially in the tribal ancestral human environment, when the brain evolved).

Such social evaluations are the very basis of human intelligence, according to the Machiavellian Intelligence theory that humans evolved big brains to deal with the vast complexities of human social living.

My take is that, if we evolved to have a certain degree of paranoia towards others, and this paranoia can nowadays be transferred towards nuclear proliferation, global warming, or that damned unsynchronized traffic light in the morning commute, then it is quite normal for us to be a little paranoid--there simply is no alternative. However, I'm not quite so sure that either today's downers are objects of mockery, or that it is sheer wealth from economic growth that has taken out most of the value of their raining in our parade.

There is a number of high profile 'downers' which aren't really under mockery. Thomas Schelling, Paul Kennedy, Dennis Meadows, Jared Diamond, Daniel Dennett, Al Gore, ok; perhaps Mr. Gore is under mockery. And perhaps Dennett isn't a downer after all (despite his recent TED talk).

But the real issue is the argument that sheer wealth has made downers less relevant. To me, it just doesn't feel quite right. I agree that they are less relevant, yet, I don't place the cause in the economics of wealth, but in the economics of information.

In April 18, 1775, Paul Revere crossed a whole lotta earth on horseback to pass on a piece of info: "the British are coming". That piece of info was of extreme importance and changed history to the extent that it did. Whenever a downer carried around a new piece of bad news, that was truly valuable, just like money. But that was back then. A few years ago people with a bad message could use that info to their advantage.

But today the economics of information is radically different. There is so much high-quality information accessible at any point in time that downers will have a really hard time "selling" it for a profit or personal gain. A disease is coming from Asia? Google it; then wikipedia it; then email Dr Ping-Pong in Hong Kong, who has worked with such cases hands-on. The loss of biodiversity; the burning of the rainforests; the coming extinctions of black rhinos and perhaps pandas, alongside a massive extinction of uncountable, less-media-grabbing species; the hole in the ozone layer, the epidemic of obesity, the population bomb, global warming, arms trade, you name the disgrace, and in 15 minutes anyone can get high-quality info over broadband.

The change in the economics of information is, to me, the crucial factor behind the fall of the downers.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Intuition, Redefined?

"A clever person solves a problem. A wise one avoids it." -- Albert Einstein

When it comes to intuition, Einstein was always on-the-mark. What a great batting average.

Perhaps it's time to discuss the names of this blog. For instance, how do we boldly claim to "redefine" intuition?

Capyblanca, as in "www.capyblanca.com", is a Hofstadterian invention, for an ambitious project in cognitive science, blending the ideas from The Copycat Project with Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca.

Capablanca made perhaps the best remark, ever, about human intuition. While mentioning that other players tried to look ahead and see many moves in the evolving game, Capablanca assured us: "I see only one move. Always the best one."

Capablanca didn't bother to think through many alternatives, his gigantic, unique, experience in Chess enabled him to just "see the best move." If you think that was just plain arrogance and did not correspond to psychological fact, consider this: Ron "Suki" King, a world checkers champion, played in 1998 a simultaneous game against 385 opponents. He beat them all. Now let's make some calculations. Supposed he thought for two seconds in each position. A mere two seconds; time to look at it, have an initial idea, then make a movement. That gave each of his opponents 12 minutes and 30 seconds to consider the reply. So if you think that Capablanca was not telling the absolute truth about his own thought process, I'd love to hear an alternative explanation for the powers of Mr King.

Intuition is the ability to, as Einstein said about a wise person, avoid problems, even without thinking about them. Most decision-making theories, such as in Management Science, Cognitive Science, Game Theory, and so forth, have considered that decision is choice; and moreover, that choice selection is possible after evaluating the alternatives. But Capablanca and King were not evaluating alternatives; and this is our anchoring point in looking at the decision sciences.

Intuition is often defined as "immediate knowledge". Fair enough. But that definition needs, perhaps, some qualifications. I'd define it as "almost immediate situation understanding". The process is not immediate, of course, it takes a (little) time and (invisible, subconscious,) effort. And it's not about 'knowledge' as in a static form; it's about having a deeply meaningful state of mind, of understanding a situation very rapidly.

So here is our "redefinition". We have written about both the 'almost immediate' and the 'situation understanding' parts. About 'almost immediate', in "Minds & Machines", in "Artificial Intelligence", and in EuroCogSci2007. We have written about the "situation understanding" part in "Artificial Intelligence", in (to-appear-one-day) "Cognitive Science", and a host other papers still under review.

So, though I think these qualifications have sweeping implications for many theories in many fields, you might think that that "redefinition" is pretty mediocre. To that, I'd reply with a quote, by my great friend, Harry Foundalis:

"Alex, given the proper perspective, every single piece of work is bound to be mediocre."

And I thought it was Brazilians who held their nieces under such care

Free exchange is debating the World Economic Forum in Davos:

DAVOS is all about blithe generalisations, even down to its motto: “committed to improving the state of the world”. As if there were a rival meeting committed to worsening the state of the world.

But sometimes generalisations are useful, especially when you are dealing with something as enormous as that Davos perennial, globalisation.

This year there is a weird imbalance here between thinkers and doers.

Usually you can count on a healthy tension between the dreamy thinkers (for these purposes, anyone who writes or talks for a living, such as economists, journalists and most politicians) and the pragmatic doers (in Davos, business people).

The former come up with wild theories and grand plans. The latter say it will never work in practice.

But now, not least in Davos, it is the eggheads who are fretting and the men in Brioni suits who are looking on the bright side.

In the dinners and the discussions, the journalists and economists and politicians raise all the questions about inequality between winners and losers, deplore the absence of political leadership and compare this age of globalisation gloomily with the one that collapsed with the first world war.

The business people reply, by and large: “Come off it”.

It is not that they are being complacent, the business people say. Far from it. They are realists. They see things from the ground up. They see progress in each shampoo bottle bought in eastern Europe, in improvements to Africa's health care, in the broadening of choice everywhere.

The dividing line between glum thinkers and brisk doers runs deepest through Russia, and through the part of Russia which has come this year to Davos. After keeping a low profile for a couple of years here the Russians are back. No party is complete without several deep-voiced men in dark suits and black turtle-neck jerseys, accompanied surprisingly often by a doting niece (or two).

And I'm thinking that it was the Brazilians who held their nieces under such care.

Anyway, the discussion obviously somehow went towards global warming. And what really makes your day is to find such an enlightened piece in the comments:

Global warming? I'm sure the Lord intended for every glacier to eventually reach the end of it's run. But when I see people like Al Gore, (who invented glaciers by the way,) using pictures of MT. Kiliminjaor taken in the peak of the summer heat, and then compare it to a photo taken in the dead of winter and claim the earth is warming so much it has melted the snow there.......It makes me wonder.....if the Earth is heating up so rapidly where are all the studies showing a co-equal expansion of the Worlds deserts? They exist to reflect, and radiate the Earth's heat back into space after all. Man will never be able by any means economicaly, sociopoliticaly, or industrially manipulative to acheive controling dominion over God's creation. We simply cannot usurp God's function, or confound his purpose for this world. If Satan cannot do it, we definitly never will. Face it, we live in a fallen creation. The sooner we start to deal with our lives from that perspective, the sooner the Lord will be able to actually use us effectually to initiate positive cahnge according to his will.
It has already been written.
Posted by yiddishlion at February 10, 2007 10:15 PM

H.G. Wells wrote nearly 50 years ago that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." It's very hard to know who's winning; there are a host of potential catastrophes looming, most of which were pointed out in LTG's scenarios. Yet, the explosion of the internet in all its new forms just might put education a step ahead in the race.

I wonder whether the yiddishlions out there wouldn't be better off taking care of their nieces.

Friday, February 16, 2007

If you've just arrived from Mars, please read Alan Sokal's paper

It is such a tragicomic piece... Dr Sokal is a Physicist, and he wrote a little, hilarious, non sequitur paper and had it published in "Social Crap Text". This piece, with its "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever", should be mandatory reading for all students in the sciences, humanities, etcetera. Someone might also want to rip a couple of pages from the Q'ran and thrown this one in there. If you're into this kind of thing I'm sure you'd like to take a look at the (modern Eliza) postmodernism generator. But nothing beats Sokal:

The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the ``reasoning'' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity -- the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter -- has profound politicalimplications (which, of course, are ``progressive''). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with ``postmodernist epistemology.'' Next, I assemble a pastiche -- Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity -- held together by vague rhetoric about ``nonlinearity'', ``flux'' and ``interconnectedness.'' Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that ``postmodern science'' has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

In its concluding passages, my article becomes especially egregious. Having abolished reality as a constraint on science, I go on to suggest (once again without argument) that science, in order to be ``liberatory,'' must be subordinated to political strategies. I finish the article by observing that ``a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.'' We can see hints of an ``emancipatory mathematics,'' I suggest, ``in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.'' I add that ``catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.'' It's understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What's more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article's overall illogic.

Here's the original article. Here's the above-quoted piece; and here's a third piece that was later rejected in "Social Text", for "not meeting their intellectual standards".

What a joyride!