Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Progress in the Kitchen

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen argue that the pace of technological change has slowed since the 50s, in terms of how the ordinary man or woman is affected by technology, and use kitchen technology as an example. Megan McArdle points out there has been a pretty astounding amount of change both in kitchen technology itself, but even more so in the technology that results in the availability and price of the food you bring into the kitchen:
As it happens, my kitchen--a galley kitchen in an urban apartment--was probably typical of 1953 in terms of major appliances (a stove and a refrigerator) and cupboard space. And yet, in some of the most important respects, it still wasn't a 1953 kitchen. 1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots. I used at least one of these, and often two or more, every day. Saran Wrap, aluminum foil, and tupperware were novelty products; my 1950 Betty Crocker picture cookbook contains instructions for storing food using waxed paper and damp towels, because that's how the majority of housewives did it. The book also assumes that its readers will cream butter and sugar by hand for cakes, percolate or boil their coffee, beat egg whites with a rotary beater, and so forth. Anyone who has attempted to beat egg whites by hand can attest that the transition to electrically-assisted baking is not a small improvement. (Men, who tend not to bake as much as women, may be prone to overlook this.)

My pots and pans are also vastly higher quality--aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily and had hot spots. While I'm obviously an outlier--a guest at my birthday party this weekend gaped and said "What do you do with all those pans on your wall?" most Americans still have substantially better quality cookware than they used to. Nonstick is a major innovation, even if it has degraded the quality of pan-searing.

Then there is the food. I simply don't believe that either Tyler or Paul Krugman have ever, as adults, cooked the way that a 1954 cook did in the most meaningful sense. I don't believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood--and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn't been available when her mother was young. And this was not some urban food desert; my mother grew up in a farm town where the produce, during the summer and early autumn months, is some of the best I've ever had.

Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping? Does it matter that some of these are political, rather than electrical, innovations?
Reading all three posts, I think the main conclusion I can draw is that I cook more than Kugman or Cowen.

Funding Falsehood

It was widely reported a few weeks ago that it had been conclusively shown that not only was the Lancet study claiming to suggest a connection between the MMR vaccine and Autism unsupported by further research but the original study itself was actively fabricated. The doctor who wrote the fraudulent paper falsified his data in order to reach the desired result, and did so because he had received a retainer from a law firm that was seeking to file a lawsuit against vaccine makers.

Listening to an hour long interview with the investigative journalist who got to the bottom of it all, however, I was somewhat shocked to hear that the reason why the law firm in Britain was originally fishing for an expert to support their claim is that the British government provides funding to law firms who appear to have a valid case against a medicine. So the way this was all kicked off was that the law firm got government funding to find a connection between MMR vaccines and autism, they used that money to hire a doctor who fabricated research and got a journal article published, this made their case look good and so they got more money, and this allowed them to try to get more support for their claim. Eventually, the law firm realized that it didn't have a solid enough case and dropped the whole thing, but not before a copy cat case in the US got going, where there is also public funding for lawsuits against vaccines.

To close the circle, it was the government funded journalism in the UK that started to uncover the fraud and the government funded medical review board which got all the way to the bottom and stripped the offending Dr. Andrew Wakefield of his medical license.  As the whole circus played out, hundreds of thousands of children went unvaccinated, and thus were put at significant risk, hundreds of thousands of parents worried about whether to vaccinate or not, and over a hundred million dollars worth of US and UK public money went down the drain to create and then end the controversy.

Which kind of leaves you wondering: Wouldn't we all be better off if in both the US and the UK free money weren't being handed over to law firm to go fish for ways to sue drug makers regardless of legitimacy?

It's worth asking. Though I would assume the argument for the system which ran amok in this case is that there's already a monetary incentive for drug companies to produce vaccines, and it's not necessarily right to expect victims of a bad vaccine to put up all the up front capital to produce the evidence that a vaccine should be taken off the market.  At a minimum, this seems like a case where the instinct towards regulation has created some perverse incentives and someone now needs to clean house.

Just say no

I love the internet, because it makes it possible for you to find people who think what you think, but say it better. Example number one: Simcha writes about why married priests are a bad idea. She says what I've always thought, but have been too lazy to put into words. Also, she's funny.

Why doesn’t the Latin Rite Church just start letting priests marry again? If men can’t or won’t stay celibate, then why force the issue? Well, I peeked into the future, when married priests are commonplace, and this is what I heard in the pews:

“Well! I see the pastor’s wife is pregnant again! What is she trying to prove? Must be nice to pop ‘em out year after year, while the parish has to support all those brats.”


“Well! I see another year has gone by and the pastor’s wife still isn’t pregnant. A fine example they’re setting! I won’t have them teaching my children CCD, since his own wife is clearly on the Pill.”


“I went to the rectory the other day to talk to Father about my divorce, and those damn kids of his wouldn’t shut up for a minute. Sounded like a herd of elephants running around up there — I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. How can he give me advice about my family when he can’t even control his own?”


“I have to talk to someone about my kids, but I would never go to Father — his kids are so well-behaved, he could never understand what I’m going through. I swear, his wife must drug them or something — something ain’t right there.”

Read the rest.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bloggers in the Neighborhood

Moving to Ohio, we were sad to leave behind a lot of great friends we enjoyed spending time with them, among them some blogging friends who had become real life friends. Imagine our pleasure when some of the first people we met in our new neighborhood turn out to also be Catholic homeschoolers who keep a blog. Meet Roma Locuta Est, written by Jake Tawney. Needless to say, we're excited to find ourselves just around the corner from another family with similar interests -- and also with five kids under nine.

Note especially some of Jake's recent posts on the new translation of the mass which will be going into use this Advent.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Son of a Gun?

Darwins! you ask. What is there to laugh about in this vale of tears?

Well. Tonight, going through books in the library, we came across a photocopied article tucked into a book of ethnographical studies of Mississippi. It recounted the fabulous story, related by a Confederate doctor, of a minie ball fired during a battle near Vicksburg, which passed through both an unfortunate soldier and a hapless young lady in such a fashion as to result, 278 days later, in a bouncing baby boy.

How common it is now-a-days, and how natural, too, for men to tell wonderful stories about "the war"; their desperate charges; hair-breadth escapes; numbers who have fallen victims to their feats of personal valor, etc., etc. Then every surgeon has performed any number of wonderful operations before unheard of in the annals of surgery!

Until the present moment, I have refrained from bringing before the public, and more particularly the Profession, any of my daring exploits or remarkable surgical procedures; and even now I feel a delicacy in offering the remarkable case, the relation of which is prompted only by a sense of duty to my professional brethren. Doubtless many will pronounce the facts to be presently related as unusual or impossible; to such I need only say, if not, why not?...

...Just two hundred and seventy-eight days from the date of the receipt of the wound by the minnie ball, I delivered this same young lady of a fine boy, weighing eight pounds. I was not very much surprised; but imagine the surprise and mortification of the young lady herself, her entire family. This can be better imagined than described. Although I found the hymen intact in my examination before delivery, I gave no credence to the earnest and oft-repeated assertions of the young lady of her innocence and virgin purity.

About three weeks from the date of this remarkable birth, I was called to see the child, the grandmother insisting there was "something wrong about the genitals." Examination revealed an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign. I decided upon operating for its removal at once, and in so doing, extracted from the scrotum a minnie ball, mashed and battered as if it had met in its flight some hard, unyielding substance.

To attempt to picture my astonishment would be impossible! What may already seem very plain to my readers, as they glance over this paper, was, to me, at the time, mysterious. It was only after several days and nights of sleepless reflection that a solution flashed before me, and ever since has appeared as clear as the noon-day sun!

"What is it?" The ball I took from the scrotum of the babe was the identical one which, on the 12th of May, shattered the tibia of my young friend, and in its mutilated condition, plunged through his testicle, carrying with it particles of semen and spermatozoa into the abdomen of the young lady, then through her left ovary, and into the uterus, in this manner impregnating her! There can be no other solution of the phenomenon! These convictions I expressed to the family, and, at their solicitations, visited my young soldier friend, laying the case before him in its proper light. At first, most naturally, he appeared skeptical, but concluded to visit the young mother. Whether convinced or not, he soon married her, ere the little boy had attained his fourth month.

As a matter of additional interest, I may mention having received a letter during the past year, reporting a happy married state and three children, but neither resembling, to the same marked degree, as the first -- our hero -- Pater familias!

I leave the state of hilarity that ensued to your own fertile imaginations.

Snopes debunks it
-- naturally -- and also links to the 1874 medical journal article that spawned the furor, as well as the journal's follow-up notice, published two weeks later, that the original piece had been a joke.

Rewinding Taxes to the Good Old Days

For decades, progressives tended to accuse conservatives of wanting to bring back the '50s, but in recent years the shoe is on the other foot, with some prominent progressives saying they yearn for the good old days when unions were strong, manufacturing was the core of the economy, and the top marginal tax rate was over 90%. I wanted to see what the real tax situation was for people in a number of different income situations, so I decided to pull the historical tax tables and do the math.

Luckily, the Tax Foundation publishes the income tax tables for every year from 2010 back to 1913. I decided to compare 2010 and 1955. Here are the 2010 tax tables:

I then got the 1955 tax tables and adjusted the income brackets to 2010 dollars using this inflation calculator. (For those interested, the inflation factor from 1955 to 2010 is 713%) The result is as follows:

Next, I wanted to see what this would actually mean for people at various family incomes. Keep in mind, I'm not looking at deductions or tax credits here; I'm just looking at the basic rate calculation. This obviously is not a full real world picture, but I think it at least gives us a view of what the basic message of the tax rates was at these two points in history.
As you can see, everyone paid more in taxes in 1955 than they do now. However, the degree to which they paid more then is interesting. Someone making 40k in 2010 dollars would have paid 1.6 times as much in 1955. Someone who made 80k, only 1.4 times as much. Someone making 120k would have only paid 1.3 times as much. It's not until we get to the astronomically wealthy fellow, earning 1.2 million 2010 dollars per year, that he pays a higher multiple, 1.9 times as much in 1955 as he would in 2010. (Also note that the famed 91% marginal income tax rate doesn't kick in until you're making more than 3.2 million dollars per year in 2010 dollars. You'd have to be well into the richest 0.1% to feel it.)

So while the rich pay less in taxes in 2010 than in 1950, the middle and working classes pay much less as well. And overall, we have a significantly more progressive tax code now than we did then.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Conversation with Nobody

Back in 1950 Alan Turing wrote a paper entitled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" in which he proposed a test (which has been since named the "Turing Test") to determine if an artificial intelligence had been successfully created. The basic idea is that if an artificial intelligence is created such that person A can have a conversation (via typed text) with persons B and C, one of whom is another human sitting at a keyboard and one of whom is a computer program, such that A is not able to tell which of the two entities he's talking to is a human and which is a computer, then this would be evidence that the computer is an artificial intelligence to the extent that it can functionally behave like a human.

Of course, it's a bit flattering to think that the way to determine if a machine is a "thinking machine" is by seeing if it can interact with us humans in a social setting. On the flip side, some levels of human interaction are so low level that one can imagine a fairly simple compluter program succeeding at them pretty well. For instance, I would imagine you could probaby be moderately successful in creating a computer program that could present a reasonable facsimile of human communication via Facebook statuses, links and comments. But that's in part because communication on Facebook is pretty simplistic and you can always not respond or throw out non sequitors without seeming like anything other than a fairly normal Facebook user.

Building a computer program capable of producing a passable simulation of a more wide-ranging conversation is, however, a lot trickier, and such a feat is clearly some ways off in the future.

Thinking about this, however, in relation to the question of whole brain emulation which I wrote about last week it occurs to me that there are two questions here:

1) Is it possible to create a computer program which could fool a human into thinking that he is having a conversation with another human.

2) Is it possible to create a computer program which is actually capable of having a conversation for its own sake.

The first of these is achievable if one can build a good enough set of algorithms around how humans respond to questions, common knowledge for conversational grist, etc. The second, however, is much trickier. When we converse with someone we generally do so because we want to communicate something to that person and/or we want to know something about that person. In other words, conversation is essentially relational. You want to know about the person you are talking with, and you want them to know about you. You want to establish areas of common interest, experience and belief. You want to bring that person to share certain ideas about you or about the world.

I'm not sure that it would ever be possible to build a computer program which had these feelings and desires. Oh, sure, you could give it a basic like/not-like function where it tries to achieve commonalities or confidences and if it is rebuffed puts its interlocutor in the "not like" category and relates to it differently. But this is very different from actually wanting to know about someone and wanting to like and be liked by them. How our own human emotions work in this regard is far from clear to us, so I can't imagine that we're in any prosition to understand them so well that we can create copies in others.

Of course, in real conversation you often can't tell if the other person you're talking with, even face to face, is actually interested in you or actually likes you. This question is a source of considerable concern in human interactions. So perhaps the question of whether a computer can care about who you are or what you talk about is irrelevant to the question of whether a computer could be designed that could pass the Turing Test. But I do think that the question is probably quite relevant to whether a computer could ever be a person.

Monday, January 24, 2011

On reading Jane Eyre

This was originally posted at Reading for Believers.

Jane emphasizes her appearance. She doesn't fit the fashionable type: tall, dark, and elegant. Over and over again she describes herself as plain, having irregular features, small, etc. This is comforting to the reader; almost every woman secretly worries she's some kind of ugly, and it's good to see the less beautiful girl get the man and the fortune. When I first read Jane, at 13, I felt a great kinship with her, although my features are generally regular and at the time I had a long thick mass of curly hair that was to die for. Still, I've never had a Grecian nose, so I was just like Jane, right?

This time around, I read from the perspective of an older, long married woman, and Jane sounds a dream of lost youth. I'm 32, and I've had five children in fairly close succession, which has irrevokably changed my body in ways obvious and and not so visible. Taking a break from reading Jane, I looked in the mirror and was underwhelmed: I have the bad skin and flaking scalp of winter dryness, my hair wants washing because I can't be sure of getting hot water in the shower, my hands are cracked and scaly, I have lines on my face and an increasing number of gray hairs. Jane sees herself as dull and uncompetitive; I (like Mr. Rochester, I guess) saw a fresh girl at the height of her powers. Gawd, I feel old.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Popularity Is Not The Problem

Running late this morning on the drive in to work, a result of not yet being used to doing morning shovelling before leaving on snow days, I found myself listening to the BBC morning news show, where Aaron Sorkin (West Wing co-creator and director of Social Network) was being interviewed about the state of American news and public discourse.

Sorkin averred that "the problem with discourse in America" (nice how we're always finding the source of that) is that back when congress first created the regulations for the US airwaves it required each broadcast network to provide daily news as a public service, but it didn't mandate that the news hour be completely commercial free. The fact that news has commercials, Sorkin argued, means that networks focus on ratings rather than truth and public good, and this results in bad reporting and poor political discourse. If there were no commercials, popularity wouldn't matter and so people would naturally focus on good reporting. (I believe this is a link to the interview, though my browser isn't set up for sound on this machine and so it keeps crashing the window.)

Now, this strikes me as a pretty obviously fallacious point of view. If it were the case that people who weren't compensated for producing content always took the higher road, we'd expect bloggers to be overall a calmer, more rational, and more truthful group of writers than news venues. In fact, we see a whole range of bloggers -- lots of loud and crazy ones, but others who are quite calm, well reasoned and truthful. Overall, however, it seems that people who are loud and spectacular draw larger followings. In news we see pretty much the same thing -- there are the calm and the crazy, but often the spectacle of craziness draws more viewers. So it really doesn't seem that commercials are the problem here. Whether money is involved or not, most people would rather be read by many people than a few people, and many people seem to prefer spectacle to calmness. (If Sorkin imagines this is an entirely right-wing phenomenon, he should consider that the most watched media voice of the left is a comedian who satirizes news rather than an actual news program.)

It strikes me that this ties in with an odd mix of optimism and pessimism about human nature which is common in society. On the one hand, people imagine that if the motive of base profit is brought into play, that everyone will drive for the lowest common denominator because that is what is popular with the most people. This clearly implies an assumption that most people are more interested in spectacle and populism than truth, and that any attempt to give people what they want (rather than what the worthies believe would be good for us) will result in debasement. And yet, there is a strange optimism that if only we took the profit motive out of news, entertainment, politics, etc., that somehow all the individual people involved in these pursuits would pursue the common good and do what is best for everyone.

How is it that the hoi polloi are so base that if you allow their preferences to shape your news you will have nothing but trash on the airwaves, and yet somehow if the people who produce news and commentary were simply left to pursue their own desires, those desires are so virtuous that they would produce only the most high quality material?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Magical Mystery Glock

In the wake of the Tuscon shooting, there have been renewed call for gun control. This is hardly surprising, and while from my own point of view it seems like an attempt to make political hay out of widespread shock and fear, and I can certainly understand that for those who believe that our current gun laws make violence more common, this sort of event would seem to confirm their thesis. What is not, however, reasonable from those who believe that gun control would be a good thing for our country, is the odd fixation of the anti-gun lobby on the Glock brand.
The Glock 19
One common question from gun control advocates in the wake of the shooting was, "Why would any reasonable person think that civilians should need or want to own Glocks?" New York Times columnist Gail Collins summed up this line of thinking well in a column entitled "A Right to Bear Glocks?" Collins writes:
Today, the amazing thing about the reaction to the Giffords shooting is that virtually all the discussion about how to prevent a recurrence has been focusing on improving the tone of our political discourse. That would certainly be great. But you do not hear much about the fact that Jared Loughner came to Giffords’s sweet gathering with a semiautomatic weapon that he was able to buy legally because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004 and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.

If Loughner had gone to the Safeway carrying a regular pistol, the kind most Americans think of when they think of the right to bear arms, Giffords would probably still have been shot and we would still be having that conversation about whether it was a sane idea to put her Congressional district in the cross hairs of a rifle on the Internet.

But we might not have lost a federal judge, a 76-year-old church volunteer, two elderly women, Giffords’s 30-year-old constituent services director and a 9-year-old girl who had recently been elected to the student council at her school and went to the event because she wanted to see how democracy worked.

Loughner’s gun, a 9-millimeter Glock, is extremely easy to fire over and over, and it can carry a 30-bullet clip. It is “not suited for hunting or personal protection,” said Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign. “What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.”
Almost everything Collins says about the Glock 19 9mm pistol in this section is misleading. The Glock 19 was not banned under the assault weapon ban which Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Indeed, I personally shot one at gun ranges (in hyper-restrictive California, no less) back in 2001-2003 several times. What was banned by that legislation was the manufacture or import of additional magazines which held more than 10 rounds. However, existing high capacity magazines (the standard Glock 19 magazine before the law passed as a 15-round magazine) were not banned and could be traded or resold freely. So while a 30-round clip such as Loughner used in the shooting would have been somewhat more expensive and harder to find between 1994 and 2004, it would not have been that hard. Glock simply issued new pistols manufactured between 1994 and 2004 with a modified magazine which held only ten rounds.
A Glock 19 with extended 30 round magazine
Contra Mr. Helmke's claim that the Glock 19 is "not suited for hunting or personal protection," and that instead, "What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly." the Glock 19 is in fact one of the most frequently carried police sidearms in large city police departments. Police, to my understanding, are generally issued pistols which are suited for personal protection, and are in fact seldom called upon to "kill and injure a lot of people quickly."

The fact of the matter is that the Glock is very much "a regular pistol, the kind most Americans think of when they think of the right to bear arms". What distinguishes it from other 9mm pistols (9mm is now the single most commonly used pistol calibre in the US) is simply that it is somewhat light, simpler in construction, and more reliable (depending on who you ask) than other similar guns.

Personally, having shot the Glock 19 and it's slightly larger framed cousin the Glock 17 a few times, if I were to buy a 9mm pistol I'd go for a metal framed model such as the Beretta 92FS. The Glocks simply feel to light to me, and I find the extra weight helps me keep a better aim. But as a quick look at the specifications of the Beretta 92FS shows, there's really no functional difference between the two in terms of the Glock being more of a danger to society.
The Beretta 92FS

As a quick glance down this guy's "top 25" list of 9mm's shows, the there's nothing that makes the Glock a particularly dangerous gun compared to basically all of the rest. Indeed, the only thing that makes the Glock 19 more dangerous than the centerfire pistol I would personally most like to own, the M1911 Colt .45, which this year will mark 100 years since it became standard in the US Army, is that the Glock, with its wider magazine an smaller cartridge, can carry 15 rounds in its standard factory magazine to the M1911's 7.
The Colt M1911 .45 turns 100 this year

It is true that holding more rounds in a clip can make a pistol more dangerous in a mass shooting such as Loughner's Tuscon rampage -- but magazines are in fact pretty quick to change out. In other mass shootings (such as the Virginia Tech massacre) the shooter has simply carried many standard-size magazines. Further, although mass shootings such as in Tuscon get much greater media attention, the vast majority of the 12,000 homicides involving guns each year in the US are the result of only a few shots being fired -- no different from decades ago when revolvers were far more popular than pistols.

So why the outcry against Glocks in particular, if there is nothing to set them out as particularly more deadly than handguns in general? Much of this may stem from the fact that many gun control advocates actually know every little about guns, and as such have the greatest tendency to believe false anti-gun reporting. In the mid-80s, when the Glock was first being brought to the US from Austria, gun control advocates saw a chance to achieve a quick win based on the new, high impact plastic technology which the Glock used in parts of its grips and frame. Articles were written claiming that these "plastic guns" were "terrorist specials" which could escape detection by metal detectors and x-ray machines in airports. Congress even proposed legislation to ban guns made of plastic. The problem was, the hysteria was based entirely on wrong facts. Although the Glocks did use more plastic than had been in older pistol designs, the barrel, slide, and a number of other parts were still metal. Containing more than a pound of metal (even unloaded), Glocks easily set off airport metal detectors and looked exactly like what they were under x-ray machines.

The law that congress eventually passed in 1988 banned any gun which contained less than 3.2oz of metal -- a criteria which resulted in exactly zero guns being banned by the law. Meanwhile, the Glocks won a loyal following both among police and civilian shooting enthusiasts. However, gun control advocates seem not quite to have got over their own mis-directed hype, and so the bogeyman of the evil "plastic gun" lives on, adding to the Glock's mystique, and thus making it all the more likely that the next twenty-something misfit who wants to go out with a "bang" will select one of the polymer-framed shooting bricks as his murder weapon.

Last Word on the Tuscon Shooting Blame Game

Megan McArdle of the The Atlantic has a solid and level-headed post on the blame game which immediately sprang up in the wake of the Tuscon shootings. Seriously worth reading.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Materialism of Limited Toolset

I make a point of always trying to listed on the EconTalk podcast each week -- a venue in which George Mason University economics professor Russ Roberts conducts a roughly hour-long interview with an author or academic about some topic related to economics. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Robin Hanson, also an economics professor at GMU, who was talking about the "technological singularity" which could result from perfecting the technique of "porting" copies of humans into computers. Usually the topic is much more down-to-earth, but these kinds of speculations can be interesting to play with, and there were a couple of things which really struck me listening to the interview with Hanson, which ran to some 90 minutes.

Hanson's basic contention is that the next big technological leap that will change the face of the world economy will be the ability to create a working copy of a human by "porting" that person's brain into a computer. He argues that this could come much sooner than the ability to create an "artificial intelligence" from scratch, because it doesn't require knowing how intelligence works -- you simply create an emulation program on a really powerful computer, and then do a scan of the brain which picks up the current state of every part of it and how those parts interact. (There's a wikipedia article on the concept, called "whole brain emulation" here.) Hanson thinks this would create an effectively unlimited supply of what are, functionally, human beings, though they may look like computer programs or robots, and that this would fundamentally change the economy by creating an effectively infinite supply of labor.

Let's leave all that aside for a moment, because what fascinates me here is something which Roberts, a practicing Jew, homed in on right away: Why should we believe that the sum and total of what you can physically scan in the brain is all there is to know about a person? Why shouldn't we think that there's something else to the "mind" than just the parts of the brain and their current state? Couldn't there be some kind of will which is not materially detectable and is what is causing the brain to act the way it is?

(Or to use the cyber-punk terminology which seems more appropriate with this topic: How do we know there's not a ghost in the machine?)

Hanson's answer is as follows (this section starts around minute 32 of the podcast):
"I have a physics background, and by the time that you're done with physics that should be well knocked into you, that, you know, certainly most top scientists, if you ask them a survey question will say, 'Yeah, that's it.' There really isn't room for much else. Sorry. It's not like it's an open question here. Physics has a pretty complete picture of what's in the world around us. We've probed every nook and cranny, and we only ever keep finding the same damn stuff.

We have enormous progress on seeing the stuff our world is made of. Almost everything around you is the same atoms, the same protons, electrons, the rare neutrino that flies around. And that's pretty much it. You have to get pretty far off to see some of the strange materials and things that physicists sometimes probe. Physicists have to make these enormous machines and create these very alien environments in order to find new stuff to study because they've so well studied the material around us. The things our world is made out of are really, really well established. How it combines together in interesting ways gets complicated and then we don't get it, but the stuff that it's made out of, we get.

Your head is made out of chemicals. We've never seen anything else. It's always theoretically possible that when something's really complicated and you don't know how to predict the complexity from the parts, you could say, 'Well therefore, it could be this whole is different from the parts, because it's too difficult to predict.'
We should separate two very different issues here. One is technological understanding and knowing how things work and how to make things, and the other is knowing what the world is made of. So, I make this very strong and confident claim: We know what the world is made of, and we know what pieces they are and how they interact at a fine grain. But at higher levels of organization, we don't know how to make other things like, even, photosynthesis in cells. We don't know how to make a photosynthesis machine. You could take your cell phone out of your pocket and take it apart and you wouldn't know how to make a phone like that.... We don't know how it works, but we're pretty sure what it's made out of."

Now, this line of thinking seems fairly familiar to me from talking with materialist/atheists of a scientific bent: We have all these great scientific tools, and all they've ever detected is matter and energy, never a "will" or a "beautiful" or a "soul", and so therefore it's pretty clear that when we talk about our minds we're really talking about our brains and there just isn't anything there except chemicals and electricity.

However, it seems to me that this presents a rather obvious blind spot. We, as human persons, experience all sorts of things which would seem to be evidence of having a will which decides things in a non-deterministic fashion. We also respond to ideas such as "beautiful" or "justice" or "good" in ways that would suggest that there is something there that we're talking about.

When we say, "Physicists have done all this work, and all they've ever found is matter and energy," you are really saying, "Given the tools and methodology physicists use, all they are able to detect is matter and energy." But I'm not clear how getting from that to, "Therefore there is nothing other than matter and energy," is anything other than an assumption.

Is there any valid reason why we should accept the jump from, "Tools that scientists use to detect things can only detect the existence of material things," to "Only material things exist"?

This seems particularly troublesome given that the project here is supposedly to create an emulation program which can be given a brain scan and then act like an independent human. If our experience of being human is that there is something in the driver seat, something which decides what is beautiful or what is right or who to marry or whether we want rice pudding for lunch today, then unless there is some active, non-deterministic thing within the brain which can be measured by this scan, then what you get is going to be, for lack of a better word, dead.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading in Review

I don't know if this is of much interest to anyone other than me, but since the sidebar serves as a tally of sorts of reading that I've done through the year, and I've now built up a couple years of backlog, I thought I'd clear it out into a post so I don't lose the information.

A few general observations prior to the list:

- My rate seems pretty constant:  22 in 2011 , 22 in 2010.
- My attempts to bridge the gap between what I do read and what I want to read seem to founder.  At the beginning of 2010 I laid out for myself a shelf of 10 books that I wanted to read by the end of the year -- working on the theory that this would allow me to pick another 10+ on the spur of the moment.  These are were much all substantive "I ought to read this" kind of books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Yet in the end, I only finished three of these, and they were the lightest reading on the list.  Though I did start three more of the target books (all of which remain unfinished.)
- While from long habit I think of myself as a fiction reader, what seems best classed "light non-fiction" seems to make up a lot of what I end up reading.  (12 in 2009, depending on definition, and 6 in 2010)
- It also strikes me that what I finish reading reflects that most of my reading is either done in very short snatches (and thus favors books which don't require long stretches of close concentration) or else getting completely sucked into a book and doing nothing else while at home until it's done.  Books which are neither suspenseful nor well suited to serial reading seem to suffer.
- I did at least make it through a little bit of what can be classed as literature: Pride and Prejudice (re-read after some years) in 2009 and The Leopard and Absolom, Absolom! in 2010.  This also means I can now say that I've finished a Faulkner novel.  Not really sure if I'll try that again, but I guess one ought to try.
- As proof that I'm not above re-trying what failed the first time, I find myself with an even longer shelf of books that I have set out for myself to read (or finish reading) in 2011. 

Brief comments and ratings on a five star scale follow.


The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky**** This is a quiet and episodic book, divided into one chapter for each month of the year, detailing both the author's growing enthusiasm as an amateur astronomer and the specific objects you can see in the night sky each month of the year. I found this a particularly nostalgic read having grown up around planetariums and star gazing.

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth ** Having very much enjoyed some of Norman Cantor's earlier history books, this one was seriously disappointing, both error prone and shallow.

Waiter Rant*** The transition from blog to book is something very little writing can withstand, but the author of Waiter Rant produced a readable and well written book, part autobiography, part behind-the-scenes-in-the-restaurant-business.

The Man Who Was Thursday ***** This was a fourth of fifth read of what remains far and away my favorite Chesterton book.

Last Call ***** Again a re-read, this one of one of Tim Powers' best novels, a modern fantasy in which the highest stakes gamblers of all struggle to control supernatural archetypes through a game called Assumption played with Tarot cards, with control over each other's souls and the throne of the Fisher King as the stakes.

The Death of a Pope **** A well written thriller in which international intrigue surrounds the conclave to elect a new pope.

Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World **** Thomas Madden looks at the similarities between American history and that of the Roman Republic, with an emphasis on how the Romans stumbled into an empire while in search of security.

Pride and Prejudice ***** Another re-read. While the story is long familiar, immersing in Austen's prose style is always a delight.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded *** Looks at the explosion of Krakatoa not just as a disaster movie-size geological event, but also as one of the first times a global news story was reported and followed around the world via the telegraph and international news services in near real time.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals *** Pollan's effort to trace back everything that went into a series of meals is interesting, but occasionally veers off into paranoia or lack of realism. Those who are already seriously into making most of their meals "from scratch" in the normal kitchen sense may wonder why he doesn't calm down and just make dinner.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life *** I'm a sucker for back-to-the-land agriculture stores, and this one is quite well written (coming from an author Barbara Kingsolver), though there are odd moments when I'd find myself mentally at odds with the author's opinions, or with the composition of this particular experiment in self sufficiency.

The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans *** Recounts the author's experiences in the Balkans over several decades and reinforces the lesson that that Balkans are fascinating, but often bad news.

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy *** The building of the post-revolution United States Navy, with all of the congressional horse trading, budget overruns, and mission creep that one would expect.

Valkyrie *** This book is short and is not a comprehensive history of the Valkyrie plot, but the personal history from childhood through the end of the war of the longest surviving Valkyrie conspirator makes for a fascinating window on the period.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader *** Charmingly written, some of these reflections on life as a book reader and hoarder felt strongly familiar, while others made me think, "Wow this person is different."

The Battle: A New History of Waterloo *** Dry in places, but fascinating in depth of detail, this is perhaps the definitive modern history of one of the most pivotal battles of modern history.

The Killer Angels **** Well written and gripping, while rich in historical detail, the classic novel about the battle of Gettysburg.

The Age of Napoleon ** In some ways, this seemed more written to fill a spot in the Modern Library Chronicles series than to stand on its own as a book, though I found Alistair Horne's game try at it enjoyable, if cursory.

Napoleon: A Life *** Not the deepest survey by any stretch, but an decent quick overview of Napoleon's life.

Hobberdy Dick ***** An excellent short novel dealing with themes and characters from English folklore, set in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

The Return of the King ***** Nothing makes you value Tolkien's original prose like re-watching one of Jackson's movie adaptations. I'd re-watched the movie of RotK and immediately had to go read the book.

A Christmas Carol ***** Need one say more?


The Price of Everything *** As a novel, Roberts' work is passable, as a primer on the microeconomics of price it puts things in very understandable terms.

The Gargoyle Code **** Fr. Longnecker's homage to The Screwtape Letters is a successful updating because he remembers to take aim at the foibles of his audience, not just "the mainstream culture".

The Indian Bride *** Dark and spare as Nordic crime novels are supposed to be.

The One Minute Manager ** What's there is basically good advice, but I could have done with a nonfiction explanation rather than the "fable" format.

The Last Full Measure *** A wider canvas and overall not quite as well executed as his father's Killer Angels, but still an enjoyable Civil War historical novel.

The Little World of Don Camillo ***** Guareschi's stories about the two fisted priest and his arch enemy/friend the communist mayor in a small village in the Po river valley remain as universally human and as specifically Italian as ever.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit **** Yes well, it's a Wodehouse novel. What more need one say?

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers **** You don't think about how much the inventions of the past changed the world. This is effectively a "Triumph Of the Nerds" telling about the personalities who brought the world the telegraph in a remarkably short time, the telegraph operator culture the network created, and how the wired age was different from the age before it.

Three Men in a Boat ***** I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never actually read Three Men In A Boat before, though of course I'd heard the story of the can of pineapple numerous times.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time *** This book did a good job of setting Paul's epistles in the cultural context in which they were written -- though I found it a bit disorienting to read a book in which the author felt it necessary to explain why Paul would be such a curmudgeon as to be against things like promiscuous sex. (You see, back then, they had bad promiscuous sex.) Still a primer on how alien and messed up Classical culture could be is always fun reading.

Galileo's Daughter **** The life of Galileo framed around his relationship with his daughter Sister Maria Celeste. It is touching, informative, and well written.

The Leopard**** A Sicilian novel set in the period of Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily and the uniting of Italy into one country, it's both well written and gives a strong sense of the passing of an age.

Three Cups of Tea *** A mountain climber-turned activist working to build schools for girls in Pakistan and later Afghanistan.

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome *** At times dry or slightly disjointed, but this bio of one of Rome's great emperors fills the gap that many people forget existed between the expanding empire of the time of Christ and the shrinking empire of Late Antiquity. Hadrian is the emperor who fixed Rome's boundaries and turned his focus to consolidating and administering all the territory which had been added over the previous two centuries, and the process brought a measure of stability which would last nearly a hundred years.

Absalom, Absalom! *** Faulkner's classic novel in Faulkner's classic style. I was very impressed with what he was doing, but not always with how he was doing it.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto *** Pollan can become tendentious at times, but his defense of eating "real" (as in, made from ingredients you can identify rather than industrially processed) food and tailoring how much you eat to how much physical work you do (duh) is common sensical. Though it often struck me that those who mostly make their own meals at home are pretty much already where he works hard to find his way to.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think **** This was a particularly fascinating look at how people tell how much they've eaten and how much they should eat. It's not remotely a diet book, but to the extent that it looks at how you determine how much to eat (and how you can be fooled into eating more than you mean to) it can be a useful tool for making your own plan to limit eating.

The Civil War: A Narrative--Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1 **** Steeped in detail but still readable, Foote's novelist background shows in making this one of the more readable history books you'll run into.

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam *** McPherson argues that Antietam was the true turning point in the civil war, but the book is actually a pretty cursory discussion of the battle itself and more a high level discussion of the changing dynamics of the war.

Spies of the Balkans **** Furst's latest World War II era page-turner is set in northern Greece and the Balkans as the war spreads.

A Most Contagious Game *** A well mannered British mystery in which a man retires from work in the City to the old country house he's always dreamed of, to find that it comes complete with a priest hole, a skeleton, and a two hundred year old murder mystery.

Parched **** Heather King's harrowing autobiography of addiction and recovery is incredibly well written, though since change comes so late in the narrative I found myself heading straight back to Amazon to order Redeemed and find out "what happened next".