Saturday, 18 September 2010

Carl Sagan on Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was one of the great explainers of the age. Like T. H. Huxley, he was motivated by profoundly democratic impulses to communicate science to the public. “Science is too important,” he said, paraphrasing Clemenceau, “to be left to the scientists.” It will never be known how many practicing scientists today, in how many countries, owe their initial inspiration to a book, article, or short story by Isaac Asimov—nor how many ordinary citizens are sympathetic to the scientific enterprise from the same cause. For example, Marvin Minsky of MIT, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, was brought to his subject by Asimov's robot stories (initially conceived to illustrate human/robot partnerships and to counter the prevailing notion, going back to Frankenstein, of robots as necessarily malign). At a time when science fiction was mainly devoted to action and adventure, Asimov introduced puzzle-solving schemes that taught science and thinking along the way.

Carl Sagan on science and spirituality

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Magic Income Number -

The Magic Income Number - "September 9, 2010, 9:30 am
The Magic Income Number

What’s the magic income number? According to Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman, it’s about $75,000, at least when it comes to day-to-day happiness. “As people earn more money, their day-to-day happiness rises,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Until you hit $75,000. After that, it is just more stuff, with no gain in happiness.” Income above $75,000, however, does improve people’s overall “life assessment.” ”Giving people more income beyond 75K is not going to do much for their daily mood … but it is going to make them feel they have a better life,” says Mr. Deaton.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Google's role in human affairs

Vifginia Heffernan writes in the NYTimes (20 Aug. 2010) about the manner by which Google redefined the very notion of fact:
As broadband brought millions of facts, the fantasy of perfect factuality and the satisfaction of fact-checking to everyone. Soon — and astonishingly — Google became much more than trusted; it became shorthand for everything that had been recorded in modern history. ...
But if the Web has changed what qualifies as fact-checking, has it also changed what qualifies as a fact? I suspect that facts on the Web are now more rhetorical devices than identifiable objects. But I can’t verify that.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Blackmore on the Life of an Academic in the UK

Susan Blackmore: "Why I’m leaving" (The Independent, January 2002):

Term is starting and I’m not going back! Whoopee! ... It’s really true. I have given up my secure academic job as Reader at the University of the West of England for the vagaries of life as a freelance. And why? Because I want to work - really work - and my job made that impossible. ...

Maybe some people can get home after a long day and have brilliant thoughts. Maybe some can write the best book they are capable of in the hours stolen from their sleep, or from their children. But I can’t. ...

The deal used to be, for the cleverest or luckiest few get a job in a university, give a reasonable number of lectures, do a few other useful tasks, and the rest of the time is yours. Yes it was often abused, and yes we can’t afford that in today’s climate, with so many more students. But what have we instead? The current deal is to give an unreasonable number of lectures, to ever larger groups of less interested students, plus a completely mind-boggling amount of marking, setting exams, going to meetings, and--on top of all that--justify everything you do with learning outcomes, aims and objectives, and the TQA....

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The importance of blasphemy

Peter Fosl writes in a not-so-new article in The Philosophers Magazine ("Open Debate: The Righteousness of Blasphemy") about the importance of blasphemy:
Blasphemy deflates some of the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, I'm-absolutely-right attitudes of the religious. It makes religion safer. It does so by knocking religious authorities off their pedestals, by reminding us that their views (protestations to the contrary) are just those of silly humans, that they're just like the rest of us—that they and their views are equals with us and ours, that they are not our superiors.
It's easy to see why ideas related to the ‘sacred' and the ‘blasphemous' are so attractive and so fiercely defended. With them one can tell people what to think and how to live with the greatest authority while simultaneously establishing immunity from criticism.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The end of feminism?

Research conducted in the London School of Economics ("Women’s ‘double shift’ of work and domestic duties a myth finds new research") has some surprising results:
If we consider the hours spent doing both paid work and unpaid household, care and voluntary work together, men already do more than their fair share, argues LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim in a special issue of Renewal: a journal of social democracy."

Friday, 30 July 2010

The dramatic effects of kindergarten education: A controlled (!) experiment

The NY Times ("The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers", 27 July 2010) has just published an article about a very interesting controlled (!) experiment. The Harvard economists that conducted this unusual study (how many controlled experiments in education do you know about?) conclude that "a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year. That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. This estimate doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime."

If this is true, deciding on a kindergarten suddenly becomes a lot more significant that you may have imagined...

Some interesting excerpts:
How much do your kindergarten teacher and classmates affect the rest of your life?

Economists have generally thought that the answer was not much. Great teachers and early childhood programs can have a big short-term effect. But the impact tends to fade. By junior high and high school, children who had excellent early schooling do little better on tests than similar children who did not — which raises the demoralizing question of how much of a difference schools and teachers can make.
Just as in other studies, the Tennessee experiment found that some teachers were able to help students learn vastly more than other teachers. ... Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.
The crucial problem the study had to solve was the old causation-correlation problem. Are children who do well on kindergarten tests destined to do better in life, based on who they are? Or are their teacher and classmates changing them?
The Tennessee experiment, known as Project Star, offered a chance to answer these questions because it randomly assigned students to a kindergarten class. As a result, the classes had fairly similar socioeconomic mixes of students and could be expected to perform similarly on the tests given at the end of kindergarten.

Yet they didn’t. Some classes did far better than others. The differences were too big to be explained by randomness. (Similarly, when the researchers looked at entering and exiting test scores in first, second and third grades, they found that some classes made much more progress than others.)

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25. Peers also seem to matter. In classes with a somewhat higher average socioeconomic status, all the students tended to do a little better.

But neither of these factors came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers.

Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Dirac: Elegance is more important than empirical fit

Scientific American has re-printed a 1963 article by Paul Dirac, The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Nature, in which he says: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." The sentiment expressed here by Paul Dirac, the celebrated quantum physicist, isn't that surprising to those who recall Einstein's famous quote:
Reporter: What would you do if the measurements of bending starlight at the 1919 eclipse contradicted his general theory of relativity?

Einstein: Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.
In all, the article provides an enjoyable glimpse into the mind of a great scientist, showing that scientists do not always think and operate the way we expect them.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Michael Hawley: Sheet music piracy is okay (

DAVID POGUE: "No Easy Answers in the Copyright Debate" ( 8 July 2010)

Michael Hawley, formerly of the M.I.T. Media Lab, now a digital-media researcher, award-winning pianist and polymath, ... wrote to explain why he thinks sheet-music pirating is O.K., or even necessary:
I play the piano. Over the years, I have collected 15,000 piano scores in PDF form, covering about 400 years of classical keyboard works.

It's like lint in the drier of the Internet. Much of it is not available anywhere for purchase, or even findable in libraries for circulation. Max Reger's arrangement for two pianos of Wagner's overture, for instance? Well, the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany has a copy...

The last classical sheet music store in New York, Patelson's, went out of business recently. The recession finished them off. It was THE place to go to buy piano music. When I was in high school, I used to go there for hard-to-find scores by Granados or Medtner, and then hit the Carnegie Deli for some pastrami. Amazing, isn't it? New York City doesn't have an independent store that sells classical music scores.

Fortunately, over the last ten or fifteen years, amateur pianists have been scanning the contents of their grandmother's piano benches, and... voilà. A million monkeys typing don't get you Shakespeare, but a million monkeys scanning -- that makes a dent. I began collecting this stuff as a hobby. One day, I looked at my pile of music score bits. In those days, 15 gigabytes was most of my hard drive. But it was all there. All of Bach. All of Scriabin. All of Rachmaninoff.

At the Van Cliburn piano competition, a couple years ago, I gave tiny thumb drives to some of the winners and said, "Enjoy." Each thumb drive was smaller than my pinky but contained was the whole 15 GB trove. It blew their minds. Basically, every significant piano piece is in the pile.

What happened is, the classical piano sheet music publishing world plotzed a long time ago. But thanks to the monkeys, a lot of DNA has been preserved and is more available now than ever before. The monkeys aren't as well organized as the Wikipedia minions, but someday they will be.

When the publishers, composers, music stores have long since gone out of business, when the libraries don't have the stuff, the internet quickly becomes the Sargasso sea for catching this stuff. Not saying that your songwriter friend's points aren't completely valid -- of course they are. As slippery as digital rights are, the fact is that digital publishing probably gives people more ways to make more money and reach far wider audiences than the paper-based music publishing racket ever did.

But copyright, like the people who originate the material and the industries that promulgate it, has a lifespan. I think the classical piano sheet music world gives a glimpse of the end state -- out of the ashes of the music business, comes the rebirth of the musician business (as John Perry Barlow once said). It also, more importantly, shows what happens when a society does a poor, random job of preserving their cultural heritage to nurture future generations.

Generally, I side with the teenagers.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Fair Trade

From: Fair Trade and the Food Movement - Freakonomics Blog -
The problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

US Supreme Court Rules: Religious Group Can’t Demand Funding while Violating Non-Discrimination Policies

The case concerns a student chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), which sued the school after being denied official recognition and funding because the student group violated the school's non-discrimination policy. That policy requires that student groups must be open to all students in order to receive funding and official recognition. The federal appellate court below ruled unanimously against CLS because the school's policy prohibited every student group, whether religious or secular, from excluding students that disagree with the group's mission. For example, if the school's Democratic club cannot access school funding while excluding Republicans from its membership, a conservative Christian group cannot demand funds while excluding gay, non-Christian, or non-conservative Christian students. CLS appealed, claiming that it had a constitutional right - not enjoyed by any secular organizations - to receive state funding while discriminating against students on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Israel: Fundamentalist Judaism's Culture War

Yossi Sarid / The great Haredi rebellion is raging on several fronts (Haaretz, 17 June 2010)
For many years the culture war has hung over us like a dark cloud... Now it is happening; the war has erupted. The great Haredi [ultra-orthodox] rebellion has begun and is raging on several fronts... and no place is safe. The ultra-Orthodox public, which has always been cutting down our trees, is now uprooting them. It will destroy basic values, without which a democratic, developed state cannot exist. It will be lost unless it fights back.
The Haredim have declared a rebellion now for an obvious reason. ... In every other country they obey the state authorities. Only here, in the state they made no effort to establish and make no effort to maintain, are they a law unto themselves.
We have brought this calamity upon ourselves with our own hands, with our weakness and concessions. While every country worthy of the name makes efforts to separate state from religion, here they are mixed together, wallowing in the same mud, both getting soiled.
Only in Israel are they such heroes. Everywhere else they are submissive and docile. It wouldn't occur to them to curse judges in America or attack policemen in Europe.
This is a war that has been forced upon us, a war we cannot afford to lose. The rebellious Haredim must be put in their place, so that we, too, have a place in which to live.

In origin:
שנים רבות היתה מלחמת התרבויות תלוייה מעלינו כחשרת עננים, כאיום. עכשיו הוא מתממש; המלחמה פרצה. מרד החרדים הגדול התחיל, והוא מתחולל בחזיתות רבות: בירושלים, באשקלון, ביפו, בעמנואל, בבאר שבע, אין מקום בטוח. הציבור החרדי, שמאז ומתמיד קיצץ בנטיעות שלנו, עכשיו הוא עוקר אותן משורש. הוא ישמיד ויאבד ערכים בסיסיים, שבלעדיהם אין למדינה מפותחת ודמוקרטית תקומה; היא אבודה, אם לא תשיב מלחמה שערה.
רדים הכריזו על מרד עכשיו מסיבה ברורה: הם יודעים שיש להם סיכויים טובים לנצח... בכל מדינה אחרת הם מצייתים בהרכנת ראש לשלטונות, כי דינא דמלכותא דינא. רק כאן, במדינה שלא טרחו בהקמתה, ואינם עמלים על קיומה, רק בישראל דינא לא דינא, והם עושים דין לעצמם.
רק בישראל מותר להם להשתגע, כי מתירים להם. הנה, רק לפני כשנה אסר בית משפט בלונדון על בית ספר חרדי פרטי לבדוק בציציות יהדותם של מועמדים לקבלה. וראה זה פלא - לא פרץ ולא צווחה. שלומי-אמוני נשקו על פיו של השופט, ואולי גם באברי גוף אחרים.
את הפורענות הזאת הבאנו על עצמנו במו ידינו, בקוצר ידינו; הרווחנו אותה בהפסדים חוזרים ובוויתורים נשנים. אם בכל מדינה ראוייה לשמה עושים ככל שניתן כדי להפריד בין פוליטיקה לדת, אצלנו הן משמשות בערבוביה, משתמשות בכתר אחד, משתכשכות באותו בוץ, ושתיהן מתלכלכות.
המלחמה הזאת, שלא ביקשנו ונכפתה עלינו, אסור להפסיד. את החרדים, במריים, חייבים להעמיד במקומם, כדי שגם לנו יהיה מקום לחיות.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Call for papers: Philosophy of Computer Science

Track in:

8th European conference on Computing And Philosophy — ECAP 2010
Technische Universität München
4–6 October 2010

Submission deadline of extended abstracts): 7 May 2010 (submission form)

The Philosophy of Computer Science (PCS) is concerned with philosophical issues that arise from reflection upon the nature and practice of the academic discipline of Computer Science. Below we indicate a few of the central questions.

I. How is a programming language determined? What role does a semantic definition play? Does it have to be a formal abstract specification?

II. What sense is to be made of the notion that a programming language has an ontology? What is the role of such an ontology? How is it linked to the type structure of the language?

III. What does it mean to say that a program is correct? What role do specifications play in correctness? How does the nature and use of theorem checkers and verifiers inform the debate? What are formal methods? What is the difference between a formal method and informal one?

IV. Is there a distinctive form of reasoning that might be called computational reasoning? How, if at all, does it differ from mathematical reasoning?

V. What kinds of things are digital objects?

VI. What is abstraction in computer science? How is it related to abstraction in mathematics?

VII. Does the Church-Turing thesis apply to physical machines? Does it make sense to say that the universe computes?

Among others, papers that address issues that the concern the methodology of the discipline, the status and nature of its claims to knowledge, the nature of its artefacts, the nature and form of computational reasoning and the philosophical basis of computational modelling are welcome.

Track chair: Raymond Turner
Philosophy of Computer Science (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Gita Sahgal, a freethinker

Meet Gita Sahgal, a freethinker and a former head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s international secretariat. In her statement to The Times, Gita reveals how Amnesty interprets "human rights":
“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”

What is Islamophobia?

Ibn Warraq has just published an in interesting post on the question What is Islamophobia? While the views expressed are not new to Ibn Warraq, an ex-Moslem who lives in constant fear from religious fundamentalists, this will surely will fuel a debate on the line between legitimate criticism and bigotry.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

פשיעה סביבתית-אסתטית

למרות שברור לכל, כי פשיעה סביבתית-אסתטית היא אלימה, דורסנית והרסנית יותר מפשיעות רבות אחרות - היא נחשבת 'עובדה בלתי הפיכה'. כמו הקופים והפרות בהודו - המחטף הנדל'ני והבנייה נחשבים בארץ לקדושים, אסורים לנגיעה; הם חסינים מפגיעה מרגע השלמתם - כמיטב מסורת ה'חאפ' הישראלית, מימי חומה ומגדל דרך המאחזים וההתנחלויות ועד ל'קבוצות הרכישה', כרישי הנדל'ן, בעלי המגדלים וארסופי החזירון העליון למיניהם.

כנגד חוסר אונים כמעט מוצהר זה אנו מתקוממים בכל נפשנו. אנו דוחים בשאט נפש את מנטליות 'אי ההפיכות', ה'עובדה בשטח', וה'בכייה לדורות'. אנו טוענים שזכותו של הציבור לתבוע בחזרה את שנלקח ממנו - הנוף שנהרס, המגרש שעליו השתולל איזה ברוטליסט, הרכס שהפך לאסלה נדל'נית. מה שטוב לכל העולם - שם הורסים בסיטונות שיכונים מכוערים ובתים חדשים-יחסית - חייב לחול גם עלינו: ניתן כבוד למבני העבר היפים; אבל שום מבנה חדש אינו רשאי לתבוע נצחיות למפרע ומראש

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Technological Singularity and Acceleration Studies: Call for Papers

Track in:

8th European conference on Computing And Philosophy — ECAP 2010
Technische Universität München
4–6 October 2010

Important dates:
Submission guidelines, important dates, avenue, registration, etc.: See ECAP 2010 Website


Historical analysis of a broad range of paradigm shifts in science, biology, history, technology, and in particular in computing technology, suggests an accelerating rate of evolution, however measured. John von Neumann projected that the consequence of this trend may be an “essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue”. This notion of singularity coincides in time and nature with Alan Turing (1950) and Stephen Hawking's (1998) expectation of machines to exhibit intelligence on a par with to the average human no later than 2050. Irving John Good (1965) and Vernor Vinge (1993) expect the singularity to take the form of an 'intelligence explosion', a process in which intelligent machines design ever more intelligent machines. Transhumanists suggest a parallel or alternative, explosive process of improvements in human intelligence. And Alvin Toffler's Third Wave (1980) forecasts "a collision point in human destiny" the scale of which, in the course of history, is on the par only with the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.

We invite submissions describing systematic attempts at understanding the likelihood and nature of these projections. In particular, we welcome papers critically analyzing the following issues from a philosophical, computational, mathematical, scientific and ethical standpoints:
  • Claims about and evidence to acceleration
  • The nature of an intelligence explosion and its possible outcomes
  • The nature of the Technological Singularity and its outcome
  • Safe and unsafe artificial general intelligence and preventative measures
  • Technological forecasts of computing phenomena and their projected impact
  • Critical analysis of past and future technological forecasts
  • Beyond the ‘event horizon’ of the Technological Singularity
  • The prospects of transhuman breakthroughs and likely timeframes
Amnon H. Eden, School of Computer Science & Electronic Engineering, University of Essex, UK and Center For Inquiry, Amherst NY

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The university professor who stood up against dumbing down of degrees

... Last week, a decision by the Court of Appeal hopefully marked the end of his ordeal. To the academic's immense relief, the court upheld his contention that the south-coast university raised the grades of weak students without his knowledge, and that his resignation, when it refused to reinstate his marks, amounted to constructive dismissal. (Read on)