Monthly Archives: December 2005

The lights are on but there’s nobody home

eWeek has an interview with Tim Berners-Lee, which gets involuntarily comical by two glaring misspellings: "wizzywig editors" and "the Symantec Web". (Here is a PDF printout, in case the link gets cleaned up.)

The fun angle here is how the publication provides a comment function, how most of the comments are foaming over the embarrasing errors – and how there is absolutely no reaction from the magazine, even after one week. Web 1.899997, if you ask me…..

(Via Jorunn). 

Pinker’s well-filled slate

41-lxeaqn7l-_sx248_bo1204203200_Steve Pinker‘s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a wonderful book, not only for its wide reach and deep discussion, but also for the lively and opinionated language. Like The Economist, Pinker writes objectively with a view – though he clearly has an a opinion, well thought out and researched, in the nature-vs-nurture debate, he is careful to examine evidence and give the other side its due. Not that there is much.

Articulated, polemic and with more than a whiff of exasperated sarcasm, Steven Pinker attacks three misconceptions in modern culture: The Blank Slate, the idea that nurture, not nature, is the main shaping force behind human behavior; The Noble Savage, that the badness of the modern condition comes from the modern conditions – and things were somehow better before we got modern technology and transportation; and the Ghost in the Machine, that human thought is somehow an unexplainable superset of the machinery of the brain. Pinker starts out by describing these ideas, showing how they are founded not on scientific evidence but rather because of wishful thinking and deeply held beliefs about how the world should be.  Scientific studies find that our genetic makeup to an uncomfortable degree shapes who we are and what we will do.  The good old days, especially in the jungle and on the savannah, turn out to be just another myth.  And increasingly sophisticated models of the many complex mechanisms in our brains makes it easier to understand, if not accept, the idea that our soul essentially is “the program that runs on our brain’s computer”, to quote Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained).

Pinker then goes on to what for me was the first new part of the argument – showing that there is no inherent moral position in either nurture or nature – in fact, showing that taken to extremes, they are both as bad.  He positions Nazism as the ultimate genetic extremism – the belief that a certain race or other group of people has inherent superiority over others.  Then he argues that the communism of Pol Pot – who killed a third of Cambodia’s population – is the ultimate environmental extremism, arguing that anyone who exposed to the corrupting influences of modern ideas, such as education or even urbanism, should be killed (“Only the children are innocent”).  (I suppose Mao’s cultural revolution was based on some of the same thinking.) He mocks the idea that either stance frees us from responsibility for our actions.  The beliefs, for instance, that criminals, as a group, are incorrigible or redeemable depending on whether you see them as monsters born to rob or innocent victims of unfortunate circumstances are both wrong.

Pinker attributes the anxiety about human nature – especially the idea that we may be more shaped by genes that we like to think – to four fears (p. 138):

  1. The Fear of Inequality: if people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified
  2. The Fear of Imperfectibility: if people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile
  3. The Fear of Determinism: if people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions
  4. The Fear of Nihilism: if people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose

In the subsequent four chapters, he deals with each of these fears, laying out a foundation for a humane moralism that does not rely on myths as its foundation, making humans responsible for their fate no matter their genetic setup. The downside of the misconceptions of the blank slate and the other ideas lies in their consequences: “persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.” (p.193)

The fourth part of the book takes as its starting point that much of our world-view is based on intuitions that served us well in a small society – nomadic hunter-gatherers – but which may no longer be true in a modern society, such as our fear of advanced science, of genetically modified food (all our food is genetically modified – by selective breeding through hundreds of years). We are prone to misinterpreting images, to misunderstanding evolution, and to overindulging in sanctimony, reasoning by moralism rather than sense.

The fifth and last part of the book deals with certain “hot buttons” that Pinker criticizes science for refusing to discuss, such as politics (why left and right fall into patterns), violence (humans are violent), gender (there are physical differences, notably that while the mean is the same, men have a larger variance than women, i.e., more idiots and more geniuses), children (shaped by genes and peers rather than parents, though the parents play a part in selecting the environment), and the arts (threatened less by lack of funding and quality than by “…a surfeit of of Ph.D.s pumped out by graduate programs that failed to practice academic birth control.” (p401)). I especially liked his digs at postmodernism, which makes challenging of its authority impossible.

Wonderful stuff, deeply researched, fantastic language, strong arguments – what’s not to like? Nothing. Read it.

Update 18 jan 2006: Here is a video of Pinker presenting and discussing his book at MIT.

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Brad on growth

Brad Delong has an excellent review of Ben Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which really sounds like required reading for any politician or student of international economy. I especially like his conclusion about what the structural changes currently happening in the USA are doing:

The desirability of the United States as a place in which to locate economic activity is growing rapidly: the underlying engine of technological progress is spinning faster than it has in at least a generation. I see rising working- and middle-class incomes in America during the next generation generating what is in Friedmans terms a virtuous, not a vicious, circle.

Via Brad himself, incidentally.

Merry Christmas, dammit

Political correctness hasn’t hit Norway quite as hard as the US, so I will take my chances wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, offered here with a few pictures from Tove Jansson’s “Trollvinter“, perhaps the most beautiful book ever written about winter, alienation and friendship. Incidentally, don’t confuse this wonderful book with theMummitrollet og v�rl�sningen latter cartoon characters – it bears the same. relationship to those as A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh bears to Disney’s version.

In Norway, Christmas starts early – for us, at least, on December 23 with the traditional “julegrøt” – rice porridge. In the porridge, eaten with sugar, cinnamon and an “eye” of butter, goes a few almonds – and the one who finds the most almonds gets a prize.

Tomorrow, the 24th, is the big day, with a slow morning and, for the children, an even slower afternoon until (after church around 2pm) it is time for the big Christmas dinner. (Incidentally, I don’t go to church myself, so I have the house to myself and get to put on Swedish television with Disney’s Christmas – largely unchanged since the 1960s – prepare the potatoes and sample the wine until the family returns, which for me is the best possible start of Christmas.) After dinner, when the younger children are close to exploding from repressed anticipation, comes the unpacking of gifts – always done slowly, one gift after another – from under the Christmas tree. This takes a while, during which heaps of cakes, wine, and other goodies are consumed until everyone drifts off to sleep, to awake on Christmas morning to prepare for a late and very large breakfast.

Until then, not a word will be heard from here – may your Christmas be peaceful and quiet, the food delicious, the gastrointestinal apparatus in capital shape and the gifts well thought out (or, failing that, returnable.)

GM and IT outsourcing

Tony D. has some reflections to offer on GM’s current IT sourcing process – essentially saying that they are trying to copy BPX’s famous "divide and conquer" strategy without taking into consideration that the implementation part of that deal was a qualified success, at best. I wasn’t really surprised that BPX had had problems with their very creative deal, but confess to not having followed it after the initial story was published.

Tony is the man on outsourcing deals: His article gives some idea on how complex such a decision really is, and how much the history of the corporation shapes the thinking. As Click and Clack once said, when you have had a very small car for a while, you get so frustrated that you err on the other side, getting a huge monster just to make up for all those years with a mailbox-on-wheels. I wonder if GM is doing something similar: Setting up a deal that will give them total power to squeeze their multiple outsourcers – a position that looks great when the contract is signed but turns out to be untenable in the long run. In an outsourcing relationship, you need to worry about the long-term economic health of your partners. There, too.

Mobile blogging

This entry is written from my mobile phone, a Sony Ericsson P910, using a ThinkOutside Stowaway bluetooth keyboard and Opera for mobiles. It is actually pretty simple – the keyboard is not as good as the one I used to have for my PalmPilot, but it is usable for a slow kind of almost-touch writing. Haven’t tried anything fancy such as links or pictures, but you have to crawl before you can leap. Anyway, blogging and surfing is now mobile for me – I can feel freedom from my laptop and 1.5 hour battery life approaching….