Silicon Death Valley


Have you ever wondered what happens to the 99 percent of Silicon Valley startups that don’t make billionaires (or even millionaires) of their founders? It’s not all milk and honey in the land of sunshine. After all, for every Google or Facebook there are hundreds of humiliating failures – think: Webvan,,, Boxman, Flooz, eToys.

The valley’s venture capitalists tend to bury their business failures rather quietly, careful not to taint their reputations as omnipotent, infallible futurists. From the ashes of these failures some employees move on to well-established corporate serfdom and others find fresh challenges at new startups. But there is a fascinating middle-ground, between success and failure — an entrepreneurial twilight zone populated by zombie businesses.

From the Guardian:

It is probably Silicon Valley’s most striking mantra: “Fail fast, fail often.” It is recited at technology conferences, pinned to company walls, bandied in conversation.

Failure is not only invoked but celebrated. Entrepreneurs give speeches detailing their misfires. Academics laud the virtue of making mistakes. FailCon, a conference about “embracing failure”, launched in San Francisco in 2009 and is now an annual event, with technology hubs in Barcelona, Tokyo, Porto Alegre and elsewhere hosting their own versions.

While the rest of the world recoils at failure, in other words, technology’s dynamic innovators enshrine it as a rite of passage en route to success.

But what about those tech entrepreneurs who lose – and keep on losing? What about those who start one company after another, refine pitches, tweak products, pivot strategies, reinvent themselves … and never succeed? What about the angst masked behind upbeat facades?

Silicon Valley is increasingly asking such questions, even as the tech boom rewards some startups with billion-dollar valuations, sprinkling stardust on founders who talk of changing the world.

“It’s frustrating if you’re trying and trying and all you read about is how much money Airbnb and Uber are making,” said Johnny Chin, 28, who endured three startup flops but is hopeful for his fourth attempt. “The way startups are portrayed, everything seems an overnight success, but that’s a disconnect from reality. There can be a psychic toll.”

It has never been easier or cheaper to launch a company in the hothouse of ambition, money and software that stretches from San Francisco to Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park and San Jose.

In 2012 the number of seed investment deals in US tech reportedly more than tripled, to 1,700, from three years earlier. Investment bankers are quitting Wall Street for Silicon Valley, lured by hopes of a cooler and more creative way to get rich.

Most startups fail. However many entrepreneurs still overestimate the chances of success – and the cost of failure.

Some estimates put the failure rate at 90% – on a par with small businesses in other sectors. A similar proportion of alumni from Y Combinator, a legendary incubator which mentors bright prospects, are said to also struggle.

Companies typically die around 20 months after their last financing round and after having raised $1.3m, according to a study by the analytics firms CB Insights titled The RIP Report – startup death trends.


Failure is difficult to quantify because it does not necessarily mean liquidation. Many startups limp on for years, ignored by the market but sustained by founders’ savings or investors.

“We call them the walking dead,” said one manager at a tech behemoth, who requested anonymity. “They don’t necessarily die. They putter along.”

Software engineers employed by such zombies face a choice. Stay in hope the company will take off, turning stock options into gold. Or quit and take one of the plentiful jobs at other startups or giants like Apple and Google.

Founders face a more agonising dilemma. Continue working 100-hour weeks and telling employees and investors their dream is alive, that the metrics are improving, and hope it’s true, or pull the plug.

The loss aversion principle – the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains – tilts many towards the former, said Bruno Bowden, a former engineering manager at Google who is now a venture investor and entrepreneur.

“People will do a lot of irrational things to avoid losing even if it’s to their detriment. You push and push and exhaust yourself.”

Silicon Valley wannabes tell origin fables of startup founders who maxed out credit cards before dazzling Wall Street, the same way Hollywood’s struggling actors find solace in the fact Brad Pitt dressed as a chicken for El Pollo Loco before his breakthrough.

“It’s painful to be one of the walking dead. You lie to yourself and mask what’s not working. You amplify little wins,” said Chin, who eventually abandoned startups which offered micro, specialised versions of Amazon and Yelp.

That startup founders were Silicon Valley’s “cool kids”, glamorous buccaneers compared to engineers and corporate drones, could make failure tricky to recognise, let alone accept, he said. “People are very encouraging. Everything is amazing, cool, awesome. But then they go home and don’t use your product.”

Chin is bullish about his new company, Bannerman, an Uber-type service for event security and bodyguards, and has no regrets about rolling the tech dice. “I love what I do. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Read the entire story here.

Image:, 1999. Courtesy of the WayBackMachine, Internet Archive.

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Universal Amniotic Fluid

Another day, another physics paper describing the origin of the universe. This is no wonder. Since the development of general relativity and quantum mechanics — two mutually incompatible descriptions of our reality — theoreticians have been scurrying to come up with a grand theory, a rapprochement of sorts. This one describes the universe as a quantum fluid, perhaps made up of hypothesized gravitons.

From Nature Asia:

The prevailing model of cosmology, based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, puts the universe at around 13.8 billion years old and suggests it originated from a “singularity” – an infinitely small and dense point – at the Big Bang.

 To understand what happened inside that tiny singularity, physicists must marry general relativity with quantum mechanics – the laws that govern small objects. Applying both of these disciplines has challenged physicists for decades. “The Big Bang singularity is the most serious problem of general relativity, because the laws of physics appear to break down there,” says Ahmed Farag Ali, a physicist at Zewail City of Science and Technology, Egypt.

 In an effort to bring together the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity, and to solve the singularity puzzle, Ali and Saurya Das, a physicist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta Canada, employed an equation that predicts the development of singularities in general relativity. That equation had been developed by Das’s former professor, Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri, when Das was an undergraduate student at Presidency University, in Kolkata, India, so Das was particularly familiar and fascinated by it.

 When Ali and Das made small quantum corrections to the Raychaudhuri equation, they realised it described a fluid, made up of small particles, that pervades space. Physicists have long believed that a quantum version of gravity would include a hypothetical particle, called the graviton, which generates the force of gravity. In their new model — which will appear in Physics Letters B in February — Ali and Das propose that such gravitons could form this fluid.

To understand the origin of the universe, they used this corrected equation to trace the behaviour of the fluid back through time. Surprisingly, they found that it did not converge into a singularity. Instead, the universe appears to have existed forever. Although it was smaller in the past, it never quite crunched down to nothing, says Das.

 “Our theory serves to complement Einstein’s general relativity, which is very successful at describing physics over large distances,” says Ali. “But physicists know that to describe short distances, quantum mechanics must be accommodated, and the quantum Raychaudhui equation is a big step towards that.”

The model could also help solve two other cosmic mysteries. In the late 1990s, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating due the presence of a mysterious dark energy, the origin of which is not known. The model has the potential to explain it since the fluid creates a minor but constant outward force that expands space. “This is a happy offshoot of our work,” says Das.

 Astronomers also now know that most matter in the universe is in an invisible mysterious form called dark matter, only perceptible through its gravitational effect on visible matter such as stars. When Das and a colleague set the mass of the graviton in the model to a small level, they could make the density of their fluid match the universe’s observed density of dark matter, while also providing the right value for dark energy’s push.

Read the entire article here.


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True “False Memory”

Apparently it is surprisingly easy to convince people to remember a crime, or other action, that they never committed. Makes one wonder how many of the around 2 million people in US prisons are incarcerated due to these false memories in both inmates and witnesses.

From ars technica:

The idea that memories are not as reliable as we think they are is disconcerting, but it’s pretty well-established. Various studies have shown that participants can be persuaded to create false childhood memories—of being lost in a shopping mall or hospitalized, or even highly implausible scenarios like having tea with Prince Charles.

The creation of false memories has obvious implications for the legal system, as it gives us reasons to distrust both eyewitness accounts and confessions. It’s therefore important to know exactly what kinds of false memories can be created, what influences the creation of a false memory, and whether false recollections can be distinguished from real ones.

A recent paper in Psychological Science found that 71 percent of participants exposed to certain interview techniques developed false memories of having committed a crime as a teenager. In reality, none of these people had experienced contact with the police during the age bracket in question.

After establishing a pool of potential participants, the researchers sent out questionnaires to the caregivers of these individuals. They eliminated any participants who had been involved in some way with an assault or theft, or had other police contact between the ages of 11 and 14. They also asked the caregivers to describe in detail a highly emotional event that the participant had experienced at this age. The caregivers were asked not to discuss the content of the questionnaire with the participants.

The 60 eligible participants were divided into two groups: one that would be given false memories of committing an assault, theft, or assault with a weapon, and another that would be provided with false memories of another emotional event—an injury, an attack by a dog, or the loss of a large sum of money. In the first of three interviews with each participant, the interviewer presented the true memory that had been provided by the caregiver. Once the interviewer’s credibility and knowledge of the participant’s background had been established, the false memory was presented.

For both kinds of memory, the interviewer gave the participant “cues”, such as their age at the time, people who had been involved, and the time of year. Participants were then asked to recall the details of what had happened. No participants recalled the false event the first time it was mentioned—which would have rung alarm bells—but were reassured that people could often uncover memories like these through effort.

A number of tactics were used to induce the false memory. Social pressure was applied to encourage recall of details, the interviewer attempted to build a rapport with the participants, and the participants were told that their caregivers had corroborated the facts. They were also encouraged to use visualization techniques to “uncover” the memory.

In each of the three interviews, participants were asked to provide as many details as they could for both events. After the final interview, they were informed that the second memory was false, and asked whether they had really believed the events had occurred. They were also asked to rate how surprised they were to find out that it was false. Only participants who answered that they had genuinely believed the false memory, and who could give more than ten details of the event, were classified as having a true false memory. Of the participants in the group with criminal false stories, 71 percent developed a “true” false memory. The group with non-criminal false stories was not significantly different, with 77 percent of participants classified as having a false memory. The details participants provided for their false memories did not differ significantly in either quality or quantity from their true memories.

This study is only a beginning, and there is still a great deal of work to be done. There are a number of factors that couldn’t be controlled for but which may have influenced the results. For instance, the researchers suggest that, since only one interviewer was involved, her individual characteristics may have influenced the results, raising the question of whether only certain kinds of interviewers can achieve these effects. It isn’t clear whether participants were fully honest about having believed in the false memory, since they could have just been trying to cooperate; the results could also have been affected by the fact that there were no negative consequences to telling the false story.

Read the entire article here.

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Focus on Process, Not Perfect Grades

If you are a parent of a school-age child then it is highly likely that you have, on multiple occasions, chastised her or him and withheld privileges for poor grades. It’s also likely that you have rewarded the same child for being smart at math or having Picasso-like artistic talent. I have done this myself. But, there is a better way to nurture young minds, and it is through “telling stories about achievements that result from hard work.”

From Scientific American:

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon, all then at the University of Pennsylvania, had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can effect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many more problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easier problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Read the entire article here.

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The Great Unknown: Consciousness


Much has been written in the humanities and scientific journals about consciousness. Scholars continue to probe and pontificate and theorize. And yet we seem to know more of the ocean depths and our cosmos than we do of that interminable, self-aware inner voice that sits behind our eyes.

From the Guardian:

One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness, by which he meant the feeling of being inside your head, looking out – or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, the young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona – for what would later go down as a landmark conference on the subject – knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. “Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,” recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. “As the organiser, I’m looking around, and people are falling asleep, or getting restless.” He grew worried. “But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.” With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. “He comes on stage, hair down to his butt, he’s prancing around like Mick Jagger,” Hameroff said. “But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.”

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. “At the coffee break, I went around like a playwright on opening night, eavesdropping,” Hameroff said. “And everyone was like: ‘Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!’” Philosophers had pondered the so-called “mind-body problem” for centuries. But Chalmers’s particular manner of reviving it “reached outside philosophy and galvanised everyone. It defined the field. It made us ask: what the hell is this that we’re dealing with here?”

Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount about the brain: you can’t follow the news for a week without encountering at least one more tale about scientists discovering the brain region associated with gambling, or laziness, or love at first sight, or regret – and that’s only the research that makes the headlines. Meanwhile, the field of artificial intelligence – which focuses on recreating the abilities of the human brain, rather than on what it feels like to be one – has advanced stupendously. But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a week and then won’t leave, the Hard Problem remains. When I stubbed my toe on the leg of the dining table this morning, as any student of the brain could tell you, nerve fibres called “C-fibres” shot a message to my spinal cord, sending neurotransmitters to the part of my brain called the thalamus, which activated (among other things) my limbic system. Fine. But how come all that was accompanied by an agonising flash of pain? And what is pain, anyway?

Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make some experts openly angry. They have caused others to argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don’t really exist, no matter what I felt as I hopped in anguish around the kitchen; or, alternatively, that plants and trees must also be conscious. The Hard Problem has prompted arguments in serious journals about what is going on in the mind of a zombie, or – to quote the title of a famous 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel – the question “What is it like to be a bat?” Some argue that the problem marks the boundary not just of what we currently know, but of what science could ever explain. On the other hand, in recent years, a handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that it may finally be about to be solved – but only if we are willing to accept the profoundly unsettling conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious, too.

Next week, the conundrum will move further into public awareness with the opening of Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, at the National Theatre – the first play Stoppard has written for the National since 2006, and the last that the theatre’s head, Nicholas Hytner, will direct before leaving his post in March. The 77-year-old playwright has revealed little about the play’s contents, except that it concerns the question of “what consciousness is and why it exists”, considered from the perspective of a young researcher played by Olivia Vinall. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Stoppard also clarified a potential misinterpretation of the title. “It’s not about erectile dysfunction,” he said.

Stoppard’s work has long focused on grand, existential themes, so the subject is fitting: when conversation turns to the Hard Problem, even the most stubborn rationalists lapse quickly into musings on the meaning of life. Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a key player in the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar initiative to map the human brain, is about as credible as neuroscientists get. But, he told me in December: “I think the earliest desire that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly, to show myself that it couldn’t be explained scientifically. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to find a place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them into people.” Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable notions. Then, not much later, and in all seriousness, he said that on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.

By the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson, science had been vigorously attempting to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time. The source of the animosity dates back to the 1600s, when René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come. On the one hand, Descartes realised, nothing is more obvious and undeniable than the fact that you’re conscious. In theory, everything else you think you know about the world could be an elaborate illusion cooked up to deceive you – at this point, present-day writers invariably invoke The Matrix – but your consciousness itself can’t be illusory. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. It doesn’t seem to be physical. It can’t be observed, except from within, by the conscious person. It can’t even really be described. The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God.

This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing assumption into the 18th century and the early days of modern brain study. But it was always bound to grow unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientific establishment that took physicalism – the position that only physical things exist – as its most basic principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo. Few people doubted that the brain and mind were very closely linked: if you question this, try stabbing your brain repeatedly with a kitchen knife, and see what happens to your consciousness. But how they were linked – or if they were somehow exactly the same thing – seemed a mystery best left to philosophers in their armchairs. As late as 1989, writing in the International Dictionary of Psychology, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland could irascibly declare of consciousness that “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

It was only in 1990 that Francis Crick, the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his position of eminence to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness could no longer be ignored. “It is remarkable,” they began, “that most of the work in both cognitive science and the neurosciences makes no reference to consciousness” – partly, they suspected, “because most workers in these areas cannot see any useful way of approaching the problem”. They presented their own “sketch of a theory”, arguing that certain neurons, firing at certain frequencies, might somehow be the cause of our inner awareness – though it was not clear how.

Read the entire story here.

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Feminism in Saudi Arabia? Hypocrisy in the West!

We are constantly reminded on the immense struggle that is humanity’s progress. Often it seems like one step forward and several back. Cultural relativism and hypocrisy continue to run rampant in a world that celebrates selfies and serfdom.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard: the rulers of Saudi Arabia are feminists. But then again, so too are the white males who control most of the power, wealth, media and political machinery in the West.

From the Guardian:

Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the IMF, has paid tribute to the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He was a strong advocate of women, she said. This is almost certainly not what she thinks. She even hedged her remarks about with qualifiers like “discreet” and “appropriate”. There are constraints of diplomacy and obligations of leadership and navigating between them can be fraught. But this time there was only one thing to say. Abdullah led a country that abuses women’s rights, and indeed all human rights, in a way that places it beyond normal diplomacy.

The constraints and restrictions on Saudi women are too notorious and too numerous to itemise. Right now, two women are in prison for the offence of trying to drive over the border in to Saudi Arabia. It is not just the ban on driving. There is also the ban on going out alone, the ban on voting, the death penalty for adultery, and the total obliteration of public personality – almost of a sense of existence – by the obligatory veil. And there are the terrible punishments meted out to those who infringe these rules that are not written down but “interpreted” – Islam mediated through the conventions of a deeply conservative people.

Lagarde is right. King Abdullah did introduce reforms. Women can now work almost anywhere they want, although their husband brother or father will have to drive them there (and the children to school). They can now not just study law but practise as lawyers. There are women on the Sharia council and it was through their efforts that domestic violence has been criminalised. But enforcement is in the hands of courts that do not necessarily recognise the change. These look like reforms with all the substance of a Potemkin village, a flimsy structure to impress foreign opinion.

Pressure for change is driven by women themselves, exploiting social media by actions that range from the small, brave actions of defiance – posting images of women at the wheel (ovaries, despite men’s fears, apparently undamaged) – to the large-scale subversive gesture such as the YouTube TV programmes reported by the Economist.

But the point about the Lagarde remarks is that there are signs the Saudi authorities really can be sensitive to the rare criticism that comes from western governments, and the western media. Such protests may yet spare blogger Raif Badawi from further punishment for alleged blasphemy. Today’s lashing has been delayed for the third successive week .The Saudi authorities, like any despotic regime, are trying to appease their critics and contain the pressure for change that social media generates by conceding inch by inch so that, like the slow downhill creep of a glacier, the religious authorities and mainstream social opinion don’t notice it is happening.

But beyond Saudi’s borders, it is surely the duty of everyone who really does believe in equality and human rights to shout and finger point and criticise at every opportunity. Failing to do so is what makes Christine Lagarde’s remarks a betrayal of the women who literally risk everything to try to bring about change in the oppressive patriarchy in which they live. They are typical of the desire not to offend the world’s biggest oil producer and the west’s key Middle Eastern ally, a self-censorship that allows the Saudis to claim they respect human rights while breaching every known norm of behaviour.

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Education And Reality

Recent studies show that having a higher level of education does not necessarily lead to greater acceptance of reality. This seems to fly in the face of oft cited anecdotal evidence and prevailing beliefs that suggest people with lower educational attainment are more likely to reject accepted scientific fact, such as evolutionary science and climate change.

From ars technica:

We like to think that education changes people for the better, helping them critically analyze information and providing a certain immunity from disinformation. But if that were really true, then you wouldn’t have low vaccination rates clustering in areas where parents are, on average, highly educated.

Vaccination isn’t generally a political issue. (Or, it is, but it’s rejected both by people who don’t trust pharmaceutical companies and by those who don’t trust government mandates; these tend to cluster on opposite ends of the political spectrum.) But some researchers decided to look at a number of issues that have become politicized, such as the Iraq War, evolution, and climate change. They find that, for these issues, education actually makes it harder for people to accept reality, an effect they ascribe to the fact that “highly educated partisans would be better equipped to challenge information inconsistent with predispositions.”

The researchers looked at two sets of questions about the Iraq War. The first involved the justifications for the war (weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda), as well as the perception of the war outside the US. The second focused on the role of the troop surge in reducing violence within Iraq. At the time the polls were taken, there was a clear reality: no evidence of an active weapons program or links to Al Qaeda; the war was frowned upon overseas; and the surge had successfully reduced violence in the country.

On the three issues that were most embarrassing to the Bush administration, Democrats were more likely to get things right, and their accuracy increased as their level of education rose. In contrast, the most and least educated Republicans were equally likely to have things wrong. When it came to the surge, the converse was true. Education increased the chances that Republicans would recognize reality, while the Democratic acceptance of the facts stayed flat even as education levels rose. In fact, among Democrats, the base level of recognition that the surge was a success was so low that it’s not even clear it would have been possible to detect a downward trend.

When it came to evolution, the poll question didn’t even ask whether people accepted the reality of evolution. Instead, it asked “Is there general agreement among scientists that humans have evolved over time, or not?” (This phrasing generally makes it easier for people to accept the reality of evolution, since it’s not asking about their personal beliefs.) Again, education increased the acceptance of this reality among both Democrats and Republicans, but the magnitude of the effect was much smaller among Republicans. In fact, the impact of ideology was stronger than education itself: “The effect of Republican identification on the likelihood of believing that there is a scientific consensus is roughly three times that of the effect of education.”

For climate change, the participants were asked “Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity or natural patterns?” Overall, about the beliefs of 70 percent of those polled lined up with scientific conclusions on the matter. And, among the least educated, party affiliation made very little difference in terms of getting this right. But, as education rose, Democrats were more likely to get this right, while Republicans saw their accuracy drop. At the highest levels of education, Democrats got it right 90 percent of the time, while Republicans less than half.

The results are in keeping with a number of other studies that have been published of late, which also show that partisan divides over things that could be considered factual sometimes increase with education. Typically, these issues are widely perceived as political. (With some exceptions; GMOs, for example.) In this case, the authors suspect that education simply allows people to deploy more sophisticated cognitive filters that end up rejecting information that could otherwise compel them to change their perceptions.

The authors conclude that’s somewhat mixed news for democracy itself. Education is intended to improve people’s ability to assimilate information upon which to base their political judgements. And, to a large extent, it does: people, on average, got 70 percent of the questions right, and there was only a single case where education made matters worse.

Read the entire article here.

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The Impending AI Apocalypse


AI as in Artificial Intelligence, not American Idol — though some believe the latter to be somewhat of a cultural apocalypse.

AI is reaching a technological tipping point; advances in computation especially neural networks are making machines more intelligent every day. These advances are likely to spawn machines – sooner rather than later – that will someday mimic and then surpass human cognition. This has an increasing number of philosophers, scientists and corporations raising alarms. The fear: what if super-intelligent AI machines one day decide that humans are far too inferior and superfluous?

From Wired:

On the first Sunday afternoon of 2015, Elon Musk took to the stage at a closed-door conference at a Puerto Rican resort to discuss an intelligence explosion. This slightly scary theoretical term refers to an uncontrolled hyper-leap in the cognitive ability of AI that Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking worry could one day spell doom for the human race.

That someone of Musk’s considerable public stature was addressing an AI ethics conference—long the domain of obscure academics—was remarkable. But the conference, with the optimistic title “The Future of AI: Opportunities and Challenges,” was an unprecedented meeting of the minds that brought academics like Oxford AI ethicist Nick Bostrom together with industry bigwigs like Skype founder Jaan Tallinn and Google AI expert Shane Legg.

Musk and Hawking fret over an AI apocalypse, but there are more immediate threats. In the past five years, advances in artificial intelligence—in particular, within a branch of AI algorithms called deep neural networks—are putting AI-driven products front-and-center in our lives. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Baidu, to name a few, are hiring artificial intelligence researchers at an unprecedented rate, and putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the race for better algorithms and smarter computers.

AI problems that seemed nearly unassailable just a few years ago are now being solved. Deep learning has boosted Android’s speech recognition, and given Skype Star Trek-like instant translation capabilities. Google is building self-driving cars, and computer systems that can teach themselves to identify cat videos. Robot dogs can now walk very much like their living counterparts.

“Things like computer vision are starting to work; speech recognition is starting to work There’s quite a bit of acceleration in the development of AI systems,” says Bart Selman, a Cornell professor and AI ethicist who was at the event with Musk. “And that’s making it more urgent to look at this issue.”

Given this rapid clip, Musk and others are calling on those building these products to carefully consider the ethical implications. At the Puerto Rico conference, delegates signed an open letter pledging to conduct AI research for good, while “avoiding potential pitfalls.” Musk signed the letter too. “Here are all these leading AI researchers saying that AI safety is important,” Musk said yesterday. “I agree with them.”

Google Gets on Board

Nine researchers from DeepMind, the AI company that Google acquired last year, have also signed the letter. The story of how that came about goes back to 2011, however. That’s when Jaan Tallinn introduced himself to Demis Hassabis after hearing him give a presentation at an artificial intelligence conference. Hassabis had recently founded the hot AI startup DeepMind, and Tallinn was on a mission. Since founding Skype, he’d become an AI safety evangelist, and he was looking for a convert. The two men started talking about AI and Tallinn soon invested in DeepMind, and last year, Google paid $400 million for the 50-person company. In one stroke, Google owned the largest available talent pool of deep learning experts in the world. Google has kept its DeepMind ambitions under wraps—the company wouldn’t make Hassabis available for an interview—but DeepMind is doing the kind of research that could allow a robot or a self-driving car to make better sense of its surroundings.

That worries Tallinn, somewhat. In a presentation he gave at the Puerto Rico conference, Tallinn recalled a lunchtime meeting where Hassabis showed how he’d built a machine learning system that could play the classic ’80s arcade game Breakout. Not only had the machine mastered the game, it played it a ruthless efficiency that shocked Tallinn. While “the technologist in me marveled at the achievement, the other thought I had was that I was witnessing a toy model of how an AI disaster would begin, a sudden demonstration of an unexpected intellectual capability,” Tallinn remembered.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Comic Con, San Diego, 2006. Courtesy of Pattymooney.

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Facts, Fiction and Foxtion

Foxtion. fox·tion. noun \ fäks-sh?n \

New stories about people and events that are not real: literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer and presenter, and presented earnestly and authoritatively by self-proclaimed experts, repeated over and over until audience accepts as written-in-stone truth. 

Fox News is the gift that just keeps on giving – to comedians, satirists, seekers of truth and, generally, people with reasonably intact grey matter. This time Fox has reconnected with so-called terrorism expert, Steven Emerson. Seems like a nice chap, but, as the British Prime Minister recently remarked, he’s “an idiot”.

From the Guardian:

Steven Emerson, a man whose job title of terrorism expert will henceforth always attract quotation marks, provoked a lot of mirth with his claim, made during a Fox News interview, that Birmingham was a Muslim-only city where “non-Muslims simply just don’t go in”. He was forced to apologise, and the prime minister called him an idiot, all within the space of 24 hours.

This was just one of the many deeply odd things Emerson said in the course of the interview, although it was perhaps the most instantly refutable: Birmingham census figures are easy to come by. His claim that London was full of “actual religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire” is harder to disprove; just because I live in London and I’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But they’re not exactly thick on the ground. I blame the cuts.

Emerson also made reference to the “no-go zones” of France, where the government doesn’t “exercise any sovereignty”. “On the French official website it says there are,” he said. “It actually has a map of them.”

How could the French government make the basic blunder of publicising its inability to exercise sovereignty, and on the “French official website” of all places?

After a bit of Googling – which appears to be how Emerson gets his information – I think I know what he’s on about. He appears to be referring to The 751 No-Go Zones of France, the title of a widely disseminated, nine-year-old blogpost originating on the website of Daniel Pipes, another terrorism expert, or “anti-Arab propagandist”.

“They go by the euphemistic term Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or sensitive urban zones,” wrote Pipes, referring to them as “places in France that the French state does not fully control”. And it’s true: you can find them all listed on the French government’s website. Never mind that they were introduced in 1996, or that the ZUS distinction actually denotes an impoverished area targeted for economic and social intervention, not abandonment of sovereignty. For people like Emerson they are officially sanctioned caliphates, where cops and non-Muslims dare not tread.

Yet seven years after he first exposed the No-Go Zones of France, Pipes actually managed to visit several banlieues around Paris. In an update posted in 2013, his disappointment was palpable.

“For a visiting American, these areas are very mild, even dull,” he wrote. “We who know the Bronx and Detroit expect urban hell in Europe too, but there things look fine.

“I regret having called these areas no-go zones.”

Read the entire story here.

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Je Suis Snowman #jesuissnowman


What do Salman Rushdie and snowmen have in common, you may ask. Apparently, they are they both the subject of an Islamic fatwa. So, beware building a snowman lest you stray onto an ungodly path from idolizing your frozen handiwork. And, you may wish to return that DVD of Frozen. Oh, the utter absurdity of it all!

From the Guardian:

A prominent Saudi Arabian cleric has whipped up controversy by issuing a religious edict forbidding the building of snowmen, described them as anti-Islamic.

Asked on a religious website if it was permissible for fathers to build snowmen for their children after a snowstorm in the country’s north, Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Munajjid replied: “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play and fun.”

Quoting from Muslim scholars, Munajjid argued that to build a snowman was to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.

“God has given people space to make whatever they want which does not have a soul, including trees, ships, fruits, buildings and so on,” he wrote in his ruling.

That provoked swift responses from Twitter users writing in Arabic and identifying themselves with Arab names.

“They are afraid for their faith of everything … sick minds,” one Twitter user wrote.

Another posted a photo of a man in formal Arab garb holding the arm of a “snow bride” wearing a bra and lipstick. “The reason for the ban is fear of sedition,” he wrote.

A third said the country was plagued by two types of people: “A people looking for a fatwa [religious ruling] for everything in their lives, and a cleric who wants to interfere in everything in the lives of others through a fatwa.”

Munajjid had some supporters however. “It (building snowmen) is imitating the infidels, it promotes lustiness and eroticism,” one wrote. “May God preserve the scholars, for they enjoy sharp vision and recognise matters that even Satan does not think about.”

Snow has covered upland areas of Tabuk province near Saudi Arabia’s border with Jordan for the third consecutive year as cold weather swept across the Middle East.

Read more here.

Images courtesy of Google Search.

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Exotic Exoplanets Await Your Arrival


Vintage travel posters from the late 1890s through to the 1950s colorfully captured the public’s imagination. Now, not to be outdone by the classic works from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, NASA has published a series of its own. But, these posters go beyond illustrating alpine ski resorts, sumptuous hotels and luxurious cruises. Rather, NASA has its sights on exotic and very distant travels — from tens to hundreds of millions of light-years. One such spot is the destination Kepler-16.

Kepler-16 A/B is a binary star system in the constellation of Cygnus that was targeted for analysis by the Kepler exoplanet hunting spacecraft. The star system is home to a Saturn-sized planet Kepler 16b orbiting the red dwarf star, Kepler 16-B, and  is 196 light-years from Earth.

See more of NASA’s travel posters here.


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The Thugs of Cultural Disruption

What becomes of our human culture as Amazon crushes booksellers and publishers, Twitter dumbs down journalism, knowledge is replaced by keyword search, and the internet becomes a popularity contest?

Leon Wieseltier contributing editor at The Atlantic has some thoughts.

From NYT:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.)

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.

Read the entire essay here.

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Je Suis Ahmed

From the Guardian:

It was a Muslim policeman from a local police station who was “slaughtered like a dog” after heroically trying to stop two heavily armed killers from fleeing the Charlie Hebdo offices following the massacre.

Tributes to Ahmed Merabet poured in on Thursday after images of his murder at point blank range by a Kalashnikov-wielding masked terrorist circulated around the world.

Merabet, who according to officials was 40, was called to the scene while on patrol with a female colleague in the neighbourhood, just in time to see the black Citroën used by the two killers heading towards the boulevard from Charlie Hebdo.

“He was on foot, and came nose to nose with the terrorists. He pulled out his weapon. It was his job, it was his duty,” said Rocco Contento, a colleague who was a union representative at the central police station for Paris’s 11th arrondissement.

Video footage, which has now been pulled from the internet, showed the two gunmen get out of the car before one shot the policeman in the groin. As he falls to the pavement groaning in pain and holding up an arm as though to protect himself, the second gunman moves forward and asks the policeman: “Do you want to kill us?” Merabet replies: “Non, ç’est bon, chef” (“No, it’s OK mate”). The terrorist then shoots him in the head.

After the rise in online support for the satirical magazine, with the catchphrase “Je Suis Charlie,” many decided to honour Merabet, tweeting “Je Suis Ahmed”. One, @Aboujahjah, posted: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”

Another policeman, 48-year-old Franck Brinsolaro, was killed moments earlier in the assault on Charlie Hebdo where he was responsible for the protection of its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the 11 killed in the building. A colleague said he “never had time” to pull his weapon.

Read the entire story here.

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The Pen Must Always be Mightier


Philip Val former publisher of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, says of the assassination on January 7:

“They were so alive, they loved to make people happy, to make them laugh, to give them generous ideas. They were very good people. They were the best among us, as those who make us laugh, who are for liberty … They were assassinated, it is an insufferable butchery.

We cannot let silence set in, we need help. We all need to band together against this horror. Terror must not prevent joy, must not prevent our ability to live, freedom, expression – I’m going to use stupid words – democracy, after all this is what is at stake. It is this kind of fraternity that allows us to live. We cannot allow this, this is an act of war. It might be good if tomorrow, all newspapers were called Charlie Hebdo. If we titled them all Charlie Hebdo. If all of France was Charlie Hebdo. It would show that we are not okay with this. That we will never let stop laughing. We will never let liberty be extinguished.”

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The pursuit of all things self continues unabated in 2015. One has to wonder what children of the self-absorbed, selfie generations will be like. Or, perhaps, there will be no or few children, because many of the self-absorbed will remain, well, rather too self-absorbed.

From NYT:

Sometimes you don’t need an analyst’s report to get a look at the future of the media industry and the challenges it will bring.

On New Year’s Eve, I was one of the poor souls working in Times Square. By about 1 p.m., it was time to evacuate, and when I stepped into the cold that would assault the huddled, partying masses that night, a couple was getting ready to pose for a photo with the logo on The New York Times Building in the background. I love that I work at a place that people deem worthy of memorializing, and I often offer to help.

My assistance was not required. As I watched, the young couple mounted their phone on a collapsible pole, then extended it outward, the camera now able to capture the moment in wide-screen glory.

I’d seen the same phenomenon when I was touring the Colosseum in Rome last month. So many people were fighting for space to take selfies with their long sticks — what some have called the “Narcissistick” — that it looked like a reprise of the gladiatorial battles the place once hosted.

The urge to stare at oneself predates mirrors — you could imagine a Neanderthal fussing with his hair, his image reflected in a pool of water — but it has some pretty modern dimensions. In the forest of billboards in Times Square, the one with a camera that captures the people looking at the billboard always draws a big crowd.

Selfies are hardly new, but the incremental improvement in technology of putting a phone on a stick — a curiously analog fix that Time magazine listed as one of the best inventions of 2014 along with something called the “high-beta fusion reactor” — suggests that the séance with the self is only going to grow. (Selfie sticks are often used to shoot from above, which any self-respecting selfie auteur will tell you is the most flattering angle.)

There are now vast, automated networks to harvest all that narcissism, along with lots of personal data, creating extensive troves of user-generated content. The tendency to listen to the holy music of the self is reflected in the abundance of messaging and self-publishing services — Vine, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Apple’s new voice messaging and the rest — all of which pose a profound challenge for media companies. Most media outfits are in the business of one-to-many, creating single pieces of text, images or audio meant to be shared by the masses.

But most sharing does not involve traditional media companies. Consumers are increasingly glued to their Facebook feeds as a source of information about not just their friends but the broader world as well. And with the explosive growth of Snapchat, the fastest-growing social app of the last year, much of the sharing that takes place involves one-to-one images that come and go in 10 seconds or less. Getting a media message — a television show, a magazine, a website, not to mention the ads that pay for most of it — into the intimate space between consumers and a torrent of information about themselves is only going to be more difficult.

I’ve been around since before there was a consumer Internet, but my frame of reference is as neither a Luddite nor a curmudgeon. I didn’t end up with over half a million followers on social media — Twitter and Facebookcombined — by posting only about broadband regulations and cable deals. (Not all self-flattering portraits are rendered in photos. You see what I did there, right?) The enhanced ability to communicate and share in the current age has many tangible benefits.

My wife travels a great deal, sometimes to conflicted regions, and WhatsApp’s global reach gives us a stable way of staying in touch. Over the holidays, our family shared endless photos, emoticons and inside jokes in group messages that were very much a part of Christmas. Not that long ago, we might have spent the time gathered around watching “Elf,” but this year, we were brought together by the here and now, the familiar, the intimate and personal. We didn’t need a traditional media company to help us create a shared experience.

Many younger consumers have become mini-media companies themselves, madly distributing their own content on Vine, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. It’s tough to get their attention on media created for the masses when they are so busy producing their own. And while the addiction to self is not restricted to millennials — boomers bow to no one in terms of narcissism — there are now easy-to-use platforms that amplify that self-reflecting impulse.

While legacy media companies still make products meant to be studied and savored over varying lengths of time — the movie “Boyhood,” The Atlantic magazine, the novel “The Goldfinch” — much of the content that individuals produce is ephemeral. Whatever bit of content is in front of someone — text messages, Facebook posts, tweets — is quickly replaced by more and different. For Snapchat, the fact that photos and videos disappear almost immediately is not a flaw, it’s a feature. Users can send content into the world with little fear of creating a trail of digital breadcrumbs that advertisers, parents or potential employers could follow. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been replaced by less than 15 seconds on Snapchat.

Facebook, which is a weave of news encompassing both the self and the world, has become, for many, a de facto operating system on the web. And many of the people who aren’t busy on Facebook are up for grabs on the web but locked up on various messaging apps. What used to be called the audience is disappearing into apps, messaging and user-generated content. Media companies in search of significant traffic have to find a way into that stream.

“The majority of time that people are spending online is on Facebook,” said Anthony De Rosa, editor in chief of Circa, a mobile news start-up. “You have to find a way to break through or tap into all that narcissism. We are way too into ourselves.”

Read the entire article here.

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Socks and Self-knowledge


How well do you really know yourself?  Go beyond your latte preferences and your favorite movies. Knowing yourself means being familiar with your most intimate thoughts, desires and fears, your character traits and flaws, your values. for many this quest for self-knowledge is a life-long process. And, it may begin with knowing about your socks.

From NYT:

Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.

Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible.

This is usually news to non-philosophers. Most certainly imagine that philosophy tries to answer the Big Questions, and “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” doesn’t sound much like one of them. If knowing that you believe you are wearing socks qualifies as self-knowledge at all — and even that isn’t obvious — it is self-knowledge of the most trivial kind. Non-philosophers find it hard to figure out why philosophers would be more interested in trivial than in substantial self-knowledge.

One common reaction to the focus on trivial self-knowledge is to ask, “Why on earth would you be interested in that?” — or, more pointedly, “Why on earth would anyone pay you to think about that?” Philosophers of self-knowledge aren’t deterred. It isn’t unusual for them to start their learned articles and books on self-knowledge by declaring that they aren’t going to be discussing substantial self-knowledge because that isn’t where the philosophical action is.

How can that be? It all depends on your starting point. For example, to know that you are wearing socks requires effort, even if it’s only the minimal effort of looking down at your feet. When you look down and see the socks on your feet you have evidence — the evidence of your senses — that you are wearing socks, and this illustrates what seems a general point about knowledge: knowledge is based on evidence, and our beliefs about the world around us can be wrong. Evidence can be misleading and conclusions from evidence unwarranted. Trivial self-knowledge seems different. On the face of it, you don’t need evidence to know that you believe you are wearing socks, and there is a strong presumption that your beliefs about your own beliefs and other states of mind aren’t mistaken. Trivial self-knowledge is direct (not based on evidence) and privileged (normally immune to error). Given these two background assumptions, it looks like there is something here that needs explaining: How is trivial self-knowledge, with all its peculiarities, possible?

From this perspective, trivial self-knowledge is philosophically interesting because it is special. “Special” in this context means special from the standpoint of epistemology or the philosophy of knowledge. Substantial self-knowledge is much less interesting from this point of view because it is like any other knowledge. You need evidence to know your own character and values, and your beliefs about your own character and values can be mistaken. For example, you think you are generous but your friends know you better. You think you are committed to racial equality but your behaviour suggests otherwise. Once you think of substantial self-knowledge as neither direct nor privileged why would you still regard it as philosophically interesting?

What is missing from this picture is any real sense of the human importance of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge matters to us as human beings, and the self-knowledge which matters to us as human beings is substantial rather than trivial self-knowledge. We assume that on the whole our lives go better with substantial self-knowledge than without it, and what is puzzling is how hard it can be to know ourselves in this sense.

The assumption that self-knowledge matters is controversial and philosophy might be expected to have something to say about the importance of self-knowledge, as well as its scope and extent. The interesting questions in this context include “Why is substantial self-knowledge hard to attain?” and “To what extent is substantial self-knowledge possible?”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo Search.


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Tormented… For Things Remote

Would that our troubled species could put aside its pettiness and look to the stars. We are meant to seek, to explore, to discover, to learn…

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and envision our future. It’s compelling, gorgeous and achievable.

Visit the filmmaker’s website here.

Video: Wanderers, a short film. Courtesy of Erik Wernquist. Words by the Carl Sagan.

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The Haves versus the Have-Mores


Poverty and wealth are relative terms here in the United States. Certainly those who have amassed millions will seem “poor” to the established and nouveaux-riche billionaires. Yet these is something rather surreal in the spectacle of watching Los Angeles’ lesser-millionaires fight the mega-rich for their excess. As Peter Haldeman says in the following article of Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Arts Agency, mere millionaire and landlord of a 28,000 square foot mega mansion, “Mr. Ovitz calling out a neighbor for overbuilding is a little like Lady Gaga accusing someone of overdressing. Welcome to the giga-mansion — Roman emperor Caligula, would feel much at home in this Californian circus of excess.

From NYT:

At the end of a narrow, twisting side street not far from the Hotel Bel-Air rises a knoll that until recently was largely covered with scrub brush and Algerian ivy. Now the hilltop is sheared and graded, girded by caissons sprouting exposed rebar. “They took 50- or 60,000 cubic yards of dirt out of the place,” said Fred Rosen, a neighbor, glowering at the site from behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade on a sunny October afternoon.

Mr. Rosen, who used to run Ticketmaster, has lately devoted himself to the homeowners alliance he helped form shortly after this construction project was approved. When it is finished, a modern compound of glass and steel will rise two stories, encompass several structures and span — wait for it — some 90,000 square feet.

In an article titled “Here Comes L.A.’s Biggest Residence,” The Los Angeles Business Journal announced in June that the house, conceived by Nile Niami, a film producer turned developer, with an estimated sale price “in the $150 million range,” will feature a cantilevered tennis court and five swimming pools. “We’re talking 200 construction trucks a day,” fumed Mr. Rosen. “Then multiply that by all the other giant projects. More than a million cubic yards of this hillside have been taken out. What happens when the next earthquake comes? How nuts is all this?”

By “all this,” he means not just the house with five swimming pools but the ever-expanding number of houses the size of Hyatt resorts rising in the most expensive precincts of Los Angeles. Built for the most part on spec, bestowed with names as assuming as their dimensions, these behemoths are transforming once leafy and placid neighborhoods into dusty enclaves carved by retaining walls and overrun by dirt haulers and cement mixers. “Twenty-thousand-square-foot homes have become teardowns for people who want to build 70-, 80-, and 90,000-square-foot homes,” Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz said. So long, megamansion. Say hello to the gigamansion.

In Mr. Rosen’s neighborhood, ground was recently broken on a 70,000- to 80,000-square-foot Mediterranean manse for a citizen of Qatar, while Chateau des Fleurs, a 60,000-square-foot pile with a 40-car underground garage, is nearing completion. Not long ago, Anthony Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, built a boxy contemporary residence for himself in Beverly Hills that covers just shy of 50,000 square feet. And Mohamed Hadid, a prolific and high-profile developer (he has appeared on “The Shahs of Sunset” and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”), is known for two palaces that measure 48,000 square feet each: Le Palais in Beverly Hills, which has a swan pond and a Jacuzzi that seats 20 people, and Le Belvédère in Bel Air, which features a Turkish hammam and a ballroom for 250.

Why are people building houses the size of shopping malls? Because they can. “Why do you see a yacht 500 feet long when you could easily have the same fun in one half the size?” asked Jeffrey Hyland, a partner in the Beverly Hills real estate firm Hilton & Hyland, who is developing five 50,000-square-foot properties on the site of the old Merv Griffin estate in Beverly Hills.

Le Belvédère was reportedly purchased by an Indonesian buyer, and Le Palais sold to a daughter of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. According to Mr. Hyland, the market for these Versailles knockoffs is “flight capital.” “It’s oligarchs, oilgarchs, people from Asia, people who came up with the next app for the iPhone,” he said. While global wealth is pouring into other American cities as well, Los Angeles is still a relative bargain, Mr. Hyland said, adding: “Here you can buy the best house for $3,000 a square foot. In Manhattan, you’re looking at $11,000 a square foot and you get a skybox.”

Speculators are tapping the demand, snapping up the best lots, bulldozing whatever is on them and building not only domiciles but also West Coast “lifestyles.” The particulars can seem a little puzzling to the uninitiated. The very busy Mr. Niami (he also built the Winklevoss twins’ perch above the Sunset Strip) constructed a 30,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style house in Holmby Hills that locals have called the Fendi Casa because it was filled with furniture and accessories from the Italian fashion house.

The residence also offered indoor and outdoor pools, commissioned artwork by the graffiti artist Retna, and an operating room in the basement. “It’s not like it’s set up to take out your gallbladder,” said Mark David, a real estate columnist for Variety, who has toured the house. “It’s for cosmetic procedures — fillers, dermabrasion, that kind of thing.” The house sold, with all its furnishings, to an unidentified Saudi buyer for $44 million.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Satellite view of the 70,000 square foot giga-mansion development in Bel Air. Los Angeles. Courtesy of Google Maps.

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Will the AIs Let Us Coexist?

At some point in the not too distant future artificial intelligences will far exceed humans in most capacities (except shopping and beer drinking). The scripts according to most Hollywood movies seem to suggest that we, humans, would be (mostly) wiped-out by AI machines, beings, robots or other non-human forms – we being the lesser-organisms, superfluous to AI needs.

Perhaps, we may find an alternate path, to a more benign coexistence, much like that posited in The Culture novels by dearly departed, Iain M. Banks. I’ll go with Mr.Banks’ version. Though, just perhaps, evolution is supposed to leave us behind, replacing our simplistic, selfish intelligence with much more advanced, non-human version.

From the Guardian:

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner and RoboCop to The Matrix, how humans deal with the artificial intelligence they have created has proved a fertile dystopian territory for film-makers. More recently Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s forthcoming Ex Machina explore what it might be like to have AI creations living among us and, as Alan Turing’s famous test foregrounded, how tricky it might be to tell the flesh and blood from the chips and code.

These concerns are even troubling some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names: last month Telsa’s Elon Musk described AI as mankind’s “biggest existential threat… we need to be very careful”. What many of us don’t realise is that AI isn’t some far-off technology that only exists in film-maker’s imaginations and computer scientist’s labs. Many of our smartphones employ rudimentary AI techniques to translate languages or answer our queries, while video games employ AI to generate complex, ever-changing gaming scenarios. And so long as Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook continue to acquire AI firms and hire AI experts, AI’s IQ will continue to rise…

Isn’t AI a Steven Spielberg movie?
No arguments there, but the term, which stands for “artificial intelligence”, has a more storied history than Spielberg and Kubrick’s 2001 film. The concept of artificial intelligence goes back to the birth of computing: in 1950, just 14 years after defining the concept of a general-purpose computer, Alan Turing asked “Can machines think?”

It’s something that is still at the front of our minds 64 years later, most recently becoming the core of Alex Garland’s new film, Ex Machina, which sees a young man asked to assess the humanity of a beautiful android. The concept is not a million miles removed from that set out in Turing’s 1950 paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he laid out a proposal for the “imitation game” – what we now know as the Turing test. Hook a computer up to text terminal and let it have conversations with a human interrogator, while a real person does the same. The heart of the test is whether, when you ask the interrogator to guess which is the human, “the interrogator [will] decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman”.

Turing said that asking whether machines could pass the imitation game is more useful than the vague and philosophically unclear question of whether or not they “think”. “The original question… I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” Nonetheless, he thought that by the year 2000, “the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted”.

In terms of natural language, he wasn’t far off. Today, it is not uncommon to hear people talking about their computers being “confused”, or taking a long time to do something because they’re “thinking about it”. But even if we are stricter about what counts as a thinking machine, it’s closer to reality than many people think.

So AI exists already?
It depends. We are still nowhere near to passing Turing’s imitation game, despite reports to the contrary. In June, a chatbot called Eugene Goostman successfully fooled a third of judges in a mock Turing test held in London into thinking it was human. But rather than being able to think, Eugene relied on a clever gimmick and a host of tricks. By pretending to be a 13-year-old boy who spoke English as a second language, the machine explained away its many incoherencies, and with a smattering of crude humour and offensive remarks, managed to redirect the conversation when unable to give a straight answer.

The most immediate use of AI tech is natural language processing: working out what we mean when we say or write a command in colloquial language. For something that babies begin to do before they can even walk, it’s an astonishingly hard task. Consider the phrase beloved of AI researchers – “time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”. Breaking the sentence down into its constituent parts confuses even native English speakers, let alone an algorithm.

Read the entire article here.

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Philae: The Little Lander That Could


What audacity! A ten year journey, covering 4 billion miles.

On November 12, 2014 at 16:03 UTC, the Rosetta spacecraft delivered the Philae probe to land on a comet; a comet the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, speeding through our solar system at 34,000 miles per hour. What utter audacity!

The team of scientists, engineers, and theoreticians at the European Space Agency (ESA), and its partners, pulled off an awe-inspiring, remarkable and historic feat; a feat that ranks with the other pinnacles of human endeavor and exploration. It shows what our fledgling species can truly achieve.

Sadly, our species is flawed, capable of such terrible atrocities to ourselves and to our planet. And yet, triumphant stories like this one – the search for fundamental understanding through science —  must give us all some continued hope.

Exploration. Inspiration. Daring. Risk. Execution. Discovery. Audacity!

From the Guardian:

These could be the dying hours of Philae, the device the size of a washing machine which travelled 4bn miles to hitch a ride on a comet. Philae is the “lander” which on Wednesday sprung from the craft that had carried it into deep, dark space, bounced a couple of times on the comet’s surface, and eventually found itself lodged in the shadows, starved of the sunlight its solar batteries needed to live. Yesterday, the scientists who had been planning this voyage for the past quarter-century sat and waited for word from their little explorer, hoping against hope that it still had enough energy to reveal its discoveries.

If Philae expires on the hard, rocky surface of Comet 67P the sadness will be felt far beyond mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. Indeed, it may be felt there least of all: those who have dedicated their working lives to this project pronounced it a success, regardless of a landing that didn’t quite go to plan (Philae’s anchor harpoons didn’t fire, so with gravity feeble there was nothing to keep the machine anchored to the original, optimal landing site). They were delighted to have got there at all and thrilled at Philae’s early work. Up to 90% of the science they planned to carry out has been done. As one scientist put it, “We’ve already got fantastic data.”

Those who lacked their expertise couldn’t help feel a pang all the same. The human instinct to anthropomorphise does not confine itself to cute animals, as anyone who has seen the film Wall-E can testify. If Pixar could make us well up for a waste-disposing robot, it’s little wonder the European Space Agency has had us empathising with a lander ejected from its “mothership”, identifiable only by its “spindly leg”. In those nervous hours, many will have been rooting for Philae, imagining it on that cold, hard surface yearning for sunlight, its beeps of data slowly petering out as its strength faded.

 But that barely accounts for the fascination this adventure has stirred. Part of it is simple, a break from the torments down here on earth. You don’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, which fantasises about leaving our broken, ravaged planet and starting somewhere else – to enjoy a rare respite from our earthly woes. For a few merciful days, the news has featured a story remote from the bloodshed of Islamic State and Ukraine, from the pain of child abuse and poverty. Even those who don’t dream of escaping this planet can relish the escapism.

But the comet landing has provided more than a diversion: it’s been an antidote too. For this has been a story of human cooperation in a world of conflict. The narrow version of this point focuses on this as a European success story. When our daily news sees “Europe” only as the source of unwanted migrants or maddening regulation, Philae has offered an alternative vision; that Germany, Italy, France, Britain and others can achieve far more together than they could ever dream of alone. The geopolitical experts so often speak of the global pivot to Asia, the rise of the Bric nations and the like – but this extraordinary voyage has proved that Europe is not dead yet.

Even that, as I say, is to view it too narrowly. The US, through Nasa, is involved as well. And note the language attached to the hardware: the Rosetta satellite, the Ptolemy measuring instrument, the Osiris on-board camera, Philea itself – all imagery drawn from ancient Egypt. The spacecraft was named after the Rosetta stone, the discovery that unlocked hieroglyphics, as if to suggest a similar, if not greater, ambition: to decode the secrets of the universe. By evoking humankind’s ancient past, this is presented as a mission of the entire human race. There will be no flag planting on Comet 67P. As the Open University’s Jessica Hughes puts it, Philea, Rosetta and the rest “have become distant representatives of our shared, earthly heritage”.

That fits because this is how we experience such a moment: as a human triumph. When we marvel at the numbers – a probe has travelled for 10 years, crossed those 4bn miles, landed on a comet speeding at 34,000mph and done so within two minutes of its planned arrival – we marvel at what our species is capable of. I can barely get past the communication: that Darmstadt is able to contact an object 300 million miles away, sending instructions, receiving pictures. I can’t get phone reception in my kitchen, yet the ESA can be in touch with a robot that lies far beyond Mars. Like watching Usain Bolt run or hearing Maria Callas sing, we find joy and exhilaration in the outer limits of human excellence.

And of course we feel awe. What Interstellar prompts us to feel artificially – making us gasp at the confected scale and digitally assisted magnitude – Philae gives us for real. It is the stretch of time and place, glimpsing somewhere so far away it is as out of reach as ancient Egypt.

All that is before you reckon with the voyage’s scholarly purpose. “We are on the cutting edge of science,” they say, and of course they are. They are probing the deepest mysteries, including the riddle of how life began. (One theory suggests a comet brought water to a previously arid Earth.) What the authors of the Book of Genesis understood is that this question of origins is intimately bound up with the question of purpose. From the dawn of human time, to ask “How did we get here?” has been to ask “Why are we here?”

It’s why contemplation of the cosmic so soon reverts to the spiritual. Interstellar, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, is no different. It’s why one of the most powerful moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency came when he paid tribute to the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. They had, he said, “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”.

Not that you have to believe in such things to share the romance. Secularists, especially on the left, used to have a faith of their own. They believed that humanity was proceeding along an inexorable path of progress, that the world was getting better and better with each generation. The slaughter of the past century robbed them – us – of that once-certain conviction. Yet every now and again comes an unambiguous advance, what one ESA scientist called “A big step for human civilisation”. Even if we never hear from Philae again, we can delight in that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Philae lander, detached from the Rosetta spacecraft, on its solitary journey towards the surface of comet P67. Courtesy of ESA.

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Money Can Buy You… (Some) Happiness

Google-search-moneyNew results are in, and yes, money can buy you happiness. But the picture from some extensive new research shows that your happiness is much more dependent on how you spend it, than how much your earn. Generally, you are more likely to be happier if you give money away rather than fritter it on yourself. Also, you are more likely to be happier if you spend it on an experience rather than things.

From the WSJ:

It’s an age-old question: Can money buy happiness?

Over the past few years, new research has given us a much deeper understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel. Economists have been scrutinizing the links between income and happiness across nations, and psychologists have probed individuals to find out what really makes us tick when it comes to cash.

The results, at first glance, may seem a bit obvious: Yes, people with higher incomes are, broadly speaking, happier than those who struggle to get by.

But dig a little deeper into the findings, and they get a lot more surprising—and a lot more useful.

In short, this latest research suggests, wealth alone doesn’t provide any guarantee of a good life. What matters a lot more than a big income is howpeople spend it. For instance, giving money away makes people a lot happier than lavishing it on themselves. And when they do spend money on themselves, people are a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel than for material goods.

With that in mind, here’s what the latest research says about how people can make smarter use of their dollars and maximize their happiness.

Experiences Are Worth More Than You Think

Ryan Howell was bothered by a conundrum. Numerous studies conducted over the past 10 years have shown that life experiences give us more lasting pleasure than material things, and yet people still often deny themselves experiences and prioritize buying material goods.

So, Prof. Howell, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, decided to look at what’s going on. In a study published earlier this year, he found that people think material purchases offer better value for the money because experiences are fleeting, and material goods last longer. So, although they’ll occasionally splurge on a big vacation or concert tickets, when they’re in more money-conscious mode, they stick to material goods.

But in fact, Prof. Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.

“What we find is that there’s this huge misforecast,” he says. “People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value.” And yet we still keep on buying material things, he says, because they’re tangible and we think we can keep on using them.

Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has reached similar conclusions. “People often make a rational calculation: I have a limited amount of money, and I can either go there, or I can have this,” he says. “If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it. That is factually true, but not psychologically true. We adapt to our material goods.”

It’s this process of “hedonic adaptation” that makes it so hard to buy happiness through material purchases. The new dress or the fancy car provides a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.

Experiences, on the other hand, tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs, says Prof. Gilovich. They’re often shared with other people, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity. If you’ve climbed in the Himalayas, that’s something you’ll always remember and talk about, long after all your favorite gadgets have gone to the landfill.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Sartre: Forever Linked with Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion


One has to wonder how Jean-Paul Sartre would have been regarded today had he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, or had the characters of Monty Python not used him as a punching bag in one of their infamous, satyrical philosopher sketches:

Mrs Conclusion: What was Jean-Paul like? 

Mrs Premise: Well, you know, a bit moody. Yes, he didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking. Still, Mr Rotter caught him a few times with the whoopee cushion. (she demonstrates) Le Capitalisme et La Bourgeoisie ils sont la m~me chose… Oooh we did laugh…

From the Guardian:

In this age in which all shall have prizes, in which every winning author knows what’s necessary in the post-award trial-by-photoshoot (Book jacket pressed to chest? Check. Wall-to-wall media? Check. Backdrop of sponsor’s logo? Check) and in which scarcely anyone has the couilles, as they say in France, to politely tell judges where they can put their prize, how lovely to recall what happened on 22 October 1964, when Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel prize for literature.

“I have always declined official honours,” he explained at the time. “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own – that is, the written word.”

Throughout his life, Sartre agonised about the purpose of literature. In 1947’s What is Literature?, he jettisoned a sacred notion of literature as capable of replacing outmoded religious beliefs in favour of the view that it should have a committed social function. However, the last pages of his enduringly brilliant memoir Words, published the same year as the Nobel refusal, despair over that function: “For a long time I looked on my pen as a sword; now I know how powerless we are.” Poetry, wrote Auden, makes nothing happen; politically committed literature, Sartre was saying, was no better. In rejecting the honour, Sartre worried that the Nobel was reserved for “the writers of the west or the rebels of the east”. He didn’t damn the Nobel in quite the bracing terms that led Hari Kunzru to decline the 2003 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, sponsored by the Mail on Sunday (“As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail’s editorial line”), but gently pointed out its Eurocentric shortcomings. Plus, one might say 50 years on, ça change. Sartre said that he might have accepted the Nobel if it had been offered to him during France’s imperial war in Algeria, which he vehemently opposed, because then the award would have helped in the struggle, rather than making Sartre into a brand, an institution, a depoliticised commodity. Truly, it’s difficult not to respect his compunctions.

But the story is odder than that. Sartre read in Figaro Littéraire that he was in the frame for the award, so he wrote to the Swedish Academy saying he didn’t want the honour. He was offered it anyway. “I was not aware at the time that the Nobel prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient,” he said. “But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision, it cannot subsequently revoke it.”

Regrets? Sartre had a few – at least about the money. His principled stand cost him 250,000 kronor (about £21,000), prize money that, he reflected in his refusal statement, he could have donated to the “apartheid committee in London” who badly needed support at the time. All of which makes one wonder what his compatriot, Patrick Modiano, the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel for literature earlier this month, did with his 8m kronor (about £700,000).

The Swedish Academy had selected Sartre for having “exerted a far-reaching influence on our age”. Is this still the case? Though he was lionised by student radicals in Paris in May 1968, his reputation as a philosopher was on the wane even then. His brand of existentialism had been eclipsed by structuralists (such as Lévi-Strauss and Althusser) and post-structuralists (such as Derrida and Deleuze). Indeed, Derrida would spend a great deal of effort deriding Sartrean existentialism as a misconstrual of Heidegger. Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, with the notable exception of Iris Murdoch and Arthur Danto, has for the most part been sniffy about Sartre’s philosophical credentials.

Sartre’s later reputation probably hasn’t benefited from being championed by Paris’s philosophical lightweight, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who subtitled his biography of his hero The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Really? Not Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein or Adorno?); still less by his appearance in Monty Python’s least funny philosophy sketch, “Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion visit Jean-Paul Sartre at his Paris home”. Sartre has become more risible than lisible: unremittingly depicted as laughable philosopher toad – ugly, randy, incomprehensible, forever excitably over-caffeinated at Les Deux Magots with Simone de Beauvoir, encircled with pipe smoke and mired in philosophical jargon, not so much a man as a stock pantomime figure. He deserves better.

How then should we approach Sartre’s writings in 2014? So much of his lifelong intellectual struggle and his work still seems pertinent. When we read the “Bad Faith” section of Being and Nothingness, it is hard not to be struck by the image of the waiter who is too ingratiating and mannered in his gestures, and how that image pertains to the dismal drama of inauthentic self-performance that we find in our culture today. When we watch his play Huis Clos, we might well think of how disastrous our relations with other people are, since we now require them, more than anything else, to confirm our self-images, while they, no less vexingly, chiefly need us to confirm theirs. When we read his claim that humans can, through imagination and action, change our destiny, we feel something of the burden of responsibility of choice that makes us moral beings. True, when we read such sentences as “the being by which Nothingness comes to the world must be its own Nothingness”, we might want to retreat to a dark room for a good cry, but let’s not spoil the story.

His lifelong commitments to socialism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism still resonate. When we read, in his novel Nausea, of the protagonost Antoine Roquentin in Bouville’s art gallery, looking at pictures of self-satisfied local worthies, we can apply his fury at their subjects’ self-entitlement to today’s images of the powers that be (the suppressed photo, for example, of Cameron and his cronies in Bullingdon pomp), and share his disgust that such men know nothing of what the world is really like in all its absurd contingency.

In his short story Intimacy, we confront a character who, like all of us on occasion, is afraid of the burden of freedom and does everything possible to make others take her decisions for her. When we read his distinctions between being-in-itself (être-en-soi), being-for-itself (être-pour-soi) and being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), we are encouraged to think about the tragicomic nature of what it is to be human – a longing for full control over one’s destiny and for absolute identity, and at the same time, a realisation of the futility of that wish.

The existential plight of humanity, our absurd lot, our moral and political responsibilities that Sartre so brilliantly identified have not gone away; rather, we have chosen the easy path of ignoring them. That is not a surprise: for Sartre, such refusal to accept what it is to be human was overwhelmingly, paradoxically, what humans do.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Jean-Paul Sartre (c1950). Courtesy: Archivo del diario Clarín, Buenos Aires, Argentina


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Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Linguist, philosopher, and more recently political activist, Noam Chomsky penned the title phrase in the late 1950s. The sentence is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. Some now maintain that many of Chomsky’s early ideas on the innateness of human language are equally nonsensical. Chomsky popularized the idea that language is innate to humans; that somehow and somewhere the minds of human infants contain a mechanism that can make sense of language by applying rules encoded in and activated by our genes. Steven Pinker expanded on Chomsky’s theory by proposing that the mind contains an innate device that encodes a common, universal grammar, which is foundational to all languages across all human societies.

Recently however, this notion has come under increasing criticism. A  growing number of prominent linguistic scholars, including Professor Vyvyan Evans, maintain that Chomsky’s and Pinker’s linguistic models are outdated — that a universal grammar is nothing but a finely-tuned myth. Evans and others maintain that language arises from and is directly embodied in experience.

From the New Scientist:

The ideas of Noam Chomsky, popularised by Steven Pinker, come under fire in Vyvyan Evans’s book The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct

IS THE way we think about language on the cusp of a revolution? After reading The Language Myth, it certainly looks as if a major shift is in progress, one that will open people’s minds to liberating new ways of thinking about language.

I came away excited. I found that words aren’t so much things that can be limited by a dictionary definition but are encyclopaedic, pointing to sets of concepts. There is the intriguing notion that language will always be less rich than our ideas and there will always be things we cannot quite express. And there is the growing evidence that words are rooted in concepts built out of our bodily experience of living in the world.

Its author, Vyvyan Evans, is a professor of linguistics at Bangor University, UK, and his primary purpose is not so much to map out the revolution (that comes in a sequel) but to prepare you for it by sweeping out old ideas. The book is sure to whip up a storm, because in his sights are key ideas from some of the world’s great thinkers, including philosophers Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

Ideas about language that have entered the public consciousness are more myth than reality, Evans argues. Bestsellers by Steven Pinker, the Harvard University professor who popularised Chomksy in The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought, come in for particular criticism. “Science has moved on,” Evans writes. “And to end it all, Pinker is largely wrong, about language and about a number of other things too…”

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes.

This innate grammar is not the grammar of a school textbook, but a universal grammar, capable of generating the rules of any of the 7000 or so languages that a child might be exposed to, however different they might appear. In The Language Instinct, Pinker puts it this way: “a Universal Grammar, not reducible to history or cognition, underlies the human language instinct”. The search for that universal grammar has kept linguists busy for half a century.

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

In a whistle-stop tour, Evans tells stories of languages with a completely free word order, including Jiwarli and Thalanyji from Australia. Then there’s the Inuit language Inuktitut, which builds sentences out of prefixes and suffixes to create giant words like tawakiqutiqarpiit, roughly meaning: “Do you have any tobacco for sale?” And there is the native Canadian language, Straits Salish, which appears not to have nouns or verbs.

An innate language module also looks shaky, says Evans, now scholars have watched languages emerge among communities of deaf people. A sign language is as rich grammatically as a spoken one, but new ones don’t appear fully formed as we might expect if grammar is laid out in our genes. Instead, they gain grammatical richness over several generations.

Now, too, we have detailed studies of how children acquire language. Grammatical sentences don’t start to pop out of their mouths at certain developmental stages, but rather bits and pieces emerge as children learn. At first, they use chunks of particular expressions they hear often, only gradually learning patterns and generalising to a fully fledged grammar. So grammars emerge from use, and the view of “language-as-instinct”, argues Evans, should be replaced by “language-as-use”.

The “innate” view also encounters a deep philosophical problem. If the rules of language are built into our genes, how is it that sentences mean something? How do they connect to our thoughts, concepts and to the outside world?

A solution from the language-as-instinct camp is that there is an internal language of thought called “mentalese”. In The Language Instinct, Pinker explains: “Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words.” But philosophers are left arguing over the same question once removed: how does mentalese come to have meaning?

Read the entire article here.


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The Italian Canary Sings

Coal_bituminousThose who decry benefits fraud in their own nations should look to the illustrious example of Italian “miner” Carlo Cani. His adventures in absconding from work over a period of 35 years (yes, years) would make a wonderful indie movie, and should be an inspiration to less ambitious slackers the world over.

From the Telegraph:

An Italian coal miner’s confession that he is drawing a pension despite hardly ever putting in a day’s work over a 35-year career has underlined the country’s problem with benefit fraud and its dysfunctional pension system.

Carlo Cani started work as a miner in 1980 but soon found that he suffered from claustrophobia and hated being underground.

He started doing everything he could to avoid hacking away at the coal face, inventing an imaginative range of excuses for not venturing down the mine in Sardinia where he was employed.

He pretended to be suffering from amnesia and haemorrhoids, rubbed coal dust into his eyes to feign an infection and on occasion staggered around pretending to be drunk.

The miner, now aged 60, managed to accumulate years of sick leave, apparently with the help of compliant doctors, and was able to stay at home to indulge his passion for jazz.

He also spent extended periods of time at home on reduced pay when demand for coal from the mine dipped, under an Italian system known as “cassazione integrazione” in which employees are kept on the pay roll during periods of economic difficulty for their companies.

Despite his long periods of absence, he was still officially an employee of the mining company, Carbosulcis, and therefore eventually entitled to a pension.

“I invented everything – amnesia, pains, haemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb,” Mr Cani told La Stampa daily on Tuesday.

“Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work – being a miner was not the job for me.”

But rather than find a different occupation, he managed to milk the system for 35 years, until retiring on a pension in 2006 at the age of just 52.

“I reached the pensionable age without hardly ever working. I hated being underground. “Right from the start, I had no affinity for coal.”

He said he had “respect” for his fellow miners, who had earned their pensions after “years of sweat and back-breaking work”, while he had mostly rested at home.

The case only came to light this week but has caused such a furore in Italy that Mr Cani is now refusing to take telephone calls.

He could not be contacted but another Carlo Cani, who is no relation but lives in the same area of southern Sardinia and has his number listed in the phone book, said: “People round here are absolutely furious about this – to think that someone could skive off work for so long and still get his pension. He even seems to be proud of that fact.

“It’s shameful. This is a poor region and there is no work. All the young people are leaving and moving to England and Germany.”

The former miner’s work-shy ways have caused indignation in a country in which youth unemployment is more than 40 per cent.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Bituminous coal. The type of coal not mined by retired “miner” Carlo Cani. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Cross-Connection Requires a Certain Daring

A previously unpublished essay by Isaac Asimov on the creative process shows us his well reasoned thinking on the subject. While he believed that deriving new ideas could be done productively in a group, he seemed to gravitate more towards the notion of the lone creative genius. Both, however, require the innovator(s) to cross-connect thoughts, often from disparate sources.

From Technology Review:

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

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Non-Adaptive Evolution of the Very Small

Is every feature that arises from evolution an adaptation?  Some evolutionary biologists think not. That is, some traits arising from the process of natural section may be due to random occurrences that natural selection failed to discard. And, it seems that smaller organisms show this quite well. To many adaptationists this is heretical — but too some researchers it opens a new, fruitful avenue of inquiry, and may lead to a fine tuning in our understanding of the evolutionary process.

From New Scientist:

I have spent my life working on slime moulds and they sent me a message that started me thinking. What puzzled me was that two different forms are found side-by-side in the soil everywhere from the tundra to the tropics. The obvious difference lies in the tiny stalks that disperse their spores. In one species this fruiting body is branched, in the other it is not.

I had assumed that the branched and the unbranched forms occupied separate ecological niches but I could not imagine what those niches might be. Perhaps there were none and neither shape had an advantage over the other, as far as natural selection was concerned.

I wrote this up and sent it to a wise and respected friend who responded with a furious letter saying that my conclusion was absurd: it was easy to imagine ways in which the two kinds of stalks might be separate adaptations and co-exist everywhere in the soil. This set me thinking again and I soon realised that both my position and his were guesses. They were hypotheses and neither could be proved.

There is no concept that is more central to evolution than natural selection, so adding this extra dimension of randomness was heresy. Because of the overwhelming success of Darwin’s natural selection, biologists – certainly all evolutionary biologists – find it hard to believe that a feature of any organism can have arisen (with minor exceptions) in any other way. Natural selection favours random genetic mutations that offer an advantage, therefore many people believe that all properties of an organism are an adaptation. If one cannot find the adaptive reason for a feature of an organism, one should just assume that there was once one, or that there is one that will be revealed in the future.

This matter has created some heated arguments. For example, the renowned biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote an inflammatory paper in 1979 attacking adaptionists for being like Dr Pangloss, the incurable optimist in Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide. While their point was well taken, its aggressive tone produced counterattacks. Adaptionists assume that every feature of an organism arises as an adaption, but I assume that some features are the results of random mutations that escape being culled by natural selection. This is what I was suggesting for the branched and unbranched fruiting bodies of the slime moulds.

How can these organisms escape the stranglehold of selection? One explanation grabbed me and I have clung to it ever since; in fact it is the backbone of my new book. The reason that these organisms might have shapes that are not governed by natural selection is because they are so small. It turns out there are good reasons why this might be the case.

Development is a long, slow process for large organisms. Humans spend nine months in utero and keep growing in different ways for a long time after birth. An elephant’s gestation is even longer (about two years) and a mouse’s much shorter, but they are all are vastly longer than a single-cell microorganism. Such small forms may divide every few hours; at most their development may span days, but whatever it is it will be a small fraction of that of a larger, more complex organism.

Large organisms develop in a series of steps usually beginning with the fertilisation of an egg that then goes through many cell divisions and an increase in size of the embryo, with many twists and turns as it progresses towards adulthood. These multitudinous steps involve the laying down of complex organs such as a heart or an eye.

Building a complex organism is an immense enterprise, and the steps are often interlocked in a sequence so that if an earlier step fails through a deleterious mutation, the result is very simple: the death of the embryo. I first came across this idea in a 1965 book by Lancelot Law Whyte called Internal Factors in Evolution and have been mystified ever since why the idea has been swallowed by oblivion. His thesis was straightforward. Not only is there selection of organisms in the environment – Darwinian natural selection, which is external – but there is also continuous internal selection during development. Maybe the idea was too simple and straightforward to have taken root.

This fits in neatly with my contention that the shape of microorganisms is more affected by randomness than for large, complex organisms. Being small means very few development steps, with little or no internal selection. The effect of a mutation is likely to be immediately evident in the external morphology, so adult variants are produced with large numbers of different shapes and there is an increased chance that some of these will be untouched by natural selection.

Compare this with what happens in a big, complex organism – a mammal, say. Only those mutations that occur at a late stage of development are likely to be viable – eye or hair colour in humans are obvious examples. Any unfavourable mutation that occurs earlier in development will likely be eliminated by internal selection.

Let us now examine the situation for microorganisms. What is the evidence that their shapes are less likely to be culled by natural selection? The best examples come from organisms that make mineral shells: Radiolaria (pictured) and diatoms with their silica skeletons and Foraminifera with their calciferous shells. About 50,000 species of radiolarians have been described, 100,000 species of diatoms and some 270,000 species among the Foraminifera – all with vastly different shapes. For example, radiolarian skeletons can be shaped like spiny balls, bells, crosses and octagonal pyramids, to name but a few.

If you are a strict adaptionist, you have to find a separate explanation for each shape. If you favour my suggestion that their shapes arose through random mutation and there is little or no selection, the problem vanishes. It turns out that this very problem concerned Darwin. In the third (and subsequent) editions of On the Origin of Species he has a passage that almost takes the wind out of my sails:

“If it were no advantage, these forms would be left by natural selection unimproved or but little improved; and might remain for indefinite ages in their present little advanced condition. And geology tells us that some of the lowest forms, as the infusoria and rhizopods, have remained for an enormous period in nearly their present state.”

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The Sandwich of Corporate Exploitation


If ever you needed a vivid example of corporate exploitation of the most vulnerable, this is it. So-called free-marketeers will sneer at any suggestion of corporate over-reach — they will chant that it’s just the free market at work. But, the rules of this market,
as are many others, are written and enforced by the patricians and well-stacked against the plebs.

From NYT:

If you are a chief executive of a large company, you very likely have a noncompete clause in your contract, preventing you from jumping ship to a competitor until some period has elapsed. Likewise if you are a top engineer or product designer, holding your company’s most valuable intellectual property between your ears.

And you also probably have a noncompete agreement if you assemble sandwiches at Jimmy John’s sub sandwich chain for a living.

But what’s most startling about that information, first reported by The Huffington Post, is that it really isn’t all that uncommon. As my colleague Steven Greenhouse reported this year, employers are now insisting that workers in a surprising variety of relatively low- and moderate-paid jobs sign noncompete agreements.

Indeed, while HuffPo has no evidence that Jimmy John’s, a 2,000-location sandwich chain, ever tried to enforce the agreement to prevent some $8-an-hour sandwich maker or delivery driver from taking a job at the Blimpie down the road, there are other cases where low-paid or entry-level workers have had an employer try to restrict their employability elsewhere. The Times article tells of a camp counselor and a hair stylist who faced such restrictions.

American businesses are paying out a historically low proportion of their income in the form of wages and salaries. But the Jimmy John’s employment agreement is one small piece of evidence that workers, especially those without advanced skills, are also facing various practices and procedures that leave them worse off, even apart from what their official hourly pay might be. Collectively they tilt the playing field toward the owners of businesses and away from the workers who staff them.

You see it in disputes like the one heading to the Supreme Court over whether workers at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada must be paid for the time they wait to be screened at the end of the workday to ensure they have no stolen goods on them.

It’s evident in continuing lawsuits against Federal Express claiming that its “independent contractors” who deliver packages are in fact employees who are entitled to benefits and reimbursements of costs they incur.

And it is shown in the way many retailers assign hourly workers inconvenient schedules that can change at the last minute, giving them little ability to plan their lives (my colleague Jodi Kantor wrote memorably about the human effects of those policies on a Starbucks coffee worker in August, and Starbucks rapidly said it would end many of them).

These stories all expose the subtle ways that employers extract more value from their entry-level workers, at the cost of their quality of life (or, in the case of the noncompete agreements, freedom to leave for a more lucrative offer).

What’s striking about some of these labor practices is the absence of reciprocity. When a top executive agrees to a noncompete clause in a contract, it is typically the product of a negotiation in which there is some symmetry: The executive isn’t allowed to quit for a competitor, but he or she is guaranteed to be paid for the length of the contract even if fired.

Read the entire story here.

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