## Main Blog Page

All recent posts are listed here in reverse chronological order. For a more focused view you can use the "Blog Topics" listing on the right - and the little icons on the right of the topic names toggle display of subtopics (if any).

## Trying Hard for Our (own) Children

September 29th, 2013

Richard V. Reeves, in The Glass-Floor Problem – NYTimes.com concludes with:

This is delicate territory. Nobody wants parents to stop trying hard for their children. But nor do we want a society in which the social market is rigged in favor of those born into affluence. If we want a competitive economy and an open society, we need the best and brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.

Well actually, I do want parents whose wealth and position gives their children an advantage over mine to “stop trying hard for their children”. Of course I do! And I want any person or child whose natural talent exceeds mine or my children’s to be hobbled by whatever encumbrances can ensure the eventual success of me and mine. But that doesn’t make it right.

So when Reeves earlier on bleats out that:

Even the most liberal parents are unlikely to be comfortable with the idea that their own children should fall down the scale in the name of making room for a smarter kid from a poorer home.They invest large amounts of economic, social and cultural capital to keep their own children high up the social scale. As they should: there is nothing wrong with parents doing the best by their children.

I have to reply “Oh yeah? Sez who?”   Of course I may do it myself (to the best of my own meagre ability), but that doesn’t make it admirable or even not wrong. Perhaps there is something wrong with valuing our own children more highly than others’. And perhaps the world would be better if we each sought out the most admirable of our peers and devoted our lives to increasing their fertility at the expense of our own.

But this is too complicated for me. So bring on Sam Harris’s “scientific” total well being accumulator to tell us what it is that we really ought to do.

September 20th, 2013

Ever since whatever happened at the Obama/Putin meeting at the G10 it’s been an amazing time for optimism regarding the future of humanity. But of course the election of Hassan Rohani actually precedes that meeting.

## Science and Religion – a false parallel

September 15th, 2013

Ophelia Benson. quoting Stephen Pinker in paraphrase of Stephen Jay Gould to the effect that “Science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value” struck me as identifying the key point on which Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” is often misinterpreted.

It is true that science “gets” the empirical universe because science is defined as including anything useful that can be said about the empirical universe (whether or not it comes from “peer reviewed” journals or people with academic appointments in specific disciplines at specially annointed institutions). But religion does not “get” the questions of moral meaning and value – it may be restricted to those questions but it doesn’t own them. The fields of ethics and aesthetics “get” these questions by definition in the same sense as science “gets” the empirical world, but anyone who wants to is empowered to participate. To compare science and religion is like comparing values and academic departments or journals. (Or dogs and vegetables, or animals and weeds)

## The Moral Landscape Challenge

September 1st, 2013

Sam Harris has issued a “public challenge” to those who think his book is silly.

To wit: “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $1,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive$10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

July 28th, 2013

July 28th, 2013

## Fujitsu and MIT Announce First-of-its-kind Breakthrough Higher Education Learning Platform ~ Stephen’s Web

July 12th, 2013

Stephen Downes points to this announcement from MIT and Fujitsu.

He (at DLORN) and I (at the CMR site) have both proposed something similar back in the first decade of the millennium, but this second decade team have added some interesting new wrinkles. I don’t know if there’s anything new in a “navigation technology, which can organize massive online learning materials into multi-layer topics” “with multi-layer topics having different granularity based on a probabilistic topic model (Latent Dirichlet Allocation) framework”, but their “students’ learning behavior simulation based on an advanced probabilistic learner model”,via a “stochastic, Bayesian Knowledge Tracing algorithm” may be something new. And the “implicit rating system for learning materials, in which learning nuggets are not rated by learners directly, and instead their ratings are calculated based on learning outcome of learners” may also be a good idea so long as there is some user input into the identification and prioritization of learner outcomes.(Otherwise it seems little different from the choosing one side in the perennial debate about whether instructors and their materials should be rated more on the basis of student opinion surveys or on exam performance.)
Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the product actually looks like when it finally comes out of the box.

## Rational Religiosity

June 19th, 2013

Dan Finke provides some Philosophical Advice For A Rationalist Atheist Who Wants To Be Religious Without Betraying His Ideals, and I think he actually makes some good points.

I very much like Dan’s discussion about the possible value of religion to a participant – especially if that participant remains aware of the symbolic as opposed to literal nature of the religious stories and also of the “deeper” theological mumbo-jumbo. I too find it hard to deny the comfort to those who want it at that level but am troubled by the fact that such participation often includes suppressing explicit acknowledgement of the symbolic aspect and so leaves children and weak-minded adults subject to the mental manipulation of those who profess a literal interpretation (and who often use that to subvert the moral authority of the individual consciences of their followers). On the rare occasions when an intelligent friend or colleague chooses to retain or return to (or even adopt) a religious culture I always want to ask about this but too much politeness and the desire not to offend a friend seems to always prevent me from probing hard enough to get a satisfactory answer.

The comments include a less interesting debate about the possible “truth” of religious ideas which led me to the following response:

Scientific theories are not “true” or “correct” they are just our most objectively effective and optimally efficient tools of prediction (until they fail to predict correctly or are beaten out in the efficiency competition). I’m no medic but I suspect that the miasma theory lost out to the germ theory not by making wrong predictions but by failing to make as many predictions (at least without oodles of guessed auxiliary assumptions) and so being less efficient. (The theory of humours is another matter as it could be tested by feeding someone bile and observing its effect on their mood – no wait .. maybe I should look for another example).

Theology may make predictions about what feels right or good or whatever but their effectiveness is subjective (ie they don’t work for everyone) and all of their objective predictions either fail or can also be made without the theological hypothesis.

## Thoughts on Probability

May 6th, 2013

Matt Briggs is discusing Subjective Versus Objective Bayes Versus Frequentism.But he clearly has a preference and I am reluctant to accept without question the labeling and characterization of a position by one who does not hold it. Apparently, the objectivist (at least as represented by Briggs) does not claim the existence of a unique consistent assignment of probabilities to all propositions. Perhaps the freedom claimed by a subjectivist does not really include assigning arbitrary values to the probability of a specific event about which we have a body of relevant information to consider. It may only be to set some assumed underlying (prior?) probabilities within a range of possibilities that can be shown not to significantly affect the conditional probabilities that are deduced from an extended sequence of observations. (Nothing to do with statsig here, just the idea of a limit). Similarly the frequentist may not be constrained to imagine the repetition of a specific event over time, but rather the (Gibbs?) ensemble of possible scenarios consistent with some agreed on collection of past observations (cf Briggs’ “official” premises). Are these really all that different?

At the same time, John Carlos Baez has posted on Probability Theory and the Undefinability of Truth
A much more limited goal than that of assigning objective probabilities to all propositions is that of doing so just for the subset of propositions that make arithmetic statements.

The possibility of making a self-consistent assignment of probabilities to arithmetic propositions has apparently been recently established (by Christiano, Yudkowsky, Herreshoff and Mihaly in a preprint at http://intelligence.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Christiano-et-al-Naturalistic-reflection-early-draft.pdf).But it also appears that there may in fact be many such assignments.

How would such non-uniqueness get reconciled with the idea of objective Bayesian probability?

## Learning Theory Revisited

April 29th, 2013

Jenny Mackness has an interesting report on the Learning Theory component of the recently concluded Pedagogy First programme (an online course to learn how to teach online).

## Why Should I Write ?

April 28th, 2013

I kind of share Stephen Downes’ response to Why You Should Write Daily : zenhabits.

I don’t know that everyone “should” do it, but I do think that formulating and expressing opinions regularly (on topics that may not be part of one’s working life) is a useful exercise for most of us. Not having an audience, I don’t really have the option to persuade anyone, so for me it’s more about clarification and reinforcement of my own thoughts and ideas – and protection against the fear that I will forget them.

## Introduction to Mathematical Thinking

April 28th, 2013

Prompted I think by Downes, I decided to look into Keith Devlin’s MOOC on Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.

It was nice to see some acknowledgement of the origin of the ‘MOOC’ term with Downes and Siemens, but not so much to see that brief acknowledgement followed by a claim that a concept only attains respectability when adopted by the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

I will be interested in seeing how the peer evaluation system works out and in the effectiveness of the discussion forum software. Unfortunately I joined the course too late to really check out the latter although it does seem to have facilitated a number of effective collaborative learning groups.

I do have some comments with regard to the actual course content:
…more »

## pro-life lefty learns about the internet

April 25th, 2013

Mehdi Hassan’s claim that “being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty“ is plausible enough, but his attempt to make the case on Twitter (of all places!) was certainly misguided, and while some of the lessons he has learned are good ones his descriptions of others demonstrate the opposite of what he should have learned[1]. I won’t respond (beyond that extensive footnote) to the fact that his argument is less “reasoned and measured”  than he claims as that has already been done, but rather will boringly restrict myself to the technical issue itself.

## Dr Jekyl retracts

April 24th, 2013

This is actually a pretty smarmy retraction by Dr Jeckyl Dawkins of an honest but nasty tweet by Mr Hyde Dick.

Mr Dick tweeted (perhaps in response to a recent re-tweet reminding him of his frustration at a three month old exchange) that “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” And in response to the predictable (but in my opinion unreasonable) blowback, Dr Dawkins claims that Mr Dick’s “ill judged words” were just “a rather confused mixture of the following three – admittedly not wholly compatible – spellings-out:”

• Isn’t it an odd paradox that a journalist good enough to be employed by no less a journal than New Statesman is capable of simultaneously holding a belief at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies?
• Given that he believes something at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies, is it possible that I’ve over-estimated Mehdi Hasan? Could it be that he’s not such a good journalist as I had thought?
• Conversely, it seems so odd that a good and intelligent journalist should believe obvious nonsense, that I can’t help wondering whether he really does believe it, or whether he only pretends to out of loyalty to a loved tradition.

But let’s see now. It’s no denial of free speech to argue that anyone with experience of the modern world who claims to believe the literal truth of a story about flying around on a winged “horse” (or for that matter about the virgin birth of a male child) is either lying or nuts, and that allowing such a person to express their views does not extend to giving them a platform in a magazine that people rely on for accurate information and analysis. Yes, such a person may have well-founded views on many issues and may be capable of opening my eyes to issues I had overlooked, but I cannot avoid the fact that he is also capable of believing complete nonsense and so his judgement is not to be fully “trusted” (not that anyone ever should be fully trusted of course, but there are different levels of trustability required in different contexts and being published regularly in a major magazine is one of the more demanding I think). Perhaps Hasan has merits which override his evident credulity and it would have been fine for the nice Dr Dawkins to identify such. But the fawning over-compensation with which he does so turns my stomach a bit.

On the other hand he ends well with:

There is a distinction between the Doyle/Dowding belief in fairies and Hasan’s belief in a winged horse. Hasan’s absurdity stems from a major religious creed and is for this reason treated with an over-generous portion of respect. Doyle’s belief in fairies was an individual eccentricity, fit only for mirth. People would blithely write off Doyle among the fairies as a comic nutter while agreeing that he was a very good storyteller; or laugh behind Dowding’s back while agreeing that he was handy with an Air Force. But if you describe a religious believer as a nutter because he believes in a winged horse (or a follower of another tradition because he believes water miraculously turned into wine) you will be in for trouble.

It was an additional intention of my tweet (spelled out in subsequent ones) to emphasise, yet again, this remarkably widespread double standard. It is a double standard that is applied, with peculiar vitriol, by some who call themselves atheists but bend over backwards to “accommodate” religious faith. If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot”; or say to you, as a British Member of Parliament tweeted to me,  “You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man.” The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege. And perhaps that is the most important take-home message of this whole affair.

## Sustainable Economy Panel of Provincial Election Candidates

April 23rd, 2013

Two thoughts

1. The NDP’s Shane Simpson (called in at the last minute to replace Matt Toner) was sitting between Andrew Wilkinson representing the Liberal party which implemented BC’s carbon tax and the Conservative Duane Nickull who denied that it has been effective in reducing emissions and also echoed much of what the NDP said when campaigning it in 2005. But Simpson never took the opportunity to use Nickull’s arguments to support and explain the NDP’s 2005 position as not against the principle but just the specific implementation of the tax – eg by saying something like “Yes it is unfair and ineffective as the Liberals have implemented it, but once we are in office we can fix it and here’s how…”

2. Wilkinson’s argument that extending the tax to cover big industrial process emitters would just drive those industries out of the province without reducing emissions as we’d still have to get our cement from somewhere could be answered by taxing all products on the basis of emissions resulting from their production. This may be the only real way to make such a tax effective but would require more accounting to record the emissions from each stage of production. That’s something which looks a bit like the incremental accounting of a value added tax such as the federal GST and so argues for doing something similar with the PST to create what might be called a ‘Harmonized Sales and Carbon Tax’.  But perhaps we should call it something else…

## Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage

April 23rd, 2013

In his latest post at Discover, Keith Kloor responds to Jerry Coyne’s tweeted blog post headline “Islam Apparently behind Boston bombing” with the complaint that it is an “Islamophobic” response of  ”intolerant atheists” who “apparently would blame environmentalism for Ted Kaczynski”. He has a point of course in that the headline is potentially misleading and may encourage unfair prejudice against Moslems in general, but that is not the only way to read it.

The headline “Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage” may also be misleading, but both are within the bounds of current journalistic practice (which arguably do go well outside the bounds of common decency).

There is indeed a sense in which both are quite accurate.  Namely that (presumably invalid) arguments based on (possibly invalid) concerns about the environment (or Islam) lay behind the actions of Kaczynski (or the Tsarnaevs).

Both of course unfairly encourage the alternate more sensational interpretations that an entire movement (be it Environmentalism or Islam) stands behind the nefarious actions of the deluded. But, hey, that’s how we sell papers (and build blog readership)!

With regard to Islam right now I think there are at least two points worth making.

First I have to admit that, despite the appeal some aspects of it have for me including the existence of many peaceful teachings and of adherents who live by those, there is no doubt in my mind that the pro-violence teachings of Islam do exceed those of Christianity and Buddhism (which are still quite plenty enough to provide extremists of even the most peace-loving faiths with excuses for lots of horrific violence).

And secondly, as alluded to in my previous post, it is the excuse of the moment for those who want something to kill and die for. It is not just the religious who find it difficult to properly condemn those who use violence in support of a cause we support, but right now it is indeed Muslims who are most called upon to meet that challenge. And we should be thankful for those who are doing so.

## Yes, But..

April 22nd, 2013

Olivier Roy has been a consultant to the French Foreign Ministry and United Nations, is currently a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, and noted early that al Qaeda was drawing many of its recruits from Western Europe rather than from Saudi Arabia or Palestine or Pakistan. And he is probably right that the motives of people like the Tsarnaevs and Nidal Malik Hasan are less religious than personal. But when he tells New Republic that “They may have gone to mosques, but they were never an integral part of a congregation, they have no real life, social life. Their social life is through the Internet,” he misleads us in two important ways.

One is by overlooking the fact that the use of mass violence and terrorism by relatively isolated people and groups long predates the internet.

And although they may not have been “an integral part” of the congregation of a mainstream mosque, it is not true that the members and imams of mainstream who want to help prevent such things “can’t comply because they guys are not part of these communities (so) they have no access to these guys.” They may not have direct access to the perps themselves, but they certainly have the capacity to more effectively denounce the preachers whose ravings sustain and drive them on.

And we should not forget the cases where mainstream Muslims can and do detect and deflect those who may be on the path to violence.

## The Enemy of My Enemy

April 20th, 2013

This discussion in USA Today seems to me more on the mark than earlier speculation that the Chechen connection might make it more difficult to reach consensus on Syria.

## Facing Horror with Humour

April 20th, 2013

I’m sorry, but even though it’s tasteless, disgusting and anti-science I actually find it funny. (And I don’t even feel too guilty about laughing because it doesn’t really belittle the tragedy.)

## Quivering the Arrow and Missing the Point

April 19th, 2013

Part of the appeal of the flaneur is his seediness. The worn but well-starched collar,  the thinning elbows and slightly threadbare lapels of his clean and well-pressed suit, and the carefully polished shine on his ancient shoes. All these speak of a genuine love of style in one who has lost (or never had) the resources to support it.

But the lovable flaneur should not be confused with the charlatan that he becomes when he asks you to invest your intellectual capital.

Raymond Tallis’s Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur  may turn out to be charming, but I’m afraid that his recent foray into physics smells more of the charlatan.

I quivered with anticipation of being drawn into the issue of time, but when the bow was released I found that Tallis’s talk of “Missing the Point” is itself quite off the mark. The argument that time-symmetric physical laws cannot in principle produce time-asymmetric consequences is countered by the existence of broken symmetry in many familiar physical contexts (such as the formation of magnetic crystals for example), so even if the arguments provided so far for broken symmetry in time “fail to deliver” (in Tallis’ attribution to Huw Price) that does not mean that no such argument is possible. And when Tallis says “finding directionality in time requires us to establish in advance that states of the universe are ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ before we could notice that, say, the universe has a temporal trend” then he is subject to a more valid accusation of point-missing than the one he presents. The point is that finding directionality does not actually require finding direction. Although asymmetry does not specify a specific sense of direction it does provide an axis of directionality with the identification of which is “forward” and which is back being just a matter of convention.

Tallis’s ponderings on the flow analogy are less offensive because they remain in the realm of flaneury and make no real demand for acceptance. That the various versions and uses of that analogy are certainly mutually and often internally inconsistent does not preclude the existence of  consistent versions – but he is right that talk of our moving *with* time is one of the weaker versions. Whether we are dragged forward towards the future through a sea of time or cling to a present past which it flows (from future to past as in the sense of “tomorrow is coming”) is just a matter of choosing one of two relativistically equivalent points of view.  Similarly with the river of time flowing by us on the ever present shore of now, or alternatively our being carried forward floating on the river of now past the shores of time, are both ok.  He’s right though when it comes to describing us as ourselves floating on the moving river of time – which does seem to be a less felicitous version from the physical correctness point of view (but whether or not that makes it bad poetry may be another matter).