Sunday, April 25, 2010

sheltering children from reality

I often wonder what it must be like for someone who believes in a traditional religious account of existence to see a picture like this. It's the Hubble Ultra Deep Field exposure, a picture of the sky about the size of a crater on the moon, taken over the course of 11.3 days of viewing time. It reveals about 10,000 galaxies, the very first to emerge after the Big Bang which occurred 14 billion years ago. It suggests a universe so vast and ancient that it renders the human scale of space and time utterly insignificant by comparison.

I thought of this today having read this article in Wired about a school district which would not allow its third, fourth, and fifth graders to learn about the theory of evolution.
“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic,” wrote Ribbens. “It is not appropriate to have [Darwin's] work or the theory part of the TAG program since the topic is not age appropriate.”

Ribbens explained further, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”
I fail to see what is special about the theory of evolution in this regard. There are thousands of religions in existence, all of which have different accounts of the creation. Some of them have tens of millions of adherents. Why some people believe in the Christian version is an accident of where they happened to be born. This challenges the Bible-centric view of the world, so clearly children should be taught that these cultures don't exist. Furthermore, if it's true that the earth goes around the sun, it's rather strange that we don't see the stars move. That would only happen if the universe visible to the naked eye is already unimaginably vast—far greater in extent than seems necessary to a Christian account of the world and hence a deep challenge to it. Better to protect children from the view that the earth goes around the sun, then. And naturally there's no way to teach children about rocks without also bringing in the processes that form them. Since the amount of time those processes take is longer than that allowed in the creation story, better to just ignore rocks as well.

The fact is that there's no way to think about the world even a little bit and not contradict the traditional religious account of it. Even the most moderate, open-minded, liberal Christians have to engage in mental gymnastics to preserve the bare rudiments of their belief in the face of the world. So my point is that there's nothing you can do from the point of view of a science educator (or likely any educator) to keep from challenging traditional religious beliefs. I think evolution is especially threatening because the implications for human behavior and morals are more immediate as compared with, for example, the fact that there are 7 with 22 zeros after it stars in the observable universe, and many many more planets besides. But almost anywhere you look, be it your neighbors down the street (if you don't live in a culturally and ethnically uniform suburb), or the stars in the sky, there is a challenge to the traditional religious view of the world.

The individual quoted is clearly right in one respect: it's about the meaningfulness or lack thereof of human existence. There's a specter of nihilism behind it. And there's probably racism and patriarchy behind it, too, because let's face it, while those two trends and extreme religiosity do not always go hand in hand, they often do. But that's all the more reason that children need to be exposed to these problems at an early age. They need to develop the right sorts of reflexes toward the world, so that they take the problem as part of the furniture of the universe, something to be dealt with constructively, and not something to try to ignore or just react emotionally and defensively to.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Leibniz script

I've been reading Martin Davis' Engines of Logic. I learned that when he was younger than I am now, Leibniz cleverly figured out the following is true:

π/4 = 1 - (1/3) + (1/5) - (1/7) + (1/9) - (1/11)...

The quantity on the left is pi divided by 4. Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter in Euclidean space. You may remember from trigonometry that π/4 radians equals 45 degrees.

The quantity on the right is an infinite series. It's meant to continue, so "... + (1/13) - (1/15) + (1/17)..." all the way up to infinity. Naturally one cannot continue to do this to infinity, though one can do it as long as he likes. In fact, the more terms you add to the equation, the closer the result comes to π/4.

Anyway, I was bored and (more importantly) drunk, so I wrote a Perl script to do just that.

$x = 1;
$total = 1;
$i = 1;
$flip = 2;

print "How many terms do you want to go out to?\n";
chomp($input = <STDIN>);

print "\nStart time:\n";
printf "%4d-%02d-%02d %02d:%02d:%02d\n",

while ($i < $input)
{ $x = (-1 * ($x + $flip)); $total = $total + (1/$x); $i = $i + 1; $flip = -1 * $flip; }

print "Finish time:\n"; ($sec,$min,$hour,$mday,$mon,$year,$wday, $yday,$isdst)=localtime(time); printf "%4d-%02d-%02d %02d:%02d:%02d\n\n", $year+1900,$mon+1,$mday,$hour,$min,$sec; $finishtime=time;

print "Operation accomplished in ", ($finishtime - $starttime), " seconds.\n\n"; print "Final term is 1/$x\n"; print "Total is $total\n";

My computer was able to calculate the result using 10,000,000 terms in 6 seconds with a result of 0.785398138397448. It did 100,000,000 terms in 61 seconds with a result of 0.785398160897331. It did 1,000,000,000 terms in 629 seconds with a result of 0.785398163147013. I have a 64-bit 2.8ghz AMD. I'd be curious to hear what kind of processor you have and how fast it did the calculation.

There might be a way to make the program run faster. I'm a beginner Perl programmer and probably didn't do it the best way.

This serves no purpose, which is why I was tempted to do it in the first place. I suppose it might serve as a "reality check" of sorts: despite appearances to the contrary, computers are nothing more than extremely fast calculators. Well, not "nothing more" exactly. Calculators aren't (usually) programmable. But computers do what they do by translating your instructions into numbers and doing binary arithmetic with them. The fact that there are such machines and that arithmetic can produce such results is perhaps worthy of thought. That seems to be Davis' point. Though if you're really interested in your computer qua calculator, I would advise you to ignore my badly written program and go find some Mersenne primes instead.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

dangers of technology

In reply to the question Are you worried about where technology will lead us? Do you think it's possible that civilization may someday turn away from technology altogether for the betterment of humankind?:

It would be irresponsible not to worry where technological development may lead us. Whether it takes the form of blind confidence that technocrats will solve all our technological problems or whether it takes the form of Luddite dismissal of technology, I don't think one can afford to be aloof from the issue. We've already seen technology change the nature of war (and hence politics) in the 20th century. In the past century, humanity has placed at its disposal for the first time both the means to connect the entire human race (the internet) and the means to destroy it (weapons of mass destruction).

The threat grows every day with the advance of genetics. History shows that the most frequent and most deadly natural disasters to befall mankind are diseases. When you add the possibility of terrorism using genetically engineered diseases into the mix, the picture is grimmer. It's now possible for someone working in a college biology lab to engineer a deadly flu epidemic. The United States government stupidly made public the genome of the 1918 H1N1 flu. Unless common sense precautions are taken, we are susceptible to high-tech, easily executed terrorist attacks the likes of which we have never before experienced.

That's the present, but the dangers multiply as we go into the future. In a recent survey of experts in the field of artificial intelligence, all who participated gave at least a 10% chance of major AI milestones (an AI passing the Turing Test and the creation of a superhuman AI) being passed within the next few decades. More than half predicted superhuman AI by the middle of the century. Add to that the exponential trends in computer miniaturization, high resolution brain scanning, and virtual reality, and a Matrix-style scenario seems possible by 2030 or 2040.

If that sounds fanciful, then keep in mind the extent to which advertising and entertainment already shape our values and desires, what Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer referred to as the "culture industry" in their classic essay from the 40s. Many of the technologies exhibited in the dystopian society in the movie Minority Report, such as the ability to project 3D advertisements with sound and to peer through walls into people's apartments, exist today. Many of the most important technological advancements are occurring now where they have previously: in the US military. Predator drones, bomb-disarming robots, and robotic limbs for amputees that take commands directly from the brain are just a few of the technologies first created in response to the need to wage war. And of course the internet is the creation of ARPA (today DARPA). Anyone on the anti-imperialist or just anti-authoritarian left who thinks he can ignore or dismiss the power of technology would do well to remember that the United States military and ruling class take it seriously to the point of making it happen.

We're rapidly approaching the point of merging our biological beings with our technology. It's already taken place to a large extent. A person from the 70s or even the 80s chatting with you via a texting client like AIM would think you were a genius, because you could answer any question, no matter how technical, posed to you. He wouldn't know you had the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips in the form of the search engine, a technology that really only became a mass phenomenon a little over a decade ago. He would think you were an artificial superintelligence from the future. (Assuming you didn't substitute "2" for "to" or "u" for "you" or make too much use of other “textisms”.) That we will eventually merge with our technology to such an extent that we become another species entirely is more than possible. We're already able to select and deselect genes in unborn children. Designer adults are just around the corner. Yet in a country where health care is already unavailable to so many people and increasing in price all the time, who will benefit the most from these technologies and who will be left behind? Will the rapidly accelerating evolution of technology be "open source", or will it result in the creation of a two-species system that makes Marx's classic conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat seem modest by comparison?

While the dangers are real—far realer than most people recognize—relinquishment is not possible. Technological development is not merely one activity amongst others that human beings do. It is part of our essence—along with other activities like loving, making jokes, and understanding. Technology is more deeply ingrained in our being than most are capable of realizing. We were creating tools even before we were "we". The first tool-creator was not Homo sapiens but our ancestor Homo habilis. We tend to think of technology as anything that tends to break, anything that becomes, as Heidegger said, "present-at-hand" or "conspicuous". In fact technology is all around, mediating our relations to ourselves, the world, and one another. It augments our senses and vastly expands the space through which we can live, move, and understand. This in turn has a profound influence on politics, society, and culture. The idea that we're free individuals did not always exist. It required the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, both of which would have been impossible without a technological invention: the printing press. The level and kind of self-understanding humans are capable of can easily be traced back to their technology. For example things like status or privacy didn't exist in hunting and gathering societies—yet tremendous violence did. Your odds of dying in a violent conflict were orders of magnitude higher if you lived in a horticultural or hunting and gathering society than they are now, living at the beginning of the 21st century, when we're beset on all sides by technological dangers. The fact of the matter is that technology is deeply entwined with civilization, culture, politics, and respect and recognition for others, regardless of what race they are, what family they come from, or what gender they are. This is proved by the fact of their relative absence in cultures that are not as technologically developed as ours.

Another reason we cannot relinquish technological development is because it would be impossible to get everyone to agree with it. Sure, we could pass a law outlawing certain kinds of technology, but that would just force it underground. The fact is, many biological species have gone extinct (and still are going extinct), yet no technology has ever gone extinct. It is possible to get just about anything, be it paper produced in the ancient style, steam-driven cars, or an abortion someplace it's officially declared illegal. If you don't believe me, just punch it into a search engine. You'll find someone selling it or making it.

In some ways technological evolution can be viewed as the successor and logical continuation of biological evolution. The early inventions of language and abstract thought, and then writing, allowed information to be preserved, experimented with, and built upon much more rapidly than could happen in our genes. While it takes many generations for species evolution to take place, as a result of technological development, cultural evolution can take place over just one generation or even (now) over the course of months or weeks. Technology is not a mere means, nor is it just a collection of inert objects or practices. It is the embodiment of our collective knowledge and self-understanding—for better or for worse. To relinquish technology would be many orders of magnitude more difficult than eradicating a biological species. We would need very advanced technology to do it!

In conclusion, yes, we must concern ourselves with technological development. As many benefits as it brings, there too are the dangers. The pace of this development is much faster than it ever has been before in history, and it is only getting faster. Our vigilance has to keep pace, too. But relinquishment is not an option. It's not just because the benefits of technology are too great that people won't want to give them up. It's beyond that. Relinquishment is just not physically possible at this point. It's questionable whether it ever was.