Thursday, January 29, 2009

Entanglement by Amir Aczel

This was a good book, but more as a brief history of quantum theory instead of providing the reader with a true understanding of it.
Entanglement could almost be seen as a series of mini-biographies of the quantum greats (Planck, Young, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Schrödinger…) and recent contributors (Bell, Aspect, and others); with explanations of the core concepts thrown in along the way. I don’t think this is entirely the fault of the author though, because the concepts are so complicated and any true understanding would require a sophisticated mathematical background. So, lacking that or unable to present it, one is left with giving an audience a description in words of counter-intuitive concepts and findings, backed up by complicated experimental data.
There was decent coverage of the double-slit experiment, wave-particle duality, Bohr-Einstein debates, entanglement (obviously), teleportation and computing. I learned that it isn’t the particle that gets teleported, but a quality of it (which seems to make it slightly more plausible to me for some reason).

The key issue that I wanted to understand, whether the limitations of quantum theory have to do with reality or measurement, still remains unresolved. Part way through the book I thought it was reality and not measurement or apparati that lead to the odd quantum results. But after finishing the book it now seems as if measurement, or even the possibility of measurement(!), changes outcomes. It really does seem as if there are a few valid interpretations, which very smart people disagree about. Interestingly, because quantum theory is so precisely and repeatedly replicated, interpretive differences are less a problem here than in most other domains. Quantum mechanics is an interesting representative of the testament replicative power of a science theory, in that one needs theory for understanding, but as long as (mostly predictable) results continue to accrue the validity increases.

In sum, the work is a useful exploration of the history of entanglement and a decently appropriate place from which to launch further explorations into the odd phenomena of quantum theory.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Daniel Dennett by Matthew Elton

A great book, but probably not for you. I say that not to be dismissive, but because this book is oriented to someone studying philosophy of mind and/or who has read some of Dennett’s prior work and/or has a large interest in Dennett’s work, and that is not most people (unfortunately). (I could see some students trying to use this as a high-level Coles, with varying degrees of success.)

For huge Dennett fans like myself though, it was an insightful and well-researched exploration of Dennett’s ideas from his thesis in the 1960s to approximately the year 2000. Elton presents a knowledgeable and sympathetic (and often charitable) interpretation of Dennett’s many views and covers the gamut from intentionality to consciousness to evolution and free will.

To paraphrase one reviewer of Daniel Dennett, after reading Dennett you often feel you have been convinced of something but are not sure exactly what it is. Consequently, I believe this work is quite helpful to understanding Dennett because his ideas are not only clarified and placed in context of other views, but also because when Dennett is less than clear, Elton offers interpretations or possibilities which advance Dennett’s line of thinking. After reading several instances of this, I thought about when certain perspectives/arguments become a combination of an initial source and an interpreter, and how an interesting discussion about the notion of authorship and ownership of ideas could be had (but not right now).

Elton excelled at discussing the main papers of The Intentional Stance, as well as his coverage of consciousness and in which he made certain distinctions of Dennett’s more explicit. For example, Elton demonstrates that Dennett could be clearer on consciousness, as he often mixes different types of awareness (which Elton helpfully splits it into behavioural awareness and narrative awareness). The coverage of evolution and DDI was decent but I was seeking more regarding meaning and other aspects of how important Darwin is to Dennett. Additionally, the coverage of Elbow Room and free will was adequate, but the depth of knowledge was not as great and his concerns were less compelling than in other sections.

Although I found it tough going at the beginning because of the large coverage on intentionality (my weakest link in the Dennett chain), it was very educational. One reiteration of Dennett’s perspective stuck in my head: Beliefs are features of the patterns that we observe when we adopt the intentional stance. Basically, intentionality is not so really an intrinsic feature of agents, but it is a way of looking at the world/agents.
Another useful piece of thinking that I took from Daniel Dennett is that I was reminded that one cannot truly explain beliefs using mechanistic processes because beliefs are a higher order phenomenon (visible from the intentional stance). If there is only mechanism, are their beliefs? The Churchlands say no, making them eliminativists, and Fodor says yes and they are representations, but Dennett says yes, but no; a view that is quite appealing (and obviously more complex than here described).

Those who have an interest in exploring one of the most significant philosophers of our time should try this out (but prior exposure to Dennett’s work and background philosophy of mind is recommended).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Genome by Matt Ridley

An excellent science book! Genome takes the form of 23 chapters, each of which represented a chromosome, with the content of each chapter based upon how a gene on that chromosome related to a larger topic of genetics, people or society. For example, some chapter titles are Disease, Intelligence, Personality, Death, Eugenics, Sex and Free Will.

The book succeeds because Ridley provides an appropriate amount of information such the reader will likely be as informed as they would like to be from such a general work, and could explore more if desired. Some chapters will seem fascinating, while others more verbose, but that is only because of the wide range of topics covered and readers will likely have variable interest in the topics presented.

Genome also succeeds because Ridley repeatedly presents a balanced view regarding the influence of genes in relation to the influence of culture and how our nurture influences our nature. He qualifies and expands upon what statements mean in a manner that most authors should, but few rarely do (see More Daughters). One would hope the silly false dichotomization (i.e., nature vs. nurture) that plagues many debates would finally be committed to the flames, but it seems to be fireproof and lives on; Genome assists in demonstrating why the bipolar rhetorical fight is fallacious and things are far more complex and nuanced.

I was worried the work would be outdated, as it was published in 1999 and it is a work on genetics, but my concerns were unnecessary as I found the material very interesting, historically important and foundation enough such that the passage of time would do little to diminish the worth of the content.

In sum, a reasoned and reasonable assessment of the genome and what genetics means for our species. Go read it.

A Few Tidbits:
-In an egalitarian society, genetics will hold sway over who succeeds.
-There may be IQ differences between the groups of blacks and whites, but this doesn’t mean it is genetic.
- Job rank is a better predictor of heart attack than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure (it is thought less control at work leads to greater stress, which increases likelihood of heart problems).
- Jewish people in America have used voluntary selective breeding to remove the incidence of genetic diseases (how ironic, but in another sense, predicatable).
- Parenting matters (much) less than genetics and culture regarding the personality of children.
- There is intense competition among genes and this leads to numerous tensions, including between the X and Y chromosome.
- The more older brothers one has, the more likely they are to be homosexual (but the percentage is still low).
- We have a lot less control than we think we do (but his coverage of Free Will could only be cursory at best).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What Do Women Want?

Great article in the NY Times Magazine about women and sexuality.
Bait: "No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered..."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Flatland by A Square (Edwin Abbot)

An endearing and illustrative parable about the how our physical existence limits ways of thought and being, which then leads to practices and beliefs that, while not arbitrary, are so influenced by such constraints that they lose generalizability and/or absolute validity. (Available here)

Plot: A square in a flat world gets a glimpse of three dimensions.
Part I: A description of Flatland, its ways and its peoples. I found this part necessary but dry and unexciting. Additionally, the pervasive subjection of women was unpleasant to read about (but also perhaps necessary, for instructive purposes).
Part II: A delightful description of encounters with other dimensions. This section is often amusing (especially the King of Lineland) and then eventually disheartening as the work reinforces the notion that those who try to enlighten will suffer.

If you can suspend your disbelief regarding how 2D objects could exist with perception and brains and eating, and are willing to slog through the first half, then I think a worthwhile tale about limitations and perspective awaits you.

Gödel’s Proof by Ernest Nagel & James Newman

An excellent little book that explains what Gödel did in a manner that is probably as accessible as possible without sacrificing too much important information.
That said, various parts required re-reading, and other parts require still further re-reading for me to feel as if I fully understand (the gist of what) what Gödel did mathematically.
In English, “Gödel proved that it is impossible to establish the internal logical consistency of a very large class of deductive systems –number theory for example – unless one adopts principles of reasoning so complex that their internal consistency is as open to doubt as that of the systems themselves.”

This was a very significant development in the 1930s as many thought that mathematical systems could be consistent and complex enough to do all the things one would want them to do. It is important to note that what is mainly discussed is the manipulation of symbols, not meaning. The authors quote “Russel’s famous epigram: pure mathematics is the subject in which we do not know what we are talking about, or whether what we are saying is true.”

How did Gödel manage to do all this? The main insight is that he realized that “typographical properties of long chains of symbols can be talked about in an indirect but perfectly accurate manner by instead talking about the properties of prime factorizations of large integers.”
Make sense? :P
I happily got to the point where I understand the above statement, but not the notions of the math (thus why re-readings are required). Further, the authors present a very simplified view of the whole thing which makes me feel even more mathematically ignorant and incompetent, as well as reinforce my decision to move away from esoteric math into the realm of people and ideas in my education.

I appreciated the discussion of mathematical vs. meta-mathematical statements and found the information about tautologies very useful (i.e., in Logic, a tautology is “defined as a statement that excludes no logical possibilities” and isn’t just some specious argument).

The book is also useful because the significance of what Gödel did, although valid, is often misplaced; far too many sophists have misappropriated the results and attempted to use Gödel as a way to invalidate math, science or A.I.

Finally, once again, I am impressed with Hofstadter, who edited and wrote a forward to this volume, as he first read Gödel’s Proof when he was 14. Then again, getting to talk to one of the original authors because your physicist father was friends with him would tend to give someone a leg up on understanding the complexities of Gödel’s Proof.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I can see how some would find this worthwhile, but I did not. I was seeking greater words of wisdom (even banal ones) with the insight and power of one approaching their end. Instead it was a collection of stories with little bits of generalized advice mixed in. I mainly wanted to read this because it was such a best-seller, and judging from the (over 800) reviews on Amazon, most were satisfied.
One’s thoughts on the work probably say more about themselves than the work itself, as the range on Amazon was quite large: Amazing; Trite; Inspirational; A waste of time; Pausch is brave; Pausch is an ego-maniac… etc.
(Perhaps I should have just watched the video.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Calling Sunday Morning

I’m at home, in Toronto, sort of in my room trying to sleep. There are various vague events happening around, the most peculiar of which is an old friend driving a large black truck that was flooded – literally – as water was gushing out of it in odd ways. There are people making noises but the one that reiterates and is most salient is that of the phone chirping to indicate it is low on batteries. I try to ignore it but it keeps happening. I start to wonder why my mother hasn’t just put the darn phone back on the charger because I’m tired and want to sleep. Half-asleep the phone keeps chirping preventing a deeper sleep.
Wait! That is my phone, in Ottawa… I’m actually half-asleep dreaming about being half-sleep!

I rarely remember the dreams I have (of which I think there are few), but it was fascinating to see how an external event could influence the inner ‘narrative’ in my dream. Brains are amazing things, aren’t they?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa.

Informative, but incautious. More Daughters was written because the authors were inspired to learn more about evolutionary psychology after they read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal; you should just read that book instead. It lot of the information is similar, but Wright's approach more appropriately describes the nuances of evolutionary psychology, while More Daughters is prone to sweeping generalizations that are mostly or likely true, but not all the time. The authors present a series of possible and plausible explanations for why people do what they do (i.e., nearly everything comes down to sexual competition), but all too often necessary qualifying remarks were absent.

This is unfortunate because the introduction and beginning of the book was excellent. They said all the right things about phenomena rarely being genetically or environmentally determined and that no one really thinks everything is genetically determined. More Daughters provided a useful description of both the naturalistic fallacy (inferring ought from is) and moralistic fallacy (inferring is from ought).

Many interesting facts are presented, such as 4-30% of married men are raising a child that isn’t theirs (it is implied they are unaware), that the birth ratio for parents who are engineers and who are nurses or teachers is very different (far more boys than usual and far more girls than usual, respectively), parents rarely kill their children, it is usually stepparents that kill stepchildren, and other ‘usual suspects’ of evolutionary psyc (men benefit more from monogamy, beauty is waist to hip ratio, all cultures have underlying similarities).

These facts are explained by an appeal to the idea that psychological mechanism developed in the brain in response to selection pressures when humans were living in smaller groups for hundreds of thousands of years. What matters most in evolution is whatever will make it more likely that your genes will survive; this is not contentious, it is simply a fact (and notice your happiness is not necessarily part of it).

More Daughters presents some purported reasons why men like blondes with blue eyes, but it isn’t fully convincing. Similarly, when it is explained that females gain more from beauty while males gain more from status and therefore beautiful people have more daughters, the actual mechanisms involved are not described. Consequently, and this happens repeatedly, one is left with the thought “If that is true, how does it work?”

One of the more interesting tidbits was a policy that Safeway instituted to try to increase customer satisfaction. Cashiers were instructed to look a customer in the eye after they purchase something and say something like “Thanks for shopping at Safeway, have a good day.” There were no problems when the cashier was male or when the cashier was female and the customer female, but when the cashier was female and the customer male many men began to pursue the female cashier thinking she was interested in them (i.e., they would call them at work or follow them). Eventually, female employees filed a lawsuit and the policy was changed. Now why would this be? Why do men assume a woman is interested when she might not be? The explanation is that it is simply about costs and benefits. If a woman is interested and a man doesn’t act upon it, he loses a chance to mate and produce offspring (way back when). But if a woman isn’t interested and he thinks she is, he just wastes a little time and has to endure rejection. The argument is that it is better to have the cost of being wrong than the cost of losing a chance to produce offspring (false positive vs. false negative). As you can see, that all seems to make sense, and it isn’t as if men are making conscious calculations (although some probably are) but one does wish for greater detail or specificity.
The false positive vs. false negative line of reasoning is also used to explain why people might believe in God; it is more adaptive to think an agent might be doing something than things just happening naturally (i.e., the rustling in the bush could be a predator, rival or the nothing, better to assume something).

While this book is probably best used as a review of general principles for someone experienced with evolutionary psychology (which is why it worked for me), it is not a successful introduction because (aside from the first few chapters) it can be misleading.

Other blog reviews/summaries:
Another Darren
Derek Miller
and the author Kanazawa dishonours himself (scroll down)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

"We understand that we are simply a mosaic of bits and pieces found in virtually everything else on the planet" - Shubin (from the book being reviewed, duh ;)

An entertaining and informative paleontological tour through the developmental history of your body. Shubin was part of the team that discovered fossilized remains of an intermediate stage in the evolutionary history of fish and mammals (later named Tectolic) and Your Inner Fish examines this finding as it relates to the fossils and bones of our anatomy and our evolutionary common ancestors. The book is broken down into various sections, so I'll share a few comments for nearly each section and then some concluding thoughts.

Teeth - It was interesting that so much can be learned just from the mechanisms of chewing and the degree of alignment in teeth. Also, that I was presented with a specific factor in the various arms races that occurred (teeth are good for eating, but bones make it harder, so stronger/sharper teeth...etc).

Head - A useful review of the cranial nerves and skull bones as well as embryonic development.

Body - How the basic layout (symmetry, limbs) is used for identification. Yes, your anus is at the back and that is a good thing. More detail about the development of an embryo (i.e., the pervasive three germ layers that lead to future body parts - endoderm, ectoderm, mesoderm). -imagine a house making itself with just the information in its bricks. Shubin describes the fascinating event of cellular coordination, whereby a series of innate tendencies and molecular signals and switches cause cellular organization. "Imagine a house making itself with just the information in its bricks."
Further, that genes that lead to certain structures can be spliced into other organisms and then that structure develops appropriate to that organism (and beyond) is not new information, but amazing.
Additionally, I found how bones attached and interacts with cartilage interesting. More incredible though was when he talked about bodies making tracks in the land for the first time. Of course this had to happen, but to think of some organism a few millimetres in size making a path in earth and then having that preserved... wow. (Not to say the fossil trace is of the first time, but as a matter of logic there was a first time).

Scent - The book discusses the genetic expression for detecting smells as well as how dolphins morphed a nasal passage into blowhole over time. There was an informative presentation of how the removal ("knocking out") of certain genes can result in less scent detection. Further, if this path of certain genes which were used for smell are then representation differently, in a way, we traded smell for sight.

Ear - Along with numerous others, apparently the middle bone of our ear is 'from' a fish as well. Why are you actually tipsy when tipsy? Alcohol diffuses into the gel in the tubes in the inner ear, and this chemical change creates a different series of signals, thus a feeling of disequilibrium. This also works in conjunction with your eyes which automatically stay on an object even as you move your head around (and this feature is inhibited if intoxicated). Finally, once the alcohol is out of your body, the inner ear system now has to change back, so there will be another (perhaps seemingly continuous) feeling of disequilibrium. The body is truly amazing.

The Meaning of it All - Shubin explains the nature of descent with modification by discussing the comparisons to be made with other organisms and observe a list of commonalities. The further back one goes in time (organisms appearing in time), the fewer commonalities there are.
I liked his brief classifying breakdown of organisms (with us in mind): (1) Multicellularity; (2) Body plan with a front and back and top and bottom and left right symmetry; (3) Skulls and backbones makes it a vertebrate; (4) Hands and feet make it a Tetrapod; (5) A three bone middle ear makes it a mammal (as well as other features) and (6) A bipedal gait and large brains makes it us. All of this is reflected in the fossil record.
Your Inner Fish also briefly discusses how we have problems due to our parts and how we evolved. Our body was 'built' for an active lifestyle and is it hard to resist the pull of sweets and fats. Similar reasons are given for hemorrhoids, sleep apnea and hiccups. This last of which is thought to be highly related to gill breathing in tadpoles in terms of anatomy.

My final thoughts
We are stuff, a staggering complicated combination of amazingly diverse, physical, stuff. Isn't it incredible?! It boggles the mind (and the book led me to appreciate my skeleton :)

[I'm also pondering the viability an analogy I came up while finishing the book: Using the observation of societal happenings and processes (traffic, construction, business operations, activities in malls) as an indication of what is happening inside me in a space smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.]

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Worthwhile. Common Sense was a pamphlet written by Paine (but published anonymously at the time) during the American Revolution. It is basically an argument for independence and the rejection of monarchical rule.

Why I enjoyed it is that his tone and language were just so strident and impassioned. It is rare these days to read or hear someone speaking for justice or a cause and actually believe them sincere and reasoned instead of hyperbolic and disingenuous. Although the issue was (and is) very serious, I could not help but laugh at times because of how severe he was (an excellent audiobook reader likely caused this effect).

Wikipedia covers the whole work as well as most of the arguments, so I’ll just say I found it interesting that he committed two logical fallacies in his mostly reasoned discussion: (1) Paine committed the naturalistic fallacy at least twice when he described how the current relationship between Britain and America did not reflect what was seen in nature; and (2) that he committed the appeal to authority fallacy by using the Bible to illustrate how American should be independent and people should not be ruled by a King.
Of course, these are two of the main areas to which people defer, then and now, so if agreement is the goal of a discussion, then one must communicate to an audience in a way that achieves the greatest likelihood of their conversion to your belief. I do wonder if Paine actually thought such fallacious appeals were valid or just used them strategically.

Additionally, the large content on the size of Britain’s navy and the potential size of an American one reminded me of just how important naval dominance was for much of human history (and still plays a significant role now).

Finally, this short work certainly makes one appreciate that they do not live under a monarch (in practice).

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Mostly enjoyable and worthwhile overall, but not as good as White Teeth or On Beauty. The main character was less likeable and less intriguing, as was the subject matter, compared to her other works. I found the final third or quarter was the best because of more anticipation/suspense and some well written lines (perhaps even that the book would soon be done?).

Saturday, January 03, 2009

One of the many casualties of the war on terror

“For some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror.”
- Alberto Gonzales

For some reason? These people should offer themselves up as psychological subjects for the study of self-deception and abnormal personality disorder.
(I really shouldn't be surprised, but I still am a little.)

Christian Gene Found!

Friday, January 02, 2009

From Poverty to Power by Oxfam (Duncan Green)

Fantastic! From Poverty to Power is a highly readable, informative and comprehensive introductory assessment of how active citizens and effective states can make the world a better place. Oxfam’s publication covers the main areas of Power and Politics, Poverty and Wealth, Risk and Vulnerability and The International System. In these sections you shall find diverse and interesting content related to poverty, rights, equality, climate change, development aid, global financial institutions, North/South issues, illustrative case studies and inspirational events (this is a non-exhaustive list of course). FP2P provides sufficient detail to gain a decent understanding of the myriad issues in international development, but does not overwhelm as it uses case-studies and presents topics clearly, allowing more interested readers to go beyond a basic introduction and broader their knowledge if they desire. I especially liked Part 5 (The International System) as it contained more topics of interest: World Bank, IMF, cost/benefits of development aid, and especially the comparison of Sachs, Easterly and Collier.

A very useful reference guide that is most suitable for novices, still useful for enthusiasts, but probably not so much for mavens.

Download for free or Buy

The Informative Nature of Headlines

From a BCC newsfeed: