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I Want My Jetcar! May 31, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.

When I was a kid in the 1950’s, futurists were proclaiming that soon we would each have our own personal jetcar (or jetpack–remember The Jetson’s!) This thought sparked my enthusiasm for the future, as I trudged 1 1/2 miles through snow to get to school.Sci-fi writer Charlie Stross explains why it didn’t happen. Throughout the 20th Century, rapid advances in travel speed encouraged the thought that progress in hurtling through space was unlimited, so futurists projecting current trends predicted jetcars for everyone. Little did we know that by 1970 the rate of improvements in transportation speed would plummet. So much for the jetcar, a disappointment from which I have never quite recovered.

So what does Stross predict will be in today’s future? Lifelogs!

Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that’ll be 100Gb. Two decades and we’ll be up to 10Tb.

10Tb is an interesting number. That’s a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That’s enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I’m awake. All the time. It’s a life log; replay it and you’ve got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it’s actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)

Why would anyone want to do this?

I can think of several reasons. Initially, it’ll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it’d be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it’s a memory prosthesis.

Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it’s all indexed and searchable. “What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?”

Think of it as google for real life.

Total personal history, 24/7, at your fingertips! But there is something wrong with this picture, as early 20th Century French philosopher Henri Bergson points out:

Suppose then, we imagine a mind always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to ourselves a certain in-born lack of elasticity of both sense and intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to say what is no longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present. (From An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic)

Ahh. We will be able to watch ourselves watching the past, watching the past, watching the past…

I want my jetcar!!!


For Fans of John Rawls May 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Political Philosophy.
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Here is a fascinating discussion of Rawls’ senior undergraduate thesis and his early views on religion. It makes you think about how quirky and idiosyncratic the trajectory of intellectual development can be.

 (Rawls is perhaps the most highly regarded political philosopher of the 20th Century.)

Speechless! May 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.

I have become accustomed to the stupidity and mendaciousness of our current administration, but I have no words to describe this.

One would think if you were going to enable the immiseration of most the planet, you owe its inhabitants a reason.

Update: Should anyone be swayed by our dear leader’s “plan”, announced Thursday, to confront global climate change, perhaps skepticism is in order.

Your Story, Your Identity May 22, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

 The most e-mailed article today in the New York Times was, to my delight, this one: “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).”  Narrative psychologists have, after years of making assumptions, finally got it down: (1) We actually do tell our own story, and (2) it actually matters to us. Studies, described in detail in the article, show that similar personalities tend to tell similar stories, and our stories often involve a learning experience, projecting us into the future. The narrative capacity is a fundamental human feature. Why am I delighted? For one thing, I’m glad psychologists have done the legwork here, substantiating claims that otherwise belonged to the realm of speculation, and I’m also glad that readers find it interesting. But what I hope we philosophers will point out to the narrative psychologists is that narrative philosophy has been doing the speculative work for years, coming to the same conclusions by way of analysis and observation. Alasdair MacIntyre, Wayne Booth, Paul Ricoeur and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have, each with their own perspective, weighed in on the importance of story-telling. In particular Paul Ricoeur, in his book Oneself as Another, has focused on the morally fortifying and even liberating capacity of humans to mold their lives by treating their life events as elements of a story they are co-authoring. Two directions in narrative philosophy come together in Ricoeur’s work: The ontological and the ethical: We understand ourselves existentially through stories, but it also becomes a moral imperative to do so, in order to give our life direction, to rectify what we may have done wrong, and to gain a perspective on our lives. In addition, we change the story as we change, and we even tell different stories, depending on the context. When, on a first date, the moment comes when you are asked to “tell something about yourself,” you’d better have a story to tell, or the date is a wash-out right there…but it isn’t the same story that you would tell in a job interview, is it? This is why Ricoeur talks about narrative unity, striving not only to be able to tell our own story, but also to make sure the story fragments we tell are somehow all reflecting our true self, even the ones where we embellish somewhat. (It is a separate but interesting question how much lying to oneself, about oneself, matters to one’s sense of identity…the movie Memento comes to mind…) Philosophers and psychologists don’t necessarily converse a lot these days, but I find it encouraging that these studies converge: From narrative psychology we now have the stats—from narrative ethics we already have the normative perspective. So let’s all practice telling our own story from time to time, even in the third person. Do it too much, and you’re a narcissist…do it once in a while, and you’ll learn things about yourself that you never knew…

Replies to my correspondents, Dwight, David, Amy, Evan, and Nina, commentors on my “May Liberalism Be Hostile to Religion?” May 20, 2007

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Political Philosophy.

I thank each correspondent.  Here are my replies to all (Thea and Charlette having been previously responded to) in order of receipt:

Dwight: I don’t think it is “hostility toward religion” to limit religion as Liberalism tries to.  Your “religious person [who] sees herself as bound to obey a set of overriding obligations imposed on her by God” is not the target of Liberalism’s limits on religious expression.  We want to restrict not her, a citizen in the private domain of the liberal society, and possessed of speech and religion rights, but persons in their public roles in the other, the public domain.  Thus, judges and legislators are to know that their religious duties are irrelevant to the discharge of their public offices –decider of cases or lawmaker.  But the citizen you instanced is not so restrained.   She has every right to her beliefs, and to cross the police line around the comatose Terri Schiavo’s hospital room in an attempt to bring the dying woman water.  The police, on the other hand, have a duty to arrest her when she does.  But no lawmaker and no judge and no chief executive may say, “I know the Supreme Court has said that Ms. Schiavo has a right to have her husband, Michael, represent her interests, and that he has said she would not want to live like this, but my God (Bible, church) disagrees, and this overrides our normal duty to obey the law.”  It is interesting to notice the actual result in that case: the nation acquiesced in the liberal notion of constitutional supremacy and hints of support for a theocratic solution did not catch on.  That was a success story for Liberalism, I should have thought.  

 David: No one would dispute your statement that “not all [people] are reasonable.”  “Reasonable” is a technical term in liberal political philosophy, especially with the late John Rawls (see his The Law of Peoples, Harvard, 1999).  Perhaps the term mainly means “the citizen’s disposition to act reciprocally,” or to offer “fair terms of social cooperation among equals” (Rawls, 87).  So, I cannot lie to you unless I am prepared to allow you to lie to me.  If a person or group repudiates reciprocity, she/he/it is not being reasonable and forfeits its right to the liberal society’s toleration.  So, as to your “religious group’s operational procedures [of] walking onto buses with women and children with the intent of murdering them in the name of their religion,” they do indeed “forfeit their rights and freedom” as you say.  But, Liberalism entirely agrees: Their principle will fail the reciprocity test.  We don’t have to tolerate them.  But Liberalism cannot accept your willingness to deprive of their protected rights any religion “as a whole” based upon what a “small percentage of the group” believes and acts on.  The liberal idea forbids guilt by association.

Amy: Your formulation of what I called above the liberal principle of “reciprocity” is a helpful instance of the principle: Beliefs and actions that don’t infringe on anyone else’s well being or right to their own lifestyle.  Would you agree to add “if and only if” as standing between the two disjuncts?  If so,  I think you’ve captured, in your own words, the essence of the principle.

 Evan: As I’ve suggested above, the principle of killing fails the test of reciprocity, and is thus unreasonable on its face.  No liberal society need suffer it, therefore.  The “right” we have to use the coercive power of the state in suppression of such things is not one likely to be seriously contested.  Moreover, we are entitled to hope for and duty-bound to pursue suitable discourse with such people and groups in the possibility that the reasonable view could come to be their own eventually.  Meantime, we must restrain them and defend ourselves by constitutional means.

Nina: You raise one of the most difficult questions about the moral theory of liberalism as per Kant and Rawls.  How, indeed, can tolerance quarrel with intolerance other than calling it unreasonable?  I tried to deal with that during my 2005 Occasional Lecture Series talk at Mesa as you’ll recall — but I didn’t do a good job of it.  There are people who would  assert, “Prevail over whomever you have to power to.”  Liberalism condemns that as unreasonable.  Perhaps what liberals like Kant and Rawls mean by the term is that, because the above imperative cannot be reciprocated, because it is unfair, there is something about the human reason that finds it impossible.  Not logically impossible.  Impossible to will while still being what we are: a being that has the natural inclination to want to cooperate fairly, and a capacity for the suppression of self interest for a principle.  If one hasn’t felt the pull of that, there is a sense in which he or she is not fully a person.  (Don’t we sometimes institutionalize such a being?)  There are limits, as Kant tried to show, to our understanding.  And, as the suggestive fragments of the pre-Socratics sometimes hinted at.  Thus Heraclitus: “The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of justice, will find him out.”  Perhaps what Kant meant is like that: The reason is limited in the principles it can agree to.  The principle urging dominance based only on power is beyond the limit.  If there is anything to this in a way that isn’t question-begging, it may help explain an important element in the liberal idea.  

All The World is a Stage May 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy, Teaching.

In “The Prestige”, a film about two 19th Century magicians competing for prestige, we learn that a successful magic trick contains three elements: the Pledge, in which the magician shows us something ordinary yet hints at an impending mystery; the Turn, in which the ordinary is made to do something extraordinary while the atmosphere grows thick with suspense; and the Prestige, the final act, in which we are led to see something shocking that we have never seen before.

Isn’t this how we teach philosophy? We take an ordinary concept that everyone takes for granted and we hint at a deep problem. We then make the concept disappear, dismantling the scaffolding that holds an idea in place, as our students anxiously wonder how something so obvious and necessary could be so doubtful. Finally, through a serious of logical maneuvers and much handwaving that must look like magic to our students, we make it reappear in a new guise, with the promise that it might disappear again if you come back tomorrow.

As the end of the semester approaches, I suspect that the trick is getting old.

May Liberalism Be Hostile to Religion? May 16, 2007

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Political Philosophy.

“Atheism Cures Religious Terrorism”

— Bumper sticker observed in San Diego, 2007

I think that one attitude suggested by the above bumper sticker is probably this: Reasonable people should oppose religion because it spawns religious terrorism.  If some liberals are tempted to cheer on that view I would proffer a caution against it.  Not because religion is never associated with terror, of course.  On the contrary.  And not because religion is true (we cannot know that), or a necessary condition of morality.  Rather, because liberals must remember what fidelity to the concept of liberalism amounts to.

Liberalism implies the tolerant society and its companion idea, reasonable pluralism.

A tolerant pluralism will have to consider the place of religions.  These meet a need: The nothingness that preceded and will almost certainly follow our brief surfacing in the stream of time demands consolation.  (This remains broadly true even though some people are proudly Promethean on the point.  They heap scorn on that fate that makes ashes of all our hopes.  With Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, false comfort they disdain.)  Further, regret over our losses, our suffering, demands meaning, which must contain two parts: the first is an explanation for why things happen as they do; the second, a telos, a specification of the goal or end toward which everything is tending.  Religion, by giving life meaning in these senses, provides that comfort for our suffering, that explanation for why things happen as they do, and the specification of that final purpose which is the point of all the building up and eventual tearing down.  The sound and fury do not signify nothing.  This contribution of religion does not cease to be salient when religion’s periodic association with terrorism (and other wrongful acts) is noticed.  The society of justice does not have to tolerate any religion that endorses or encourages violence and is unreasonable.  So, pluralism and tolerance imply tolerance of religions, or at least those that will be reasonable.

To summarize: Religion services human need.  Institutions responsive to need will demand a place in modern pluralistic societies.  The just society will require that the tolerable place-holders in the civil society limit their own theological imperatives (their “laws”) to the direction and assuagement of their particular devotees; and agree that the binding law backing public policy in the democracy is to be formulated according to the constitution subsisting and demanding allegiance quite apart from their own bible or church.  The law of religion cannot be the law of the state, and if the religion agrees, it is deemed reasonable and takes its place at the constitutional society’s table.  At that point, liberals have a duty, I would argue, to tolerate religions, at least those that accept pluralism as a fact about the modern world and practice toleration accordingly.  So, if liberalism entails tolerant pluralism, and pluralism leads to tolerance of those religions loyal to the constitution, liberalism must tolerate religion.  If the San Diego bumper sticker suggests otherwise, then, though it may bring a smile to the lips of some who think of themselves as progressive, it may do an inadvertant disservice to the liberal cause. 

Philosopher’s Carnival May 15, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy.
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Philosopher’s Carnival showcases the best blog posts devoted to philosophy (among those submitted). It happens every three weeks.

Here is the latest.

Mothers Can’t be Outsourced May 13, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Ethics.
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Debates about trade policy and protecting American jobs have been raging among blogging economists.(See here and here) The importance of this debate cannot be exaggerated. Given the enormous supply of cheap labor coming on line from newly emerging economies, the future of the American economy may rest on getting this right.

Some argue that we should hold our trading partners to higher environmental and labor standards or increase tariffs on their imports. This would raise their costs, help U.S. manufacturers to compete, and make the outsourcing of U.S. jobs less enticing.

Other economists argue that this would set off inflation and harm the American consumer, our economy, and ultimately American workers. Instead, we should focus resources on retraining displaced workers and generating new jobs.

But retrain them to do what? What new jobs will be immune to outsourcing?

Even some die-hard, free market fundamentalists are worried that the lure of cheap labor overseas may overwhelm anything we can do to create new jobs, and few industries will be immune. As economist Alan Blinder writes, “30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs are potentially offshorable. These include scientists, mathematicians and editors on the high end and telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end.”  Apparently, even the job of reporting on local city council meetings can be outsourced. 

So what to do? Perhaps its just because its mother’s day, but it seems to me part of the solution is obvious. Why not pay mothers and other caretakers (fathers, children caring for aged parents, etc.) for the work they do? Salary.com estimates the value of a full-time mom is $138,095. The monetary value of a second-shift mom (the shift that begins after the day job ends) is $85,939. This is a stunning example of how, despite all the bleating about family values, we undervalue care work. (For more on the care crisis see this)

Compensating care workers will not prevent jobs from going overseas, but it will protect families from a catastrophic loss of income due to fluctuations in the labor market. Importantly, care work is one of the few jobs that cannot be outsourced since it is dependent on face to face interaction.

Implementing such a proposal will require a wholesale shift in our attitudes toward care work including how we measure outputs and inputs. But economist Michael Lewis has some thoughts about making the numbers add up.

Perhaps mom has the solution to one of the most pressing social/political/economic problems this country faces. “Thanks mom for all you do” may take on a whole new meaning.

King of Breakfast Beers? May 12, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Food and Drink.
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Philosophers and other academics tend to take ideas and arguments and push them to their limits. This is a virtue because it allows us to discover how much work an idea can do.

So I really admire this guy.

But after all is said and done, bottom line, Budweiser is just not very good.