Monday, February 27, 2017

The Nature of (Chalmers') Reality

A conversation with David Chalmers on the nature of reality -- real and virtual.

A Vision of Care

The one and only George Lakoff - always worth paying attention to. His recommendation: Oppose Trump's specter of "Authority" with a vision of "Care"...

"Fortunately, not all conservatives are total conservatives — by no means. Many are “moderate,” which means that they have some progressive views. Many conservatives show in-group care: care for their own church members, or military units, or community groups, or neighbors. When you talk with conservatives, as you should, find out where they express their care — what they are most proud of for helping others selflessly. And then keep talking with them about arenas where they are committed to a life of care. They are your fellow citizens after all."

The Big Sort

Drezner asks:
"The Great Conservative Sorting has begun. Let’s see who falls where."

My prediction:
49% hypocrites
49% fools
2% principled conservatives invested in ideas

Alternative Fact

In God's Name

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Got a new and interesting coin after many months. A silver "adli" issued by the infamous Muhammad bin Tughlaq, second king of the Tughlaq dynasty. He ruled almost all of India (with the notable exception of Bihar, Orissa and coastal South India) from 1325 to 1351. A religious zealot and unabashed despot, he presided over many disasters - most notably his attempt to move the capital of the Sultanate from Delhi to Deogiri (Daulatabad) in the middle of the country. He is also known for issuing coinage with fiat value. He minted copper and bronze coins which, by decree, had the value of gold and silver coins. The coins bore Qur'anic injunctions to obey the ruler, presumably to encourage acceptance of the new coinage. Predictably, everyone with access to copper and bronze quickly began issuing their own coins and reaping the benefits. Fine jewelry and metalwork was mainly an occupation of Hindus at the time, and Barani writes that "Every Hindu's house became a mint". Like the moving of the capital, the Sultan had to abandon this experiment within a few years.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq is also famous as the king who hosted Ibn Battuta during his time and India, and whose despotic actions caused the famous traveler to flee in secret, first to the coast of Malabar and then on to Serandip (Sri Lanka).

This coin, also an innovation for that time, is called an "adli", and is made of silver. Like most of Muhammad bin Tughlaq's coins, it has extensive Islamic inscriptions, including the full shahadah on one side. Though he was not the only Indian king to use Islamic inscriptions, he used them more than anyone. I often wonder what the non-Muslim populace of India thought about these coins as they used them over the centuries.
Interestingly, it was Aurangzeb who systematically discontinued the practice of putting Islamic inscriptions on coins, though it had begun to decline after Akbar, who was rather fond of putting "Allah-u Akbar" ("God is Great", or. alternatively "God is Akbar") on his coins

'America First'?

 From the annals of lost memories, a brief and sobering history of the phrase "America First". But perhaps the history hasn't been forgotten at all....

Morality and Polarization

Thoughtful piece by John Holbo on the psychology of morality and the confusions of Haidt. Ultimately, all this arises from the fact that psychological theories of personality and morality are (ultimately) linguistic frameworks for organizing facts, and not grounded in physical reality. In fact, it isn't even clear if such grounding is possible. This does not make such ideas useless - far from it - but it is like science being done in terms of the four elements and the four humors.

I think we should have a theorem saying that all rational arguments must eventually devolve into paradox. Or perhaps Goedel and Russell already said that.....

Apocalypse No More?

Daniel Drezner writes insightfully about the "end of the American apocalypse narrative". Interesting even if he turns out to be wrong.

Our Little Ancestors...

Science discovers that life is a conspiracy between Thor and Loki.... Fascinating!

The Conscience of a Conservative - Take Two

Peter Wehner writes: "Why I Cannot Fall in Line Behind Trump". Let's see how long this dedication endures....

The First Time as Farce

Laughing for Crying

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By Mike Luckovich

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From the New Yorker

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From the New Yorker

Darkness at Noon

The beginning of the rest of American history! But apparently no one showed up!

A view of the National Mall during Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009 and for Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. Photos by Reuters and Pool Camera. Image has been updated to include time taken.

Ma Knows Best

Alibaba founder Jack Ma dissects the follies of America in recent decades.

In the Paths of Humanity

Unraveling Trump

Riveting insight into the character of Donald Trump and his prospects as president as laid out by three of his biographers. This truly gives me great hope.

"The only things that have kept him awake at night historically are money, sex, food, and revenge. And if you take those things out of the mix, it’s not like he ponders the deeper meaning of life. I don’t think he feels that he’s not up to this task."

For Richer and Poorer

A lot of good, interesting data in this article on how many elite college students come from rich and poor backgrounds. WashU has the largest imbalance of students from rich and poorer families (in favor of the rich). MIT is among the most balanced. The data also shows that going to a highly selective college helps greatly in overcoming economic differences in background.

Into the Swamp

"Truth in the Age of Trump". A great piece by Eliot Cohen. For a moment, I thought it could be Hitchens....

For all those willing to go into the swamp of the Trump enterprise, the stench will not wash off easily. Unfortunately, we may all have to wait a long time before the air is safe to breathe again.

Mind-Reading Apes

It's really cool that apes may have a theory of mind....

Is AI Sexist?

"Is AI Sexist?" asks Erika Hayasaki. A long and interesting look at a complex problem. IMO, there's no way to separate AI from prejudices. To be intelligent requires prejudices. The most we can hope for is that the prejudices will mostly be harmless.

Whither, America?

"America, America" by Jonathan Kirshner - longer than it needs to be, but more or less a realistic analysis of where things are likely to go in the Age of Trump:

"There is no happy ending to this story. It is not “just one election.” Yes, in theory, most domestic policy blunders can be reversed at a future date. But best case scenario, brace yourself for a horrifying interregnum. The fantasy that the Republican Congress might serve as a check on Trump’s power is just that — a fantasy. Congress does have considerable authority, but mostly regarding those things that they agree with Trump about: slashing taxes on the wealthy, gutting environmental regulations, pretending climate change doesn’t exist, overturning Obamacare, appointing very conservative judges. Moreover, the internet culture is not going away, so don’t imagine that there is a silver lining to be gleaned from the looming policy disasters that we will all suffer through. If enough people enjoy watching the reality TV of the Trump Presidency, they will renew it for another four years. Nor should it be assumed that the Democratic Party, flat on its back, is poised for a comeback. The American left has its own deep divisions to tend to — largely along generational lines, as the young and the old articulate very different interpretations of the core principles of liberalism — which will not be easily papered over."

All the Art That's Fit to Show

Here are my own paintings that I have around the house.... in the order of painting. The seascape was painted in 1981, the most recent finished in 2017! Ten reasonable paintings in 36 years - not bad! Of course, there were also many that are best kept under wraps.

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Countown to ... Doom?

Is it 1934 in America yet? Sam Wang suggests some ways to avoid hurtling towards disaster....

The Reader-in-Chief

President Obama on what books mean to him. A reading president is a wise president!

via Ahmed Asif.

Eyes Everywhere!

My latest painting is done after almost two years - though not too many hours!
Inspired by the great Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir's line:

chashm ho to aayina-khaana hae dehr
munh nazar aatay haeN deevaaroN ke beech

(If one has an eye (with true vision), the whole world is a hall of mirrors; faces are visible (everywhere) amidst the walls)

The first line is written into the painting on the lower right.

The Adjacent Possible

New research on how innovations arise - truly one of the most interesting things I have read lately, not least because I have been working on exactly these issues for a while now. Steve Strogatz, one of the researchers on this work, is among the most insightful researchers in the area of complex systems. I recommend his fantastic popular-press book, "Sync", to anyone interested in how interesting phenomena emerge in complex systems. The book is several years old now, but as relevant as ever. And there's no one better than Strogatz at explaining complex ideas.

Why the West Kept Winning

Big history is always interesting, even if mostly wrong ....

A multi-perspective response to the interesting question: "Why did the West dominate history for so long?" One has to wonder about the past tense here, as well as the notion that any one civilization truly dominated world history. A lot of things were happening to other people at the same time, even if Europeans were mostly oblivious.

Built to Last?

Chait has an optimistic take on Obama's legacy. I hope he's right. What I think is that Trump will mangle a lot of Obama's legacy, but process will also mangle the Republican Party a lot. In the end, the only legacy left will be Trump's legacy of Banana Republic USA.

It is true that Obama wove his legacy into the fabric of America more thoroughly than many -- including I -- gave him credit for. Perhaps it will prove hard to destroy. But I am all too mindful of the fact that destruction typically requires no imagination....

Things Fall Apart...

"Is Europe Disintegrating?" - a thoughtful piece by Timothy Garton Ash on Europa Agonistes.

Alas! Istanbul

 Four great cities embodied power in the vibrant Islamicate civilization of the Middle East: Damashq (Damascus), Baghdad, Al-Qahira (Cairo), and Qunstuntiniyya (Constantinople). Must all of them be ruined before the Specter of History is satisfied? Or does it also have its eye on Shiraz and Isfahan?

Predictions for 2017

The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time

In "`America First' and Global Conflict Next", Nouriel Roubini explains why Trump is exactly the wrong president for the US to have in today's world. We'll just have to hold our breath and hope he shuffles off the stage before irretrievable damage is done. I am increasingly pessimistic about that. I think that, for several reasons, the US is entering an extended "banana republic" phase. Trump is just the catalyst for that. There is, of course, no historical precedent for a global superpower making such a transition. All the examples given - Greece, Rome, the Soviet Union - are very different. This will truly be a new phase in world history. Interesting times!

Rediscovering Old English

Ye hdyctionarie off Olde Englysshe! It is impossible not to admire -- and to be a bit envious of -- such a delicious dedication.

Celebrating Natural Stupidity

I have been reading "The Undoing Project", Michael Lewis' gripping story of the collaboration between Daniel Khnemann and Amos Tversky, which revolutionized our understanding of decision-making and risk. In addition to the insights scattered throughout the book, the book also includes many of the witty aphorisms that Tversky was famous for, such as when he told the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, "Murray, no one is as smart as you think you are!"

One that I think is particularly profound (and close to home), is Tversky saying: "My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity."

Not only is it funny, it is also something that those of us working in AI need to pay attention to. Most of us take it for granted that the goal of AI is to build machines that can reason better, integrate more data, make more rational decisions. What the work of Kahnemann and Tversky shows us is that this is not how people (or animals) function. If the goal in artificial intelligence is to replicate human capabilities, we should also be considering the natural stupidity of our machines. Of course, one also has to think of what Kahnemann calls "thinking fast and slow", that is, the existence of an intuitive "fast thinking" system, and a more rational "slow thinking" system. There is much more to be said about this, and I hope to write about that at greater length soon....

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in anything interesting

Rules are for Philosophers

"All 20 Rules for History of Philosophy" for the inveterate travelers of these rocky lands....

The Secrets of Pax Romana

In "The Price of Peace" - her review of Adriab Goldsworthy's book "Pax Romana: War, Peace, and Conquest in the Roman World", Daisy Dunn summarizes many lessons that today's empire-builders may well learn from...

A Quantum of Trouble?

When Steven Weinberg sees "The Trouble with Quantum Mechanics", one has to take notice. Thoughtful and readable, as always, though as my friend Samir Chopra points out, Weinberg should acknowledge David Bohm's approach to quantum problems.

(Mis)Reading Rumi

So Rumi has been culturally appropriated?

Good points in this article ("The Erasure of Islam from Rumi's Poetry", but the author (or her editor) needs to learn the difference between "prescription" and "proscription". Also, I don't know how much influence Rumi and Hafez have had historically on Muslims outside of the Persian-literate populations in Iran, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and South Asia. Have Arabs and Indonesians traditionally read Rumi?

I have been a fan of Coleman Barks' devotion to Rumi but not so much of his translations. In addition to the issue raised by this article, I find them shallower than the original. Modernizing should not mean lobotomizing. And Rumi needs less "modernization" than any classical Persian poet; much of what he said is truly universal and timeless.

Deplorable in Rural America

 Understanding the deplorables! Perhaps Hillary was right after all...

A journalist from rural America explains that his peers like Donald Trump because they are ignorant, misinformed, prejudiced jerks who have no faith in humanity and are incapable of learning. With advocates such as this, rural America needs no disparagers.

Appropriate(d) Culture

"Safety Pins and Swastikas". This Jacobin piece is well worth reading. Like most things in life, the left-right spectrum is a circle rather than a line - or perhaps a Moebius strip!

"Cultural appropriation" can be a real issue in some cases, but its rampant application is utterly counterproductive. There would be no culture without cultural appropriation.

Seeing Red!

"The Bug That Had the World Seeing Red". A fascinating history of the world's favorite color....

The Future of Democracy?

This interview with Parag Khanna is something else! It's seldom that you see so many bad ideas in the same short interview. Government by committee? Yikes!

The meta-level point, though, is a good one: Government structures should evolve faster than they do in today's democracies. We are far too invested in tradition and the founding vision to look creatively at government. Government is almost like another religion, which is exactly what it should not be.

Visualizing World Trade in History

And What Rough Beast ...

"Putin's Real Long Game" - definitely comes from a certain perspective (what doesn't?), but is well worth reading. Probably the clearest analysis of the new geopolitical reality that I have seen, though an incomplete one:
"As the definitions of war and peace have blurred, creating impossibly vast front lines and impossibly vague boundaries of conflict, Putin has launched a kind of global imperialist insurgency. The Kremlin aggressively promotes an alternate ideological base to expand an illiberal world order in which the rights and freedoms that most Americans feel are essential to democracy don’t necessarily exist. It backs this up with military, economic, cultural and diplomatic resources. Through a combination of leveraging hard power and embracing the role of permanent disruptor — hacker, mercenary, rule-breaker, liar, thief — Putin works to ensure that Russia cannot be excluded from global power."

How Much Democracy Can You Take?

"Democracy - Too Much of a Good Thing" - Delicious stuff written back when it was still possible to have academic arguments about Trump.

While Fuller's critique is both thought-provoking and impractical, I must say that Sullivan's response at the end of this piece is head-bangingly idiotic, which is something I didn't expect from him.

In Praise of the Media (by the media)

This editorial gets many things right, such as the paragraph quoted below, but there are also some things that are not being addressed. Among the most important is that, in today's media environment (and probably throughout history), lies can be much more attractive than the truth. Lies have infinite scope and can be tailored to appeal or persuade; the truth is stuck with reality, however unattractive or inconvenient it may be. As such, those claiming to be the guardians of truth cannot afford to give lies any deference at all. A lie not called out in time is tomorrow's article of faith. 

But this much is true:
"If facts don't exist, the world is in a hell of a pickle. So let's celebrate that, across Canada and around the world, there are buildings filled with people who stake their living – and even their lives; 74 journalists were killed in 2016, according to Reporters Without Borders – on the counterproposition. Without a set of norms and principles that are defended vigilantly and in a non-partisan way, societies can fall apart. Liberal democracy depends on a healthy free press closely watching our increasingly large and complex governments. The media, digging up what politicians, CEOs and bureaucrats would rather you not know, or saying things that those in power would prefer were not said, are an indispensable mechanism for ensuring an informed public."

Science that deserves more ...

 The has a fascinating compilation of scientific ideas that deserve to be more widely known.

The cancer "seed and soil hypothesis". Leading cancer researcher Dr. Azra Raza on what people need to understand better about cancer. The other pieces in the series are also fascinating!
Via Abbas Raza