Aug 9, 2017

Looking forward to my bionic future

At nearly 75 I’ve never broken a bone. I still have all my body parts. Well, almost all. There’s that foreskin, plus some disposables like hair and nails. And come to think of it, I did have a torn meniscus cleaned up arthroscopically. So there’s that. And then there were those wisdom teeth and another tooth that I didn’t take care of—gone. And some holes in other teeth. Do those count?
So maybe I haven’t done as well as I first thought. But I’ve still got my appendix and my tonsils and my prostate and gall bladder, which is more than some people who I know can say.
Now I’m looking at something a bit more significant: a new knee. The technology (I’m getting a “mass customized” Conformis knee) is interesting. (You can see their “Image to implant” process here.) TL;DW: They did a CAT scan from ankle to knee and will build my knee based on the imaging. Also, they will 3D print a bunch of jigs so that they can do the work quickly, and with precision.
The whole thing is cool when I’m thinking about it conceptually. But then there’s reality. There’s always reality! And the reality does not look quite so cool. I found a video of a total knee replacement online. Not so bad when they’re just talking. OK, when the surgeon pulls out his scalpel and slices through skin and muscle. But then the real stuff happens. Cutting stuff to expose the patella. Slicing bone off the back of the patella. Drilling holes in the femur. With a fucking drill. Slicing bone away. Argh. You probably don’t have time to watch the whole video, but you can jump around and get the idea.
They’re going to do that with my knee. Looks like not fun. Glad I will be feeling no pain. Initially, anyway.
To offset, I’ve watched a few videos done by “patient ambassadors.” They’re all delighted with their new knees. There’s a guy with a double replacement back to playing basketball. I don’t think I’m getting there—not without my second knee, and maybe both hips, and an ankle or two. But it’s something to look forward to.
That’s the thing. I’m looking forward to it. I mean, really, how many choices do I have? I can look backward. Fun sometimes. I can avoid looking. Not my style. Or I can look forward. And there’s my bionic knee. In my future. I look forward, and that’s what I see.
I wrote previously about being a cyborg. Now I’m going to be bionic. What’s next, I wonder?

Aug 8, 2017

Create, create, create

In this podcast, Sam Harris and David Deutsch discuss Sam's theory of morality, as presented in his book "The Moral Landscape." I haven't read Sam's book, but Deutsch has. He agrees with Harris on many things but differs from Harris about creating a moral foundation, and reasoning from there. Deutsch is skeptical of any such foundation. In his view, errors are always possible and the project of rationality includes error correction. "How can there be a limit on the size of a mistake we can make?" he asks.

Here's a part of their discussion that I found particularly interesting (my quotes start at 1:23:38):
Deutsch: The only thing that actually makes you happy is actually creating. [My emphasis]
<some discussion> then:
Harris: What has happened when you're going along, you're very happy, you're as fulfilled as you have ever been but then your wife dies or your child dies and now you're not as happy for various reasons. But those reasons are not best summarized by a sudden lack of creativity on your part.
Deutsch: I think they are. I think that the reason that you are unhappy is that your previous methods of making progress in thinking were tied to these people who have died and you can't just instantly replace what you would have got from them by something else.
Harris: What do you mean by progress?
Deutsch: Remember, I'm not snobbish about what kinds of knowledge count as knowledge. All kinds of knowledge...any state of mind which one regards as preferable to another state of mind can't be reached without creativity, and reaching it is kind of what happiness is.  
So somebody who isn't interested in science and isn't interested in art or any of the things that are usually regarded as progress, or creativity might still be thinking about something. All it takes is them being a better person in regard to X after the thought than before. And X might be anything. It might be something that's impossible to name because it doesn't have a name because it's not socially valued. It might be a particular way of interacting with the family. They would have to be improving it. They would have to be think back and say, "Yes, I could have done it better and now I am doing it better." .... Anything like that.
 Anything that you can get into and improve by your own standards takes creativity. And that's what it takes. [My emphasis]
I'm very attracted to this idea. As I started writing an image slowly materialized. An image of someone responding to problems by just creating. When it came into focus, I remembered: it's Alvin in Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series.

Alvin just sat there, twisting grass in his fingers....
...Taleswapper suddenly snaked out his hand and took Alvin by the wrist. Alvin was so surprised he dropped what he was holding. "No! Pick it up! Look what you were doing!"
 "I was just fiddling for pete's sake."
Taleswapper reached down and picked up with Alvin had dropped. It was a tiny basket, not an inch across, made from autumn grasses. "You made this, just now."
"I reckon so," said Alvin.
"Why did you make it?"
"Just made it. 
"You weren't even thinking about it?" 
"Ain't much of a basket, you know. I used to make them for Cally. He called the bug baskets when he was little. They just fall apart pretty soon."
"You saw a vision of nothing and you had to make something."
 That's the image. From "Seventh Son," page 232. Alvin keeps making things. So do I.

It matters less whether I make blog posts or software, or just a silly comment in a chat channel that makes some friends laugh--or makes me laugh. It's the act of creativity that matters most. And it's creativity, any form of creativity, that makes me happy.

My daily rituals, as they've evolved, are filled with little moments of creativity.

Now that I know what I'm doing, I can do it better.

Some day I might be able to explain it to people whose minds don't work the same as mine.

Aug 6, 2017

What is a "better explanation"

David Deutsch argues that the project of rational inquiry (including, but not limited to, science) is finding "better explanations."

An explanation is a form of knowledge. Knowledge is a form of information. Information is something with the following peculiar properties:

First, it requires a physical substrate. There is no way to have information without embedding the information in a physical medium.

Second, it is substrate independent. The same information can in any medium. It can be written on paper, encoded in magnetic domains, transformed into sound waves, resident in a human brain.

Third, it is not observable. There's no way to directly see information. You can see the medium or substrate. You can extract the information from the attributes of the substrate. But you cannot see the information itself.

Yet, information exists.

Knowledge is a particular kind of information: it's information that an environment tends to preserve. If you record bits of information on a bunch of pieces of paper, the ones that contain the most knowledge are the ones you'll tend to preserve--or move to another medium so they'll be preserved.

DNA contains information--and knowledge since it tends to be preserved. Complex physical objects--like the computer in front of me are embodiments of information, and because they contain knowledge, tend to be preserved. And I am adding information (and knowledge, I hope) though this computer.

Knowledge can exist without a knower. If I write something that contains knowledge (some may question this antecedent) it remains knowledge whether I am alive or dead, whether someone remembers it or not.

There are two kinds of knowledge. Ordinary knowledge--knowledge that has a use and causes itself to persist--and explanatory knowledge--knowledge that can be used to answer questions: how, why, in what way?

The DNA of each living organism contains knowledge vital to the survival and reproduction of that organism's ancestors, and to that organism itself. But it is not explanatory knowledge and until recently there was no knower of that knowledge. A bacterium's DNA contains knowledge sufficient to synthesize the proteins needed to create a copy of that bacterium. But the bacterium does not understand any of it, nor can it explain it.

Where does explanatory knowledge come from? Deutsch says that explanations are the created by people--a term that includes humans, intelligent creatures on other planets (if they exist) and possibly, some day, computers. Non-human animals carry and use knowledge; some even create new knowledge; a few can pass their knowledge to others of their kind by imitation. But none, as far as we can see, can create knowledge of the explanatory kind, or pass knowledge by explanation.

Right now, as far as we know, the creation of explanations is uniquely human and the laws governing explanations are a lot like those that govern biological evolution. Biological creatures adapt by embodying knowledge about their environment: what's good to eat, what material to use for a nest, how to do a mating dance. Most of that knowledge is embedded in the creature's DNA. Some knowledge is discovered by an individual using sensory apparatus and rules of inference embedded in their DNA. Some is conveyed by imitating others of their kind--because of DNA tells those with knowledge how to exhibit it, and those who need the knowledge how to imitate.

Our DNA contains knowledge about the structure of human languages (cf "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker) and knowledge of how to acquire language without instruction--if you happen to be a child. Our DNA also contains knowledge about how to evaluate other knowledge. That knowledge has gotten us to this stage of existence but some of us have discovered that it contains systematic errors. Some of us work hard to correct for those errors and remove knowledge that we acquired before we realized the errors. Others of us don't give a shit.

I've come to realize that my goal is not "finding the truth," but rather "finding better explanations." The difference is subtle but important.

If something has an existing explanation, I can determine whether a new explanation is better or worse. If it explains everything that the old explanation explained, and explains more, or is more general, or simpler, then it's comparable and better. If it explains only some of what the old explanation explained and nothing else, then it's comparable and worse. Einsteinian Relativity, for example, is better than the Newtonian motion and gravitation. Relativity explains everything that Newton's laws do and more.

But often two explanations may not be strictly comparable. One may explain some things and leave others completely unexplained. Another may explain that which is unexplained by the first, but fail to explain everything that the first explains. If both are "good" explanations, then neither may be described as strictly better than the other. So Relativity explains one set of phenomena and Quantum Physics another non-overlapping set. Both are good explanations, and both explanations are constantly being improved. At some point we may have a theory of quantum gravity that is better than both. But we are not there, yet.

Aug 5, 2017

Better discussions lead to better explanations

Imagine that you are discussing a policy issue with someone (I just did this week). Doesn’t it make sense to start by agreeing to conduct your discussion so that it’s maximally beneficial? (I didn’t. I wasn’t smart enough.)

But suppose I was as smart then as I am now. (I have the benefit of recent non-maximally beneficial discussion followed by reflection.) How could I have made the discussion better?

What does “better” even mean in this context? This is one of the things that I think that people think they understand (I did) but don’t (I didn’t.).  Better in what way? What's the intended benefit? To improve someone’s understanding? Whose? To improve someone’s rhetorical skills? Whose? To impress people who are listening? Who? To resolve an issue? For whose benefit? To explore an issue? For what purpose?

If I someone asked me how my recent discussion came to be, I would have been answered: “We were talking about the weather, and our lives, and kids, and the conversation kind of evolved to talking about this policy thing.” If someone asked the purpose of that part of the conversation either of us might have answered: “We were exchanging information so we could discover the truth.” And that might have been true but I doubt that either of us had thought that particular thought--or any nearby thought.

We might have said, more accurately: “We had some time to kill, and that’s how we killed it.” Each might have said: “I knew the answer to this question, and I thought I'd explain it to <other party>.” Or one might have said: “I know a lot about this, and I’m going to show how knowledgeable am.” I might have said that. Maybe they would have. Who knows without asking?

Following Deutsch: I have a clearer purpose for such discussions. It's not about convincing people or anything. It's not about practicing my arguments. It's not about showing off my knowledge. Or even “finding the truth.”  It’s about finding better explanations.

I think I know how to find better explanations on my own. The question unanswered is: can I find a way to engage with other people so that they help me find better explanations--and so I can help them find better ones. This presupposes that other people want to find better explanations--or can be convinced that looking for better explanations is a good use of their time and abilities.

To be continued.

Jul 26, 2017

David Deutsch: some practical consequences...

Why am I so taken with David Deutsch? (See my earlier post for links )
Some people have commented that he is too abstract. I am a mathematician, so to me, abstract is a feature, not a bug.
But I’m also an engineer. And I am a citizen. And what he says has practical and civic implications.
According to one survey 65% of Americans think the world is getting worse. Another survey tells us that 57% of Americans think that our way of life will end in the next hundred years. 25% think we will go extinct. So we live in a country full of relatively hopeless, depressed people who differ in which catastrophe they think will destroy us (global warming, Islamic Jihadism, Ebola, Donald Trump).
Are we right to be so depressed? If not, what can we do about it? Deutsch states a principle that strikes me as an antidote—or at least an anodyne—for this depressed state. His explanation is an informal proof of the principle’s truth. He gives examples from human history to support his claim. (Although he would agree that examples prove nothing.)
Here’s the principle: Either a problem cannot be solved without violating the laws of the universe, or the problem can be solved—given the necessary knowledge. (Note that this does not mean you can solve it in a certain amount of time, or you can know how long it takes to solve it. It just says that you can, without question, solve it, given knowledge—or you’ve discovered a new law of the universe.)
His explanation: If you cannot solve a problem it cannot be that you didn’t have enough of some physical resource because you can always use knowledge to get more of any physical resource. There are only two remaining possibilities: either you do not yet have the knowledge (and once you have it, you will have the solution) or there is another law of the universe that was previously unknown that prevents you.
Therefore: all problems whose solutions do not violate the laws of the universe are solvable.
Take climate change as a practical example. Assume the dire scenarios are true. Assume that the cause is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already, plus more going in every day. We can solve this.
There’s no law of nature that prevents us from pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. Therefore we could do it, given enough knowledge. We know some ways to do this. Solutions include accelerating the growth of plants that sequester carbon, creating bacteria or plants that can do it, building devices that pull CO2 from air passed over them. What we don’t know is how to do them at a cost low enough to make them practical.
None of these solutions (and there are many others, not listed here) are held back by physical impossibility. None of them is even close to physical limits. We just don’t know how to do them cost-effectively. The difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to do it affordability is—just knowledge. So we could do it if we knew.
There’s no law of nature that says we can’t cool the planet even before we remove the CO2. We know what some of these are. What we don’t know is how to scale these up; how to do them cost-effectively; we don’t know all the side effects, and we don’t know how to avoid the side-effects that we do know. But these are just knowledge problems.
But perhaps the knowledge we lack is unobtainable? Could that be true?
Yes, but only if we are attempting to gain a kind of knowledge that the laws of nature say that we cannot gain. We can’t know the future. We can make short term projections, but that’s it. But none of these problems requires us to know things that cannot be known.
Historically when humanity has faced terrible problems some people have argued: “We can’t solve that problem because fact X prevents us.” And historically we’ve often solved those problems by doing something that no one knew about—or even imagined—at the time; or because there was a way around fact X that was unknown and even unimagined at the time. Or because fact X was in fact, not a fact. Deutsch’s book is full of such examples.
“Fact” X wasn’t the barrier to solving the problem. Our lack of knowledge was. And our incorrect belief that X was a barrier. Once we removed the error or had the knowledge, we solved it.
But, you might say, the climate problem is not just technical. It’s a political problem, as well. We not only have to get the technical knowledge that we need, but we also have to convince people to act.
True: and why can’t we get people to act? Because we don’t know how to convince them. Knowledge again. We know vastly more about the way that humans organize themselves now than we did several hundred years ago. We are better at communicating and educating people. But we are not good enough. We need to get better still.
Some people believe that the problem of educating (other) people is unsolvable. (Of course, our own ideas are correct and don’t need to be changed.) But there is no law of nature that says we can’t solve this problem. Most people once believed angry gods caused weather; now few people in civilized society believe that. Humanity is educable. And we can do a better job of education with more knowledge about the way people think, the way that they change their minds, and so on.
Deutsch’s point—that we can solve all our problems given enough knowledge—is of practical import. There are areas where we could be doing research, and we are not—and if people could understand that one or more of these areas might give us a better answer, maybe they would act to support a solution.
Is there an error in this argument? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Some people believe that when we solve one problem, we always produce another one, worse than the first. Examples abound. But is there a law of nature that says that problems must get worse? You can find many examples of solutions that led to bigger problems. But you can find many examples that led to smaller ones. I don’t think that anyone has proposed it’s a law of nature.
We face some big problems, but the problems that we now have—as human beings—are the result of our solving this problem: “How do I avoid a life that is nasty, brutish and short?” That is where we started out. People died young. Societies died out when the climate changed unexpectedly—because they had no knowledge of climate change. Or even when the weather changed! They died when disease struck, and they had no knowledge of how to prevent disease or to cure it. And they died when neighbors attacked because they did not know how to maintain a civilization without constant violence.
I would claim that global warming, ISIS, Ebola, Trump are lesser problems dying early from disease or violence—which until recently was the fate of almost all of our ancestors.
We can solve any problem, given knowledge. This is an optimistic stance, and I think that holding the optimistic stance has practical benefits. We don’t know how long it will take us to get the knowledge that we need. We don’t know how long it would take to solve the problem if we did have the knowledge today. We don’t know if we can gain the knowledge in time. We don’t know if some other problem will overtake us in the meantime.
We’re better off because we have some knowledge. And we need to get better still. If we fail to survive, it will be for one reason and one reason only: we did not know how to avoid whatever tragedy befell us.
We also know that we are creating knowledge faster than ever. The growth of knowledge is exponential. But is it fast enough? We don’t know.
So here’s the policy implication that can help us improve our chances: we need to work to create more knowledge. We need to invest in knowledge creation and to avoid policies that stand in the way of knowledge. We can help in small ways by educating ourselves and others. Who can tell what the effect will be?
There are people across the political spectrum who have forms of knowledge that they want to suppress. They argue that it’s too dangerous or destabilizing. But it’s ignorance that is dangerous, not knowledge.
Among the most valuable kind of knowledge is epistemological: on what basis do we judge knowledge claims. Making such judgments is not just restricted to science because not all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Deutsch has something to offer on this subject, and what he has said has changed my beliefs about several issues.
Most important, it’s changed some of my beliefs about belief.
I’ll write about these topics next.

Jul 25, 2017

David Deutsch -- reading and viewing 1 of several

I majored in mathematics and minored in physics at MIT, have pursued my love of these subjects for half a century and spent my whole career working with computers. In an embarrassingly short time, David Deutsch convinced me that my understanding of mathematics and science were flawed; that my epistemology was defective; that some of my certainties were wrong; and that my understanding of the implications of computation was shallow.
12 July 2017 is the day that I first heard Deutsch (Wikipedia, home, twitter) talk about knowledge, science, and the nature of the universe. (Here’s the first talk I heard — also linked below) He’s at Oxford, is considered the father of quantum computing, is one of the leaders in understanding the implications of quantum theory, and the increasingly accepted many worlds interpretation, and is creating a new field called “constructor theory.
Deutsch is enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and witty. He is optimistic, but not naive. (Talk at RSA on Optimism) He acknowledges that things may go horribly wrong as—he points out—they have done for hundreds of thousands of years. But we’ve reached a point where the future before us is unlimited—but we must take care and successfully avoid disaster.
(Deutsch article “Why it’s good to be wrong“ Yes, it is!)
Here’s a taste, excerpted and edited from the first TED talk below:
I want to start with two things that everyone already knows. The first one is something that has been known for most of recorded history, and that is, that the planet Earth is uniquely suited to sustain our present existence, and most important, our future survival.
This idea has a dramatic name: Spaceship Earth. Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, and inside is all we have, all we depend on, and we only get the one chance: if we mess up our spaceship, we’ve got nowhere else to go.
The second thing that everyone already knows is that human beings are not the hub of existence. As Stephen Hawking famously said, we’re just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star, which is on the outskirts of a typical galaxy, and so on.
The first of those two things is kind of saying that we’re at a very un-typical place, and the second one is saying that we’re at a typical place. If you regard these two as deep truths to live by and to inform your life decisions, then they seem a little bit to conflict with each other.
But that doesn’t prevent them from both being completely false.
Here are some talks by and with Deutsch and links to his books (both excellent).

(Also at TED, with a transcript)

Also at TED with a transcript
Deutsch’s books: (click on images to go to Amazon)
Fabric of Reality
Beginning of infinity

Jul 8, 2017

Out of my comfort zone

I am too comfortable.

Said differently, I do not push myself out of my comfort zone. I let circumstances do that. The successes of my life are strongly due to the circumstances in which I've found myself.

And now, in this late period of my life, there are relatively few circumstances where I am driven to discomfort.  Worse, most of the time when I am uncomfortable, I can stop doing what made me uncomfortable. I can extract myself from circumstances. That’s a problem.

I'm out of my comfort zone if things are going too poorly.  I'm also out of my comfort zone if things are going too well. Both lead to inaction. So I'm comfortable when things are going "as expected" which means that they are routine re-enactments of that which I already know how to do. Out of that comfort zone, I quickly disengage and go to inaction. Unfortunately, I am fairly comfortable with inaction. That makes it a stable state.

I want this to change.

I know that I want to grow and improve. I can visualize parts of the life I would like to have. I have a vision of what I would describe as greater success. But I didn’t have a vision of what succeeding looks like.

Now I’m building that vision and planning how to realize it.

To first order: succeeding looks like doing things that make me uncomfortable, that put me outside my comfort zone. Succeeding looks like staying there, despite the discomfort.

Succeeding looks like acknowledging a poor outcome, examining what went wrong, staying with the discomfort, and making another attempt. Succeeding looks like experiencing an exceptional outcome, acknowledging the success, sticking with the discomfort, and taking the next step.

One way for me to acknowledge the success is to write about it.

Growth will never be comfortable. I know this intellectually. I know intellectually that I must seek out discomfort.

I am a meaning-making creature and my job is to remake the meaning of discomfort.  Not all discomfort leads to growth, but some does,

And I must take care to seek out that discomfort, experience it fully, and enjoy it.

Like right now.