johnwsaunders

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Most Human Human, Brian Christian

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 8:04 am

Every year, computer programmers gather to battle against a common foe – humans. Their programmes chat via text on screen with judges, as do real humans (‘confederates’). Known as the ‘Turing test’ (after Alan Turing’s famous prediction that computers would be convincing conversationalists by the year 2000), it’s not widely publicized, and not all the human participants are that enthused (judges and confederates being there for a conference, perhaps). Not so for Brian Christian. He wanted to be a confederate, and travelled from his home in the US to Brighton for the sole purpose of fighting our side.

Judges have to determine which of the conversations they have are with humans, and which with computers. It can be a close call, but computers are yet to come out on top. For the computer with the most votes, a prize is awarded, ‘The most human computer’. Somewhat perversely, there’s also another prize, ‘The most human human’, the object of Christian’s quest.

Using the philosophical issues thrown up by the possibility of being out-humaned by machines, Christian asks what it is that we are, if replicable by machines? Well, fortunately, we’re not. That’s the point. There are so many ways in which the machines cannot compete with humans (coherence across a conversation and neologisms to name just two), that it seems a long, long way off before they’ll be on par (if it’s even possible).

But we don’t think of these as important, Christian argues. We are increasingly automating our own conversations (call-centres being the prime, but not only, example), or taking away decision making from people (micro-managing, bureaucratic procedural pedantry) and defining ourselves as thinkers, above and beyond all else.

Kant was one such proponent of the idea that thinking was humans’ defining feature (and in fact, the only guarantee of reality – cogito ergo sum). But as ‘computers’ (originally a job description, think the Enigma code) gradually became machines in common parlance, we were left with smaller and smaller territory to claim as ours.

Or were we? Christian argues that, in fact, we’ve just been on the wrong tack philosophically. Too ‘left-brain’ (dovetailing nicely with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emmisary), too lazy and clichéd. In a remarkable passage, he explores the way the compression of data can be used as a measure of originality. It’s riveting stuff.

Is poetry, for example, the most human way of using language (again echoing McGilchrist)? Are we far less exceptional beings than perhaps we like to think? And does it make a difference? A beautifully written, and charmingly easy to read exploration of these questions. I think you know the answer.

Politics as Usual, Thomas Pogge

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 7:30 am

Political philosophy focusing on institutions has taken a pretty severe blow recently, in the form of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, so it’s nice to see the old Rawlsian framework put to good use here by Thomas Pogge, Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale.

Less an elaboration of a new framework (as Sen’s is), than a scatter shot attack on the idea of ‘Western’ morality, Pogge examines a separate topic in each chapter. Our complicity in the starving of millions through trade arrangements, the dilution of the Millenium Development Goals through cynical manipulation of language, the mismatch between rhetoric and action on human rights violations (using Rwanda as an example), the list goes on.

His pleasingly concise prose means the chapters aren’t too long, though it is certainly wearing to be chastised so thoroughly for one’s complicity in the deaths of 18 million a year. However, that responsibility is diluted amongst democratic citizens, so it’s not you alone that’s doing it, you’ll be pleased to know. It’s all of us. Particularly decision makers and politicians. Decision makers because there’s a disproportionate burden of responsibility on those negotiating trade agreements, for example, where vastly greater power is on the ‘Western’ side of the table, meaning almost any proposal, no matter how belittling, is likely to be accepted by the ‘developing’ country. They, though, aren’t elected.

Politicians, in theory, care about what we all think. So, through such supposed democratic mechanism, our responsibility is borne. Maybe we don’t agitate enough, then, for institutional reform at the global level? Or simply give enough to charity? Well, either, both, and certainly not neither, Pogge argues.

He also addresses the claim that it’s not ‘our’ policies driving the global poor’s face into the mud with a boot – it’s their own corrupt governments. Well perhaps, he says, these causes are equally contributory. If such causes (both causing a harm, with the removal of both necessary to eradicate it, such as in pollutants entering a river at two separate points upstream) are identified in other spheres, we don’t simply say ‘Yes, but they have to do something, too, so we won’t do anything,’ we stop and then make the others stop.

Furthermore, corruption is actively incentivized (to bastardize a noun) by the international borrowing privilege, and the resource privilege, where any group with de facto control of a country can borrow as a government and sell its resources, too. Coups, therefore, are an easy way to power, since enriching oneself at the expense of the populace’s resource base and unloading debt on future generations is sanctioned by international law. Pretty hard going, then, infuriating and despair inducing in equal measure.

You might want to avoid this then, if you’re already having a bad day. Sadly, though, it’s a bad day every day for the hundreds of millions living below the ‘poverty line’ (another concept demolished in the book). And we’re involved, and individually bear responsibility for their suffering. So scratch that – whatever day you’re having, just read it.

Unpacking

In the rest on May 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Unpacked most of our stuff this evening. Weird being with just Suzannah, Isla was with her Mum and step-Dad. Probably the longest we’ve been just us since Isla’s birthday.

And it’s basically done. Sofa’s now free of stuff, all boxes downstairs are empty, kitchen stuff in cupboards, bed’s made – so tomorrow night could be the first in our new home.

Home – isn’t that a strange word? I refer occasionally to Kent as home, still, and my Dad’s house. Then when we’re in Monmouth unpacking in the new house, I’ll say, ‘Let’s just do this and then go home,’ meaning Suannah’s Mum’s. What does it even mean? Well, whatever it does, Wyefield Court may not be home now, but it will be soon.

Mostly just stubbing my toes on things, rather than collapsing in a heap, which is nice.

The hobs need to be turned on for a bit or something before they work. This became apparent after pasta didn’t boil, just kind of half-cooked in the pan. A second lot of boiling water did the job, though, and we had it with a load of pesto and butter (small tomatoes chopped up, too). And Coppella apple juice (don’t get me started).

Looking forward to being in, hopefully the spare flat-screen TV is still at Dad’s, no room for the heavy old one. Equally, might just carry on watching all our TV online.

Why are you even reading this, imagined reader? Why am I even writing it? I know all this stuff – I don’t need to write it. You may not, but if you know me personally, you’ll just find out eventually. I guess I’m just getting all habitual on the blogging front.

Hard being apart from Isla for Suzannah, but she’s ok. First time she’s really spent any significant time apart from her. For me, driving away the for the Humanitarianism/Communication exam last Sunday was the worst. Just had to swallow whatever I was feeling, otherwise I wouldn’t have made the journey. It’s weird, you get on with things, then it all comes swelling up. Then you realise you won’t be able to get anything done if you don’t swallow it again, then you’re just messed up.

But happy.

Moving

In the rest on May 28, 2011 at 8:31 am

Just moved our uni stuff (furniture too) into Mum’s house in Monmouth. I should explain – she bought a house a few years ago, intending to rent it out, then, when we found out we were pregnant last year, being empty we asked her if we could live there till we can support ourselves. It’s lovely, though, so the dream would be to just buy it off her/be the tenants. We’ll see.

Anyway, now we’re just waiting to go arrange all our furniture etc, unpack the boxes, and then… live the rest of our lives? It’s all pretty inchoate. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep. After clubbing with coursemates on Wednesday to celebrate the end of our degrees (woop woop!), I just lay there for three hours, head pounding, thinking about… well that’s the thing: what am I supposed to be thinking about?

Haven’t got a job lined up, so that’s pretty big. But then we haven’t organised a phone line or internet, which seems pretty urgent. I also need to make some decisions about what jobs to go for – part-time stuff nearby, while pitching ideas freelance?, full-time graduate jobs near enough to commute to?, full-time anything nearby to just get a bit of money in, or just leave it all a bit and pray I’ll get a BBC or ITN traineeship this Autumn? Needless to say, you don’t resolve such questions while staring at the ceiling, exhausted and aching, at 5am.

Oh! And I need to get a CV together – but what kind? Should it stress academia, or journalism? ‘Transferable skills’ – still nauseatingly necessary?

And how are we going to move the piano from Dad’s (he doesn’t play)?

And where will I get the paint to touch up the flat’s walls in Kent on Thursday (after official end-of-degree bash)?

And what book am I gonna read next?

And…

Piano – B minor

In Music, My songs on May 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Piano – A minor

In Music, My songs on May 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Kind of Studio Ghibli-esque, this.

Don’t stop believin’

In Music, Song covers on May 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Journey cover, originally on CfJ site. I think I did this for someone’s birthday…?

Isla

In Music, My songs on May 27, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Song I made up just after Isla was born

The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 4:02 am

I guess I probably tended to quite a left-hemisphere way of thinking before I read this book, because much of it absolutely blew me away. In particular, the discussions of language (and its origins in music), the centrality of metaphor in our understanding of the world, and McGilchrist’s perspective on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness were eye-opening. But this book isn’t simply the sum of its fascinating parts (of which there are many more, by the way), it is an attempt to explain the world we live in, and the way we conceive it and have conceived of it since the Ancient Greeks, in relation to the profound differences the two hemispheres of our brains exhibit.

Perhaps if you already familiar with phenomenology, and have a similar understanding of the arts and history (particularly regarding the role of religion) to McGilchrist, you won’t be as affected by this book as I was. Nevertheless, in taking an empirically-based conception of the differences the hemispheres show in their attitude to the world, and extrapolating from there to explain thousands of years of art, religion, philosophy, indeed, all culture, in the West, and relating that explanation to his own view of what ‘balance’ between the hemispheres would mean, Mcgilchrist has written a book that I doubt anyone wouldn’t find fascinating, bold and profound, whether or not you are ultimately swayed by his case.

Indeed, as he writes at the end of the book, whether it’s a correct explanation of human culture (in relation to hemispheric differences), and I for one am convinced it is, is less important than the fact that his exposition is itself relentlessly stimulating and thought-provoking. Even if it were to be proven wrong, there is nonetheless a profound truth in what he has to say about life, the world, and our way(s) of being in it. Utterly unforgettable.

Pandora’s Seed, Spencer Wells

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:57 am

This book purports to be a synthesis of an enormous range of study – genetics, anthropology, history, medicine, and more – to explain the ‘unforeseen cost of civilization’. Well it’s certainly not that. Though it contains a lot of interesting material, it simply doesn’t deal with the areas it covers in enough depth to achieve its aim. At a little over 200 pages, there just isn’t enough room. I finished it feeling the author’s conclusions weren’t substantiated.

Also, the author’s personal anecdotes throughout the book mostly just aren’t illuminating. The very start of Chapter One, for example, is a description of his car journey out of Chicago – why?

That said, I found the earlier parts of the book quite interesting – covering the origins of agriculture and the consequent changes in our nutrition. But other chapters on mental health and climate change were quite pedestrian, and didn’t justify some of the author’s conclusions.

Recommended if you’re interested in the origins of agriculture, and some of its consequences, but not if you’re looking for the grand theory the book claims to contain (for such a book that doesn’t disappoint, check out The Master and His Emissary)