Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In the early 1500s one could hike through the woods for days without encountering a settlement of any size. Between 80 and 90 percent of the population ... lived in villages of fewer than a hundred people, fifteen or twenty miles apart, surrounded by endless woodlands. They slept in their small, cramped hamlets, which afforded little privacy ...

The centerpiece of the room was a gigantic bedstead, piled high with straw pallets, all seething with vermin. Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender--grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs--and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement. In summer they could even watch ...

If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants.

--- William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, Back Bay Books, 1992, pp. 50-2. Cited by 01/25/07-life in the 1500s

Monday, January 29, 2007

Our modern skulls house a stone age mind

--- William Allman, picked up and elaborated by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer" (see Acknowledgements)


"The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gatherer-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands; it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most American communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city. In saying that our modern skulls house a stone age mind, we do not mean to imply that our minds are unsophisticated. Quite the contrary: they are very sophisticated computers, whose circuits are elegantly designed to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors routinely faced."
You cannot understand what a person is saying unless you understand who they are arguing with.

--- Don Symons, quoted by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,"
On principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. It is the theory which decides what we can observe

--- Albert Einstein, from J. Bernstein, "The Secret of the Old Ones, II." New Yorker, March 17, 1973, cited on
Many psychologists avoid the study of natural competences, thinking that there is nothing there to be explained. As a result, social psychologists are disappointed unless they find a phenomenon "that would surprise their grandmothers", and cognitive psychologists spend more time studying how we solve problems we are bad at, like learning math or playing chess, than ones we are good at.

--- Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer," making the pitch for evolutionary psychology, and studying our natural competences.
"Let's say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called 'paper.' It's cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries. You can't write over it once it's been written on, but you buy more very cheaply. Wouldn't that technology come to dominate the market?"

-- Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee quoting someone he heard on a panel, using the Stanley Crouch "flip test", cited in GMSV

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007

That perception of Google's search engine - that sense that "we the people" control its workings - continues to hold sway among the public. But while it may have been true once - and while it may in fact have been the company's founding ideal - it's not true anymore. Google's engine is a meticulously hand-crafted, continually optimized machine that does precisely what Google instructs it to do - even if that means filtering results to protect the company's reputation. Google may have good in its heart. It may, for the time being anyway, be fighting on our behalf against the forces of distortion that it has unleashed. But let's not forget that Google's machine is not our machine. It's Google's, for better or worse.

--- Nick Carr, "Google's machine," Rough Type, January 26, 2007

Thursday, January 11, 2007

There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor. You can't think without metaphors.

--- Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

I think Microsoft is now well in the advanced throes of getting everything 100 percent right in terms of the discipline and just no longer producing products people want to buy with any level of consistency.

--- Joel Spolsky, Salon interview (page 2) December 9, 2004, by Scott Rosenberg
"To have the kind of free will we would like involves walking a fine line between determinism and randomness. We must be able to freely make our actions, but they should then result in deterministic (that is, non-random) effects. For example, we may want to be free to send our kids to a school of our choice. But then we also want to believe that the laws of physics (and biology, sociology and so on) ensure that going to a good school is highly likely to lead to a better life. Having free will is pointless without a certain degree of determinism.

"The same can be said about studying physics. I want to believe that the choice regarding which aspect of nature I want to study - whether I want to measure the position or velocity of a particle, for example - lies with me. But what I also want is some degree of deterministic behaviour in nature that would then permit me to infer laws of physics from any measurement that I choose to make. In fact, the only means we have for deducing the basic equations of quantum mechanics means that they are fully deterministic, just like those of Newtonian mechanics.

"There is nothing mysterious or controversial about this, but look what happens when we apply this to ourselves. If we are all made up of atoms, and if atoms behave deterministically, then we too must be fully determined. We simply must share the same fate as the rest of the universe. When we look inside our brains, all we find are interconnected neurons, whose behaviour in turn is governed by their underlying molecular structure, which in turn is fully governed by the strict laws of quantum mechanics. Taking the argument to extremes, the laws of quantum mechanics ultimately determine how I deduce the laws of quantum mechanics, which appears to be a fully circular argument and therefore logically difficult to sustain."

--- Vlatko Vedral, in "The Big Questions: Is the universe deterministic?" New Scientist 24 Nov 2006
Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.

--- Alan Turing, quoted by Michio Kaku in The Big Questions: Will we ever have a theory of everything?, New Scientist 16 Nov 2006; also reportedly quoted in J D Barrow, "Theories of Everything"