reading

Sunday, 30 June 2019 - 7:35pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/06/2019 - 7:35pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.

 

Sunday, 16 June 2019 - 5:23pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 16/06/2019 - 5:23pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/06/2019 - 11:45pm in

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teaching, reading

Welcome to another installment of the “Crash Course” series, this time on the metaphysics and epistemology of race. 


Jacob Lawrence, “The Library”

As with other installments in the crash course series, the idea is to come up with a set of primary readings a person could reasonably complete in 1-3 weeks that provides a sense of the central developments and matters of dispute in the selected area, as background to further study in it.

The key here is to provide a set of readings that makes sense together, not to just make one-off suggestions. Here’s a great example of the kind of answer we’re looking for, from our crash course on the epistemology of disagreement; note that it contains several works, organized in a particular order. Additionally, while resources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy are very useful, please refrain from including reference materials in your list.

As an additional source of information, I’m happy to share this schematic of current debates in the metaphysics and epistemology of race put together by Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania). You are welcome to suggest sets of readings on the M&E of race in general, or on any significant debate within this area.

Thank you.

The post Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race appeared first on Daily Nous.

Sunday, 9 June 2019 - 4:21pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 09/06/2019 - 4:21pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/05/2019 - 12:06am in

“I didn’t know that there is a field of study that counted as sensible the questions that were always in my head. Even more amazing is that the type of thoughts I offered as answers, while ramshackle, were the same type of answers philosophers provide. I changed my major before the end of the semester. But I had a problem. I did not know how to read philosophy.”

Those are the words of David W. Concepción, professor of philosophy at Ball State University, in a great little essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine in which he shares some observations about and advice for reading philosophy. I think the situation he describes himself being in is fairly common: students often find philosophy difficult to understand and have trouble approaching and reading philosophical texts.


Alexis Arnold, “Encyclopedia of Superstitions” (detail)

Here are Professor Concepción’s observations, in abbreviated form:

  1. “There is no such thing as reading without qualification. Instead there is reading as a philosopher, historian, cartographer, journalist, and so on. Even within a discipline there is no single way to read. In part, this is because there are many sub-types of writing within each field.”
  2. “The experience of reading philosophy is strange.”
  3. “The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting.”
  4. “To read philosophy well one needs courage.”And then the advice:
  5. “Set the stage… By gaining some understanding of the conceptual terrain within which the essay I am reading resides, I can usually make better sense of the fine-grained discussion found in the essay.”
  6. “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation.”
  7. “Assess and note progress. Some passages are particularly thorny. As a result, it is very common to read philosophy much slower than one reads other texts. Indeed, many philosophers stop at the end of sections, and sometimes paragraphs or even sentences, to check if they can restate the ideas in their own words.”
  8. “Bring it all together. I find it very helpful to write out a summary of the argument once I reach the end of an essay.”
  9.  “Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect.”
  10. “Decide. After sufficient time, move from evaluating the arguments to your own conclusions.”

See the whole essay for Professor Concepción’s elaborations on each of these points.

If you have advice you provide to your students about how to read philosophy, or thoughts about it you wished someone had shared with you when you were first starting out, please share them in the comments.

The post Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice appeared first on Daily Nous.

Sunday, 26 May 2019 - 8:27pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 26/05/2019 - 8:27pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Sunday, 12 May 2019 - 1:20pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 1:20pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Another Reading update: this time with some questions answered

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/05/2019 - 6:52pm in

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reading

As outlined in previous blog posts, I first contacted Reading about the money the university owes to its trusts in mid-January. On April 10th, I finally received an email responding on the record to the questions I had raised. That statement was worded in confusing fashion so it has taken a bit of time to have things clarified.

The main development: Reading has now revealed that the £120million is owed to more than one of its trusts (and not simply the National Institute for Research in Dairying – NIRD). The table provided compares the amount owing at the end of July 2018 (end of year for the 2017/18 accounts) with end of January 2019.

owed to trusts

Reading goes on to argue that these loans do not represent external debts, but interest is being levied. The university provided particular detail on the £77million owed to NIRD (though it subsequently confirmed that all the loans are being treated in the same way). The money outstanding is being 

“treated as a loan with an interest rate applied using the weighted average return on short term cash investments. Interest is payable on these sums and is rolled up in the balance on a monthly basis and recorded as such in the accounts. The sum is technically repayable on demand, and is therefore accounted as being repayable within one year. This is consistent with accounting practice for intra-group transactions. This approach has been endorsed by previous and current auditors.”

NIRD exists to advance research into agriculture and dairy at Reading. The statement goes on to specify recent NIRD-related projects at Reading:

“Since 2014 NIRD has funded several projects directly related to the objects of the Trust totalling £1.45m, including specialist equipment for measuring emissions from dairy farming, improvements to facilities at the Meat and Growth Research unit, and expansion of cowsheds for housing cattle at Hall Farm in Shinfield.”

£1.45million over the last five years is not very much and indicates a potential problem for Reading in finding £77m worth of relevant projects to finance over the coming years. (the new vice-chancellor used an Open Letter in February to explain that “all considerable net proceeds of the sale will over time be reinvested in research in food and agriculture at the University”).

Reading’s latest missive further specifies that:

“The University is currently in discussions with NIRD on funding for a number of eligible projects. These include funding research facilities at the University’s Food Pilot Plant, which is involved in numerous studies and trials into milk and other dairy products, and the Hugh Sinclair Unit for Human Nutrition, which undertakes research into the impact of nutrition on human health and disease, including cardiovascular disease.”

No costing for these possible projects is provided. It is worth emphasising that Reading would have to divert sums from elsewhere to cover these plans as it has spent the money the trusts have loaned the university. This has financial implications for the operation of the university. The unrealistic treatment of the loans as payable on demand allows Reading to avoid specifying a timescale by which the balances should be settled.

Finally, Reading confirms that an independent committee with “external specialist legal advice” has been established to represent the interests of NIRD.

“The independent committee representing the NIRD Trust was set up to consider all aspects of the current and future dealings of the Trust and the University’s relationship with it. This includes considering spending plans using the proceeds of the sale of land at Shinfield in the form of grants. The committee is fully independent and no specific remit or time limit was set for reporting.

“The issue was fully investigated and reported to the then Acting Vice-Chancellor in November 2018 at which point we sought external specialist legal advice, the independent panels were set up, and in December 2018 the University informed [Charity Commission] and OfS.

“Our correspondence with OfS and CC was on a precautionary basis to inform them that the above issues had been identified and advised them of our plan to review and improve the governance of the NIRD Trust. While the detail of the letters are confidential, both CC and OfS provided acknowledgement of the information and CC asked for further information which was provided.”

So with regard to NRID there are several strands of the issue that are still to be resolved.

But overall, the university owes £120m to its associated trusts. Money it does not currently have and which has to be generated from other activities in order to settle the claims, even if the loans are converted to grants. In short, the financial situation at Reading is much worse that would appear from simply looking at the “consolidated” figures in its financial statement and it is not clear how its future performance will be affected.

Other universities with trusts of this kind do not appear to have got themselves into this mess. 

 

 

Sunday, 5 May 2019 - 6:50pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 05/05/2019 - 6:50pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

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