Friday Jan 08, 2010

After Virtue: history, ethics and identity

While walking around Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford I picked up Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", a book that I had seen in philosophy sections for over 20 years now after it having been recommended to me by my undergraduate Philosophy discussion partner Mark Pitt.

When I finally started reading it a few weeks later, I could no longer put it down. This is a philosophy book that starts like a novel, reads like a novel, and indeed it's main thesis is that our understanding of ethics and life has to be that way, because we have to understand ourselves and our interactions with others as parts of a developing, interlinked, enmeshed and developing narrative.

Virtues are those character traits that are necessary for individuals-in-communities to work together to a common goal, that will enable the good of man, understood itself as an evolving historical self understanding. This type of analysis requires teleological thinking - the idea that a person can only be understood by understanding the good of man, the aim of a life being that of having a coherent story to tell - which was the basis for the Aristotelian account of society and nature.

Where Aristotle failed was by applying telos to the physical sciences: explanations that stones fall to the ground because they want to be there, were put to an end by Newtonian mechanics. With that Newtonian insight and the massive success of the physical sciences that followed, started a process of questioning the philosophy that Saint Thomas Aquinas had integrated so well into Christian thought, itself underpinned by Jewish historical religion. The philosophers of the enlightenment attempted one after the other to replace telos and history with some form of Rational grounding where it was thought that reason in some sense gave us access to the divine point of view. But without the understanding of telos, MacIntyre argues, the project was bound to fail. Hume had to resort to intuition to ground a very specific moral outlook; Kant resorted to universalisable rules that would complement the laws of nature which could be used as criteria to evaluate actions viewed non historically; and Bentham and the other utilitarians up to this day tried to devise mathematical calculi of happiness, ignoring the issue that this cannot be measured. Historically minded philosophers such as Hegel still held onto a rationalistic conception of evolution of spirit, that fatally believed that history was deterministic, since science seemed to be. Since science did not make value judgments, neither did Marx, leading to the creation of some of the worst political systems of the 20th century - and that is not a major feat. Within the western tradition amoral bureaucracies gained ground, under the Weberian motto of utility, and slowly all understanding of the basis of right and wrong disappeared, as it did in the 1930ies when it was found reasonable in philosophical circles to hold a position that to say that something is good, is just to say "I like it, do so too", preparing us for the ravages of consumer culture.

Since the book was first published, the Soviet empire collapsed, and it might even be that the latest financial crisis is revealing some of the deep flaws in non critical implementations of capitalism. So the message seems just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago when the book first appeared.

The above review, needless to say does no justice to the depth of argumentation found in the book. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a much more detailed overview of MacIntyre's philosophy though it does not read nearly as well as "After Virtue" itself.

Wednesday Nov 18, 2009

Legalise marijuana

I was watching Newsnight yesterday evening, which is running a show on "recipes for a good and palatable tax".

Britain is facing its biggest deficit for 40 years. The question is not whether taxes should go up, but how.

A number of people came up to propose some good ways of generating new taxes. It occurred to me that legalizing cannabis/marijuana should provide quite a nice windfall in taxes. I have not read the recent book "Economics and Marijuana: Consumption, Pricing and Legislation" which is bound to have a detailed analysis of how much one could expect in taxes from legalization, but going from the sentence in the introduction

...expenditure on marijuana in Australia is estimated to be three quarters of that of beer and twice that of wine.
and putting that together with the figure I found in "Alcohol: Tax, Price and Public Health" that £6 billion were collected in taxes on beer, would make me think that one could collect at least £4.5 billion on cannabis if the tax rate for cannabis were the same as that for beer - but it could be more as people have gotten used to paying for the risk to the dealers. In Keneth Clements and Mert Daryal's online paper "The Economics of Marijuana Consumption" (p 18) they estimate that in 1995 the Australians spent 5 billion dollars on Marijuana. Since there are three times more people in the UK, and counting the fall in value of currencies over a period of 10 years, we have 15 billion 1995 Australian dollars that might now be worth $22 billion, which converted into pound sterling is £12 billion. It seems quite reasonable then that out of a spending of that size it should be easy for the state to recuperate at least 1/3 of that if not more.

One could furthermore save a huge amount of money on reductions in police surveillance, legal cases and prison sentences. This should be even more true in the USA, which has a huge prison population (10\* larger than most European countries). has an interesting article on the subject "Should Governments Legalize and Tax Marijuana?". See also "A Budget Cure: Marijuana Taxes?". This idea is clearly making its way: Governor Schwarzenegger recently proposed opening the debate on this issue.

In the Newsnight program the proposal that won approval was the proposal to tax the rich a lot more on their pension funds. So my guess is that a lot of rich people should be very keen to legalize marijuana in the very near future.

It would be quite ironic in the end if a mind altering drug were to pull the state out of a hole created by mathematically deluded stock analysts on a huge ego trip.

Friday Jun 19, 2009

Nobody is responsible

Peter Sloterdijk animates a program on the major German Television Station ZDF, entitled the Philosophical Quartet. The latest program of his, which could be translated as Risk and Responsibility: the art of being Nobody is very much worth watching (if you speak german). Sloterdijk starts off the program by reminding us of the ancient story of Ulysses and the Cyclops. In order to free himself from the blood thirsty monster, Ulysses boldly plunged a red hot stake into the sleeping monsters only eye who screaming in pain and rage asked who it was who had done that. Ulyses answered that his name was "Nobody". As the cyclops friends then arrived alerted by the screams of their fellow, and asked him who had done this deed to him, that they could avenge him, they received the answer Nobody. Thinking therefore that the Gods had done that to him, and that he was thus responsible for his deeds, they left him to die in his pain.

This story is used as a spring board by the quartet - the 2 philosohpers and 2 guests: Beatrice Weder Di Mauro swiss economist member of the German 5 wise men board of economic affairs, and novelist Bodo Kirchhoff - to look into the question that nobody seems to be to blame, or accepts the blame, for the massive financial meltdown that saw more money evaporate in a year than all the biggest robberies of all time piled one next to the other over the whole course of humanities history. Clearly something went wrong. Something needs to change, some things need to stop, some to die... The point is well made that the bankers that gave themselves such huge salaries on account that they were responsible for the huge benefits they made, seem to have lost all sense of responsibilty in the crisis. What then is it that needs changing? What criteria should be set in to avoid such errors in the future? One proposal - perhaps a very harsh one for all attempts at mergers - is that you should never allow a system to grow to such a level that it cannot fail, or better: never allow a system to grow so that when it is time to ask for responsibility for a crisis, the only answer can be Nobody.

Peter Sloterdijk, radical cure to twitter

Do you feel like you are in a binary discussion on some topic, that goes back and forth with no apparent progress? Do you feel you have gotten so involved in a micro topic, that you feel that you may be missing the big picture? Is perhaps the phantasy of such a big picture you have taken as your background, itself the cause of the problem you are dealing with? Do you find yourself preaching that God is dead, or not? Are you preaching? Why?

Peter Sloterdijk, one of the most famous contemporary German philosopher, is known to write very large books that span over all domains of human activity from philosophy to history, to technology, aesthetics, biology, religion and economics, in a passionate, often humorous, sometimes jolting way, linking these in a fluid narrative that flows healthily through the barriers of all academic disciplines. Sloterdijk diffuses dualisms through fluid depth of analysis, carefully linking both sides of a debate in such a way that they can be seen to be part of the same surface reflecting a third party that had not yet been seen, the real topic of the discussion perhaps, of which he goes on to draw the history and evolution.

So in his latest book "Du mußt dein Leben ändern" ("You must change your life"), which I have nearly finished reading here in Vienna, Sloterdijk starts off with the a beautiful poem by Rilke of the same title (english translation with german original here ) where Rilke describes what could be called a religious call for transformation whilst looking at an ancient Greek stone torso of Apollo he had come across in the Louvre museum in Paris. The undeniable reality of this upward sentiment of transformation, is what Sloterdijk then goes on to describe the history of throughout his book, linking it to the exercises that Olympic athletes of our times to always further push back the boundaries of what humanity is capable of, which he then traces back to the budhist philosophers and their spiritual exercises, the ancient greek schools of thought, and the exercises the early Christians followed to break through the barriers of death, by for example entering the Roman circus' to be devoured calmly by Lions. This pursuit of transcendental improvement can then be found to have moved from the monasteries of the middle ages into the artisans workshops where the practices of meditation were put to use in the building of the Protestant work ethic...

For those who speak German here is a very interesting interview of him in October of last year on a Swiss television channel talking about the financial meltdown that occurred.

(Thanks to Michael Zeltner for the link on his very interesting blog. More parts here).

And here, for the French speaking of you here is an interview with Elisabeth Levy where they discuss modern media, rumours, and more.

For english speakers here is a talk on Reality Peter Sloterdijk gave a last year before the opening of the large swiss nuclear collider, which I think made the news. (The sounds is not very good, but the points he makes are serious and funny simultaneously):

Sunday May 10, 2009

why I bought the Michelin Guide

As the issue of copyrights and intellectual property are moving up the public agenda (see this Economist article for example), I thought I'd write a few posts on what I do buy and work out why I did buy it, rather than say pirate it, to use the emotional term of the day. Let me start here with the Michelin Guide for the iPhone.

The Guide Michelin, as it is known in France, is famous world wide as a very professional database, sold until recently as a book, of the best restaurants in Europe. The Michelin Guide sends highly qualified inspectors anonymously to restaurants to evaluate the quality of their cuisine. They also check the cleaniliness of the kitchens, evaluate the service, the decor, and much more. The result is a reliable guide to restaurant quality.

So why did I spend €10 for the iPhone application for the database of French Restaurants? A search on the internet gives a lot of free restaurant evaluation services. I could have used those instead, right?

It's really all about dating. When you are out with a sophisticated girlfriend, or even on a business lunch, it just won't do to pull out your notebook, and spend 10 to 20 minutes searching on Google through reviews of restaurants, that might have closed a few months ago. It takes a lot of time to sift through open reviews simply because tastes differ massively. To be able to evaluate the quality of a restaurant through online reviews requires assesing the taste of the reviewer from the very limited information available to you from the text -- reviews that could furthermore easily have been faked or sponsored somehow by the owner of the restaurant himself. So when you are on a date or with your wife and she wants a good quality restaurant close to where you happen to be right now, you don't have more than 3 minutes to come up with an answer. You are going to spend easily €30 to €100 on the meal. And a bad meal can spoil a day or a business meeting. So compared to that, what is €10 for the Guide Michelin?

What is important here is that you want quality information here and now. The quality is provided by the inspectors of the Michelin Guide, and the system they put in place to do the tests and verifications. It is confidence in their methodology that gives confidence in their results. Perhaps something similar could be done using crowd sourcing, but I have not yet found such a site, and my guess is that this could be very difficult to put together (not impossible mind you: it is up to Michelin, to keep the cost of their information low enough that building up a parallel database remains uninteresting).

So here are a few reasons I can think of for paying Michelin directly for the information:

  • The information from old guides has no more value. The latest information is what I am paying for
  • by not giving money to the source I'd be reducing my chances of having good information in the future
  • if I got information from someone who did not claim to be using the info from the Guide even though they were, I'd have a lot less reason to believe their results
  • if they did use the info from the guide but sold it to me as a copy that was not respecting the policy of the guide, I'd have reason to doubt the honesty of the company giving me the info, and so of the quality of the information itself - trust is an essential ingredient in an information economy
  • The time it would take me to find a pirated version of the guide, and the nuisance of constantly finding updated versions, would be worth a lot more that €10 of my time.
And I am sure there are a lot more reasons to explain why buying directly from the source is important. In an information economy the current truthfullness of information is key to its value. I will pay for information I need that I can trust and have now.

An analogy with medicine is illuminating here. You can read up in libraries all about a physical problem you may have. But it could take you months to read up about it, and a lot more to get to the point where you felt that you were knowledgeable about the subject: ie that you could diagnose sympotms correctly and prescribe the best medicines for it. If the disease was about to kill you in a few months then you just clearly won't have time to learn. This is how we get scarcity in an information/knowledge economy. The information may be free to reproduce, but tracking the truthfulness of the information is very costly. Learning it takes time. Perhaps we need to replace the notion of the price of a good depending on the offer and the demand for it, with one of the price of a good being related to the accessibility of the good and the need of it. Learning is the procedure to aquire a knowledge resource. Learning takes time, and that has a cost: in other options that are no longer available, for example. Using the knowledge of others is a short cut to having to learn, and the value of this is reflected in its price.

Wednesday Apr 15, 2009

Hadopi, a serious danger to French competitiveness

The last minute provisional rejection of the HADOPI law in France last week (it will go back for a vote on the 29th April), has given a new life to the debate here. The law, which is perhaps best explained on the French Wikipedia page, will give if passed, the power to Copyright holders to point out infringing ip addresses to a new higher authority (HADOPI) which will have the power to cut off internet connections after 3 warnings.

There are a huge number of privacy issues here, perhaps best illustrated by the possibility of someone using a p2p network to send themselves a copy of their legally purchased content. Furthermore as it is extreemly easy to infringe copyright - as the Baby dancing to Prince video case illustrates - this law will create a background atmosphere of fear which will have serious consequences on the ability to create new services.

This fear will lead outfits - cafés, libraries, hotels - that provide public access points to the internet, to demand some white list of acceptable content providers which they can allow their users access to without the danger of being cut off. The creation of such a list is extreemly expensive: certainly a lot more expensive than the profits the copyright holders may have gained by selling content to penniless teenagers. (Those of us that do have money, are happy to pay for the quality guarantees provided by pay for services. I'd rather pay a few $1 than be interrupted in the middle of a pirated movie by missing scenes, badly recorded music, or porn...). So there will be no justification to pour a lot of money into very complete white lists. Getting added to such lists will be a time consuming political game.

As a result startups that come up with new innovative services, being low budget idea driven companies, these will of course not have the money to play these advanced political games. Starting up in France will therefore be difficult or impossible. With much larger markets abroad - in the USA for example - the path to growth there will be clear. When these startups have then turned into billion dollar US companies, they will find it relatively easy to pay for the HADOPI political game and return to France. A loss to french entrepreneurship nevertheless.

This is not the first time this happened. Something similar happened with cryptography in the 90ies. France by severely restricting the strength of its keys, handicapped all of its ecommerce industry in the competition with the US, whose citizens were allowed to use any strength they wanted to. These laws were repelled in 1999 after much damage to its industry. Freedom is not just a cultural issue of fundamental importance. It is also the life blood of a dynamic economy.


  1. The above are my own opinions, and not those of Sun Microsystems.
  2. This article is published CC attribution, as all other articles on this blog. Please feel free to copy and translate. I do in fact read, write and speak french fluently, but my french spelling and grammar is just too rusty from lack of use, that I did not want to impose this on my readers

Monday Nov 10, 2008

Possible Worlds and the Web

Tim Berner's Lee pressed to define his creation said recently (from memory): " short definition is that the web is a mapping from URI's onto meaning".

Meaning is defined in terms of possible interpretations of sentences, also known as possible worlds. Possible Worlds under the guise of the 5th and higher dimensions are fundamental components of contemporary physics. When logic and physics meet we are in the realm of metaphysics. To find these two meet the basic architecture of the web should give anyone pause for thought.

The following extract from RDF Semantics spec is a good starting point:

The basic intuition of model-theoretic semantics is that asserting a sentence makes a claim about the world: it is another way of saying that the world is, in fact, so arranged as to be an interpretation which makes the sentence true. In other words, an assertion amounts to stating a constraint on the possible ways the world might be. Notice that there is no presumption here that any assertion contains enough information to specify a single unique interpretation. It is usually impossible to assert enough in any language to completely constrain the interpretations to a single possible world, so there is no such thing as 'the' unique interpretation of an RDF graph. In general, the larger an RDF graph is - the more it says about the world - then the smaller the set of interpretations that an assertion of the graph allows to be true - the fewer the ways the world could be, while making the asserted graph true of it.

A few examples may help here. Take the sentence "Barack Obama is the 44th president of the U.S.A". There are many many ways the world/universe/complete 4 dimensional space time continuum from the beginning of the universe to the end if there is one, yes, there are many ways the world could be and that sentence be true. For example I could not have bothered to write this article now, I could have written it just a little later, or perhaps even not at all. There is a world in which you did not read it. There is a world in which I went out this morning to get a baguette from one of the many delicious local french bakeries. The world could be all these ways and yet still Barack Obama be the 44th president of the United States.

In N3 we speak about the meaning of a sentence by quoting it with '{' '}'. So for our example we can write:

@prefix dbpedia: <> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g1 .

:g1 is the set of all possible worlds in which Obama is president of the USA. The only worlds that are not part of that set, are the worlds where Obama is not President, but say McCain or Sarah Palin is. That McCain might have become president of the United States is quite conceivable. Both those meanings are understandable, and we can speak about both of them

@prefix dbpedia: <> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g1 .
{ dbpedia:John_McCain a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g2 .
:g1 hopedBy :george .
:g2 feardedBy :george .
:g1 fearedBy :jane .

Ie. we can say that George hopes Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States, but that Jane fears it.

Assume wikipedia had a resource for each member of the list of presidents of the USA, and that we were pointing to the 44th element above. Then even though we can speak about :g1 and :g2, there is no world that fits them both: The intersection of both :g1 and :g2 is { } , the empty set, whose extension according to David Lewis' book on Mereology is the fusion of absolutely all possibilities. The thing that is everything and everywhere and around at all times. Ie. you don't make any distinction when you say that: you don't say anything.

The definition of meaning in terms of possible worlds, make a few things very simple to explain. Implication being one of them. If every president has to be human, then

@prefix log: <> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } log:implies { dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:Human . }

Ie the set of possible worlds in which Obama is a president of the United States is a subset of the set of worlds in which he is Human. There are worlds after all where Barack is just living a normal Lawyer's life.

So what is this mapping from URIs to meaning that Tim Berners Lee is talking about? I interpret him as speaking of the log:semantics relation.

@prefix rdf: <> .
log:semantics a rdf:Property;
         :label "semantics";
         :comment """The log:semantics of a document is the formula.
         achieved by parsing representation of the document.
          For a document in Notation3, log:semantics is the
          log:parsedAsN3 of the log:contents of the document.
          For a document in RDF/XML, it is parsed according to the
          RDF/XML specification to yield an RDF formula [snip]""";
         :domain foaf:Document;
         :range log:Formula .

Of course it is easier to automate the mapping from resources that return RDF based representations, but log:semantics can be applied to any document. Any web page, even those written in natural languages, have some semantics. It is just that they currently require very advanced wetware processors to interpret them. These can indeed be very specialised wetware processors, as for example those that one meets at air ports.

Wednesday Nov 05, 2008

The coming postmodern era

Kevin Kelly argued convincingly that the growth in technology is creating a new world wide super organism, something Nova Spivack likes to call One Mind (OM). I argue here that this One Mind will have to be a postmodern mind: it will have to take points of view as a fundamental given. In other words it is a world of Many Many Minds (MMM) that is being born.

Concepts can take a long time from their birth to their acceptance by society. Democritus reasoned in 400BC that the earth was round, that there were other stars, and that they had planets which had life. It took a 2400 years, a trip to the moon, satellite television, mass air travel to turn these deep insights into common sense.

I think one can make the case that the massive intrusion of the Personal Computer in the 1980ies into huge numbers of household and businesses led to the strengthening of the concepts of 'efficiency' and the self. The metaphor of the brain as computer took hold silencing previous behaviorist intuitions. The computer could be programmed. It could think. Some could think faster than others. Every year they became more efficient. The PC was the icon of the age. It was alone and did not communicate. It was the era of selfish competition: the 'me' generation. As Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain at the time said: "There is no such thing as society".

In the 1990ies the internet entered public consciousness, and with it the realization of how the network was overtaking the PC in importance. Information moved from being mostly on a computer to being mostly in the network cloud. The network was slow, so the experience people had was primarily of being connected to information and commerce. The experience of globalization of commerce and information blended with a modernistic view of the future unity of humanity moving towards one end: the end of history.

Behind the growth of the web and the internet, hidden to many, lay the strength of community. Unix, Linux, Apache, Open Source software, that had been the cause of the huge growth of the Network became more apparent, and became visible to the majority in the form of the read/write web under the banner of blogging. The last 8 years have been the discovery of the web as a platform for each individual voice to be heard, of community and mostly protected social networks. The end of the 20th century was also the end of the read only society as Lawrence Lessig argues so well. Millions of different points of view came to express themselves on innumerable topics.

Where next? What will happen as we move from a human readable read/write web to a machine readable one? What happens when we manage to break through the autism of current tools? What happens when software becomes widely available that can ask you if you want to reason over data you believe, or if you'd rather look at what your parents believe, or what republicans tend to believe, or what your children believe? This is as I argued recently the fundamentally new thing the semantic web is making possible; something unlike anything that humanity has ever witnessed before. The first tools that can make the step out of autism.

Of course, we mostly all come to understand around the age of 4 that other people believe different things from us, and that different people may think incompatible things about the world. But what happens when this everyday intuition becomes mechanized, objectified in tools that each year become more efficient? Most people always knew that society was very important, but the growth of the PC in the 1980ies created a strong icon in public discourse around which concepts of the self could cluster. In a similar way the growth of software that can point out contradictions between different points of views expressed in a distributed way around the web, would by doing this place a huge emphasis on the notion of points of views. If it were to make exploring these views easy, easier than it is for a normal human being living a normal life nowadays, then we can imagine that people may start exploring points of views much more often, more easily, in more detail, without thinking too much of it. Just like people now may drive 35 miles to work because they can, we can imagine people thinking more about others because some of the hard work has now been automated for them. Discovering conflicts in belief before they lead to conflicting actions could remove a lot of problems before they occur. ( Hopefully it won't lead us into some crazy world such as that described in the movie Being John Malkovitch ).

So how does this fit in with Post Modernism? Well, post modernism is a fuzzy concept, possibly even fuzzier than Web 2.0 or for that matter Web 3.0. It arose out of the disillusionment with all deterministic explanations of the future given by many of the western schools of thought, from christian evangelism to Marxism, Futurism, Consumerism ... Weary of all totalitarian explanations of everything, baffled by their sheer number, thinkers came to look at the different theories not from the inside, but from the outside, Instead of looking for a theory in which to believe trying to find a theory that would subsume all others, postmodernism, as I understand it, accepted the multiplicity of viewpoints, and found it more interesting to understand their differences. By putting more emphasis on understanding than on Truth, it was possible to look at the multiplicity of different points of view in the world. The pygmy in his tribe was no longer someone in need of conversion to the Truth, but someone one should try to understand in his context. This was felt by many to lead to a dangerous relativism, where the notion of truth itself seemed like it was loosing its meaning. In fact truth has never been better and more precisely defined: It is at its core a disquotation mechanism. According to Tarski's definition of truth:

"Snow is white" is true, in English if and only if snow is white .
Or in N3
  @prefix log: <> .

  { { ?s ?r ?o } a log:Truth } <=> { ?s ?r ?o } .
or in SPARQL
PREFIX log: <>
CONSTRUCT { ?subject ?relation ?object }
   GRAPH ?g { ?subject ?relation ?object }
   ?g a log:Truth .

Ie, if you hear someone say something, and you believe what they said to be true then you believe what they said. That is so simple it is self evident. So what has it got us? Well believing something is not neutral. Because we infer things from what we believe, and because we act on what we believe, to believe something is also to act and to be predisposed to act. And that is where the contact with reality ends up being felt at some point or another. If someone shouts "Une voiture arrive a ta gauche" in French and you understand it then you might add the following to your database:

{ _:c a :Car; 
      :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .
} saidBy :joe .

At that point you just believe that Joe believes this. It makes a big difference when you come to believe the same content, namely

[] a :Car;
   :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .

The disquotation mechanism (In N3 the removing of the '{' '}' ) is therefore an essential part of communication. One should not believe everything one hears - one may after all have misunderstood what was said. To remember who said what, and when one heard it is essential to good thinking. And sometimes who is right is really not that important anyway. Sometimes understanding is more important still. And that means putting oneself into other person's shoes, trying to look at things from their point of view - in essence, realizing that there are many many minds (MMM). So again what will happen when all tools we use every day make it as easy for us to explore points of view as it is to look at a web page, or take the car to work?

And where does this leave the absolute conception of Truth? Metcalf's Law gives a good explanation of the value of such a conception. Remember that this law states that the value of a network grows exponentially with the size of the network. The search for the Truth was always the search for an explanation that could explain as many things as possible: i.e. to create the biggest possible network, to predict as much as possible, to englobe all points of view, to create a framework that could link all of them together.

But what if the largest possible network has to take into account points of views as basic constitutive elements of the network?

Thursday Dec 06, 2007

Yochai Benkler: The Wealth of Networks

This afternoon I attended a teleconference at the University of Sao Paulo where Yochai Benkler talked from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, about his now famous book "The Wealth of Networks" (available online) and answered questions from the audience. Yochai talked about the impact of open source and peer to peer modes of co-operative production on economics, politics, arts and education. The book has many excellent and illuminating examples on how massively parallel and distributed use of human resources can outperform large centrally organised tayloristics production methods. He does point out that this won't work in every field of endeavour, but more naturally in knowledge based ones, where the cost of reproduction is close to zero. More details in the freely available book.

The conference was organised by Imre Simon from the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Sao Paulo. A web site in portuguese is dedicated to this talk, and it was broadcast live on the web.

At the end of the talk, as the last question from the floor, I asked about what research had been done into applying Metcalf's law to networks as powerful as the Semantic Web, and so how this would affect questions on the wealth of networks. Yochai seemed to think that the Semantic Web was too much about data, and not about people. Of course Beatnik, the semantic address book I am working on right now, is going to show how this dichotomy is completely illusory, and how the distributed, decentralised world of hyperdata should fit perfectly into the central thesis of the book. :-)

Sunday Sep 16, 2007

1.5% of 10 billion is 150 million

That's the number of people who will die annually of natural causes when we are 10 billion people on earth, with an estimated life average of 66.67 years.[1]

That is over twice the current population of France. Or as Peter Sloterdijk points out on page 467 of "Spheres III: Foam" in the chapter on the history of man's relation to the dead - I am slowly plowing through this 800 page book - "that is the equivalent of 30 Holocausts, or 4 Stalin eras or three Maoist leaps forwards". The grim reaper is grim indeed.

On the other hand this should be compensated with about the equivalent number of new born children entering this world.


Sloterdijk states that a 1.5% mortality rate of the human population is equivalent to a 75 year average life span. I calculate that you can get 66.666.. times 1.5 in 100, ie. that after 66.66.. years everybody would be dead statistically - 10 billion to die in next 66 years! 10 billion to be born in the same time frame! which is the most disturbing? - ie we have an average life span of 66.67 years. To get an average of 75 years, I calculate that would be a 1.333% death rate, which then would mean 133 million deaths per year. Still a very large number.

Monday Aug 20, 2007

Purple Ocean Strategy

A few weeks ago I read through "Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant", By W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne of the Insead business school. This book has sold millions of copies since its publication. It is very easy to read, and contains a lot of clear and entertaining business cases by way of illustration, from the growth of the Cirque du Soleil via the story of the turnaround of crime in New York under the leadership of Bill Braton, all the way to Apple's phenomenal success with the iPod.

The Blue Ocean the book refers to is opposed to the Red Ocean of competition in well established markets where optimization and distinction on well understood, standardized criteria matter. The Blue Ocean stands for the new markets created by businesses where there are no predefined standards, no predefined audience, where no industrial feet have yet been placed; in short the sought after space where there is no competition, where huge fortunes can be made. One of the very nice things about this book is how it shows just how much the blue ocean markets can be created in every walk of life, not just where one expects it the most, in technology driven industries.

The aim of the book is to show how these oceans of innovation are created. The tools it develops to make it possible to understand this are very easy to grasp, and make a lot of sense. One point it makes, and that every creator knows, is that you cannot find a Blue Ocean by asking your customers what they want, or by doing simple market studies. Of course these spaces are created by responding to something people really wanted, and feeling for your customers is an important aspect of seeing new possibilities emerge. But the business owner, the entrepreneur - as opposed to the manager ( the book does not make this distinction ) - is the creator of a new value space which cannot be comprehended by the market ahead of time. More so even since by creating something new, the entrepreneur is redefining the boundaries of the established market, and so redefining the audience. The Cirque du Soleil for example changed both the definition of what a circus was and what theater was. In doing that the Cirque du Soleil became a competitor of not just theater and circuses, but also other night time activities people might have enjoyed in their place. The Cirque du Soleil did that but seemed also to appear out of nowhere.

Blue is the symbol of Liberty. The French flag is blue, white and red: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Blue in Europe is also associated with conservatism. The history of color associations in the USA is more complex and currently has the reverse association in part due to the stigma attached to the color red in the battle against Communism. Just as with the colors the book presents what are probably very complex ideas in an amazingly simple way. It separates the strands of thought the way a crystal separates light. Like a beat of electronic music it drums these distinctions into the readers mind, so that there is probably no need to re-read the book twice: reading it once is to read it three times. So my following criticism or thoughts will probably be just very facile remerging of what was separated for clarity.

Following the internet and computer industries I have noticed an element of the relation between red and blue that this book fails to make. As our CEO Jonathan Schwartz often mentions on his blog, it is not because one is in a commodity market that one cannot make a huge profit. The electric plug in your house, voltage, wire sizes and many other parts of the electricity industry are standardized. Those are commodity markets. Yet companies like General Electric or Siemens that produce huge generators for large dams or other electrical installations are in some very profitable markets. Without the standardization of the plugs and voltages, the electricity industry could never have grown so big. Standardization I have noticed, can be a stepping stone to building a Blue Ocean, the blue can build on the red.

To illustrate let me take one example from the book: Apple's huge success in recent years. One of the conceptual tools put forward by Blue Ocean Strategy, is that one has to create a new value curve. Remove some aspects of cost and value from a product (no animals in the Cirque du Soleil), change other aspects of value (price), create something new (artistic dance show). One way Apple reduced cost was by adopting open standards. By building on the Unix Operating system developed and used in Universities world wide they removed the major research cost of developing an Operating System whilst gained a huge pool of ready and highly qualified experts worldwide, and all the software that had been built in an Open Source way over time. The default compiler of OSX is Gnu CC. Think of the huge cost reductions that flow from being able to build in such a way on the works of others. By adding the one thing that had been missing from that system, an artistically coherent and beautiful end user experience, Apple gained those people's hearts and support and gave them a unique value proposition, bringing a very important community to Apple that would never have touched it before. By building on these open standards Apple also brings value to the community, if only in the existential example that it can be done, but certainly also over time in feeding back the improvements to the community. Simon Phipps explains how this works in full detail in "The Zen of Free". The same forces at work also lead Sun Microsystems down a similar path to its logical conclusion: by Opening up all of the software stack. As a result Sun and Apple are able to cooperate in numerous ways that would otherwise have been impossible. By working on a standard base Apple can gain award winning technologies such as ZFS at very low cost, allowing it to focus on differentiating itself where its user base's value is: simple packaging, beauty and fluid end user experience. Apple's switch last year to Intel is a similar move, building this time on an industrial de facto standard.
In all these cases reducing costs is not removing something completely from the system as proposed by Blue Ocean (removing the lions), but building on the commoditization and standardization of one layer, thereby bringing the costs down to close to zero. Building on the Red Ocean of community ownership a Blue Ocean of innovation and creativity, in a way that respects the value of the Red Ocean, is what I would like to call here, on my little blog at the end of the universe, Purple Ocean Strategy.

Having gotten this far it may be necessary to enlarge the notion of what is Red all the way to Green. If Red is what is socially established, fraternal ownership, then further along there is what is common to all living things, the biosphere, the Green. A strategy that took this into account would be looking for how to use and build in a sustainable way on that space. It is clear that not taking this into account can be extremely damaging, as the unfolding drama of Beijing Olympics is revealing. How to take it into account effectlively, may get us to the Turquoise Ocean Strategy.

Monday Jul 30, 2007

Cognitive Capitalism

After visiting the Louvre on Saturday, I wandered into a bookshop and picked up a book called "Le Capitalisme Cognitif, La Nouvelle Grande Transfromation", by Yann Moulier Boutang, which would translate in English into "Cognitive Capitalism, The Next Great Transformation". The book has a good section on the GNU/Linux free software movement, which must be unusual for a book on economics and so cought my interest. Better still it claimed to put forward a theory that would explain the emergence of such a phenonmenon. I was sold, and spent the rest of the weekend reading it, proving the point that the cognitive economy knows no 35 hour boundaries. When you find something interesting how can you let go?

According to this book we need nothing less than to postulate a third stage of capitalism, starting 1975, following the two previous stages which were the mercantilist stage which led to slave trade, followed by the industrial stage of which the car and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times are the symbols. The transformation of the economy by the Just in Time production Techniques (The Machine that Changed the World), the advent of computers and then the internet, moved industrial capitalism to a position of having to value knownlege more and more heavily. Whereas the industrial revolution fed off the movements of illiterate peasants into towns, and so emphasized the simplicity of repetitive tasks (Ford was proud that it would take a week to at most a month and a half to teach someone the ways on the assembly lines), so the cognitive revolution spurred by diminishing returns of mass produced goods, the breaking up of markets into ever narrower micromarkets and pulled by the power of computing and the network, is requiring people more and more to make decisions depending on knowledge accumulated in networks.

With a lot of very interesting references back to literature I am only superficially aware of, quoting the economic thinkers from Adam Smith, Marx, Keynes, Adorno, building on commentaries by Lawrence Lessig and Eric Raymond, there is no doubt that the authors are serious about their subject. Placing Open Source and the Free Software movement at the center of this revolution plays well to my prejudices. The French was at times hard to read for me, who am not used to the economics language, and the point of view definitively a bit local at times.

But there is something oddly missing in the book that reaches sometimes right up to some recent news (such as a couple of gaffes made by Sarcozy during the election campaign), and that is that there is absolutely no mention of Open Solaris or for that matter of Apple's open sourcing of their OS a few years ago (with some recent worries it is true) . The only thing that is taken from the Open Source movement is the free source movement, and the lesson taken from it is that open exchange of knowledge produces better goods than closed proprietary ones, and most of all that they are free. But detailed analysis of these ecosystems would be useful. How did they emerge? What is the interest in Standard Operating Systems (Unix), to start off with? How did the crowd of GNU/Linux developers finance their work? Why is there work at all in this space? These are real questions, and I have heard many interesting ideas and views on their answers. The answers will be complex, just as the explanation of why ants build their nests the way they do, and how that relates to the ecology of the forrest surrounding them. In the OpenSolaris case we know Jonathan Schwartz's answers: "There are two types of people, those that must pay and those that won't pay". Those that must pay are those that need liability coverage. They have other businesses to run, and they pay Sun for the guarantee that things will work well. It is just the continuation of the logic of outsourcing. Those that don't pay are researchers and other institutions that increase the value of the platform by using it, providing feedback and enthusiasm.

So the conclusion of the book which makes the jump from the power of free to the unsustainability of free without revolutionary government intervention, which certainly feels like a very French idea, is not at all convincing. The last chapters of the book are thus very dissapointing. As I read them I suddenly had the feeling that the whole previous thesis was built up later in order to defend the pre-established conclusion, increase and further the minimum salary to every branch of french society. An interesting idea, but that is a hell of a jump to make. Where did it go wrong?

Well for one I think it is clear that Open Source has found a way to sustain itself in a capitalistic economy, and it can only do this if those contributing are getting rewarded in some way for what they are doing. That one should find ways to improove the incentives of developers and contributors will clearly be in the interest of the firms that are building their reputation on top of them. So the question is how can firms develop on top of something free? Ask that to the bottled water salespeople. The amount of knowledge we can accumulate is it is true, as opposed to petrol for example, clearly limitless. But the amount of live knowledge and organisational knowledge humans can have is limited to the amount of brains in existence, complimented by computers of course. Now brains take time to grow, and thought take time to emerge. You cannot build a kernel engineer in a couple of weeks, a couple of months or even a couple of years. Neither is this a skill that comes as naturally as say going to the cinema, so there is not a large pool of such people around. Furthermore the world is constantly changing, and code is dead knowledge. There is always a need to adapt the kernel to some new device, add some improovemeents, or make some other changes. Finding the people that make the right changes is not going to be easy. Finally there are only 24 hours in a day, and even hackers can't be working all the time. The attention economy does no apply only to consumers. Developers themselves only have limited attentions. Paying them helps alleviate other problems they may have, such as finding food. In the end therefore demand for their services should create a sustainable ecological space for their work. And so for the rest of Open Source. If governments have a need for it, such as because they want the computers running their armies to be run by software understood by their own engineers, and that they can only get those if those courses are studied at Universities in a free and open way, then governements will and should contribute, as indeed they do. Indeed it could be argued that this is one of the largest forces behind the birth of Unix.

So it is not because software is free that nobody will pay for it, and so the argument in the last part of this book collapses pretty badly. But that we have entered a new world, very distinct from the Fordist era, that I am in no doubt.

Thursday Nov 23, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

The DVD for An Inconvenient Truth the film by Al Gore, has just come out in the United States. It has been some time that I was looking to see it, but kept missing it during my travels. I borrowed the last remaining copy from the local video store here in Berkeley. This should be required viewing - to be seen in conjunction with Koyaanisquatsi.

The most important evaluative judgments we have to make, is to decide which of our problems are the most important, the one we need to put all our energy to tackle. Is it the scratch on our car (for those who have one), the television that is not working, a parent that is in danger, the nation that is at risk, or the world itself that is out of balance? This film helps put these priorities in clear perspective, by drawing our attention to the big changes that have been occurring in the last fifty years, that we might not have taken any notice of, as they occurred a little too slowly.

Sunday Sep 10, 2006

Bar Fly in Berlin

There once were two who were always happy

So I have been sitting in a café named Soylent in Berlin, reading the second half of Jean Gebser's Ursprung und Gegenwart, that my old drinking buddy from San Francisco, Dave, had suggested I read. Conceived in the 1937, first published in 1949, and a second edition in 1966, it covers a large field of subjects in a way that is still very relevant and insightful. The book is getting difficult to read partly because of the references to a number of continental philosophers I have not read, but also because the evening is setting and there is not enough light to see the letters on the page. I just make out at the end of page 553: "Auch Heidegger greift das Konzept seines Lehrers Husserl...". I get up, take my backpack which contains my laptop, walk over to the bar maid and point her to that passage in the book. Of course with all the stuff I am carrying I forget the exact location of the passage, but she tells me that her brother had come over from Israel for a short vacation to Berlin, and that he had allready confirmed that Husserl was Heidegger's teacher.

We had a weird conversation the week before when I first discovered Soylent. That was last Saturday then, as I was over half way through the first part of "Ursprung und Gegenwart", subtitled "Beitrag zu einer Geschichte der Bewustwerdung" [contributions to a history of becoming conscious]. I had discovered Soylent by taking the S-bahn to the east of Berlin, and haphazardly getting out at some station, deciding that there was bound to be some nice relaxing place to read my book somewhere around there, and that I might as well be a tourist. After getting my hair cut for €10, I asked around for the happening area, and was pointed in direction of Warschauer Straße. As I passed Soylent I noticed the artwork on the walls (original), so ignoring the drilling noise, I sat down, looked at the menu and ordered a vegetarian sandwich. The guy drilling said he was nearly finished. The music, a selection of French, English and electronic music was very pleasant, the sun was shining so I just kept on reading.

The book being in German, I would come across a few words from time to time, which I did not understand. I had tried hard to guess their meaning from the context, but at one point I was just finding the double complexity of the meaning of the book and the lack of my understanding of a word - Muße in this case - to be too much indeterminacy, and so I asked the bar maid if she knew what that meant. She was not quite sure, so we asked around. Someone suggested Muse (the goddess of inspiration) and that seemed to fit. I was surprised that had not occurred to me.

Of course afterwards the usual questions followed, such as "where are you from?" to which I have to respond "England, France and Austria", because nothing else will quite explain how someone reading a big german book could not know that word. Of course I asked the question in return and the bar maid told me she was from Israel, studying film and theater.

Being a tourist, I was interested to know a little more about Berlin, so I asked a little, what she liked about it and then if she made herself a spiritual map of the town. I once noticed, I told her, that London could be divided into 5 regions which had a very clear spiritual/economic emphasis: North London was intellectual, East London was working class, South was more new rich, countryside, West was Imperial and the center was money. So following this map, it became clear why media would be in the North West, media being the intersection of intellectual and empire. It's a generalizing framework that I found useful to help me organize my experiences of London, full of holes and approximations, but nevertheless helpful. Of course she pointed out that Berlin had been divided after the cold war, and that reminded me that I should have a look at a map revealing the cold war zones.

This led me somehow to reflect on how amazing historical fate could be, that for a country such as Germany, whose most famous philosopher Hegel saw History as a development of the spirit, unfolding itself as thesis, antithesis and synthesis, that for a country whose main philosopher he was in the 18th century, Germany ended up being divided itself, by two camps, Capitalism and Communism which acted like thesis and antithesis, out of which sprung the new Germany, as a kind of synthesis of the two, or perhaps as Jean Gebser would say from the arational perspective, and integration of the two, whereby each part is still maintained and lives on, but a higher integrating structure that lives over and above the previous one, integrates and builds upon the past. There are still communists, punks (I later that evening came across a huge punk rock music festival in a large squatting zone), fascists, christian democrats, socialists, liberals, greens, etc.. all these past elements are integrated into the larger democratic structure that is the current Germany, itself integrated into the larger European structures, and numerous other international and transnational structures. The past is integrated in the present: all the way from the Ursprung (the Origin) to the Gegenwart (the present, understood as containing the past). Indeed perhaps this is the main difference between Hegelian synthesis and Gebserian integration: synthesis does not keep the past elements alive - there is no space for the previous categories after the synthesis.

To which she responded that one should take care of Hegel, as he was linked to the Nazis, about him having done something in the 1930ies - which got me a little confused to say the least. Hegel I clearly remember, and I know my understanding of history is very flaky, certainly lived before Nietzsche and Dostoievsky, and I know that they were writing in the second half of the 19th century, and that they clearly mention Hegel. So we had a problem. She seemed to be saying something about Hegel having something to do with the Nazis, which seemed to be stretching things a little. Perhaps, I wondered, she was thinking, of anti-Semitism going all the way back and having its roots in the writings of Hegel, and now I remember a very good book by an Israeli, Yirmiyahu Yovel The Dark Riddle writing on this subject, and surprisingly enough making the case that to the contrary of Bertrand Russel's facile interpretation of Nietzsche, he had in fact been quite the opposite of an anti semite - warning in fact of the dangerous trends that he saw in that direction - whereas the rationalism of Hegel was a lot more damning (since he thought older religions had been surpassed, he saw no real point for them left) So there you go, you are in Berlin, and a small discussion about the spiritual map of the town brings up a huge sequence of thoughts on history and philosophy. In order to cut down the possibilities of interpretation a little I decided to take the word Nazis in the more precise historical context around the second world war. "Yes ", she said, "Hegel was teaching here in Berlin during the war". Ah! Mistaken identities. We had it. She was thinking of Heidegger. This was clarified when she mentioned that he had a Jewish teacher and that Heidegger had not done much to protect him (Husserl I suggested) from the crazy laws forbidding Jews to teach in Germany in the 1940ies.

The barmaid, Ilil is her name, a very sharming and spirited young woman, had studied philosophy in Israel as part of some syllabus, covering the history of Jewish thinking of which she mentioned Emmanuel Lévinas, and his philosophy of the Other. So as I pointed out that passage in the book yesterday evening, it reconnected from our weird conversation the week before. Her brother who seems to be studying physics, computing and all kinds of technical subjects, (Ilil tells me he is perhaps a little too technical at times and does not take care enough of the emotions - I can hear my sister saying the same about me) - her brother then had confirmed my guess about Husserl being Heideggers teacher, as he had come over to visit for the week.
So we continued on the conversation from there, as the bar was a little empty, and in between orders, we spoke of other subjects such a film, possible worlds, the 10 dimensions of reality - which I quickly explained to her - and other such stuff one can talk of in a bar full of interesting people and with excellent murales.

The evening moved along and two guys who were on some kind of pub crawl came in, one of whom I overheard mentioning something about his buddy setting out to corner 90% of the market. His buddy soon took an interest in two girls in the corner of the room, and went over to chat to them. The guy had a quick glance at my books, but seemed more interested in Ilil. He asked her for something, she gave him a paper, he laughed at it, and off he went to join his friend. A little later he came back, sat around, and asked me what I was reading. So I tried to summarize Jean Gebser's work by saying that it was a book about a history of the development of consciousness, and that Gebser had identified 5 stages of consciousness from the origins of time, the archaic, the magical, the mental and he predicted the coming of the Integral stage whose birth he set out to describe in the second book that I was just reading, and with which I was struggling a little. But from what I was reading about the part I understood - his emphasis on the space-time discoveries of Einstein, and his interpretations of quantum mechanics - I have to say that he had some very good intuitions on where things were heading, presuming that the 10 dimensions of string theory I described in a previous blog here last week - is correct.

  • "That's all well and good, but the question is," he said pausing, "what brings you to read this?"
  • "Mhh that's a deep question. " I thought a little. "Because I find it interesting", I ventured
  • "But is there a purpose?"
Here I explained quickly the relation between the indeterminacy of quantum physics, possible worlds, and freedom of action.
  • "That does not explain causality" he suggested.
  • "Oh no, to the contrary". I responded. "David Lewis explains causality in counterfactual terms very simply. First he defines causality as relating events. Take this roll of tissue paper ", I said picking up the roll in front of me, "and take the event of my moving my hand so ", I moved my hand and the roll fell over, "the event of my moving my hand caused the roll to fall over just means that if the event of my moving my hand had not happened, the roll would not have fallen over, which is a counterfactual statement, and so a relation between possible worlds", simplifying somewhat David Lewis's paper on causality. (see standford encyclopedia for more details)
  • "Well", he said, changing track, "imagine we are like a fly trapped under a dome ". He pointed to an imaginary fly on the bar, and making a semi-spheric movement with his hands covered the fly with an imaginary dome. "What weird theories would the fly trapped under the dome come up with about its universe? Would those not in fact only be valid about the partial space it perceived from its own small and finite perspective?"
  • "Very good point", I answered, " and this is exactly what is so absolutely amazing about string theory. It is not a physics of our small universe, but it is a physics it seems of all possible universes, if what I have come to understand in the last week is correct. If the fly trapped under its dome decided to come up with a physics that described just its perceptions, the phenomena it came in contact with, then yes, the poor fly would end up with a very limited and incomplete theory of the universe. But if the fly instead of creating a theory of what is happening under its dome, created a theory of all possible worlds, then it could perhaps come up with string theory, and correctly describe everything, even with its finite and limited perceptions of the world. An unlikely event for something as simple as a fly of course, but you get my point."

This was not the usual reply he heard to his puzzle, that was clear, because it did stop him in his tracks. He paused. Then pursued,

  • "The fly is only finitely intelligent, consider what a more intelligent creature could come up with."
  • "Yes, you are quite right. First notice though how you are just making a counterfactual statement which is best described using possible worlds logic. Thought itself consists of imagining and talking about possible worlds. Secondly, I think that the point of yours that just as we are to a fly - immensely more intelligent - so other creatures may be to us.
  • "Have you ever met such a creature?" he asked rhetorically.
  • "I don't have to. Since we can imagine them we know they must possible exist." I smiled. "But to get back to your point about these intelligent creatures, your realization that there may be much more intelligent, spiritually evolved creatures than yourself, is in itself is a very great and useful discovery about the finiteness of our intelligence, which is worth taking into account in proceeding in the world."

That seemed to close the discussion, as he gestured to Ilil a little paper with it seemed a phone number on it, and mumbled something I did not catch. She laughed a little and timidly pointed to the ring on her finger, "I have to tell you that I am married" she said.

  • "Oh I am sorry" he said very much taken aback it seemed. His plan there had stopped in its tracks. (Oh the magical power of the ring!) There followed some very confused talk of how he was surprised, how old she was (25), and that it was such an early age to be married, how he would not imagine to marry so young,
  • "It is not physical age but spiritual age that counts" said Ilil and how he thought that if he was to marry it would be at 32 or something, he was 27 or so. Anyway he was quite all over the place. The guy really was taken aback, and of course given the lack of subtlety in his way of opening the situation, he clearly could not conceive that she might only be wearing this ring to push off barbarians at the bar. Perhaps the thought crossed his mind, so he continued. He even went on to say that he could not live without women. To which I responded "One can't live with them one can't live without them".
  • "I love women", he exclaimed, somewhat helplessly
  • "Clearly you have not lived with one yet", I said.

Isn't youthful enthusiasm great?

  • "What do you study I asked?"
  • "I studied history" he answered, "but I am tired of it now."

Clearly he had not studied the history of becoming conscious. His friend came over and they moved on to another bar.

A blond woman came to the bar to pay and doing so noticed my books, and said

  • "Ah so they have republished this book."
  • "I don't know" I said "I just went to the book shop in the center of Berlin and ordered it on the suggestion of my friend Dave Freeman, from San Francisco".
  • "Oh yes. It was out of print for a while", she continued.
  • "Do you know his work?"
  • "My mother had it at home", she continued, " and I have been meaning to read it for a while. What do you make of it?"
  • "Well it is a very interesting and deeply researched map of a history of becoming conscious", I replied. "From the passages I understand best - and I am not expert, far from it - the space-time/quantum debate, I must say that his intuitions of what was to come were very good. I can't comment about a lot of the other topics he covers, as the depth of Gebser's culture so far surpasses my own, that I am just left to take his word for a lot of what he says. I will see how far his map takes me. It is a hefty book to read, so I can't just recommend it to everyone. A simpler overview or continuation of this thought is given by Ken Wilber, who is more of a guru, American style - lots of marketing and stuff there though. His book 'Sex, Ecology and Spirituality' though a little off putting with its back cover quotation 'The twenty first century has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche and Ken Wilber'"
We smiled an uncomfortable smile.
  • "Still", I continued, "if one can abstract from the marketing hype, its a good book. This integral thinking is very helpful in creating a framework to bring together all the disparate specialized fields of knowledge. In the United Kingdom we are much too specialized in our thinking. A child can take an A level in only three subjects, and then go on to a very high level of specialization for his Bachelors. I for example only really studied 20th century logical philosophy. In the end too much specialization leads to a drying up of the well of inspiration. Knowledge has to be built in an integral framework and have depth for it to be alive. " (see RDF and Metcalf's law) "What do you study?"
  • "Music ethnography and psychology."
  • "Oh, excellent. That is a wide spectrum of fields."
  • "Yes. Nice talking to you. I have to go, but I'm sure we'll meet again. Bye", she said, having paid, and left.

So now it's Sunday and I am in Soylent putting the finishing touches on this rather lengthy entry. I notice a woman sitting in front of me reading a book. I start a small conversation with her. Noa is her name. She is visiting Berlin from Israel for the weekend, and was just reading Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens in hebrew in a translation by Irit Linor. "Very fun" Noa told me. And she just left to see the Cirque du Soleil, which is playing for the first time in Berlin.

The music from Magnolia is playing.

Wednesday Sep 06, 2006

The 10 dimensions of reality

In my previous post on possible worlds I pointed to the excellent flash animation (click) that covers the 10 dimensions of string theory.

The summarise the points made in that film (worth seeing again and again):

  1. The 0th dimension is the dot. You don't need any numbers to identify its position.
  2. The first dimension is the line. You need two dots to define a line. Any other dot on that line can be located on that line using one real number that will give the distance of the third dot to the first dot using the distance of your first two dots as the unit. So on a ruler your first two dots can be the 0 and the 1cm dot. Every other dot is at some cm length from the 0.
  3. the second dimension is the plane. You need two numbers to identify a point on a plane. Usually called the x and the y axis. On a plane you can find the distance between two points by drawing a line that does not go through your reference dot.
  4. space is the third dimension. You need three numbers to determine the distance of an object in space. These are usually called the x,y and z axes.
  5. space time is the fourth dimension: it requires four numbers to place a dot in space-time. 3 for the spacial position, and one for the time. The four dimensional world we live in, seen from the beginning of the universe to the end of the universe, is the actual world we live in.
  6. The 5th dimension is the first dimension in which the notion of possible worlds starts needing to be used. Imagine some possible world a little different from this one (maybe one where you did not read this blog). This possible world will give you a unit of similarity measurement with which to compare the distance of other possible worlds to the actual one.
  7. The 6th dimension will give you a plane of possible worlds. You can find out the similarity distance of two possible worlds from each other without having to go through the actual one. So with 6 dimensions it is possible to compare the distance of the world in which last Sunday I entered another café, with the world in which I made a huge groundbreaking invention when I was a child, without having to compare that to the actual world. We can also measure the distance of any of those to the possible world in which the earth was never created, for example. The 6 dimensions allow us to compare and position all the possible worlds that start with the same initial conditions (the big bang) as this one.
  8. The 7th dimension will give you access to the possible worlds that start with different initial conditions (big bang). A point in the 7th dimension consists of all the possible worlds that start with the same initial big bang and lead to all the possible endings that such an initial condition can lead to.
  9. The 8th dimensions gives us again a plane of such complete possible universe histories, which in the video they call infinity. We can there compare two such infinities without necessarily having to take ours into account.
  10. With the 9th dimension we can compare all the possible universes histories starting with all the different possible laws of physics and initial conditions.
  11. The Tenth dimension is the point in which everything possible and imaginable is covered. Since we can't imagine any further, we have to stop here.

David Lewis does not specify an upper limit to possible worlds: he does not exclude impossible worlds. It's just that it would be impossible for us to describe them (if indeed there are any).

Here are a couple of quotes worth remembering from that presentation. In the description of the 5th dimension the narrator says:

Quantum physics tells us that the sub atomic particles that make up our world are collapsed from waves of probability simply be the act of observation.

In the description of the 10th dimension he says

In string theory physics tell us that superstrings vibrating in the 10th dimension are what create the subatomic particles which make up our universe and all the other possible universes as well. In other words all possible universes are contained within the tenth dimension.

Sunday Sep 03, 2006

Possible Worlds: The Fifth Dimension

One of the great logical discoveries of the last 30 years is that of the 5th Dimension. This is still very little known outside logical/philosophical circles, though it is starting to have an influence on physical interpretations of quantum mechanics, the arts and history, and soon the internet.

Einstein made us all aware of the 4 dimensions of space time (3 dimensions for space and 1 for time). This lead to the further discoveries of quantum mechanics and its discovery of quantum indeterminacy, whereby it is impossible to know both the position and the speed of a quantum particle. This found its realisation in the creation of the Atomic bomb, with which we have all been living for the past 60 years, and which changed the political landscape for ever.

Einstein is well known to have said that "God does not play dice", a statement that is fundamentally opposed to the discoveries of quantum physics. And yet it seems both the theory of relativity and quantum physics are both needed today to describe the world. Neither quantum physics nor relativity give us a complete description of the world.

The 5th, and higher, dimensions, though they did not find their origins in an attempt to reconcile these two views, but from an analysis of language and of logic, do as I understand it, resolve this dilemma. (note: Before continuing to read what I have to say here, it would certainly be best to view the tenth dimension video which will make what I am saying here a lot easier to understand. I only discovered this video after posting this, but it completely confirms the points made here.)

So let us trace back quickly the evolution of this idea. At the end of the 19th century Frege, a German logician, set the foundations for mathematical logic. This logic comes in three parts:

  • a syntax: how signs can be combined to form sentences. Starting from signs such as "Henry" "is in" and "Berlin" we can create sentences such as "Henry is in Berlin".
  • a semantics: how these signs related to the world. "Henry" refers to me. "is in" is a relation that relates individual objects to spacial regions. "Berlin" is a specific spacial region. The sentence together refers, according to Frege to the True, ie it is true that "Henry is in Berlin" since the objects refered to by the elements in the sentence do in fact stand in the relation stated above. Ie: I am in Berlin (no quotes).
  • The above led to the formal discovery of meaning, as something more than the relation between a word and its referent. This is demonstrated by a the following simple thought process. If the word's meaning were wholy contained in its referent, the thinking goes, then the sentence "Berlin is the capital of Germany" would have the same meaning as "Berlin is Berlin" since "Berlin" refers to a thing that is the same thing as "the capital of Germany". Yet it is clear that the information content of the first sentence is not the same as that of the second sentence. Frege deduced therefore that not only did words possess a referent, they also possessed a "sense".

I will skip quickly over 70 years of philosophical/logical thinking and jump straight to David Lewis, who in is book "Counterfactuals", set out and succeeded in giving a logical analysis of sentences such as "If kangaroos had no tails they would topple over". This type of sentence constitutes a very big problem for the simple Fregean logic, since the antecedent of the condition "Kangaroos have no tails" is false. In Fregean mathematical logic this leads inevitably to the conditional being evaluated to be true, an initially somewhat counterintuitive analysis of an "if ... then ..." conditional, but one that works in fact very well for mathematical statements and many others. Material conditionals as the Fregean conditionals are called are designed to transfer truth. We have the same in programming when we write if (2==1) then System.out.println("ouch"). Since the antecedent is false (two is never 1) the "ouch" is never printed out. No pain.

Ok so back to our kangaroos. Since kangaroos do in fact have tails, the sentence "If it were the case that kangaroos have no tails then it would be the case that kangaroos topple over" would be immediately true, were we to interpret the logical connective "If it were the case that ... then it would be the case that ..." as a material conditional. And yet I have had some very fun and instructive debates about what would or would not happen if kangaroos had no tails, the question not being settled in any way by recourse to any notion of material conditionals.

Having introduced this problem David Lewis then goes on to give an brilliant analysis of such sentences. To do this he introduces the notion of a possible world.
A possible world he says, is a world just like this actual one, the one I am writing this in and the one you are reading this in. Except that it is different in some factual aspect. So there is a possible world where I am writing this from another café in Berlin. Of course you're not going to have two worlds that differ from another world by just one fact. Usually there is a difference in the past events that led up to this. So in the world where I am writing this from a another café, is a world where I walked some different path, asked a different bar maid for a beer, am sitting at a different table, and perhaps would have, as a result written this text somewhat differently, and perhaps my future will be very different too in this other world as a result of making a fateful encounter in that café that I don't make in this one. Anyway, these worlds are like this one in that if we go with Einsteinian physics and accept that this world is 4 dimensional space-time continuum, then the other world too can be a 4 dimensional space time continuum. Yet these two worlds are at no physical distance from each other. You can't travel from one to the other. Light does not travel between the two. Each world is a factually complete 4 dimensional world (there could be worlds with more dimensions, but let us leave this for now).
Now it had already been shown by another very famous logician Kripke, that the notion of possible worlds was enough to explain the concepts of metaphysical necessity and possibility - two notions that had seriously gotten into disrepute in the early 20th century - and not only that, he showed that these metaphysical notions were very useful in solving some difficult philosophical problems. A sentence he argued is necessarily true, if it is true in all possible worlds. So for example mathematical truths are necessarily true, since they are true in all possible worlds. A sentence in possibly true, if there is at least one possible world in which it is true. For example it is possible that you win the lottery is to say that there is a possible world in which you do. Depending on how you define the identity of a person across possible worlds, you will then come to different conclusions as to whether it is possible that you have a different mother and father. Kripke took personal identity to be given by the union of a particular sperm and egg. As such it follows that that it was impossible that you have different parents.
David Lewis though adds something very important to Kripke's notion of possible worlds. He gives them an ordering of similarity. Some worlds are more similar to ours than others. This is not a linear ordering, meaning that two worlds could be equally similar to ours. The world where you did not read this article is a lot more similar to this one that the world in which pigs fly (through their own volition of course). With this ordering David Lewis is then able to analyse our sentence about kangaroos as: In the closest possible worlds in which kangaroos have no tails they topple over. He then analyses sentence such as "If Kangaroos have no tails they could topple over" as having the weaker meaning of: in the closest possible worlds in which kangaroos have no tails, there is one of them at least in which kangaroos do in fact topple over. All of this is given formal mathematical backing, and is very much worth reading.
This analysis of counterfacuals proved to be immensely helpful in further helping us analyse causality, knowledge, meaning, necessity, actuality, probability, time, mind and many other notions that had previously eluded philosophers. I will come back to these other notions in future posts. The point being that if a theory is to be judged by the quality of the explanations it leads to, David Lewis' philosophy has been extremely successful.

For a technically minded person though, resolving philosophical puzzles may not seem to be concrete enough, which is why I mention a little longer the relation to quantum physics. In one of his papers David Lewis also gives an analysis of quantum indeterminacy by allowing the actual world to be not just one world but a set of indeterminately similar worlds. I can't remember the precise details off hand, and my books are in some box some where in France, but this is probably equivalent though viewed from the outside, to possible worlds interpretations of quantum physics. I say it is viewed from the outside, because as I understand, possible worlds interpretation of quantum physics imagine that new possible worlds are created each time a quantum choice is made, whereas David Lewis would say they all exist, it is just that the choice that is made forces a particular set of worlds to be the actual ones. In a way, quantum indeterminacy is what we would call choosing which world we live in. If we follow Roger Penrose's thinking in The emperor's new mind, that the brain is using quantum effects, then we could see more precicely how, when we decide to do one thing or another, we are choosing which possible world we are going to live in. We are in a sense travelling through possible worlds by the choices we make.

To summarize, the 5th dimension springs out of an analysis of language, the key topic of the 20th century research. Every great discovery has its physical realisation, to follow the thinking Jean Gebser. If the discovery of space and our situation in space led to the discovery of the Americas, if relativity theory and quantum theory led to the atomic bomb, so logic led to computing, and the theory of language is being instantiated by the internet, the web, and the just enfolding Semantic Web. Possible worlds theory is being concretized in games, which allow a player to save a game, try different possibilities, come back to a past state and try again. Even films have started illustrating this topic. Run Laura, Run a German film that came out five years ago, goes through the same story of an attempted bank robbery by showing how small changes in someone's decision can make huge changes to the ending of the film. Recently the French comedy Jean Philippe which imagines a fan of the famous French singer Johnny Hallyday waking up after an accident in a slightly altered parallel world where his star never quite made it, and puts all his energy into convincing him to try again.

To the seven classical arts

  • Music
  • Dancing
  • Poetry
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Theater
The twentieth century clearly added the following
  • Film/comic strips
  • Computer Games
where film makes the space time dimension of things clear, since it is a sequence of rapidly sequential images. At the same time, until recently the inevitable endings of film reinforced a deterministic thinking. Computer games open up the fifth dimension with the option of playing out different scenarios, and involving the spectator in the game. Virtual worlds and computer games make the feelings one has of possible worlds much more realistic.

David Lewis also considers, and endorses making the similarity relation between possible worlds continuous, so that between any two possible worlds there is always a third possible world that is more similar to the first than the second. This is in part what the indeterminacy of the actual world is about, since as in mathematics any number n + delta d (an infintely small numer) is indistinguisheable from n. What we have then is a space-time-possibilia continuum.

Ok so having said this, and having started my explanation by pointing out to Frege's discovery of sense, I'll fill in a sketch of David Lewis's theory of language. For David Lewis the meaning of a sentence is the set of possible worlds in which it is true. So the reason "Berlin is the capital of Germany" is different in meaning from "Berlin is Berlin", is that we can very well imagine a possible world in which the capital of Germany is not Berlin (in fact it only recently became Berlin again). Meaning is thus given a extensional semantics, which has an intentional feel (since we can only imagine these possiblia).


Yesterday, Sunday 3rd September 2006, must have been dimension day. Because at the same time I wrote this Nova Spivack wrote about I'm Addicted to StumbleUpon where he points to the amazing Guided visualisation of 10 dimensional space which makes exactly the point I describe here, namely that the 5th dimension is that of possible worlds. I highly recommend watching that video.

In fact looking at the video above, it is clear that possible worlds in David Lewis's sense englobe the 5th to the 10th dimension. As I understand now, thinking of the 5th dimension only give you a subset of all possible worlds. You need higher dimensions to get the possible worlds that have different starting points from our own (and so presumably different laws of physics, etc). From that video it is now clear, that the possible worlds interpretation of quantum physics is a lot more serious than I had hitherto conceived. It is the core of it (as far as string theory is concerned, if the video is a good introduction to it).

Monday Aug 07, 2006

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality - The Spirit of Evolution

I just had to take a day off today to finish devouring my first Ken Wilber book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. I had first heard of Ken Wilber around 2001, when I was living in San Francisco, reading - as one has to if one is to fit into the spiritual life of the area - a huge number of books on psychology, from existential psychoterapy, to the philosophy of emotions, through to Jung, covering also various well known critics of the field. It really struck me how much each of the psychotherapies was related to a particular school of philosophy. Cognitive psychoterapy clearly was closely related to logical positivism and behaviorism, existential psychoterapy to existentialism, and I suppose Jung would be closer to the philosophy of religions.

Ken Wilber in this book is quite open about being influenced by the Hegelian school of thought and Budhism. And his book has the depth and overview I remember from the little Hegel I read a long long time ago. He draws a very appealing picture integrate a large number of different thinkers and philosophies and bring some very welcome fresh light on them. I feel that I am going to have to re-read many of the classics, and he has given me new energy to read some for which I had never yet found an interest, such as Plotinus, which he describes as being one of the greatest post Aristotelian thinkers. Ken Wilber also covers a lot of postmodern thinkers (Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, ...) helping one understand their contributions to thought whilst finding a way to remain clearly critical of them. He does not spend so much time with the analytic school of thinkers (Wittgenstein, Davidson, David Lewis, Kripke, ...), with which I am a lot more familiar, though at times he seems to make a few winks that way too.
Ken Wilber really excells at integration: ie. helping set a framework in which one can read the history of thought in a way that helps locate each thinker, explain his contribution to what came before and how he fitted into what came right after. This is all the more interesting as he does not limit his history to one subject matter such as philosophy, but covers pretty much every aspect of the development of human thought, from biology, to anthropology (Levi-Stauss), history, psychology (Piaget), and a lot more... Still, to be complete his work would have to do a better job of incorporating the findings of the most famous philosophers of the analytic tradition such as Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson - though that would probably also make the book a lot more dull and less readable...

"Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" is long and often repetitive, but then it is also very clear and easy to read. I found a very good summary of the book at the cogsci department at UCLA. It is probably a little too condensed, and is missing the essential graphs that make the book understandeable - bear in mind that the book is 800 pages long (of which 300 pages of footnotes, which I have not yet read). If nothing else this book is really great at opening one's intellectual horizon... and doing this is the first step in helping us become conscious of our relation to the world in which we live - not just the physical world, but the spiritual world which has shaped it.

On the negative side, I find Ken Wilber's web site very off putting. It feels like a quack medicine site. This is not helped with quotes on the back cover of his book such as:

The twenty-first century literally has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Ken Wilber. This book, written with remarkable scholarly breadth and depth, is exactly the medicine we need for the new century and the new millenium: not because it will make us feel good, wich it surely might, but because it can jolt us awake.

There was a time when I would not even have bothered to open a book where the author allowed himself to be described in such terms. And its a good thing I did not see his web site or that quote before I read what he had to say. If one is to be a spiritual leader, then one should not need to sell oneself like a soap brand. It could invite comparisons to soap bubbles.

This could then easily lead one to a cynical interpretation of this work: a very interesting overview of the mind body problem, followed by a very simple but mystical solution, that requires essentially that one join his group and follow courses in order to get the spiritual enlightenment. After all the solution to the problem is not in the book, but can only be had by practice.

Still, even if this very cynical view were correct, then the world would clearly be a much better place if more spiritual quacks had the breadth and depth of Ken Wilber's reading and culture. In fact it would be a world where the term "quack" would end up having a very different, probably positive, meaning :-)


I found a harsh critique of Ken Wilber in Stripping the Gurus. I have not had time to read through this in detail, nor to verify the fact mentioned. It seems to be mostly about Ken Wilber not making denuciating some person he should have taken more distance to - which if right is perhaps a little indirect of a critique. Reading a book on "Living in Zen" by Suzuki, does highlight some of the violent aspects of Zen. But perhaps this is a problem of historical perspective. I can just imagine someone rediscovering the deep spiritual knowledge of the middle ages in Europe, and then applying it to our time without having first taken care to remove the less pleasing aspects of that epoch in which it was embedded, such as witch-burning for example. To be able to select the good aspects from the bad in past philosophies, requires deep historical understanding, or else it one will fall either into one of two traps: make the past appear like the present, and so misunderstand what was said, or bring the past as is with its warts and all to the present and find oneself with a corpse.




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