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October 28, 2005

The cold cometh

Autumn is on the downhill in Nova Scotia, and sometime soon after Halloween the first frosty tendrils of winter will arrive. Snow will blanket the landscape, probably to melt for another month's reprieve -- but it has been known to stay that way through early May. How's that for scary, my readers living in more temperate climes?

Still, there's always somebody who's got browner grass. I'm glad I'm not stuck in this position...

Posted by The Greatness at 08:27 AM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2005

In defense of reification

All right, y'all, I'm newly full of book-learnin' on intelligence and home sick with a sinus infection, so we're going deep.

Reification is the process of regarding something abstract as something real, concrete, and/or material. We are reifying when we decide that something we are looking at, talking about, or thinking of is real -- it's not just a useful model of how things work or a clever trick of the mind. According to some schools of thought, notably epistemological realism, to talk of anything that is not indisputably concrete as if it is commits a fallacy. For example, someone who says "we are giving some of our democracy to the Iraqi people" is wrongly implying that there is such a thing as democracy, that it's something that can be possessed, that we possess it, and that it can be doled out in part to other people. There are further fallacies that could be asserted. I once held the (rather dogmatic) view that there was no such thing as "society". One could similarly argue that there is really no such thing as "the Iraqi people" in any coherent sense, only groups of disparate individuals. Or consider the Xinhua example "the Chinese people believe that Taiwan is part of China". If we are to reify "the Chinese people" as the official Chinese government press would intend, then the statement makes no sense. Granting Taiwan as part of China makes the Taiwanese people part of "the Chinese people"; thus, there should be no dispute between Taiwan and the mainland Chinese government, but there obviously is.

The anti-reificationist position (I'll call it "AR" for short) has considerable value, especially with respect to political discussions. Clearly, terms like "soccer mom", "blue stater", and "welfare queen" poorly reflect the essential attributes of the people to which they allegedly apply; they are stereotypes, usually coined to serve a political purpose that requires a group of people to be viewed in a narrow and (usually) misleading way. Pointing out this distortion of the truth is a valuable contribution to rational discourse. Nevertheless, despite its utility I have problems with AR.

My first problem with AR is that its use is not so much focused on the form of the argument as the object. A fallacy is generally a statement that is not true on its face, regardless of its subject, because of its form. For example, if I say "Some cats have three legs, therefore my cat has three legs," there's a problem with the proposition even if it is true that some cats have three legs and that group includes my cat. The problem is the "therefore"; it is simply not the case that my cat has three legs because cats have been known to be in a three-leggish way from time to time. AR does not work like this. If I say "cats are spunkier than dogs", you might say via AR that I'm wrongly arguing there's such a thing as spunk, that it can be had, and that it can be quantified and measured. And you'd be right. If I'd said, on the other hand, "monkeys have more hair than people do", then I am not reifying and it's fine. The only thing that distinguishes statements that violate the AR principle is whether there's any question about the reality of the subject. Unfortunately, there is often quite a bit of controversy about whether something is real: consciousness, design in nature, institutional racism... you name the topic, there's some kind of existential argument going on that supercedes AR.

For example, if I say "people have more intelligence than cows", then those on the watch for "speciesism" will take umbrage at my claim of human superiority. But they'll do so, not by saying they disagree with my factual claim (though they obviously do), but by asserting that I'm not actually making a factual claim; I'm just reifying intelligence and my statement is wrong, ipso facto. What's the difference? Well, if you told me you thought I was wrong about this, I could try to convince you that I'm not. I could show you studies, say, that demonstrate humans are unparalleled in their use of tools and symbolic language, and that cows seem to have little to no ability in these things. And I could argue that, whatever intelligence is, those properties are part of it and they can be compared qualitatively at the very least. But if you tell me it is not possible that I am right, then the conversation has to stop there. It's as if you have said intelligence does not exist, and I am either a fool or a blackguard for suggesting that it does. Maybe you really wanted to say "who are you to say what's intelligent? You're just an arrogant bigot justifying his meat-eating lifestyle!" but that would have been ad hominem. Asserting AR is far more refined -- and rhetorically effective.

My second problem with AR is that, by categorically labeling all such arguments as a priori fallacious, it may well do violence to the very notion of what it means to be human. This is where Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence enters my rambling prose. He is an engineer by trade, lead designer for such ubiquitous devices as the PalmPilot and cellular phones, and he has always been fascinated by the brain. Hawkins is among those neuroscience theorists who argue for a "connectionist" model of the brain, but he goes further still. He notes that a study has demonstrated that there are neurons in 21st-century American brains that fire only when viewing a picture of Bill Clinton. We can't even get computers to recognize general faces consistently, yet the brain can unambiguously specify Bill Clinton's face. Computers are, in principle, much faster but they haven't got what the brain's got, and Hawkins thinks he knows why:

There are as many if not more feedback connections in visual cortex as there are feedforward connections. For many years most scientists ignored these feedback connections. If your understanding of the brain focused on how the cortex took input, processed it, and then acted on it, you didn't need feedback. All you needed were feedforward connections leading from sensory to motor sections of the cortex. But when you begin to realize that the cortex's core function is to make predictions, then you have to put feedback into the model; the brain has to send information flowing back toward the region that first receives the inputs. Prediction requires a comparison between what is happening and what you expect to happen...

By utilizing a hierarchical structure of prediction-making machines, suggests Hawkins, the brain is constantly forming sets of complex predictions that become what he calls "invariant memories". No one knows what the world is like directly, but only indirectly, through one's senses. Intelligence is, in effect, a nested prediction algorithm making and adjusting predictions of everything: whether something is preceived as a chair, a dog, or Bill Clinton's face depends on what we have predicted in the past about the properties these things should have. If Hawkins is right, then he's not reifying anything by speaking of intelligence: viewed from an engineering standpoint, saying a person is equipped with intelligence is no different than saying my car is equipped with an automatic transmission.

But even if he's not reifying anything, our brains are. It is, in fact, all they do:

People are real, trees are real, my cat is real, the social situations you find yourself in are real. But your understanding of the world and your responses to it are based on predictions coming from your internal model... Throughout this book, you could substitute the word stereotype for invariant memory... without substantially altering the meaning. Prediction by analogy is pretty much the same as judgment by stereotype... If my theory of intelligence is right, we cannot rid people of their propensity to think in stereotypes, because stereotypes are how the cortex works. Stereotyping is an inherent feature of the brain. The way to eliminate the harm caused by stereotypes is to teach our children to recognize false stereotypes...

In summary, reification, far from being a fallacious process, seems to be the only way we can know anything. We should focus on improving our understanding of abstract things rather than denying their reality.

Posted by The Greatness at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2005

My pen: R.I.P.

This may seem like a frivolous thing to write about, but it was so weird that I feel compelled to mention it. Many of you know my penchant for always having a black pen in my pocket. I seldom loan it out, even for a minute, lest it end up in somebody else's pocket; people apparently don't think of pens as belonging to anyone, and they'll walk away with one even if they borrowed it not thirty seconds ago from somebody standing right in front of them. Anyway, suffice to say I hold onto each pen until it runs out of ink, retired with a job well done.

Well, this morning my pen committed suicide, or maybe I killed it accidentally. Here's how it happened. The floor I work on at Dalhousie's chemistry department is closed with a fire door. As I was opening this door, I pulled out my keychain to get ready to unlock my office. But my pen tagged along, caught inside the key ring. I noticed this and tried to grab the errant pen with my right hand, letting go of the door in the process... but I failed. And the pen fell right between my right foot and the rapidly closing door, lodging itself at its widest point under the narrowest part of the door. The door was now stuck half open. I fought to remove the pen but I only succeeded in dismantling it. In the end, I had to use a thin edge of a crowbar to knock the remains of the pen out from under the door.

The pen could not, of course, be put back together. It died very young, with only 10% of its ink used. Now, that's about average for a pen in this dog-eat-pen-top world, but it's far below the lifetime of my pens. It's a tragedy.

(And yeah, I had like ten more in my office. Don't ruin my bittersweet moment)

Posted by The Greatness at 09:52 AM | Comments (6)

October 14, 2005

The Greatness: Recording Artist

Last night, I played a concert to unveil a new album on which I have all the drumming credits. Read about singer-songwriter Joyce Saunders and her new album in The Coast. The concert went relatively well; attendance must have been around 100 and there weren't any major musical gaffes. The concert got me thinking, vaingloriously, about how little I've produced for posterity in my eighteen years of drumming. Believe it or not, this recording is actually my first full-length album as a sideman that wasn't irretrievably lost (Adam Short Blues Band), recorded with 400 other people, or produced in jest using a boombox.

I should also note that our "opening band", Benn Ross' Fabulous Band, played an impressive early set in support of their new EP. The best thing I can say about the Fab Band is that I don't understand them. To describe the overall effect of their music, I'll channel my best too-cool music writer impression: imagine a trio of sonorous backup singers belting out William Carlos Williams poems to the tune of some giddy 50's jingle, backed by the full-throated percussion of a Bali gamelan parade. No, I doubt hearing them in person would clarify that word picture at all. Better yet, imagine Weather Report minus Wayne Shorter plus half of Manhattan Transfer. Still not clear? Then I can't help. Anyway, I enjoyed their playing.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:56 AM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2005

Graphically challenged

As you may have noticed, I have made some changes here at TG.com with the colors and layout. As you may have also noticed, I suck at this.

I am soliciting ideas for new color schemes, layouts, and doohickies that will wow my readers and enrich their lives. Comments, please...

Posted by The Greatness at 09:41 AM | Comments (2)

Dawkins grows a heart

I recently finished Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins thinks himself another "Darwin's Bulldog" like T. H. Huxley, and his past books on science have been pointedly anti-religion, casting evolution as the hero that banishes all superstition and nonsense from the world. Despite this -- or maybe because of it -- The Blind Watchmaker gets my vote for the most important popular science book of the twentieth century.

So naturally I figured Rainbow would be a compendium of erudite, irreverently humorous prose articulating the triumph of science over God. And yeah, that's in there if you look hard enough. But Dawkins (or his editor, maybe) has softened his notoriously pointy dialogue, opting instead for a synthesis of poetry and science that channels the best of Sagan and S. J. Gould. I'm not sure the word "creationist" appears in the entire book! Moreover, much of the discussion avoids zoology, his area of expertise, choosing instead to explicate physical science subjects like optics and quantum mechanics. The electromagnetic spectrum according to Dawkins has a whimsical bent, including a paragraph on how you might use the wavelength of urine on a fossilized mastadon track to augur the size of the beast's, um, beasthood. While I don't find his artistic arguments too compelling, I never much liked Yeats anyway...

If this is what his new "Professorship of Public Understanding of Science" will bring us, we're in for a treat.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2005

The bad boy of Rush

The New Years' saga continues with the Collier County, Florida, sheriff's deputies countersuing Alex Lifeson. Lifeson, whose real name all Rush geeks know to be Zivojinovich, apparently got into a scuffle with police after they tried to arrest his son. What they were initially trying to arrest him for is not clear; Justin's impromptu concert at the Ritz-Carleton was not liked by the hotel, but he claims he stopped singing when asked. But whatever happened, the father and son, carousing to greet 2004, got themselves on the wrong side of a taser.

The question that grips us all: Does this mean Rush will be cool again?

Posted by The Greatness at 11:36 AM | Comments (0)