Sunday, March 27, 2011

A furious egalitarianism

So I'm trying to write an academic sort of paper about (roughly) the politics of knowledge representation and ontology construction, and I'm having trouble -- it's coming out five times as long as it should, every half-appealing idea that's vaguely relevant insists on being a part of it, and I'm having trouble maintaining the right tone. Now I remember this is one of the many reasons I didn't go into academia in the first place. Anyway, if anyone wants to read a draft, drop me a line.

Among the many topics I diverged into in the course of writing this are the status of gay marriage (a threat to the legal and moral ontology, not to mention a challenge for database administrators) and the changing status of homosexuality as a disease. Not a subject I normally spend a lot of time on, but it seems like one of the reasons anti-gay sentiment is so strong in some parts of the culture is that it is seen as undermining not only sexual mores but the very metaphysical foundations of the universe (and hey, wouldn't "Undermine" be a great name for an anarchist gay bar?).

Anyway, in the course of pursuing the topic I came across this indignant quote, which I think will have to be trimmed from the paper, but it's too good not to share:
The American Psychiatric Association had fallen victim to the disorder of a tumultuous era, when disruptive conflicts threatened to politicize every aspect of American social life. A furious egalitarianism that challenged every instance of authority had compelled psychiatric experts to negotiate the pathological status of homosexuality with homosexuals themselves.

-- from R. Bayer, Homosexuality And American Psychiatry: The Politics Of Diagnosis. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1987).
Can you imagine? The objects of science dare to stand up and express an opinion, to act like subjects!

I think one thing that has improved a lot in the last few decades is that this kind of attitude is less prevalent, and it is much more common for groups of outsiders to organize and stand up for themselves. Thanks go to both the "furious egalitarianism" of the sixties, and the net which makes it easier for groups to coalesce.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mismanagement and grief (nuclear power edition)

[updated below]

I'd just about gotten around to acknowledging that nuclear power seems like the least-bad option for energy generation, given that all other techniques either are massive CO2 emitters or don't work at scale. Prominent environmentalists like Stewart Brand agreed. But if Japan can't manage to build nuclear reactors that can withstand perfectly predictable natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, I may have to change my mind again. I mean, it's one thing for a plant like Chernobyl to blow up, given that it was poorly built and operated, but Japan is supposed to a wealthy, technically competent, and not-very-corrupt nation, and one with a good historical memory and functioning social system to boot.

The answer apparently is that the techniques used to design for risk are just completely broken; and do not account for the fact that a single event can cause multiple problems; they assumed independence of risks that were in fact highly correlated. This is amazing to me, but oddly the exact same mistake seems to have been made by financial risk modelers.

I don't know why I'm surprised at this kind of stunning mistake. I guess at some level you assume that people capable of constructing and running a nuclear plant would also be capable of basic probabilistic reasoning; but; but it is never safe to assume competence, especially in the face of economic pressures.

[update: hm, here's a very detailed post by someone who sounds like he knows what he's talking about that says that basically things worked according to plan; despite some failures of some stages of containment and some safety procedures, there was enough backup to ensure that minimal radiation was released. OK.]

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

√Član Vital

I find myself inexplicably drawn to the discredited theory of vitalism, all the more so since it's been my business for the last few years to build tools to help vitalism's murderer, mechanistic biology. Whatever draws me has got to be the same force that draws me towards religion, another area where I really ought to know better than to go. Not very surprising, I suppose, that I should feel some kind of connection between the animation of living matter and the animation of the cosmos as a whole.

Just as I have no truck with fundamentalist or literalist forms of religion, I don't think I'm interested in dumb literalist theories of vitalism, which posit some force or substance that is somehow beyond matter yet acts on it. Dumb vitalism died when the synthesis of urea from inorganic components was demonstrated, thus showing that there was no substantial quality that distinguished the living from the nonliving. So what remains? I'm not sure, just this unshakeable feeling that there is something alive that permeates the world, and that it is as real as anything else, and that it is somehow transcendent or at least orthogonal to the realm of unliving matter. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower". Or something like that. Just as there are compatabilist versions of religion that can coexist peacably with science, there is perhaps room for a compatabilist vitalism, one that is does not argue against mechanism but lives with it, in it, on it, over it.

I cannot figure out what to do with this feeling. It doesn't really interfere with whatever work I do in support of ordinary science, but it doesn't help much either. Some of it crept into my PhD dissertation, where I looked at how metaphors of aliveness were used in the discourse of programming languages. This was not really ontological vitalism -- it was more of an epistemological treatment, based on the idea that we have different modes of understanding when we think about non-living, physical systems compared with how we think about those that are alive. It's not that living systems contain a magic substance; it's that we can't think about such systems without using concepts like goals, desires, and purposes, and other properties associated with being alive. Organisms may be machines, but they are machines on a level of complexity that we can't capture by comparing them to dishwashers and cars -- they are machines with goals, desires, purposes, and a degree of autonomy. (Of course since then Latour has taught me to see goals and purpose in everything).

I haven't really pursued the idea further since then, but it won't leave me alone.

Awhile back I stumbled on the book Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett whichs seems to be a post-Latourian philosophy of vitalism, or something like that. From there I learned about the concept of conatus, which means something like the innate tendency of all things to try and persist themselves. There's a whole modern vitalistic tradition that is apparently not dumb (as defined above) but it's not clear what it's implications are or whether it's truly worthwhile or a dead-end.

See also previous posts: Hylozoism, Proteus

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Pouring thoughts into new vessels

This blog is approaching its 500th post (this is #495), which feels like a landmark of sorts. I'm starting to wonder if it's really a good idea to keep it going, based on a few random confluential inputs:
  • Internet trendmongers are touting "the death of blogs". This is kind of silly, but not entirely. I already have moved to using Facebook and Twitter for the kind of look-at-this items that might have generated a blog post in the past. They aren't at all substitutes for longer forms of writing, but;

  • I'm actually trying to write some papers for publication, so my deeper thoughts are getting tracked into there rather than here.

  • And I'm finding the process of writing rather difficult, because I've always found it difficult to force my thought into any kind of serial form. It feels like trying to nail mercury to a wall.

  • And as it happens, Ted Nelson, an early influence and mentor, has just resurfaced with a new book (an idiosyncratic, self-published thing, like all his others), and it reminded me that one of his dreams was what he called "a decent writing system". I've taken stabs at creating things like that over the years, but there still isn't anything that actually helps me get my thoughts in order. But chronologically ordering them in a blog doesn't make much sense from a thinking perspective.
So, I'm thinking of ending this blog, or perhaps putting it on hiatus, and trying to organize my thoughts in some different way (probably a wiki of some sort), something that would start to approach a book, or at least contain book-like subgraphs.

I'm not sure why this feels so momentous. After all, wikis and blogs are both collections of chunks of linkable text, right? What difference does it make if they are chronological or something else? Well, even though it is the thoughts themselves that are important, not the form into which they are poured -- it does, in fact, make a difference. This is a lesson I have to teach myself over and over again, for some reason. Blogs and wikis have entirely different genre conventions. Blogs are inherently about the passing parade, they are inherently dated and nobody wants to read blog posts five years old. Whereas a wiki page is topical, it is supposed to be a timeless representation of some topic or concept, it is synchronic rather than diachronic. That sounds better, somehow, but in fact I'd probably miss the chatty, conversational, transitory qualities of a blog post. Writing wiki pages would feel pretentious.

In the Nelsonesque utopia, or my version of it, you wouldn't have to choose, one wouldn't be confined to one form or onother; chunks would be chunks and they could be effortlessly and semi-magically arranged into whatever structures were appropriate to a particular purpose or reader. Timeless truths would emerge from discourse; knowledge construction and knowledge in its finished forms would coexist with their relations clearly visible and navigable.

But nobody seems to be building a system like that. Nelson has famously failed to get his ideas into practical implementations, and nobody else seems to think it's very important. Hm, I smell another distracting side project coming into view...building software is probably easier for me than coherent long-form writing.