Category Archives: science

The World in 2036–Nassim Taleb

Via The World in 2036: Nassim Taleb looks at what will break, and what won’t | The Economist.

Paradoxically, one can make long-term predictions on the basis of the prevalence of forecasting errors. A system that is over-reliant on prediction (through leverage, like the banking system before the recent crisis), hence fragile to unforeseen “black swan” events, will eventually break into pieces. Although fragile bridges can take a long time to collapse, 25 years in the 21st century should be sufficient to make hidden risks salient: connectivity and operational leverage are making cultural and economic events cascade faster and deeper. Anything fragile today will be broken by then.

The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralised systems. The pre-modernist robust model of city-states and statelings will prevail, with obsessive fiscal prudence. Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.

Companies that are currently large, debt-laden, listed on an exchange (hence “efficient”) and paying bonuses will be gone. Those that will survive will be the more black swan-resistant—smaller, family-owned, unlisted on exchanges and free of debt. There will be large companies then, but these will be new—and short-lived.

The world will face severe biological and electronic pandemics, another gift from globalisation.

Religious practice will experience a revival, seen as a conveyor of robust heuristics, cultural values and rituals. Science will produce smaller and smaller gains in the non-linear domain, in spite of the enormous resources it will consume; instead it will start focusing on what it cannot—and should not—do. Finally, what is now called academic economics will be treated with the same disrespect that rigorous (and practical) minds currently have for Derrida-style post-modernist verbiage.

Nassim Taleb: professor of risk engineering at New York University; author of “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms” (Random House and Penguin, January 2011)

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The End of Nature – Zizek in NYT

Via The End of Nature – NYTimes.com

The big ecological disasters of 2010 fit into the ancient cosmological model, in which the universe is made up of four basic elements: AIR, volcanic ash clouds from Iceland immobilizing airline traffic over Europe; EARTH, mudslides and earthquakes in China; FIRE, rendering Moscow almost unlivable; WATER, the tsunami in Indonesia, floods displacing millions in Pakistan.

Such recourse to traditional wisdom offers no true insight into the mysteries of our wild Mother Nature’s whims, however. It’s a consolation device, really, allowing us to avoid the question we all want to ask: Will more events of such magnitude turn up on nature’s agenda for 2011?

In our disenchanted, post-religious, ultra-technological era, catastrophes can no longer be rendered meaningful as part of a natural cycle or as an expression of divine wrath. Ecological catastrophes — which we can view continually and close-up, thanks to our 24/7 plugged-in world — become the meaningless intrusions of a blind, destructive rage. It’s as if we are witnessing the end of nature.

Today we look to scientific experts to know all. But they do not, and therein lies the problem. Science has transformed itself into specialized knowledge, offering an inconsistent array of conflicting explanations called “expert opinions.” But if we blame the scientific-technological civilization for many of our difficulties, we cannot do without that same science to fix the damage — only scientists, after all, can “see” the ozone hole. Or, as a line from Wagner’s “Parsifal” puts it, “The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it.” There is no way back to pre-scientific holistic wisdom, to the world of Earth, Wind, Air and Fire.

While science can help us, it can’t do the whole job. Instead of looking to science to stop our world from ending, we need to look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world. At least for those of us in the West, it’s difficult to accept being passive observers who must sit and watch as our fates are revealed.

Enter the perverse pleasure of premature martyrdom: “We offended Mother Nature, so we are getting what we deserve!” It’s deceptively reassuring to be ready to assume guilt for the threats to our environment. If we are guilty, then it all depends on us; we can save ourselves simply by changing our lives. We frantically and obsessively recycle old paper, buy organic food — whatever, just so we can be sure we are doing something, making our contribution.

But like the anthropomorphic universe, magically designed for man’s comfort, the so-called balance of nature, which humankind brutally destroys with its hubris, is a myth. Catastrophes are part of natural history. The fact that ash from a modest volcanic outburst in Iceland grounded most of the planes in Europe is a much-needed reminder of how we, humans, with our tremendous power over nature, are nothing but one of the living species on Earth, depending on the delicate balance of its elements.

So what might the future hold? One thing is clear: We should accustom ourselves to a much more nomadic way of life. Gradual or sudden change in our environment, about which science can do little more than offer a warning, may force unheard-of social and cultural transformations. Suppose a new volcanic eruption makes a place uninhabitable: Where will the inhabitants find a home? In the past, large population movements were spontaneous processes, full of suffering and loss of civilizations. Today, when weapons of mass destruction are available not only to states but even to local groups, humanity simply can’t afford a spontaneous population exchange.

What this means is that new forms of global cooperation, which do not depend on the market or on diplomatic negotiations, must be invented. Is this an impossible dream?

The impossible and the possible are simultaneously bursting into excess. In the realms of personal freedom and scientific technology, the impossible is more and more possible. We can entertain the prospect of enhancing our physical and psychic abilities; of manipulating our biological traits via interventions into the genome; of achieving the tech-gnostic dream of immortality by encoding our distinguishing traits and feeding the composite of our identities into a computer program.

When it comes to socioeconomic relations, however, we perceive our era as one of maturity, and thus acceptance. With the collapse of Communism, we abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality — that is, capitalist socioeconomic reality — with all its impossibilities. We cannot engage in large collective acts, which necessarily end in totalitarian terror. We cannot cling to the old welfare state, which makes us noncompetitive and leads to economic crisis. We cannot isolate ourselves from the global market.

For us, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than serious social change. Witness the numerous blockbusters about global catastrophe and the conspicuous absence of films about alternate societies.

Maybe it’s time to reverse our concept of what is possible and what isn’t; maybe we should accept the impossibility of omnipotent immortality and consider the possibility of radical social change. If nature is no longer a stable order on which we can rely, then our society should also change if we want to survive in a nature that is no longer the good caring mother, but a pale and indifferent one.

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian-born political philosopher and cultural critic. He is a scholar or visiting professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, the European Graduate School in Switzerland and a number of American universities.

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Sugata Mitra: Child-driven education

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education | Video on TED.com

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The Unbearable Simplicity of Value

Thanks to friend MH of ::Dorang:: for passing this one on.

via Information Philosopher – Value

Is the Good something that exists in the world? The Existentialists thought not. Most religions place its origin in a supernatural Being. Humanists felt it a human invention. Modern bioethicists situate value in all life. A variety of ancient religions looked to the sun as the source of all life and thus good. They anthropomorphized the sun or the “bright sky” as God. Dark and night were stigmatized as evil and “fallen.”

Philosophers have ever longed to discover a cosmic good. The ideal source of the good is remote as possible from the Earth in space and in time, for Kant a transcendental God outside space and time, for Plato a timeless Good to be found in Being itself, for his student Aristotle a property of the first principles that set the world in motion.

Can we discover a cosmic good? At least identify the source of anything resembling the Good? Yes, we can. Does it resemble the Good anthropomorphized as a God personally concerned about our individual goods? No, it does not. But it has one outstanding characteristic of such a God, it is Providence. We have discovered that which provides. It provides the light, it provides life, it provides intelligence.

We replace the difficult problem of “Does God exist?” with the more tractable problem “Does Goodness exist?” Humanists situate values in reason or human nature. Bioethicists seek to move the source of goodness to the biosphere. Life becomes the summum bonum. Information philosophers look out to the universe as a whole and find a cosmos that grew from a chaos.

Exactly how that is possible requires a profound understanding of the second law of thermodynamics in an expanding and open universe. A very small number of processes that we call ergodic can reduce the entropy locally to create macroscopic information structures like galaxies, stars, and planets and microscopic ones like atoms, molecules, organisms, and human intelligence.

A battle rages between cosmic ergodic processes and chaotic entropic processes that destroy structure and information. Anthropomorphizing these processes as good and evil gives us a dualist image that nicely solves the monotheistic problem of evil.” If God is the Good, God is not responsible for the Evil. Instead, we can clearly see an Ergod who is Divine Providence – the cosmic source without which we would not exist and so a proper object of reverence. And Entropy is the “devil incarnate.”

Our moral guide to action is then very simple – preserve information structures against the entropy.

Celebrating the first modern philosopher, René Descartes, we call our model for value the Ergo. For those who want to anthropomorphize on the slender thread of discovering the natural Providence, call it Ergod. No God can be God without being Ergodic.

Ergodic processes are those that resist the terrible and universal Second Law of Thermodynamics, which commands the increase of chaos and entropy (disorder). Without violating that inviolable law overall, they reduce the entropy locally, bringing pockets of cosmos and negative entropy (order and information-rich structures). We call all this cosmic order the Ergo. It is the ultimate sine qua non.

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Atran on Sacred Values

Science and Religion at Hampshire College

For Friends and Faith: Understanding the Paths and Barriers to Political Violence from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

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Words

WNYC – Radiolab » Bonus Video: Words.

Thanks to friend JT for passing this one on. Basically an audio-visual riff on the same theme as homo analogicus:

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Study like a scholar, scholar

This is psychological genius (first seen during World Cup 2010):

… and an impressive viral mutation:

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