Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Citation Needed

  • There appears to be a widespread belief that bloggers should refrain from making wild guesses about general public opinion.
  • A new study confirms this belief and proposes that blog articles should always refer to proper research and include full citations.
  • The authors recently demonstrated that citations are especially useful while referring to the latest research.
  • The citations might as well be probably useful while making suggestions that are likely to be somewhat vague.
  • Trivial remarks, of course, do not need a citation (Iry-Hor 3100 BCE).
  • As a popular example of citation etiquette, the authors point to Wikipedia—a relatively unknown encyclopedia available on computers connected to the Internet.
  • The study is consistent with more than six years of research which has shown that authors who do not provide citations are unaware of more than six years of research.
  • I sincerely hope that the authors’ names are forever remembered for their important contribution.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Facebook is No Trifle

In a Wall Street Journal article “Why Our Innovators Traffic in Trifles”, Nicholas Carr claims that Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are examples of “innovation’s turn toward the trifling”. The evidence, he says, is that such technologies are merely “altering internal states, transforming the invisible self or its bodily container.” Truly big inventions, according to Carr, are directed “outward” and pertain to “changing the shape of the physical world” or of “society”.

While it is true that Facebook is about information and ideas, and steam engines—which Carr puts in the second category—are about machinery, it does not follow however that the former are inherently less valuable than the latter. Contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which Carr invokes, man cannot fulfill even his “primitive physiological requirements” without “self-actualization”. Imitating Boromir, One Does Not Simply Reshape the Physical World. Knowledge is a necessary precondition to action; and Facebook is essentially a tool to disseminate and obtain knowledge.

Historically, it has been inventions such as phonetic language, paper, and Guttenberg press that have served man’s “desire for self-expression and self-promotion”—a desire that Carr finds to be “small” and presumably not noble enough when being fulfilled by Facebook. Yet he could not honestly label the ancestral “complex systems of communication” as trifling, and rationalizes by characterizing those as being “outward” directed, by which he means "selfless". And selfless is exactly what their inventors and users were not. It does not make any difference whether you declare “what’s on your mind” on a remote retina display or a papyrus. Both are acts of “self-expression and self-promotion”. The same goes for the steam engine: there is nothing selfless about creating a powerful machine that reduces your physical labor.

Carr’s harmless-sounding call to “enlarge our aspirations” is a deceptive cover for his call to murder the self—the only entity with the capacity to aspire. Our ancestors had to selfishly choose to lift themselves from the caves. And that makes them big, not “small”.

A steam engine or Facebook can both serve the self. Either technology can be more valuable to a man than the other. The body and mind are integrated; there is no dichotomy between “tools of survival and tools of the self.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ATLOSCon 2012: The Method of Invention

I will be presenting a talk on The Method of Invention at ATLOSCon 2012.

Here is the description:
Did the greatest inventors in history succeed by chance, intuition, or indiscriminate and arbitrary experimentation, as is commonly alleged? Or, did they ask and answer the right questions, and seek the relevant facts? Drawing upon the history of steam engine—the invention that powered the industrial revolution—Atul Kapur will present his hypothesis that each invention requires the identification and integration of three specific and distinct causal relationships, which he terms as “aberrational”, “essential”, and “differential”. James Watt, as well as his predecessors, will each be shown to have sought and successfully identified these three relationships. The topics to be discussed include: the relationship between discoveries, inventions, and concept-formation; the difference between invention and innovation; the crucial role and difficulty of experimentation; and why even the proper use of inventive method does not guarantee success. The lecture will end with an audience-driven discussion on the importance of reinstating the heroic status of inventors as a part of our cultural battle, and a note on why that requires untangling and demystifying the inventive method.
[Slightly modified from original]

The conference will take place May 24-28, 2012 in Atlanta, GA.

Click here to view the information on all classes and speakers. The registration is still open. And, it costs $75 or less!

Further information:
ATLOSCon is an annual conference organized by the Atlanta Objectivist Society (ATLOS).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Objectivist Round Up

Welcome to the 245th edition of the Objectivist Round Up—a weekly selection of posts by bloggers who have adopted Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. It is for the first time that Wit Lab is hosting the Round Up.

This week's selection is rich in politics. Ayn Rand emphasized that politics is not a self-contained discipline. She wrote:
Politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics—on a theory of man’s nature and of man’s relationship to existence. It is only on such a base that one can formulate a consistent political theory and achieve it in practice. When, however, men attempt to rush into politics without such a base, the result is that embarrassing conglomeration of impotence, futility, inconsistency and superficiality which is loosely designated today as “conservatism.” Objectivists are not “conservatives.” We are radicals for capitalism; we are fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish.
“Choose Your Issues,” The Objectivist Newsletter, Jan. 1962, 1
Now we are ready for the content from our bloggers. Here we go:

Roderick Fitts presents Induction of the Principle of Individual Rights (Founding Fathers) posted at Inductive Quest, saying, "In this post, I will explore the facts, assumptions, inductions, and conclusions of the Founding Fathers used or had to know to create their new theory of individual rights, and applied it to the new American nation!"

Darius Cooper presents How Much Social Security Will you Receive posted at Practice Good Theorysaying, "I make a best guess about how Social Security will turn out, and how much you will receive".

Kelly M. Valenzuela presents Famous Immigrant of the Week - Mikhail Baryshnikov posted at Mother of Exiles, saying, "I feature a famous immigrant each Friday, but I particularly love this one.  The video is just a sampling of the dazzling athleticism and artistry Baryshnikov is known for.  I also love how he defected from the cruel and evil Soviet Union to become a proud, productive American citizen."

Paul Hsieh presents Should You Trust Practice Guidelines? posted at We Stand FIRM blog, saying, "Here's why you shouldn't trust medical "practice guidelines" under ObamaCare."

Brian Phillips presents Social Problems and the Solution posted at Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, saying, "Today, the typical response to any social problem, such as education or energy production, is more government intervention. However, there was a time when individuals were free to address such issues voluntarily."

Jenn Casey presents ATLOSCon 2012 Speakers and Classes posted at Rational Jenn, saying, "We have a fantastic line up of speakers and classes for our conference! We hope you'll join us in Atlanta from May 24-28."

Jon Glatfelter presents Affirmative Action: A Solution to Racism—Or its Symptom? posted at The Undercurrent. About the post: "Jon Glatfelter explores affirmative action's deeper implications and motives."

Josh Windham presents Nobody Deserves Egalitarianism posted at The Undercurrent. About the post: "Should all men be afforded certain opportunities? Are we each entitled to our happiness? What does an individual deserve? Josh Windham takes on these questions with this Campus Media Response."

[The entries are listed in the order they were received.]

That concludes the edition. If you liked it, you may want to "Like" the Facebook page of the Objectivist Round Up as well. If you are an Objectivist interested in submitting posts to the upcoming editions of the Round Up, you will normally be asked to do so through the Blog Carnival. However, since that mechanism is not working, consider joining the OBloggers email list, where you will receive weekly instructions and reminders for posting.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Certainty in Quantum Physics

In a Scientific American guest blog on the relationship between physics and philosophy, James Lloyd writes:
"If we can’t be certain about the properties of fundamental particles, what does that say about our knowledge of nature?"
The author is referring to quantum physics, which accurately describes the probability of a given event on the scale of elementary particles, but cannot predict when (or if) it would occur.

Does quantum physics imply an inherent uncertainty in nature, as the author presumes?

No. Contrary to the claims of some leading physicists, all that quantum physics provides is certainty. Elementary particles behave exactly in accordance with the probabilities calculated using equations of quantum physics. Just because the equations do not predict which one of the possible ways an interaction would occur, it does not follow that such occurrences are causeless and, hence, metaphysically uncertain.

If not for the certainty, a quantum computer would be inconceivable.

And, "what does that say about our knowledge of nature"?

Not that it’s unreliable, as most modern philosophers jump to conclude. Rather, the achievements of physics, including those of quantum physics, are a testament to the fact that knowledge is possible, and can be obtained with certainty.

Just as an egg laid by an ostrich cannot give birth to a chicken, the facts identified by physicists cannot, in the end, invalidate factual knowledge.

Update [Dec. 08, 08:16 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” in Quotes

When I was in college, the only books on physics that I could really understand were written by Richard Feynman.

Six years later, I am beginning to rediscover him. From a different perspective.

Recently, I read his book "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and found it to be thoroughly amusing. The book is a collection of self-narrated stories of mischief from his super-adventurous life. I found out from it that Feynman's brilliance and rationality extended beyond his work in physics.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book*.

On honesty and integrity in being a scientist:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool." [p. 313]
"We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work." [p. 312]
"Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools--guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus--THAT, I CANNOT STAND!" [Emphasis original; pp. 258-259]
[The last quote appears in the book as Feynman's describes his experience at an "inter-disciplinary" conference. He was a panelist in a debate on how to achieve "the ethics of equality". The participants put forward their proposals, but kept evading any attempt to discuss what is meant by the phrase "the ethics of equality". Feynman argued that it's futile to debate without defining one's terms. He said, "So, in my opinion, we had no dialogue at all. Instead, we had nothing but chaos!" At this point, he was attacked with even more unintelligible phrases, such as, "Don’t you think that order can come from chaos?" Feynman vowed not to attend any interdisciplinary conferences.]

On mind-altering drugs, and the joy of thinking:
"I had once thought to take drugs, but I got kind of scared of that: I love to think, and I don’t want to screw up the machine." [p. 301]
"You see, I get such fun out of thinking that I don't want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick." [Emphasis original; p. 184]
On first-handedness in seeking a career:
"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing." [p. 156]
[Feynman reached the above principle in declining an offer from a prestigious institute. The job was offered to him by reputed scientists, including Einstein. However, Feynman did not consider himself suitable for the job! From then on, he decided to put his own interest above others in all his career decisions, especially in choosing the problems for his research. He went on to undertake the problems that he found interesting, even if they seemed useless to his colleagues. This path led him to ultimately make many key discoveries in physics—including the one for which he later won the Nobel prize.]

Feynman also made some observations on topics that are not of interest to most scientists.

On unquestioned and unchecked authority:
"A teacher who has some idea of how to teach her children is forced by the school system to do it in some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts." [p. 310]
On redistribution of wealth:
"[T]he idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there's only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them." [p. 257]
[Feynman is right. In the same paragraph, he speculates that some countries are poorer than others because they lack development and machinery. Although he could not identify the deeper cause of poverty—the lack of freedom and ideas—he does come close when he says that machinery, in turn, requires "concentration of capital".]

Since Feynman was a physicist, and not a philosopher, I find it remarkable that he held such unconventional and superb ideas. What kept me flipping the pages of the book were examples of how Feynman, whom I had already known as a brilliant physicist, first-handedly acquired and applied rational principles in his life. That, and the fact that the book is full of hilarious anecdotes that brought me loads of chuckles.

I hope that the quotes have encouraged you to gift yourself a Feynman book this Christmas. I certainly plan to read more from the man.

Update [Jul. 18, 16:50 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

*The page number after each quote refers to the Bantam edition (paperback) published in February 1986.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, and Saying Grace on Thanksgiving: What do they have in Common?

The following words were spoken by an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protester:
“[Bosses] and upper management people who have these top floor offices here, they don’t work; they don’t produce anything. They sit at the top and they count money, and their money makes money for them. They don’t provide anything for society; they suck wealth out of it.”
Another protester claimed that Steve Jobs “didn’t produce anything", but merely “took in the wealth that others produced”.

Now let’s have a look at Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving started out as a celebration of good harvest. It is an acknowledgement of production. But whom do most families thank for the food on their table? They either thank no one in particular. Or they say grace, expressing their gratitude to God.

Do you see what’s common between the OWS and saying grace?

Both attempt to discredit the real producers.

The premise behind the statements of OWS protesters is that laborers and lower-wage employees are the only people essential to production (as explicated in a pamphlet that was widely distributed among the protesters). But this cannot be farther from the truth. Those with “top floor offices” are indispensible to production. They include the CEOs, investors, and top-level managers, who exercise their judgment to discover new talents, generate the capital to incentivize them as employees, and combine the product of their efforts. It’s only because of productive men like these that we have amazing products in the marketplace, including the technology that the OWS uses to organize and popularize their protests.

Likewise, saying grace attributes production to a nonexistent. It evades the fact that every luxury and delicacy at a Thanksgiving dinner is produced by producers who are unmistakably human. A turkey might exist in nature on its own, but it must be domesticated, processed, packed, distributed, retailed, and cooked before it sits on the silverware and becomes a food product. As writer Craig Biddle has pointed out, saying grace involves an “injustice of thanking an alleged God for the productive accomplishments of actual men.”

How can the OWS and those saying grace so easily ignore the nature and source of production? The culprit is the dominant morality of altruism. Focusing on other people blinds a man to the fact that his life depends on values that must be produced. It blinds him to the fact that production requires thinking, which is not automatic, but requires conscious effort. This, in turn, disables him to identify productivity as a virtue, and a producer as someone who is profoundly moral. The result is to ignore, detest, or vilify the producers. And if the demands of OWS are met, even rob them of their possessions.

This Thanksgiving, let’s reverse the injustice committed by the OWS and by those saying grace. Let’s thank real producers, including those with “top floor offices”, who bring into existence all products and goods, including the wonderful ones on our Thanksgiving table.

Thanks to the Center for Industrial Progress, and Ari Armstrong, for the interviews of OWS protesters.