I've been reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb (a interesting book which I highly recommend). Nassim proposes a reverse Turing test to separate scientific from literacy discourse in which it is claimed that if you can't distinguish an individuals utterances from the output of an appropriately configured Monte Carlo process than the person is not being scientific. Now, I disagree with the premise since an utterance could be either scientific or not depending on the setting in which it is used; to defend this I would refer to Wittgenstein's notion of a "Language Game" where the meaning is determined by the use of an utterance and Popper's observation that sometimes science has its facts wrong and pseudo science sometimes is right. But I believe I could build a Monte Carlo scientist that could generate hypothesis and tests. I'm out of time now, maybe more later.
This morning I listened to Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis talk about her article "The Age of Egocasting." The article offers a really interesting history of the remote control. Then she extends the discussion to include Tivo and iPod and looks at world where everyone surrounds themselves with a bubble of individually selected entertainment. She observes that "Technologies like TiVo and iPod enable unprecedented degrees of selective avoidance. The more control we can exercise over what we see and hear, the less prepared we are to be surprised." I find this interesting because it contrasts with my usual media consumption pattern; I'm cheap and have always haunted cutout racks and sales tables and now internet usenet groups. This has lead to a pretty random collection of things and amuses my children when I tell them about the latest offbeat music, book or movie I've stumbled about. To continue a theme, I am Amused by Randomness. I wonder though if people are shielding themselves from the randomness of their political and business leaders. Which leads to my next topic.
Hubris and taking chances. It seems clear that the bosses of the Bush administration still have great faith in their own wisdom. And the round of corporate malfeasance cases coming up seems mostly to be a crowd of tall white men who thought they got their positions through their own brilliance as leaders and could make no mistakes. Taleb discusses the bet which pays a dollar 999/1000 times and costs the bettor $10,000 in the 1 out of a 1000 times they lose. When business adopts a results-oriented evaluation strategy, it seems reasonable to take this bet. The odds are overwhelming that you will win and show results. However, the expected value of this bet is minus nine dollars; (.999*1-.001*10000 = .999-10 = -9.001); so the results-oriented leader taking this bet is in effect spending 9 dollars of the business money but the bill won't come due until that unhappy day when the once in a thousand event happens. This has lead to a business environment where risky behavior with low probability but large negative outcomes are encouraged. When you move those same people into politics and they can't even calculate the odds, invading a little weak country in hopes that it will somehow become democratic seems like a terrific idea.
This morning (2005-02-01) I heard about an artcle Steven Levy of Newsweek about the new iPOD and randomness. It seems to be an interesting take our our ability to perceive randomness versus patterns; as Ed observed on Northern Exposure: "It's a random pattern."
On NPR's Morning Edition, 2005-Aug-04, Senator Rick Santorum said:"If we are the result of chance, if we are simply a mistake of nature then that puts a different moral demand on is (in fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us) than if we are the creation of a being that has moral demands." Now this is wrongheaded in several ways but it is also sad and gives insight to why so many conservative Christians are threatened by evolution. If you believe that people are only good to escape the wrath of god, what happens if god is absent or neglectful?
I've defined an attitude game described at a live journal entry. This is an extension of the iPod discussion above: if we exercise too much control over how we think about the the world we lose the ability to be dumbfounded by the world around us.