The Standing Invitation

Archive for July 2011

The Online University

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The funding of universities is a real problem. Here is a potential solution: get rid of them altogether.

Why not put universities online?

Consider a new model. A student applying for a university course receives a username and password that gives her access to videos of lectures. These can be downloaded and watched from home. It’s cheap, because they only have to be recorded once; academics can focus on research having been freed from teaching schedules, apart from marking papers e-mailed in by students and doing occasional tutorial sessions, in groups, via webcam. For hard science degrees that require specialised equipment, students allotted slots in laboratories: they take four weeks a year out of the usual schedule of video lectures, travel to a lab building with dedicated on-site accommodation, and do an intensive course that gives the whole year’s lab work for a year. These can run throughout the year.

The whole thing would be extremely cheap, and paid for directly by students, either by a loan or having a part-time job. You wouldn’t even have to move out of your parents’ place. Importantly, it empowers students by putting them in charge of their own futures.

As an economic plan, it’s tempting.

As a social plan, it would be catastrophic.

The worst thing you could do to a field of study is to isolate it from other fields. What you can imagine depends on what you know (Dennett, again), and if all you know is what you’ve been taught in lectures then there is only so far you can go. A personal example: my specialism is organic chemistry, but I am analysing it with techniques I only know about through my contact with linguists and computer scientists. If I had never met these people, had never mixed with them, drunkenly stolen the occasional traffic cone with them, these ideas would never have occurred to me.

Furthermore, anyone who’s been through university will tell you that the most important things they learned did not come from lectures: they came from each other, from contact with other students. This contact requires geographical concentration of students as much as it requires them moving out of their parents’ protection. If students are to be exposed to one another’s new ways of thinking, they will need dedicated space, time and freedom in which to interact. This is what taught-at-home universities would lack. The result, if they became commonplace, would disastrous both for the students themselves, and for the society that hopes to benefit from them.

But while I think it would be disastrous, I fear it may also be inevitable. Commoditisation is always a risk of liberalism. Students increasingly see themselves as consumers rather than apprentices, and increasingly think of degrees as ends to be reached, rather than things to pass through on the way to further wisdom.

It’s a worrying trend. But how can we reverse it without radically altering our idea of freedom?

Written by The S I

July 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Maths With Morals

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The S I is proud to present Bayes’ theorem, a mathematical treasure and ethical dilemma all in one:

This equation gives us a mathematical formalism for updating old opinions with new evidence.

We begin with our initial hypothesis, H, and the probability, in our opinion, that H is true, p(H). Say you’re sitting next to a young man on a bus. Does this man want to kill you? Probably not, you think. Most people are not killers, so the chance of having one sitting next to you is very slight ­– p(H) is low. Note that this number p(H) is a knowable fact: it comes from crime statistics.

But then he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a sharpened axe. This provides new evidence, E: our man has an axe.

Now, not everyone who carries an axe is a killer. Some are, some are not. But it certainly changes your assessment of the situation. What is your new assessment? In the equation, it is written as p(H|E) ­– the probability of hypothesis H being true given new evidence E. We base the calculation on one more term, p(E), which basically translates to ‘how often killers carry axes with them’. This number is also a fact, and can be found from case studies of murders.

Putting these numbers together allows you to determine, with mathematical exactness, just how worried you should be when your scary-looking travel companion starts to grin at you and make suggestive slashing motions.

Bayes’ theorem is used all the time in science, finding uses in artificial intelligence, drugs testing, even searches for archaeological ruins. So why did I say it was an ethical dilemma? The answer is easy enough to see when you repeat the story given above, but change E. You are sitting by yourself on the bus when someone sits next to you. Probably not dangerous. But you look up and learn new information: the man is ­– well, pick your prejudice. Black? White? Muslim? Christian? Homeless?

Isn’t it the case that Bayes theorem takes knowable facts about the world, and turns them into a kind of statistically valid and logically justified racism?

No. Yes, the reasoning is sound, and in some cases when time and resources are extremely scarce it is unfortunately necessary to treat people as representatives of groups rather than individuals.* But this is always evil ­– sometimes necessary, but always evil. And what makes the racists different is that they are content with it. If, facing a selection of candidates for a job, with all the time in the world do make a decision, you don’t look at their CVs because you are satisfied with what race alone tells you – that is racism, and rotten to the core.

As is so often the case, Hitchens says it best:

“It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.”


Christopher Hitchens ­– Letters to a Young Contrarian

Also Richard Dawkins’s chapter on racism in The Ancestor’s Tale is highly recommended

* Blood donation is a good example. In the UK, people from South America are not allowed to give blood because of their higher probability of carrying Chagas disease. This is a decision to treat everyone from one ethnic group in the same way. Of course the ideal solution would be to test everybody for the disease wherever they come from; but in a world of scarce resources, time spent testing is time that could also be spent collecting more blood from ‘safe’ groups. So high-risk groups are eliminated out of hand, ignoring the individuals, so that lives can be saved. Evil, but necessary.

Written by The S I

July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

An Unsolved Problem

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You are walking in the countryside, William Paley-style, and you encounter a penny, lying on the ground, with heads facing up, tails facing down. It is reasonable to assume it just happened to fall that way ­– it could just as easily have fallen tails-up ­– and you would think nothing of it. But if you found thousands of thousands of coins, all with heads up, that would require an explanation.

There are some things that have a property called chirality, or handedness. If a thing is chiral, it has a mirror image version of itself that is not identical with itself. Gloves are chiral: a right glove and a left glove weigh the same amount, are made of the same material, have the same number and arrangement of fingers and thumbs. Importantly, they take the same amount of effort to make. But a left glove is not a right glove; they are non-superimposable mirror-images.

Chirality is a hugely important part of chemistry, because many molecules are chiral: they have mirror-image versions of themselves. The two mirror images of a molecule will have the same properties, the same weights and compositions. They take the same amount of energy to make, and when they are made they are made in equal amounts. Just as a coin tossed in the air is equally likely to land on either face, a molecule that is deciding which handedness to become in a chemical reaction will have no preference ­– resulting in equal amounts being formed.

So far, so good.

But we find that, in their interactions with living things, chiral molecules behave in rather odd ways. We have already agreed that a left-handed molecule has the same properties as its right-handed twin. But why does one molecule taste, to us, of lemons, and its mirror image of oranges? If one is molecule the active ingredient in cough syrup, why is its mirror image a drug a hundred times stronger than morphine?

The answer is that we are chemically chiral. And, just as a left and right shoe will fit differently onto a left foot, left-handed and right-handed flavour molecules will fit differently onto our left-handed taste receptors, producing different flavours, or will fit differently into our left-handed drug metabolism pathways, resulting in different medical effects.

But yes. I did just say left-handed. I did not say right-handed or an equal mixture of the two. Because, even though left-handed and right-handed things are equally probable, equally easy to make, living things are made from only left-handed molecules.

Every sugar molecule in your body – in all bodies everywhere ­– every amino acid and every protein and every DNA spiral has a possible mirror image form of itself, but these are nowhere to be found. In a world of symmetry, living things, surprisingly, are built of only one kind of chiral building block.

This is called biological homochirality, and how it came to be the case is one of the biggest unsolved problems in modern science.

Written by The S I

July 26, 2011 at 8:30 pm

None Of The Above

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There are two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, the freedom from oppression; and positive freedom, the freedom to achieve one’s potential.*

A caveman wandering alone is, in the negative sense, as free as he could possibly be. But although nobody is around to tell him what to do, this does not mean he is able to do anything. He is not free to fly faster than the speed of sound in an aeroplane. He is not free to listen to an orchestra. He is not free to look at distant galaxies through a telescope. And if he falls and breaks his leg, he is free only to starve to death in agony.

To do these things he will have to cooperate with others, and this means losing the right to act however he likes. He accepts a certain amount of control over his life by others, in order to do things he would not otherwise be able to do. Having a life expectancy greater than twenty-five is probably worth not being able to butcher any other caveman you meet.

This is why humans formed societies: to allow them to achieve things in groups that they could not do alone. Not all these personal positive-freedom dreams are equally attainable; nor are they mutually compatible. It is the role of government to facilitate the achievement of our potential, whether this is our potential to learn to read, our potential to survive a treatable illness regardless of our economic background, or our potential to investigate the inner workings of the universe.

I am not saying that we should prostrate ourselves at the mercy of our superiors and allow them to grant us wishes. The freedom to declare oneself one’s own boss and say hang the consequences is valuable even for its own sake. But acknowledging that we are surrendering some freedoms to achieve others allows us to think of what we should reasonably expect for what we have traded in – and what inequalities in society we should think of as failures of that society.

Of course this social-contract model of society is just a fiction, a convenient way of justifying why there needs to be a government. But in fact none of us was ever asked. We are born into our societies; which one we end up in is largely dependent on where our mother’s uterus happens to be at the time, which is hardly the best way of making any important decision. And while migration does allow us some market freedom, this increasingly owned planet is offering us fewer and fewer chances of ticking the box marked ‘none of the above’.

When governments don’t give us value for money ­– positive freedom for negative freedom, opportunity for rules – we can’t take our custom elsewhere. We have to demand some changes.


* See Isaiah Berlin. The words negative and positive do not correspond here with bad and good; they’re just names.

Written by The S I

July 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm

The World In Ten Dimensions

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Just a quick one for you today, folks.

By now people are used to the idea that we need four dimensions to describe the universe: length, breadth and depth providing information about space, and a fourth dimension, time. But in the world of really high-level theoretical physics, people are finding that four dimensions are just not enough to give the full picture. You often hear physicists talking about numbers of dimensions that are just plain silly. Why? Isn’t four enough for them?

Here is a lovely video in two parts that gives an interesting explanation. In order to describe the world fully ­– really­ fully ­– we need to use ten-dimensional space. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, and enjoy.





Written by The S I

July 22, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Science

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Harris and Chomsky On Drugs

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One of the roles of government is to prohibit and enforce the prohibition of activities that reproducibly result in a lowering of the populace’s quality of life. Governments insist that people surrender certain freedoms in the name of the greater good: the freedom not to bash people over the head with mallets, for example.

The illegality of an act should be proportional to its harmfulness (to society, that is; to you is another matter). While I can understand and condone banning the sale of crack cocaine because it reproducibly creates a huge amount of misery and suffering, it is difficult to see why the government bans cannabis ­­– particularly when tobacco, a much deadlier poison, is sold quite legally. I have recently read two different explanations of this strange inversion. One is by the fascinating if slightly scary writer Sam Harris; the other is by Noam Chomsky.

Harris’s contention is that the enemy is religion. Many drugs, he says, allow one  to experience states of extreme bliss and personal fulfilment, often with no damaging side-effects and in the privacy of one’s own home. There should be no harm in that. But religion wants the monopoly on spiritual experiences, and sees drugs as being unwelcome competition. Drugs are deemed wicked for their positive aspects, for their ability to make you happy or alter the way you see the world; their harmfulness is not even considered.

Chomsky’s idea is, if anything, even more cynical. The crucial difference between tobacco and marijuana, he says, is that tobacco is difficult to grow. Weed is a weed: you can grow it in your back garden. Big businesses have no interest in its legalisation because it would give them no scarcity power – nobody would profit from it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is a difficult crop, requiring a substantial investment of technology and capital. A nation’s tobacco industry can be owned in the way a national marijuana industry could never be, and businesses can make huge amounts of money from monopolising it. It will stay legal, in spite of its harmfulness, because it pays.

I don’t know which of these two theories I like most, or even if either of them comes close to the truth. But until the illegality of what substances you choose ingest correlates with the damage it does to people around you, I will be suspicious of the motives of those who tell you what you can and cannot do.

Governments have the power to stop people doing things. Sometimes this power is used wisely and fairly; but often it is not. Whenever a government asks you to surrender one of your freedoms, it’s worth thinking about who benefits from it. And if it’s not you, it’s time to start worrying.



Noam Chomsky – Understanding Power, p49.

Sam Harris ­– The End of Faith, also his blog post:

Written by The S I

July 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm

A Few Comments On Your Wallpaper

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Here’s another one drawn from Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. Before reading on, find yourself a pack of cards. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Got the cards? Obviously you found them using your eyes. Human vision is pretty good for mammals. Reflect for a moment on how much detail you can see right now: you see a whole page of words, on your computer screen, in full colour. Probably you are aware of what objects are behind your monitor, colour the wallpaper is, what its texture is. It’s pretty impressive.

Now take your pack of cards, shuffle them and select one at random without looking. Keep your eyes focused on one point directly in front of you. Without turning your eyes to look at it, hold the card at arm’s length to one side, with the picture-side turned towards you. It’s in your peripheral vision. You probably can’t see it very clearly, and have no idea what card it is.

Now move your arm a few degrees closer to the centre of your field of vision. Can you identify the card now? Can you even see what colour it is? Move it a little closer. Black or red? Face card or number? Keep moving it closer, without looking directly at it. It really is surprising how close it has to get to the centre of your field of vision before you can confidently identify it; up till then, it’s a blur.

The clear patch in the centre of your vision corresponds with your fovea, the densest concentration of rods and cones in your retina. This is the only part of your eye that can see in detail and colour. The rest is devoted to picking up motion, change; it is the early warning system that tells you where to point your fovea.

You don’t see the world. You see a description of the world that is provided by your eyes. Your fovea flicks from one point of interest to another, gathering information with which to update your brain’s virtual-reality reconstruction of your surroundings. The brain’s editing process is seamless: it’s only when you deliberately prevent your eyes from moving that you realise just how patchy your vision really is.

Dennett goes further: imagine you have some really garish wallpaper, in the style of Andy Warhol, that consists of thousands of identical pictures of Marilyn Monroe. When you look at the wallpaper, how much of it do you really see? Every Marilyn in detail? Or does your brain just ‘fill in’ the rest, based on inspection of one or two. Either way, you can’t tell the difference.

The unsettling conclusion of all this is that you actually perceive the world in more detail than your eyes are providing. The sense of vision is not a window on the world: it is a cobbled-together bag of cheats, tricks and shortcuts. Fortunately, this seems to be enough.

Written by The S I

July 18, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Science

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