sábado, 9 de febrero de 2013

Is art dead?

It is always fun to read essays (or rants) like this, which are so banal they become examples of what they try to describe. Why do some writers and other self-proclaimed intellectuals complain about media culture? Perhaps because they fear to lose the monopoly of culture and erudition. To be precise, there are at least two phenomena: the mass production and distribution of movies, music and books by an elite, and the spread of knowledge through the internet. In any case, the end-user gets the benefit of choosing what to use or read among a greater variety of entertainment products and, much more important, to look at least at some recent scientific discoveries which otherwise would never have been available to him. It is easy to say that without qualified censors, false information can be diffused very easily but that's what some people said when the Bible was translated into alive languages in order to be accessible to everybody and perhaps the confidence in oneself and entrepreneurism which distinguish(ed) protestants from catholics (an aspect of their work ethic) emerged as a consequence of this fact. There is the not so rare belief among educated people that if something is popular, then it cannot be good, and that culture is high when it is exclusively possessed by a minority.

Science, often neglected by non-scientifically trained intellectuals, is perhaps the most important part of our culture and, despite remarkable efforts to make it understandable to the public, remains largely disregarded. Some people argue that if a scientific exposition is good enough, then it can be understood by anyone. I disagree with them: there are already excellent elementary books such as those by Courant and Hilbert and they haven't dramatically changed the scientific education of the general public. Science remains a subject for an elite despite serious attempts to make it more popular, what else would snobs require of something to consider it an art? 

sábado, 22 de diciembre de 2012

What's the purpose of public education? Should you pay for 'pure' scientific research?

It's a belief widely diffused among libertarians that there should be no public education since it requires compulsory taxation which is a kind of part-time slavery. People should keep their money in their pockets and use it however they want to. It is a conception of politics very different from that of Aristotle who believed the purpose of politics is to promote virtue, to shape the character of the members of society, to guide citizens toward a good way of living, one doesn't have a good society if it's not serving this mission. According to him politics is about making possible a good life for everyone. Of course this may sound awful to libertarians: they would say that this is socialism. Well, you may call it that way, but let's be more precise about their objections. Actually the following objection would also be raised by some egalitarians: the purpose of politics is to guarantee the maximum average freedom and that almost everyone (I don't think libertarians care about this last part or at least they don't think it should be a matter of public concern) is really close to that degree of freedom (one has to have a very small variance). Everyone should choose his own objectives, values and methods as long as he doesn't interfere with anybody else's respective freedom to do the same. So the state shouldn't show any paternalism. 

I think that most of you wouldn't agree with such an extreme point of view: most of you want a state with a bit of paternalism. You may say no, of course not, what I want is to be as free as possible and so to be responsible for the consequences of my right or wrong choices. Let me show you some of the consequences of this attitude: you wouldn't do anything if you saw an extraordinary bad parent teaching every sort of false ideas ("you can fly if you really want to") and obviously wrong moral principles ("blacks/whites/ are inferior to you and you can or should be rude to them") to his child, perhaps you could say that's a minor cost of being free but what if this is a generalized behavior? How soon and at what cost it would become evident that that's inconvenient? The main objective of instruction is to teach how to avoid some types of mistakes or do you really think that everyone should have the chance to learn all that directly from experience (his wrong choices)? You would be ok if there were Nazi schools out there creating the SS of tomorrow? Perhaps the main purpose of public education is to teach people to accept the others no matter how black or crippled or woman they are (just to quote a famous Dictator). Without public education we would be repeating the same mistakes over and over. Of course public education shouldn't be aggressively holistic as it was in totalitarian states (but to choose where to stop may not be obvious) but it should teach at least to tolerate/respect the others to some extent (as long as they are not interfering violently with that purpose!?). There should be private schools, but they would have to comply with some standards. Who would decide what to teach and how to do it? A committee of bureaucrats. Libertarians fear bureaucracy like the plague but those who believe in socialism would say that as long as people elect or control somehow these bureaucrats (or these bureaucrats are men of the highest moral/intellectual fibre) everything is fine. The problem is that it could happen that parents decide that the current curricula are too demanding or useless in the real world or immoral and vote to suppress it. So there should be experts deciding but listening to suggestions and watching closely the performance of teachers and students. Of course there are men who prefer to be ruled by a random subset of the persons in a general directory rather than by the faculty of Harvard.

The debate on public education raises the question of what should be the role of the state. Some might say that the state should be the generous (and perhaps only) provider of food, potable water, health services, education, well paid jobs and so on. That seems to be a good purpose, one can hardly raise any moral objection to it but economists (or any reasonable person) would say that there's the problem of scarcity. Who should pay all those services? "The rich of course" some might say, "because they didn't become rich thanks to their sole effort and talent, they owe something to a society who happened to appreciate what they produced (this presupposes of course that consumers and corporations are not even: somehow the vast majority of their clients get fooled when they purchase something!)". There's a more compelling problem.  This a finite world and there's no way to satisfy everyone's desires but perhaps it's not even possible to give a fair amount of every natural resource to everyone. What can one do then? A draw perhaps, some think that chance is fair but it was not chance (let's not discuss determinism and some kind of real "veil of maya" now) what made the powerful men of today who they are now (is not chance what determines whether one is tall or smart)? Who would organize the distribution of goods? Some might say that a random committee of citizens or an elected team of experts should do that. But we have encountered an objection to a democratically organized public education. Well, perhaps it wouldn't be that terrible to have the real soviets back. But that requires citizens to engage in politics at a level we haven't seen in a long time (how intense was actually the participation in Athens? I'm only guessing), perhaps one can have some stable and not oppressive form of socialism if we return to the ancient greek model of poleis, city-states in which citizens (excluding women and slaves) deliberated together about the 'public thing'. We could avoid perhaps obviously wrong directions if a (not fixed) committee of experts discussed publicly the advantages and viability of every proposal (scientists could become the de facto ruling class, we are approaching the Republic of Plato here). Of course there could be demagogues (blind to the suggestions of experts and proud of this fact, using it as a means to attract the popular/ignorant vote, ah but with good public education there would be a lower bound to this ignorance... and this demagogue could say that public education is biased, that its purpose is to control our minds, to makes us act as a single man, suppressing individuality, and so has to be abolished, popularizing again the libertarian credo!) but could it be worse than the current plutocracy? Perhaps after all, the conflict between libertarianism and some kind of mild socialism will keep us forever in a oscillating state. Well, at least until some kind of non sociological catastrophe occurs.

One can debate forever about the role of the state and the common good but there is however a point where libertarians are clearly manifesting a deplorable ignorance. They often say that scientific research publicly funded shouldn't exist. Research should be privately financed and in this way oriented towards specific practical goals. Even if one knows only superficially the history of science, one sees how major breakthroughs were not funded by corporations and at the moment of their conception were distant from industrial applications. Just to mention a few of these facts let's consider classical mechanics (in their newtonian, lagrangian and hamiltonian formulation), electromagnetism (Maxwell introduced a term in one of the equations that now bear his name for reasons of mathematical elegance), general relativity (which presupposed the famous dissertation on geometry of Riemann, pure abstract nonsense at his time!), quantum mechanics. All the major figures in the development of these theories (which have made the world what it is today) were just trying to understand natural phenomena, they were not in the pay of some multinational corporation and often worked in public universities. Businessmen are naturally shortsighted (it is their job to aim for foreseeable profits not to embark themselves on adventures that no one can know were they may lead), who would have ever payed Maxwell to understand the profound unity of electricity and magnetism? Which rich guy would have supported the mathematicians that were not even thinking directly about physics but developed concepts without which the advance of physical science would have been impossible? I can safely say that all the scientific revolutions of our history were guided by the desire to know, to learn about the world without a specific goal. The famous classic: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses" should be paraphrased in terms of scientific research to express a more evident truth. I'm not praising every application of science, I'm just saying that the comfort libertarians often attribute only to greedy entrepreneurs depends actually on scientists (working on their own or more often at publicly funded institutions) who didn't care about making money or making life easier or happier to anybody, they just wanted to know (let's not discuss now the moral worth of discovering something and not caring then about its impact on society/environment, we can hope that our society evolves from a 'matter economy" to a "knowledge economy" and then to a "wisdom economy" as John Baez does).

lunes, 26 de noviembre de 2012

Brodie's report: A barbaric country called Mexico

Transcribo fielmente un informe encontrado recientemente en la Biblioteca Nacional debido a un autor desconocido.

"Mexico can appear disgusting and horrifying to a civilized citizen of a modern occidental nation. First of all its indigenous tribes and clans are offensive to the eye: a typical mexican is a sort of brown halfling, obese and stinking because of the putrid blood from the sacrifices used as an aphrodisiac that covers their long black hair. Mexican cities are a horrid plethora of huts surrounding atrocious pyramids where animals, children and prisoners are horrendously executed to please their inhuman gods. The smell of blood and putrescent dismembered bodies is nauseating even after some months of living here. And this fact introduces what is more surprising about mexicans for a scientifically oriented occidental mind. Their priests tell them that the world was created by some giant squid-like gods who must be offered human tributes to prevent them from changing their mind about their creation and destroying it. I don't think such horrible beliefs have ever been held by white people. They have a king who has the responsibility to talk to their divine octopuses and in order to perform his duty without distractions he is blinded and his limbs are severed. He lives in a cave and I haven't been allowed to see him. Women are used exclusively for procreation, they are somehow considered to be sacred even if they cannot leave their houses without a male nor can talk to strangers. They think a vagina can only be used for the sacred purpose of creating life, so they have sex with children for pleasure. Any man can have sex with the child he wants, he just has to approach him and tell him to bend over. Sex with children is not a taboo and is performed publicly. If one has sex with a woman untimely (there is a specific day to copulate with women) he is castrated and impaled. Eating in public is prohibited: one has to eat completely alone, transgressors are tortured, raped and executed. On the contrary, everyone defecates in public wherever he wants. Selling things to them is hard since they have only four numbers: 1,2,3 and infinity. One has to sell only three items at a time to them, otherwise they don't understand and may accuse you of blasphemy. Some ambassadors have suggested to the President that mexicans should be terminated just like all the other red indians and their barbaric world replaced by God-believing Anglo-Saxon settlers. I disagree with them. They have an idea of morality and religion even if their values appear reversed to us. They can be taught to be our faithful servants since they have a natural inclination to serve and worship a master even if this master is cruel and ruthless. So we can replace our black slaves in our cotton fields with this willing race of slaves without fearing any revolt. I hope you can appreciate what I have just said."

sábado, 10 de noviembre de 2012

Yo, robot jugador

Seamos sincréticos sin pudor. El curso Justice de M. Sandel en Harvard, disponible en YouTube, presenta abundantes dilemas morales que difícilmente podrían ser resueltos por un robot asimoviano ¡incluso equipado con un esbozo de Ley cero de la robótica! Si mal no recuerdo, al cumplir las leyes de la robótica –¿imperativos categóricos en el sentido de Kant?– requieren una suerte de moral utilitaria pues por ejemplo al tener que escoger si salvar una persona u otra realizan supuestamente un análisis de costos y beneficios, basándose en su edad, salud, etc. lo cual a simple vista parece moral según el criterio universal de Kant pero ¡presupone una jerarquización de una cantidad indeterminable de aspectos que no puede ser más que heterónoma!. En la sociedad actual ese dilema podría reducirse a meros costos y beneficios monetarios: si la persona es beneficiaria o contribuyente al estado benefactor, etc. Hablar de robots tan sofisticados cuando las máquinas actuales no pueden reconocer letras retorcidas parece ocioso, pero los robots pueden verse como experimentos mentales, humanos particularmente virtuosos. Daneel Olivaw y Giskard pertenecen a la historia de la filosofía moral. 

Pero uno no debería asumir principios morales arbitrariamente, una cierta idoneidad parece pertinente: no vamos a ser tan buenos que nos pongamos de escudo humano en la primera balacera que veamos o a ofrecer indiscriminadamente la otra mejilla al golpeador en turno. Afortunadamente hay experimentos que nos pueden orientar sobre lo que es conveniente o exitoso en términos evolutivos y para sorpresa de algunos la moral del depredador solitario no necesariamente es la mejor. R. Axelrod desarrolló un torneo virtual donde distintas estrategias se enfrentaron en una especie de dilema del prisionero iterado.  
Tomo la exposición de Metamagical Themas de Hofstadter. Podemos pensar que uno hace indirectamente un acuerdo con alguien. Acordamos intercambiar maletas, dejándolas en algún lugar específico sin que tengamos que vernos. El acuerdo es: yo dejo dinero y el otro me deja cierta mercancía. Aparentemente lo que me conviene es dejar la bolsa vacía con la esperanza de que el otro sí me deje la mercancía y yo la obtenga gratis, naturalmente, si el otro piensa de la misma manera, puede que yo salga también con las manos vacías. La situación en que ambos jugadores no cumplen lo prometido se llama de equilibrio porque, de cambiar su estrategia, cualquier jugador vería disminuido su beneficio. Pero ¿qué pasaría si ese comercio se repitiera, qué estrategia convendría en ese caso? Si dejara solo bolsas vacías, ese negocio no podría prosperar. El experimento realizado consistió justo en poner diversos jugadores con distintas estrategias a interactuar por parejas manteniendo un registro de sus interacciones previas. Los beneficios de las interacciones se miden de alguna manera (si ambos cooperan, los beneficios respectivos son (3,3) digamos; si solo uno coopera, obtienen (5,0) o (0,5); y si ambos incumplen, (1,1)), supongo que una cierta cantidad de beneficio permite al jugador reproducirse, mientras que un desempeño pobre lo orilla a ser borrado. Así después de un cierto tiempo se puede ver qué estrategias tienden a ganar más puntos. La ganadora de su primer torneo fue llamada "tit for tat" y dice lo siguiente: 

Coopera (cumple) en tu primer movida con un jugador y luego haz lo que hizo ese jugador en su jugada anterior.

Esa estrategia fue más exitosa que otras mucho más sofisticadas o mucho más agresivas como la de nunca cooperar o 'coopera primero pero luego si el otro te falla, nunca lo perdones' (u otras mucho más complejas que por ello dan la impresión de no contener patrón alguno). Se repitieron torneos parecidos con algunas variaciones pero aparentemente la moraleja de esos experimentos fue que con que hubiera un pequeño grupo de jugadores dispuestos a colaborar, estrategias del estilo 'tit por tat' que tienden a cooperar en principio y sólo toman represalias moderadamente son las más exitosas. Ahora bien, obviamente las interacciones en la sociedad son frecuentemente entre más de 2 jugadores y aquí, a pesar de lo que muchos pregonan (busca tu beneficio aunque joda al prójimo), puede aplicarse el principio kantiano: 'actúa de la manera que, generalizada, te convendría más'. No se trata meramente de ser buenos y magnánimos, aunque el experimento anterior nos indique eso en cierto modo, sino de de aplicar cierta simetría al razonamiento: "los demás jugadores están en mi misma situación, pueden cooperar o intentar sacar ventaja; en primera instancia, cada uno supondrá que todos los demás intentarán sacar ventaja pero luego se darán cuenta de que presumiblemente todos razonarán así al principio pero en seguida concluirán que cada uno preferirá al escenario donde todos intentan sacar ventaja y chocan de frente, la situación donde todos cooperan". O sea, si los demás tienen la misma escala de valores que yo, las mismas posibilidades de acción y todos saben que todos lo saben, ¿lo lógico es cooperar? Evidentemente uno puede imaginar un astuto que piense: "como son razonables y bondadosos, los demás concluirán que conviene cooperar, entonces yo sacaré ventaja, ganándoles a todos", pero estaría asumiendo que él es diferente en su razonar que los demás. Si al momento de elaborar su estrategia cada jugador piensa que los demás piensan como él, parece inevitable desarrollar la moral de Kant. (¿por qué es tan poco frecuente esa forma de pensar? Una respuesta fácil es que la gente normalmente sabe que los demás no tienen su misma información y sobre todo su mismo poder o dinero. En condiciones de desigualdad, impera la lógica de aumentar la propia ventaja o contrarrestar la de los demás a toda costa. ¿Entonces sí hay que combatir la desigualdad porque se alimenta a sí misma, desalentando estrategias cooperativas?)

¿Cuál es la moraleja? ¿Que puede haber una base experimental para la moralidad y que probablemente convenga cooperar siempre que se pueda y replicar sin aumento las afrentas? Quizá por ahora sólo lo primero...

sábado, 27 de octubre de 2012

Una historia incompleta de la belleza

Historia de la belleza a cargo de U.Eco es una simpático abanico de imágenes y textos en los que la belleza matemática y su papel como guía en la investigación científica brillan por su ausencia (bueno, hay algunas vaguedades griegas de Platón por ejemplo). No habría desentonado incluir alguna cita de Dirac o de G.H.Hardy, además de los consabidos mosaicos de la Alhambra. Quizá debió incluirse una imagen de alguna superficie no compacta, de esas que se bifurcan interminablemente más amenazadoras que cualquier descripción verbosa de Cthulhu. O alguna visión de una 3-variedad cerrada, que son laberintos en los que todavía la humanidad está perdida. Tampoco habrían desentonado los cardinales, entidades realmente metafísicas. Algo que ahora me interesaría bastante es una historia de la risa o una enciclopedia de la injuria. Esos tratados posibles podrían desarrollarse cabalmente dentro de una perspectiva humanística a diferencia de la belleza. No es tan exagerado decir que los poetas no tienen el monopolio de la imaginación porque nunca han inventado algo tan prodigioso como la recta real.