Monday, May 26, 2014

The Dendrites Made Me Do It: Free Will and Morality

Back in the 1970s, TV comedian Flip Wilson liked to play a character named Geraldine, whose Church of What's Happening Now taught her to say, whenever she did something bad, that "the devil made me do it!"  Recent research over the last decade or two has given new strength to the argument that our will is determined not by the devil, but by certain neurons, whose axons and dendrites transmit characteristic nerve impulses that appear to precede our conscious decisions to do a thing by a substantial fraction of a second. 

Both research scientists and the general public tend to conclude from brain science that there is no such thing as free will.  If free will is an illusion, then so is responsibility, and it doesn't matter what we do.  And thinking we don't have free will actually affects the way we act, according to a body of research pointed out by Azim Shariff, a psychologist, and Kathleen Vohs, a business-school professor. 

Writing in the June issue of Scientific American, Shariff and Vohs describe a series of experiments in which researchers first primed subjects to think critically of free will.  This priming took various forms.  Reading an essay explicitly criticizing the concept of free will was one way.  But popular-science articles describing brain research, without explicitly mentioning free will, appeared to be about as effective.  However the researchers brought up the topic, it tended to make their subjects less likely to act nice, and less likely to punish others for not-nice behavior.  In one study, volunteers who read an anti-free will article put almost twice as much hot sauce on tortilla chips they were asked to prepare for another volunteer (secretly in cahoots with the researchers), who had previously made it well known that he didn't like hot sauce.  Other subjects shown anti-free will material then proceeded to cheat on an academic test more than subjects who read about an unrelated matter.  The idea that we are simply complex material objects reacting in an entirely predetermined way to our environment appears to lead people to behave irresponsibly, and to judge others as having less responsibility for their actions as well. 

The essay by Shariff and Vohs is an outstanding example of what I would call scientific fence-sitting.  Nowhere do they say what their personal views are on whether free will exists.  Instead, they cite studies of what happens to people when they are exposed to the idea of determinism, either directly or indirectly, and they find that mostly, the results are not good, except that people tend to ease up on the idea of punishment as revenge.  Shariff and Vohs seem to think that modern societies are gradually abandoning the idea of free will, and that this might lead to trouble, although if things get too bad after we leave the concept behind, we "might have to reinvent it."  But they write as though science is the only way of knowing anything for sure, and because science can't resolve the question of whether free will really exists, there's no point in talking about it directly.  It doesn't seem to occur to them that science is not the only way to know things.

I have a couple of modest proposals in the form of hypothetical questions.  Dr. Shariff is an assistant professor, meaning that in the normal course of events, he will go up for tenure some time in the next few years and be evaluated by his peers in the department.  Dr. Vohs is Land O'Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing, which presumably means she owes her living to the success of Land O' Lakes Inc. in selling lots of margarine.  Dr. Shariff, what would you think (not feel, not act, but think) if your personnel committee came up to you after you turned in your application for tenure and they said, "Well, Azim, we were going to grant you tenure, but hey, we were talking and discovered that we're all determinists and it doesn't matter what we do, so to save money, we're going to let you go instead."  And Dr. Vohs, what if the people in charge of the Land O' Lakes Endowment or whatever it is that pays your salary sent you a letter saying, "Dear Dr. Vohs, reading your article in Scientific American convinced us of the truth of determinism, so being freed of the burden of responsibility for our actions, we're taking the endowment that pays your salary and are all going on an extended vacation to the French Riviera." 

I am fairly confident that both injured parties in these situations would think that their supervisors made wrong decisions, and would appeal to rules that apply to their jobs.  These rules spell out responsibilities for both professors and administrators.  You can take the position that, as a practical matter, societies have to pretend that things like free will and the responsibility of moral agents exist, because otherwise we'd degenerate into a state of anarchy and chaos, like Somalia is today. 

But there is a problem here.  I thought science was the search for truth.  Not pretense, not convenient fictions that we live by in order to survive, but truth.  The sense I get from the Scientific American essay (I'm reading between the lines here) is that the authors don't personally believe in free will, but recognize that if we didn't act like it existed, we'd all be in a lot of trouble, both individually and collectively. 

There are two related lessons here for the engineer, and anyone else for that matter, who is looking to behave ethically, both on the job and elsewhere. 

First of all, be careful what you read.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't read articles on brain science, but be sure your reading is at least a balanced diet of a variety of viewpoints, because your reading may influence your actions even if you don't think it does. 

Next, guess what?  Free will exists.  I'm not just pretending that it exists, but it really does.  I'm not enough of a philosopher to trot out all the arguments in favor of it, but I can point to people like Aristotle and Aquinas who were, as well as plenty of modern philosophers.  And while it is technically what theologians call a "mystery," meaning we can understand some of it but never all of it, free will is compatible with the idea that God is in ultimate control of the universe.  Why, there are even some philosophers, called compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with atheistic determinism!  So you really can decide to do the right thing in your work, in your personal life, and in deciding what you think of a couple of professors who won't even say whether they believe in free will, even though they spend years researching it.

Sources:  The essay "The World Without Free Will" appeared on pp. 76-79 of the June 2014 issue of Scientific American.  I referred to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at on free will, and to Wikipedia for articles on Flip Wilson and dendrites.  Also, I found out that Land O' Lakes ( makes other things besides margarine—Purina animal feeds, for example. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Rumor Mills and World War III: "(The Russians Are Coming)^2" Revisited

Pardon the geek typography ("^2" means "squared" or "repeat a second time"), but there wasn't enough room to put the movie's full title—"The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming" in the headline comfortably.  Made in 1966 at the height of the Cold War between the old Soviet Union and the U. S., the film portrays what might have happened if a small Soviet submarine ran aground by accident near the shore of a rustic vacation island off the coast of New England.  I date myself when I confess I saw it when it first came out, and it's one of the few comedies I saw as a child that still seems funny to this 60-year-old.

The humor may be timeless, but the plot is not.  It hinges on the fact that with one exception, the most advanced communications technology on the island is the telephone office whose sole manual switchboard is run by grandmotherly Alice Foss, who knows everybody's name in town and takes eccentric Muriel Everett's report of being attacked by Russians with a large grain of salt—at least until Muriel's phone line goes dead.  But by then, the nine Russian sailors who came ashore to find a boat big enough to tow their sub off the rocks have cut the phone wires to that section of town (it was apparently a party line), so the only way word can travel after that is if a person carries it himself.  In the process of spreading the word, the rumor-mill game starts, and a report of one Russian sailor attacking Muriel distorts into a whole troop of Russian parachutists taking over the island's airport.  Most of the rest of the film follows the five-man police force and a separate vigilante mob led by a self-appointed death-and-glory war veteran, who each think the Russians are somewhere different, and charge around town sowing confusion and more misinformation wherever they go.  The mixups are augmented when the Russians make their way to town, tie up Mrs. Foss, and axe the main phone cables.  A rather sentimental and unlikely incident near the end of the film unites all the town's residents with the Russians, but the whole thing nearly ends up starting World War III anyway when the war vet gets to the only two-way radio in town and calls the U. S. Air Force into action.  Universal holocaust is averted only when the townies escort the sub out to sea with their own boats, which leads the Air Force fighters to call off their attack, and the day is saved. 

Try to update the plot to 2014, and you run into trouble right away.  The first American who spots the Russians is the ten-year-old son of a vacationing writer, who refuses to believe his boy when the kid tells Dad there's nine men in black in the garage with Tommy guns.  If something like that happened today, said son would have posted the guys' photos on whatever it is you post photos on when you're ten years old and have a cellphone these days, and inside of five minutes the FBI might have been on the case.  And the same goes for the creaky old plot device of cutting phone lines, which was laid to rest when the first cellphones (mobile phones, as they are called in world outside the U. S.) came out.  Ironically, rather than helping matters, the only wireless link in the movie—the two-way radio—nearly leads to disaster when it's used to call in the Air Force.

It may seem trivial to note the passing of a slower mode of life in which news sometimes had to be carried by hand, so to speak.  But the same thing has happened to our lives that has happened to that fifty-year-old plot.  Those who want to know what is going on in the lives of significant others these days can keep up with them almost constantly with no time lag via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and there is some concern that excessive indulgence in such things can be an addictive hazard for some people. 

Back in the 1850s, when the electromagnetic telegraph first began to send news around the country at nearly the speed of light, critics worried that life was simply getting too fast and there would be adverse consequences.  Well, whatever the consequences were, we seem to have adapted to them just fine, and in some ways the habit of keeping in constant touch with others via electronic media is perhaps a return to a very primitive way of life.  An anthropologist I read years ago (and have since lost the reference to) noted that in tribal societies, where work such as farming and handicrafts are done in groups, people chat all the time about other people, mostly, and this is the normal way life goes.  So after an industrial interlude of 150 years or so in which workers left the farm for factories and offices where you were expected to deal silently with your job unless it required you to talk, maybe we are using social media and electronics to return to what used to be normal.  At least, some people are. 

Yours truly does not have a Facebook page.  I have never posted an Instagram, or tweeted, or used a hashtag, or any of that other stuff, though my wife keeps me posted on notable doings of people we know who do those things.  I refrain from these modes of communication not out of any principled objection, but mainly because the payoff doesn't seem worth the effort, at least to me.  Blame it on my Y-chromosomes and the fact that males in general, and engineers in particular, often deal more easily with things than with people.  If I'm going to put in an hour or two learning new software, as a result I'd rather be able to analyze plasma spectra, say, as opposed to finding out that some guy I knew in high school has opened a new restaurant.

To those who enjoy social media and the ease of instant global communication, I say:  good for you.  Go ahead and enjoy them in reasonable moderation.  Only be careful not to start World War III.

Sources:  I referred to the Internet Movie Database listing of "The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming" at

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sudden Death of Windows XP

Okay, it wasn't that sudden:  Microsoft announced as long ago as 2012 that, as of April of 2014, it was going to end all support of its creaky but still serviceable Windows XP operating system, so it's not like it happened without warning.  And strictly speaking, computers running Windows XP didn't die on April 8, 2014:  they just became instantly vulnerable to malware, hackers, and others who had been kept somewhat at bay by security upgrades from Microsoft.  As it turns out, this includes well-intentioned network managers such as the ones at my university, who now sniff out any PCs on their network still running Windows XP and simply snip them off the network.  But the whole episode has occasioned some thoughts on planned obsolescence, and how different computer technology is from other kinds of technology.

As it turns out, I have a dog in this fight:  an old Dell laptop in my research lab that runs a number of applications I use in my research, and its operating system is Windows XP.  The applications all run with expensive hardware I have accumulated over the years as funding intermittently became available.  One such item is a high-speed camera that cost about $15K new when I bought it a decade ago with a combination of grant and department money.  Another is a $10K spectrometer that I happened into after I met my department chair in the hall one day, and he asked me if I knew of a good way I could help him spend ten thousand dollars real fast.  The software for these items will not run on anything other than Windows XP, and the laptop is so old I don't think I can upgrade the operating system to Windows 8 in any case.  I have a little grant right now, but I've obligated most of the money toward other items and there's nothing left for software or hardware upgrades. So what's an impoverished researcher to do?

I wasn't the only person caught with my operating system down on April 8, by the way.  One estimate ( says that about a quarter of all PCs are still running Windows XP here over a month after the drop-dead date, so I'm sure there are millions of computers out there in the same slowly sinking boat that my laptop is in. 

In a lot of ways, the end of XP support resembles the old Y2K scare that those of us old enough to be computer-savvy in 2000 can recall.  Because programmers dealing with the limited memory in mid-20th-century computers didn't always take into account the possibility that their software might still be running on Jan. 1, 2000, they sometimes wrote dates in a way that would make the software bomb if you tried to keep them running past Dec. 31, 1999.  Fortunately, the turn of the century was highly predictable, and despite certain fringe elements who predicted a digital Armageddon, nearly all software had been successfully upgraded by New Year's Day on 2000, and the big Y2K scare turned out to be a bust.

Similarly, judging from the cricket-filled silence on the Internet concerning any dire consequences of the end of XP support after April 8, I think things have not turned out to be as bad as some people thought.  Still, I can't connect my PC laptop to the internet without getting it squelched by IT support now, and if anything goes wrong with any of the software or hardware it runs, I may find myself up a creek.

Those involved in the computer and software industries rarely think in terms of indefinitely lengthy stretches of time, although I will give Microsoft credit for announcing the end of XP support so far in advance, and sticking to their commitment.  Every design of an engineered product is an act of faith:  the designer rarely knows exactly who will use the design, how they will benefit, or how long the design will be useful.  The business model of software companies is a constant scramble to issue upgrades and new products, and in a competitive global economy, it can't very well be otherwise.  But in the rare cases that a thing shows unexpected fruitful longevity, it seems that there is a kind of nobility or merit attached to that fact that most engineers rarely recognize, having been trained in the philosophy of "old = bad, new = good" from their college days. 

I recall the story of a mechanical animation stand and camera that begin its existence back in the 1920s, and was used to make some of the earliest animated cartoons.  The same stand was still in use in the late 1990s for commercial film production, because the mechanical standards of 35-mm film had not changed in all that time. 

Animation stands are junk now, rendered that way by the advent of computer-generated images (CGI).  And motion-picture production companies that have switched to all-digital production find that it costs them a bundle simply to keep a movie on the shelf, because all the software and memory standards associated with the huge pile of digital information that goes into the movie are constantly changing, and it's a full-time job for several people just to make sure that the movie is still in shape to be played from month to month.  It brings to mind the words of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's story Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There:  "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Those who have the resources to run twice as fast have long since upgraded their old PCs (or not so old PCs) to Windows 7 or 8 or 13 or whatever the latest version is, and will continue to keep up with the times.  And those of us who haven't, will just have to deal with the situation any way we can. 

Sources:  The online journal Computerworld carried a debate as long ago as December 2012 at in which experts differed as to whether Microsoft would really stick to their announced deadline, as they in fact did.  Some good advice to those who can't afford upgrading from Windows XP appeared in PC Pro's online edition at  The statistic about the percentage of PCs running Windows XP is available at

Monday, May 05, 2014

West One Year Later: Will It Happen Again?

On April 22, the U. S. Chemical Safety Board held a news conference to present its recommendations about how to prevent another disaster such as the one in West, Texas that killed fifteen, injured over 200, and caused millions of dollars of property damage on April 17, 2013.  So far, not a lot has changed in terms of federal or state regulations pertaining to ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer chemical that exploded on that fateful day.  But a fertilizer trade organization has issued a set of recommendations that, if followed, will go some distance toward reducing the chances that another disastrous accident involving the chemical will happen again.

As long ago as 2002, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that ammonium nitrate be included in OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and EPA (Environmental Protection Administration) regulatory programs, but these agencies have not yet chosen to act on these recommendations.  Ammonium nitrate falls in a gray area between chemicals such as nitroglycerin or TNT that are clearly dangerous, and others such as sand that are harmless.  Under most circumstances, ammonium nitrate can be handled with little or no risk.  But under certain combinations of heat, pressure, and/or shock, the chemical detonates, transforming many tons of solid matter into hot gases that expand explosively, as they did in West. 

In response to the West accident a trade organization called The Fertilizer Institute issued a fourteen-page booklet to its members last February with the title "Safety and Security Guidelines for the Storage and Transportation of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate at Fertilizer Retail Facilities."  The title does not promise exciting reading, though the legalese and lengthy definitions of different types of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer are enlivened by color photos of fertilizer manufacturing and handling installations.  The pamphlet summarizes most of the precautions which, if followed, would have gone a long way toward preventing the West disaster. 

These measures fall into two categories: (1) ways to prevent ammonium nitrate from exploding in the first place, and (2) ways to avert death and destruction if a fire breaks out where ammonium nitrate is stored, and the stuff explodes anyway.  The prevention measures are more or less what you'd expect:  things like storing the material in non-combustible bins, rather than wooden ones as were used in the West firm; installing sprinkler systems or other fire-prevention and fire-fighting facilities; and treating places where ammonium nitrate is stored like flammable-material storage areas (no-smoking signs, no sparks or flames nearby, etc.).  Because an exact cause of the fire at West that led to the explosion may never be found, we cannot know for certain if these precautions would have prevented the tragedy.  But obviously, they are good things to do, and if fertilizer retailers around the country follow these prevention guidelines, the chances of another such accident will be reduced.

The second category of recommendations is more problematic.  It involves informing the wider community, including first-responder agencies, that ammonium nitrate is stored in the facility and should be treated with extra caution.  By the nature of the business, many fertilizer retailers are located in semi-rural or thinly populated areas.  These locales are often served by volunteer fire departments, and while volunteer firemen theoretically should be trained as well as full-time paid firefighters, the reality is that their training may be on the sketchy side.   The Chemical Safety Board concluded that the first responders in West did not know of the dangers presented by the large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored at the plant where they responded to what appeared at first to be an ordinary fire, and were much too close for safety.  Consequently, when the plant exploded, most of the people who died were firefighters.  The guidance handbook says "The rule of thumb is if outside emergency responders are necessary, do not fight AN [ammonium nitrate] fires.  For fires that have engaged AN, plans should focus on evacuation of the area."  In other words: don't fight, run. 

While the trade-association brochure's advice is good, it has no legal standing, and firms are free to adopt its recommendations or ignore them.  Simply as a matter of asset protection, I would hope that fertilizer retailers who sell ammonium nitrate are at least considering an upgrade of unsafe storage facilities, and the brochure provides good guidelines as to how to carry this out.  However, the informational side of the recommendations may be harder to implement.  A business owner may feel some reluctance in volunteering the information to local authorities that his facility harbors material that might reduce a wide swath of his neighborhood to rubble.  Nevertheless, there may be courageous and conscientious owners who will do such things. 

Both the Chemical Safety Board and various other authorities have called for tighter compulsory regulation of ammonium nitrate storage and transportation.  This is a political as well as a technical and ethical matter, and politics these days tends to go to polarized extremes.  On the one hand are those who favor centralized uniform federal regulations for all sorts of things, including ammonium nitrate.  On the other hand, a prominent plank in the Tea Party platform is the idea that government regulations have gone too far and are stifling free enterprise and economic growth.  The regulations contemplated with regard to ammonium nitrate vary from rules about how the stuff is stored to rules about notification and training of local first responders.  It seems to me that sensible regulations requiring the exchange of information, perhaps implemented by some sort of web-based registry, would be the least costly way to make sure that at a minimum, any firefighters responding to an ammonium-nitrate fire would know what they are dealing with and would take appropriate precautions. 

One way of dealing with this information problem is by the use of fire codes.  However, the state of Texas has a strong history of anti-regulatory bias.  In fact, counties with low population density in Texas are actually prohibited by state law from enacting fire codes at all.  So around July and December, you see roadside fireworks stands popping up for a few weeks with nary a concern for any safety beyond the immediate self-preservation of the owners in case a customer drops a burning cigarette. 

So far, the only concrete public action toward preventing more ammonium-nitrate fertilizer disasters has been the Fertilizer Institute's brochure.  While they deserve credit for their efforts, only time will tell whether enough has changed to keep another fertilizer plant from blowing up, or to save lives if it does.

Sources:  The news conference in Dallas on Apr. 22, 2014 held by the Chemical Safety Board was summarized by a UPI report at  The Chemical Safety Board's own statements at the conference can be downloaded at  The Fertilizer Institute recommendations can be found at  And I blogged on the West explosion previously on Apr. 22 and May 20, 2013.