Monday, July 28, 2014

Imagine There's No Email

For people of a certain age, you're supposed to sing that title to the tune of the John Lennon song that uses the word "heaven" instead of "email."  The other day our wireless hub here at home went out, and it took a day or two before we could get a new one going.  In the interim, my wife, who was initially distressed at her lack of connectivity, remarked that actually it was a refreshing thing to go without email or looking at the Internet for a couple of days.  Without meaning to, we accidentally endured what you might call a period of fasting from email and the Internet.  And we found that it wasn't all that bad.

Mention the word "fasting" to most people, and you may conjure up images of scrawny half-crazed religious fanatics who lived a long time ago.  Or if you have had personal experience of fasting, it was probably just an unpleasant prelude to a medical procedure.  The whole spirit of the age militates against voluntarily refraining from consumption of one kind or another, which is all fasting is.  We are told without letup that we live in a consumer-driven economy, and so it's positively unpatriotic to consume less if you can consume more.

Well, if it's so economically harmful, why do people do it at all?  What is the point of fasting?

Theologians have an umbrella word for fasting, abstinence, and other kinds of things discussed in magazines with titles like A Simple Life, The Simple Things, or just Real Simple.  The word is "simplicity."  Simplicity is a type of spiritual discipline, meaning that it's a habit you can practice that will make you a better person if you get better at it.  Or at least, it stands a chance of doing that.  What is certain, is that if you don't practice the discipline, it won't do you any good.

You don't have to be a theologian, or even a religious believer, to benefit from spiritual disciplines, especially fasting.  The reason is that human nature is meant to be a certain way, and habits that make us more the way we were intended to be have benefits, whether or not you believe there is a God that designed you to be a certain way or not.  The habit or discipline of fasting helps the rational part of you gain mastery over the less-rational part. 

All of us have what some sociologists refer to as a "lizard brain":  a primitive part of the brain that we appear to share with lower animals such as lizards.  Lizards are good at what they do.  We have bright-green anoles around our yard here, and they move in a way that I have to admit is quite human:  slowly, guardedly creeping up on a bug until it's within reach, and then snatching it before the bug can figure out what hit him.  But lizards are slaves to their instincts.  When they're hungry, they hunt.  When it's breeding time, they breed.  You don't see lizards wearing little hooded robes and rope belts around their waists refraining from eating juicy bugs right in front of them.  At least, not outside Geico commercials.

But humans can voluntarily refrain from consuming or doing something that is otherwise good, helpful, or even necessary, simply to practice what you might call ordinate self-control.  Take email as an example of such a thing.  Some small fraction of what most people with email accounts receive is worth reading:  it's from a person you know, or your boss, or your long-lost Cousin Max, and you get a benefit or pleasure from reading it.  But the temptation of email, at least for me, is to jump on the computer every time that little bing goes off and see what the newest email is.  If I give in to the temptation to monitor my email more or less constantly like that, I will get little if anything else done. 

An occasional fast from email can teach me several things.  One is, I won't die or lose my job (not necessarily, depending on the job) if I don't read my email for a couple of days, with the proper preliminary precautions and notices to others.  Another lesson is, life without email is not only possible, but has advantages too.  I can spend hours reading a book, for instance (remember books?—the paper kind, I mean).  Or I can take a walk in a park and observe, really observe, nature and its manifold wonders—not just treat it as some green-screen CGI background to the movie of my life. 

Much as engineers like rules, there are no universal rules for fasting (aside from rules promulgated by various religions for their members, that is).  If you want to try it, think of a bad habit you have that you'd really like to be able to control, a habit that involves something necessary in its proper amount, but something that you find yourself going overboard with.  I'm not trying to start a twelve-step program here, I'm simply suggesting how you can pick a feature of your life that you might consider fasting from.  Then decide on some period of time in which you could afford to stop or reduce that activity, and try to stick to it.  If it's something you really think you can do without altogether, go slow at first.  Trying too much too soon is a classic mistake of novice fasters.  If you can do without the thing for an hour, or a day, do it, don't be too hard on yourself if you fail, but if you succeed, try two hours or two days next time.

Fasting is currently a countercultural thing, and except for the magazines I've mentioned and some books I will refer to below, you won't find much support from other people if you decide to fast.  They may secretly feel jealous or threatened by your abstaining from what they view as a normal, healthy part of life.  They may even tell you you're foolish or going to cause yourself trouble, and you should at least listen to them.  But if you've made up your mind to try a fast, go ahead and try it.  The worst that can happen is that you find out the thing has got a tighter grip on you than you thought—and that's worth knowing too.

Sources:  I have found very helpful a couple of books that relate to fasting, simplicity, and related spiritual disciplines.  Richard J. Foster's Celebration of Discipline:  The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (HarperCollins, 1998) is a classic that treats many types of spiritual disciplines, including fasting, in an organized way that respects a wide variety of religious traditions.  For a more personal take on how a very busy wife, mother and author up the road here in Austin implemented seven types of simple living in her household, I recommend Jen Hatmaker's 7:  An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (B&H Publishers, 2012).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Books and E-books

Last Christmas, someone gave me a Kindle, and I have made intermittent attempts to get engaged in reading e-books on it.  These attempts have met with only mixed success.  A book that was highly recommended by my pastor, who makes no secret that he's not much of a reader, left me unimpressed, and I abandoned it.  More recently, out of a sense of duty to a cultural icon more than genuine interest, I downloaded (for free) a copy of Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's encyclopedic multivolume Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust wins my nomination for Greatest Introspector of the Nineteenth Century Award, but I'm afraid I've abandoned him too, somewhere in his childhood garden among his maiden aunts and the eccentric visitor Mr. Swann. 

The only books I've managed to finish on the thing were a couple of mass-produced page-turners written for young adults.  They managed to keep me turning the electronic pages, all right, but after I finished the last one I felt a little like you might feel after binge-watching five recorded episodes in a row of some trashy TV series—I had to ask myself, "Was that really the best use of my time?" 

Despite numerous prophecies that the days of the printed book are numbered, e-books have not yet done to the paper-book publishing business what hand-held electronic calculators did to the slide-rule business.  Electronic calculators were so obviously superior to slide rules in nearly every way that only die-hard traditionalists clung to their slide rules, which took a one-way trip to the museum and never came back.  That is not happening with paper books.

Once the market stabilized on a few common platforms such as Kindle, e-book sales took off and increased steadily for several years.  Some of the biggest sales boosts came from mass-market fiction series such as the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise.  But in the last year or so, e-book sales have flattened out, while paper-book sales are seeing increases, both in the U. S. and worldwide, that in many cases show faster growth than e-books.  A report on the Digital Book World website says that U. S. sales of e-books through August 2013 were $647 million, about a 5% increase from the previous year, while hardcover printed books accounted for sales of $778 million, up nearly 12% from a year earlier.  This trend is continuing in 2014, and is not the picture of a situation where one medium is simply being dropped for a newer one. 

Instead, it's beginning to look like the book medium one chooses will depend on the message it carries.  This is a familiar phenomenon in other fields—music, for example.  Take two music lovers.  One is a busy college student whose part-time job is standing in front of a tax office waving a big arrow sign.  He wants something to listen to while doing this mindless task.  The other is a professional music critic with exquisite taste and highly discriminating ears, wishing to evaluate the latest recordings of a particular Mozart string quartet.  The college student will be happy with an iPod (or smartphone) with earbuds, while the music critic will want to listen in a quiet room through a high-dollar stereo system and speakers.  Different kinds of messages are just naturally suited to different kinds of media, and the same may be true of book publishing going forward.

So will e-books destroy the paper-book publishing business?  No, but they will change the makeup of what gets published that way.  Books with mainly transient value—what an acquaintance of mine once called "nonce books," meaning it's of interest for the nonce, but not much longer—will probably show up as e-books.  Fiction mega-hits that masses of otherwise non-literary folk gobble up are perfectly suited to the e-book format, which makes it easy for the reader to plow through in a straight line as fast as he or she can read.  But for more scholarly publications that someone might want to keep around for reference or contemplation, I think the paper format is more suitable, and current sales statistics say that paper books are not on the verge of immediate extinction.

If you think about it, there is a physical connection, however tenuous, between a person holding a mechanically typeset book in his hands, and the original author, no matter how long ago the author lived.  If you pick up a copy of Aristotle printed before about 1960, the chain goes like this:  from handwritten manuscript to medieval scribes, to nineteenth-century editor, to typist copying the editor's manuscript, to the Linotype operator setting the type, to the stereotype plates that impressed the ink into the very paper you hold in your hands.  

Maybe some computer geek can figure out the analogous path for an e-book, but I'm not sure I want to hear about it.

I think one of the most profound differences between the natures of the two media is that paper books are inclined to permanence, while e-books are suited to transience.  In the nature of things, I expect that today's e-books will not be readable by future generations of machines, or if they are, it will become a bigger and bigger hassle to do so as time goes on, just as it is probably hard for you right now to recover files on a computer you used more than a decade ago.  But unless the ink has faded to invisibility or the paper has crumbled to dust, we can still read writings that were penned thousands of years ago. 

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that the only copy of the writings of Aristotle, upon whose ideas much of Western civilization is based, lay forgotten in some heir's basement for a couple of hundred years before being rediscovered.  Good thing they were written on paper, because if Aristotle had used a Kindle, in two centuries the batteries would have died and the operating system would have been, well, ancient history.

Sources:  I referred for statistics on U. S. publishing of print and e-books to the websites and, and for worldwide sales to  The popular fiction I read on Kindle was the first two books in the "Airel" series by Aaron Patterson and Chris White.  The story of the rediscovery of Aristotle's works is reported by at least two ancient historians, according to the Wikipedia article on Aristotle.   

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Birth Control Chip

An MIT spinoff called MicroCHIPS has announced plans to market an implantable contraceptive chip that can be turned on and off remotely, and lasts for as long as sixteen years.  Funded by the (Bill) Gates Foundation to the tune of $5 million, the chip contains enough of the contraceptive drug levonorgestrel to provide contraception for the major part of a woman's fertile years.  Once implanted, the device will automatically melt a seal to release a few micrograms of the drug every month until it receives a wireless command to stop, or to start again if desired.  When developers were questioned about hacking concerns, they said the device will incorporate such precautions as individual password-protected remote controls and the need for an external transmitter to be held within a few inches of the device, which will be implanted in a region of fatty tissue.  MicroCHIPS hopes to market the device in some regions of the world starting in 2018.

This announcement raises two distinct ethical issues. 

One is the question of security relating to any kind of medical chip implanted in the human body.  One of the news reports on the contraceptive device noted that former U. S. Vice President Dick Cheney asked his doctors to disable his heart pacemaker's wireless interface out of concerns that someone might hack into it and zap him into eternity.  Such fears are not without foundation.  For example, password protection is notably weak in many cases, and short-range low-power RF links can be manipulated from greater distances by (illegal) high-power transmitters. 

It is a sign of a narrow mindset to consider only technical means of hacking.  In the developing-world environments where the Gates Foundation intends the contraceptive chip to be used, there is often a strong animus against any method of birth control on the part of husbands and boyfriends. Why should a man bother with sophisticated technical hacking when he can threaten to beat the stuffing out of the woman if she doesn't tell him her password?  No one has figured out a foolproof way to prevent that kind of hack.

The second ethical issue, and the one that will probably get me into hot water shortly, is the question of contraception in general.  Contraception is an existential question for the human race as a whole, and thus goes to the very heart of what you think humanity is about. 

Until the mid-twentieth century, the consensus of both learned and popular opinion was that engaging in sexual intercourse while intentionally preventing the conception of a child was wrong.  Here is what none other than the great psychologist (and atheist) Sigmund Freud said in a lecture delivered in 1915:  "We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it. So, as you will see, the breach and turning-point in the development of sexual life lies in its becoming subordinate to the purposes of reproduction."

While he said this in the context of the subject of infantile sexuality, Freud is essentially making the distinction between the animal type of intercourse, in which creatures such as dogs and cats simply follow their instinctive sexual urges wherever they lead, and the mature human type of intercourse, in which the main reproductive function of sex is recognized by the rational animal known as a human being, and used with that function fully in mind. 

Now this is an ideal, obviously, and many people have fallen short of the ideal since prehistoric times.  But when pharmaceutical contraceptives became available in the 1950s, moral authorities in Western societies gradually abandoned the ideal, with one notable exception:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Since then, nearly everyone has adopted a model of the human being that views sexuality as independent of reproduction. 

If you believe that human beings arose by means of mindless undirected evolution and no God was ever in the picture, it's hard for me to understand how you can also believe sexuality should be independent of reproduction.  Isn't that how we got here, by means of sexual attraction between opposite-sex fertile men and women?  Oh, but now we're beyond all that, you say.  We've taken control of our own evolution and can do anything we like, implant chips to turn our women into sex robots or what have you.  Reproducing is somebody else's job—seems like we will never run out of people.  To that I would say, ask Japan.

Japan is the incredible shrinking country.  For the last four years in a row, Japan's population has suffered a net decline, even with immigration taken into account.  In 2013 there were about 238,000 more deaths than births in the famously insular island nation.  While not all of this decline can be attributed to contraceptive technologies, those means go together with a cultural mindset that focuses people on careers and individual success to the detriment of families, marriage, and (in Japan) even between-sex relationships, which many Japanese have given up on altogether.  The future for Japan looks grim, as it does to a greater or lesser degree for many European countries whose birth rates are not much better than Japan's.

I was going to bring religion into this argument, but I don't think there is a need to.  Plain lunkheaded observation of simple statistics shows that cultures and countries that discourage reproduction, whether by abortion, birth control, or a mindset that disses family life, will tend to grow smaller, will experience widespread economic and social dislocations, and possibly disappear altogether.  And in the course of time they will be replaced, if at all, by other cultures that encourage reproduction and promote stable family structures that produce mature, competent people who have the long-term interests of their societies at heart.  And that is a totally Darwinist secular evolutionary argument.

Excuse me, but DUH.

One of my favorite Eudora Welty short stories ends up with a small boy being punished for a minor infraction in a hair salon.  He breaks loose from his mother and runs out the door, but as he leaves he stops to get in the last word: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"  I would turn it around and ask Mr. Gates, "If you're so rich, why ain't you smart enough to realize that contraceptive technology is not in the best interests of humanity?" 

Mr. Gates is not going to pay any attention to me, and I expect that many of my readers will not see eye-to-eye with my position on this either.  Though not a Catholic myself, after many years of experience, both personal and second-hand, I have come to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church has the most philosophically and theologically sound positions on human sexuality of any institution around—scientific, cultural, religious, political, or otherwise.  But that is a story for another time and place.

Sources:  For information on the contraceptive chip, I referred to an article at, and also one at  Sigmund Freud's Lecture XX, "The Sexual Life of Human Beings," from which the above quotation was taken, is available in numerous print editions of his 1915 lectures, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, which is apparently in the public domain in some translations.  My particular source online was a George Mason University site,  The Eudora Welty short story I referred to is "Petrified Man."  Readers interested in knowing more about the Roman Catholic Church's position on sexuality in a highly readable and useful form can consult Christopher West's Good News About Sex & Marriage (Cincinnati, OH:  St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004).  This book is especially recommended for young people who have most of their lifetimes ahead of them in which to avoid the mistakes of an older generation.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Robot Says You Flunked: Algorithms versus Judgment

Harvard and MIT have teamed to develop an artificial-intelligence system that grades essay questions on exams.  The way it works is this.  First, a human grader manually grades a hundred essays, and feeds the essays and the grades to the computer.  Then the computer allegedly learns to imitate the grader, and goes on to grade the rest of the essays a lot faster than any manual grader could—so fast, in fact, that often the system provides students nearly instant feedback on their essays, and a chance to improve their grade by rewriting the essay before the final grade is assigned.  So we have finally gotten to the point of grading essays by algorithms, which is all computers can do.

Joshua Schulz, a philosophy professor at DeSales University, doesn't think much of using machines to grade essays.  His criticisms appeared in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, a quarterly on technology and society, and he accuses the software developers of "functionalism."  Functionalism is a theory of the mind that says, basically, the mind is nothing more than what the mind does.  So if you have a human being who can grade essays and a computer that can grade the same essays just as well, why, then, with regard to grading essays, there is no essential difference between the two. 

With all due respect to Prof. Schulz, I think he is speculating, at least when he supposes that the essay-grading-software developers espouse a particular theory of the mind, or for that matter, any theory of the mind whatsoever.  The head of the consortium that developed the software is an electrical engineer, not a philosopher.  Engineers as a group are famously impatient with theorizing, and simply use whatever tools fall to hand to get the job done.  And that's what apparently happened here.  Problem:  tons and tons of essay questions and not enough skilled graders to grade them.  Solution: an  automated essay grader whose output can't be distinguished from the work of skilled human graders.  So where is the beef?

The thing that bothers Prof. Schulz is that the use of automated essay-grading tends to blur the distinction between the human mind and everything else.  And here he touches on a genuine concern:  the tendency of large bureaucracies to turn matters of judgment into automatic procedures that a machine can perform. 

Going to extremes can make a point clearer, so let's try that here.  Suppose you are unjustly accused of murder.  By some unlikely coincidence, you were driving a car of a similar make to the car driven by a bank robber who shot and killed three people and escaped in a car whose license plate number matches yours except for the last two digits, which the eyewitness to the crime didn't remember.  The detectives on the case didn't find the real bank robber, but they did find you.  You are arrested, and in due time you enter the courtroom to find seated at the judge's bench, not a black-robed judge, but a computer terminal at which a data-entry clerk has entered all the relevant data.  The computer determines that statistically, the chances of your being guilty are greater than the chances that you're innocent, and the computer has the final word.  Welcome to Justice 2.0. 

Most people would object to such a delicate thing as a murder trial being turned over to a machine.  But nobody has a problem with lawyers who use word processors or PowerPoints in their courtroom presentations.  The difference is that when computers and technology are used as tools by humans exercising that rather mysterious trait called judgment, no one being judged can blame the machines for an unjust judgment, because the persons running the machines are clearly in charge. 

But when a grade comes out of a computer untouched by human hands (or unseen by human eyes until the student gets the grade), you can question whether the grader who set the example for the machine is really in charge or not.  Presumably, there is still an appeals process in which a student could protest a machine-assigned grade to a human grader, and perhaps this type of system will become more popular and cease to excite critical comments.  If it does, we will have moved another step along the road that further systematizes and automates interactions that used to be purely person-to-person.

Something similar has happened in a very different field:  banking.  My father was a loan officer for many years at a small, independent bank.  He never finished college, but that didn't keep him from developing a finely honed gut feel for the credit-worthiness of prospective borrowers.  He wouldn't have known an algorithm if it walked up and introduced itself, but he got to know his customers well, and his personal interactions with them was what he based his judgment on.  He would guess wrong once in a great while, but usually because he allowed some extraneous factor to sway his judgment.  For example, once my mother asked him to loan money to a work colleague of hers, and it didn't work out.  But if he stuck to only the things he knew he should pay attention to, he did pretty well.

Recently I had the occasion to borrow some money from one of the largest national banks in the U. S., and it was not a pleasant experience.  I will summarize the process by saying it was based about 85% on a bunch of numbers that came out of computer algorithms that worked from objective data.  At the very last step in the process, there were a few humans who intervened, but only after I had jumped through a long series of obligatory hoops that allowed the bankers to check off "must-do" boxes.  If even one of those boxes had been left blank, no judgment would have been required—the machine would say no, and that would have been the end of it.  I got the strong impression that the people were there mainly to serve the machines, and not the other way around.

The issue boils down to whether you think there is a genuine essential difference between humans and machines.  If you do, as most people of faith do, then no non-human should judge a human about anything important, whether it's for borrowing money, assigning a grade, or going to jail.  If you don't think there's a difference, there's no reason at all why computers can't judge people, except for purely performance-based factors such as the machines not being good enough yet.  Let's just hope that the people who think there's no difference between machines and people don't end up running all the machines.  Because there's a good chance that soon afterwards, the machines will be running the people instead.

Sources:  The Winter 2014 issue of The New Atlantis carried Joshua Schulz's article Machine Grading and Moral Learning on pp. 109-119.  The New York Times article from which Prof. Schulz learned about the AI-based essay grading system is available at  The Harvard-MIT consortium's name is edX.

Note to Readers:  In my blog of June 16, 2014, I asked for readers to comment on the question of monetizing this blog.  Of the three or four responses received, all but one were mostly positive.  I have decided to attempt it at some level, always subject to reversal if I think it's going badly.  So in the coming weeks, you may see some changes in the blog format, and eventually some ads (I hope, tasteful ones) may appear.  But I will try to preserve the basic format as it stands today as much as possible.