Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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Who Watches the WikiLeakers?

2 12 2010

There’s a whole lot of hubbub about the recent WikiLeaks so-called ‘dump’ (not the term I would use). But the whole escapade raises some serious questions about the ethics of leaking, and the difference between whistleblowing and breaching privacy. And it raises an even more important question about checks and balances on the whole process.

The tradition of leaking previously restricted information to expose corruption or abuses of power has a long and noble history. WikiLeaks’ publishing of the Apache helicopter attack in Iraq might well fall into that category; there’s good reason to believe it could be evidence that a crime was committed, and was then covered up.

But the recent ‘dump’ is different. It’s just a grab bag of diplomatic communiqués. Certainly, some of the communiqués suggest evidence of unsavoury behaviour, such as the US pressuring Germany not to prosecute CIA agents involved in illegal torture and rendition. These ought to be released.

But many others are just typical diplomatic messages, much of it amounting to gossip. This is not only unimportant in terms of revealing corruption or abuses of power, but it undermines the diplomatic process. The language of diplomacy is incredibly carefully couched, and even a simple message between two states can take a great deal of fine tuning before it’s suitable for release. (Steven Pinker has some cute anecdotes about diplomatic language in his book, The Stuff of Thought.*)

There’s a good reason for this: diplomacy is about touchy business, and you don’t want to risk pissing off an ally (or an enemy) because of a careless word. And what’s said behind closed doors, in briefings and conversations between two nations about a third, can be highly damaging to international relations.

There are also other commiuniques that ought not be released, as The Economist‘s Democracy in America notes:

Some diplomatic cables from United States embassies will have concerned American interventions on behalf of dissidents in authoritarian countries. Release of such cables would endanger any future such American intervention, since authoritarian governments would fear that concessions to secret American requests would eventually embarrass them if the requests were made public.

Unless such material is suspected of revealing some crime or some misuse of power it should not be released.

There’s a difference between freedom of information and breaches of privacy and diplomatic privilege.

Not all information ought to be free.  We value our privacy, and business need theirs. What if WikiLeaks began revealing personal information about individuals, or began releasing forward plans of businesses, undermining their ability to compete?

It’s unlikely WikiLeaks would go that far, but it’s taken a step in that direction by ‘dumping’ an indiscriminate collection of communiqués, many of which show no evidence of crimes being committed or abuses of power.

The key is that WikiLeaks needs to exhibit the kind of transparency as its values demand of others. WikiLeaks needs oversight, and that oversight needs to be monitored. There need to be checks and balances that ensure WikiLeaks is serving the cause of whistleblowing, not just undermining the confidence of governments in being able to hold a conversation in private.

And WikiLeaks needs to acknowledge that not all information is worthy of release. One wonders how they’d feel if Julian Assange’s location was leaked, or if the identity of the leakers was revealed.

There are a number of ways this could happen, almost all of which involve decentralising control from the hands of Assange. The fact is we can’t trust any one individual with this kind of power. I tend to agree with The Economist’s Democracy in America about how this should be done:

But like other human-rights and humanitarian organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, it needs to lay down some clear, public ethical guidelines about how and why it does what it does. And it needs to bring in a board of directors of people from a wide range of countries, backgrounds and institutions to review the organisation’s conduct on ethical and other grounds.

I’d also add that governments, or the targets of the leaks, could be informed ahead of the leak to give them the opportunity to do the right thing and release the information themselves, or to give them a chance to offer an explanation, in case the information really is benign. The damage from a false or fraudulent leak could be greater than the damage from not leaking something legitimate.

Even though we’re living in the internet age, old fashioned checks and balances are still important. Sometimes information should move slower than we’re used to seeing these days. Sometimes information shouldn’t even be made public. WikiLeaks has an opportunity to become an important tool for exposing corruption, but it’s a powerful tool, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

*Extract from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007) page 397, quoting an American former treasury official:

At one point in my federal career, I wrote up an explanation of a complicated matter in what I considered an extremely clear , cogent matter. The senior government official to whom I reported read it carefully, ruminating and adjusting his glasses as he read. Then he looked up at me and said, “This isn’t any good. I understand it completely. Take it back and muddy it up. I want the statement to be able to be interpreted two or three ways.” The resulting ambiguity enabled some more compromise between competing governmental interests.

Evolution and Moral Ecology, Mini PhD Version

24 11 2010

I’ve posted a new static page with an outline of my PhD thesis on evolution and moral ecology. If you’re interested in my overarching theory, it’s worth reading. Hopefully it’ll put a lot of the other missives I write in context. Although I don’t doubt it’ll also raise a lot of questions and objections. Happy to hear them. Any criticism that can steer me in a better direction will improve my thesis. I call it PhD 2.0.

Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

17 08 2010

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008

Pinker’s Personal Genomics

13 01 2009

I wonder what gene is responsible for Steven Pinker’s unquestionable gift for written communication? While he doesn’t mention it specifically in his lengthy piece on personal genomics in the New York Times, he does an impressive job of deconstructing his genome as revealed to him by the likes of personal genomics companies, Counsyl and 23andme.

New York Times

Source: New York Times

Well worth a read. Although it does stretch to eight pages, so take some sandwiches and make a day of it. Or a lunchtime, at least.

One thing he mentions that I think deserves to be highlighted is the puzzle of genetic diversity: why aren’t humans all alike? Why hasn’t evolution stumbled upon the ‘ideal’ genome and spread that amongst all humans?

I think the answer to these questions could also reveal some deep insights into our startling moral diversity. Pinker touches on this notion:

The psychologists Lars Penke, Jaap Denissen and Geoffrey Miller argue that personality differences arise from this process of balancing selection. Selfish people prosper in a world of nice guys, until they become so common that they start to swindle one another, whereupon nice guys who cooperate get the upper hand, until there are enough of them for the swindlers to exploit, and so on. The same balancing act can favor rebels in a world of conformists and vice-versa, or doves in a world of hawks.

This is a nice synopsis for a theory I’m developing called Moral Diversity. It’s essentially the thesis that there is no one perfect moral system that will lend a strong enough selective advantage to out-compete other moral systems. As a result, we have evolved a diverse range of moral intuitions that yield an equally diverse range of moral responses, and together these enable us to respond to a wide range of environments.

However broad streams come to the surface: egalitarianism (i.e. liberals, communitarians, anti-authoritarians, counter-dominance etc) and authoritarianism (i.e. conservatives, loyal patriots, dominance etc). So it’s no accident we have liberals and conservatives in every (functioning) democracy around the world. And it’s also not surprising that both sides can’t even comprehend the other – it’s not only their interpretation of the facts over which they differ, but their very moral intuitions. And there very genes.