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08 Nov 19:27

What Did Nietzsche Really Mean When He Wrote “God is Dead”?

by Josh Jones

nietzsche habits

The quote inspired an anxious 1966 Time magazine cover, and a preachy 2016 movie franchise that works hard to inoculate the faithful against atheism’s threatening seductions: “God is Dead,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1882 book of incisive aphorisms, The Gay Science, and unwittingly coined a phrase now inseparable from 20th century culture wars. Of course, Nietzsche knew he was tossing a Molotov cocktail into the fraught culture wars of his own time, but he didn’t blow things up for the sheer pleasure of it. Instead, his blunt assertion lay at the heart of what Nietzsche saw as both a tremendous problem and a necessary realization.

To clarify, Nietzsche never meant to say that there had been some sort of god but that he had died in recent history. “Rather,” writes Scotty Hendricks at Big Think, “that our idea of one had” been rendered a relic of a pre-scientific age. The philosopher, “an atheist for his adult life,” found no place for Christian belief in a post-Enlightenment world: “Europe no longer needed God as the source for all morality, value, or order in the universe; philosophy and science were capable of doing that for us.” Accepting this brute fact can impose a heavy existentialist burden, as well as a heavy philosophical and ethical one: theological thinking is deeply embedded in Western philosophy and language, or as Nietzsche wrote, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”



A committed metaphysical naturalist, Nietzsche nonetheless saw that just as he was haunted by his strict religious upbringing, unable to easily rid himself of the traces of the Christian God, so too was European civilization haunted, particularly the bourgeois German society he often savaged. “God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow.—And we—we must still defeat his shadow as well!” The “shadow” of god trails our ideas about morality. Fearing to give up religious thought, we cling to it even in the absence of religion. What is to take its place, we wonder, except for widespread, destructive nihilism, a condition Nietzsche feared inevitable?

Nietzsche even saw scientific discourse as haunted by ideas of divine agency. “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature,” he writes in The Gay Science, “There are only necessities: there is no one who commands, no one who obeys, no one who transgresses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for only against a world of purposes does the word ‘accident’ have a meaning.” Far from pulling away the source of human meaning, however, Nietzsche seeks to liberate his readers from the idea that “death is opposed to life”—or that losing a cherished belief is a catastrophe.

On the contrary—as philosopher Simon Critchley aptly paraphrases in a brief video at Big Think— Nietzsche  thought that belief in God made us “cringing, cowardly, submissive creatures,” and profoundly unfree. He believed we would continue to be so until we accepted our place in nature—no easy feat in an age so steeped in god-think. “When will we be done with our caution and care?” Nietzsche wondered, “When will all these shadows of god no longer darken us? When will we have completely de-deified nature? When will we begin to naturalize humanity with a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature?”

For Nietzsche, the mass of people may never do so. He reserves his redemption for “the kind of people who alone matter; I mean the heroic.” Failing to become heroes, ordinary people in modernity are fated to go the way of “the Last Man,” a figure, writes Hendricks, “who lives a quiet life of comfort, without thought for individuality or personal growth.” A passive consumer. We can read Nietzsche’s philosophy as thoroughgoing elitism, or as a call to the reader to personal heroism. Either way, the anxiety he tapped into has persisted for 134 years, and shows little sign of abating for many people. For others, the nonexistence of a supreme being has no effect on their psychological health.

For billions of Daoists and Buddhists, for example, the problem has never existed. Nietzsche knew perhaps as much about Eastern religion as his contemporaries, much of his knowledge tainted by Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic take on Buddhism. “Compared to [Schopenhauer’s] world view,” writes Peter Abelson, “which is very severe, Buddhism seems almost cheerful.” Nietzsche could be equally severe, often as a matter of polemic, often as matter of mood, sometimes dismissing other religious systems with only slightly less contempt than he did Christianity. But he sums up one of his key atheistic values in a supposed quote from the Buddha: “Don’t flatter your benefactors! Repeat this saying in a Christian church, and it will instantly clear the air of everything Christian.” To live without belief in god, he suggests over and over, is to be fully free from servitude, and fully responsible for oneself.

Related Content:

Nietzsche, Wittgenstein & Sartre Explained with Monty Python-Style Animations by The School of Life

Walter Kaufmann’s Classic Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

The Digital Nietzsche: Download Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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22 Aug 19:26

Get Your Tech Ready Before Traveling Solo to Avoid Homesickness

by Kristin Wong
Get Your Tech Ready Before Traveling Solo to Avoid Homesickness

When traveling abroad alone, you typically want to stay connected for safety reasons. There’s another reason to make sure you can reach friends and family, though: solo travel gets lonely.

http://lifehacker.com/how-and-why-i-…

It’s a lot of fun traveling the world by yourself, but after a while, you get homesick, and that can put a damper on your trip. An easy way to remedy this? Make sure you’re connected before you leave. Inc.com suggests:

When traveling by yourself, having a reliable connection to work and home takes on a greater importance. So use tethering, buy a portable hotspot, buy a local phone chip or “burner” phone, and scope out internet cafes where you’ll be staying.

We’ve told you how to stay connected abroad before, and this is an obvious tip if you want to stay connected to work or update your family on your whereabouts. However, staying connected can help fight homesickness, too, making your trip enjoyable. For more tips on solo travel, head to their full post at the link below.

9 Small Tweaks That Will Make You Love Traveling Alone | Inc.com

Photo by Markgraf-Ave

17 Aug 20:00

Alfred North Whitehead

"The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy."
26 Jul 16:48

Sir Winston Churchill

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
20 Jul 20:20

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
11 Jul 00:13

New Letters Added to the Genetic Alphabet

by Emily Singer

DNA stores our genetic code in an elegant double helix. But some argue that this elegance is overrated. “DNA as a molecule has many things wrong with it,” said Steven Benner, an organic chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida.

Nearly 30 years ago, Benner sketched out better versions of both DNA and its chemical cousin RNA, adding new letters and other additions that would expand their repertoire of chemical feats. He wondered why these improvements haven’t occurred in living creatures. Nature has written the entire language of life using just four chemical letters: G, C, A and T. Did our genetic code settle on these four nucleotides for a reason? Or was this system one of many possibilities, selected by simple chance? Perhaps expanding the code could make it better.

Benner’s early attempts at synthesizing new chemical letters failed. But with each false start, his team learned more about what makes a good nucleotide and gained a better understanding of the precise molecular details that make DNA and RNA work. The researchers’ efforts progressed slowly, as they had to design new tools to manipulate the extended alphabet they were building. “We have had to re-create, for our artificially designed DNA, all of the molecular biology that evolution took 4 billion years to create for natural DNA,” Benner said.

Now, after decades of work, Benner’s team has synthesized artificially enhanced DNA that functions much like ordinary DNA, if not better. In two papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society last month, the researchers have shown that two synthetic nucleotides called P and Z fit seamlessly into DNA’s helical structure, maintaining the natural shape of DNA. Moreover, DNA sequences incorporating these letters can evolve just like traditional DNA, a first for an expanded genetic alphabet.

The new nucleotides even outperform their natural counterparts. When challenged to evolve a segment that selectively binds to cancer cells, DNA sequences using P and Z did better than those without.

“When you compare the four-nucleotide and six-nucleotide alphabet, the six-nucleotide version seems to have won out,” said Andrew Ellington, a biochemist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not involved in the study.

Benner has lofty goals for his synthetic molecules. He wants to create an alternative genetic system in which proteins — intricately folded molecules that perform essential biological functions — are unnecessary. Perhaps, Benner proposes, instead of our standard three-component system of DNA, RNA and proteins, life on other planets evolved with just two.

Better Blueprints for Life

The primary job of DNA is to store information. Its sequence of letters contains the blueprints for building proteins. Our current four-letter alphabet encodes 20 amino acids, which are strung together to create millions of different proteins. But a six-letter alphabet could encode as many as 216 possible amino acids and many, many more possible proteins.

Expanding the genetic alphabet dramatically expands the number of possible amino acids and proteins that cells can build, at least in theory. The existing four-letter alphabet produces 20 amino acids (small circle) while a six-letter alphabet could produce 216 possible amino acids (large circle).

Why nature stuck with four letters is one of biology’s fundamental questions. Computers, after all, use a binary system with just two “letters” — 0s and 1s. Yet two letters probably aren’t enough to create the array of biological molecules that make up life. “If you have a two-letter code, you limit the number of combinations you get,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

On the other hand, additional letters could make the system more error prone. DNA bases come in pairs — G pairs with C and A pairs with T. It’s this pairing that endows DNA with the ability to pass along genetic information. With a larger alphabet, each letter has a greater chance of pairing with the wrong partner, and new copies of DNA might harbor more mistakes. “If you go past four, it becomes too unwieldy,” Krishnamurthy said.

But perhaps the advantages of a larger alphabet can outweigh the potential drawbacks. Six-letter DNA could densely pack in genetic information. And perhaps six-letter RNA could take over some of the jobs now handled by proteins, which perform most of the work in the cell.

Proteins have a much more flexible structure than DNA and RNA and are capable of folding into an array of complex shapes. A properly folded protein can act as a molecular lock, opening a chamber only for the right key. Or it can act as a catalyst, capturing and bringing together different molecules for chemical reactions.

Adding new letters to RNA could give it some of these abilities. “Six letters can potentially fold into more, different structures than four letters,” Ellington said.

Back when Benner was sketching out ideas for alternative DNA and RNA, it was this potential that he had in mind. According to the most widely held theory of life’s origins, RNA once performed both the information-storage job of DNA and the catalytic job of proteins. Benner realized that there are many ways to make RNA a better catalyst.

“With just these little insights, I was able to write down the structures that are in my notebook as alternatives that would make DNA and RNA better,” Benner said. “So the question is: Why did life not make these alternatives? One way to find out was to make them ourselves, in the laboratory, and see how they work.”

Steven Benner’s lab notebook from 1985 outlining plans to synthesize “better” DNA and RNA by adding new chemical letters.

It’s one thing to design new codes on paper, and quite another to make them work in real biological systems. Other researchers have created their own additions to the genetic code, in one case even incorporating new letters into living bacteria. But these other bases fit together a bit differently from natural ones, stacking on top of each other rather than linking side by side. This can distort the shape of DNA, particularly when a number of these bases cluster together. Benner’s P-Z pair, however, is designed to mimic natural bases.

One of the new papers by Benner’s team shows that Z and P are yoked together by the same chemical bond that ties A to T and C to G. (This bond is known as Watson-Crick pairing, after the scientists who discovered DNA’s structure.) Millie Georgiadis, a chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, along with Benner and other collaborators, showed that DNA strands that incorporate Z and P retain their proper helical shape if the new letters are strung together or interspersed with natural letters.

“This is very impressive work,” said Jack Szostak, a chemist at Harvard University who studies the origin of life, and who was not involved in the study. “Finding a novel base pair that does not grossly disrupt the double-helical structure of DNA has been quite difficult.”

The team’s second paper demonstrates how well the expanded alphabet works. Researchers started with a random library of DNA strands constructed from the expanded alphabet and then selected the strands that were able to bind to liver cancer cells but not to other cells. Of the 12 successful binders, the best had Zs and Ps in their sequences, while the weakest did not.

“More functionality in the nucleobases has led to greater functionality in nucleic acids themselves,” Ellington said. In other words, the new additions appear to improve the alphabet, at least under these conditions.

Steven Benner, an organic chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, is expanding the genetic alphabet.

Steven Benner, an organic chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, is expanding the genetic alphabet.

But additional experiments are needed to determine how broadly that’s true. “I think it will take more work, and more direct comparisons, to be sure that a six-letter version generally results in ‘better’ aptamers [short DNA strands] than four-letter DNA,” Szostak said. For example, it’s unclear whether the six-letter alphabet triumphed because it provided more sequence options or because one of the new letters is simply better at binding, Szostak said.

Benner wants to expand his genetic alphabet even further, which could enhance its functional repertoire. He’s working on creating a 10- or 12-letter system and plans to move the new alphabet into living cells. Benner’s and others’ synthetic molecules have already proved useful in medical and biotech applications, such as diagnostic tests for HIV and other diseases. Indeed, Benner’s work helped to found the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, which seeks to build new life, in addition to forming useful tools from molecular parts.

Why Life’s Code Is Limited

Benner’s work and that of other researchers suggests that a larger alphabet has the capacity to enhance DNA’s function. So why didn’t nature expand its alphabet in the 4 billion years it has had to work on it? It could be because a larger repertoire has potential disadvantages. Some of the structures made possible by a larger alphabet might be of poor quality, with a greater risk of misfolding, Ellington said.

Nature was also effectively locked into the system at hand when life began. “Once [nature] has made a decision about which molecular structures to place at the core of its molecular biology, it has relatively little opportunity to change those decisions,” Benner said. “By constructing unnatural systems, we are learning not only about the constraints at the time that life first emerged, but also about constraints that prevent life from searching broadly within the imagination of chemistry.”

The genetic code — made up of the four letters, A, T, G and C — stores the blueprint for proteins. DNA is first transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins, which fold into specific shapes.

The genetic code — made up of the four letters, A, T, G and C — stores the blueprint for proteins. DNA is first transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins, which fold into specific shapes.

Benner aims to make a thorough search of that chemical space, using his discoveries to make new and improved versions of both DNA and RNA. He wants to make DNA better at storing information and RNA better at catalyzing reactions. He hasn’t shown directly that the P-Z base pairs do that. But both bases have the potential to help RNA fold into more complex structures, which in turn could make proteins better catalysts. P has a place to add a “functional group,” a molecular structure that helps folding and is typically found in proteins. And Z has a nitro group, which could aid in molecular binding.

In modern cells, RNA acts as an intermediary between DNA and proteins. But Benner ultimately hopes to show that the three-biopolymer system — DNA, RNA and proteins — that exists throughout life on Earth isn’t essential. With better-engineered DNA and RNA, he says, perhaps proteins are unnecessary.

Indeed, the three-biopolymer system may have drawbacks, since information flows only one way, from DNA to RNA to proteins. If a DNA mutation produces a more efficient protein, that mutation will spread slowly, as organisms without it eventually die off.

What if the more efficient protein could spread some other way, by directly creating new DNA? DNA and RNA can transmit information in both directions. So a helpful RNA mutation could theoretically be transformed into beneficial DNA. Adaptations could thus lead directly to changes in the genetic code.

Benner predicts that a two-biopolymer system would evolve faster than our own three-biopolymer system. If so, this could have implications for life on distant planets. “If we find life elsewhere,” he said, “it would likely have the two-biopolymer system.”

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08 Jul 16:23

Robot Love II: Roboslation under the Naked Sun

by Mike LaBossiere

In his Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov creates the world of Solaria. What distinguishes this world from other human worlds is that it has a strictly regulated population of 20,000 humans and 10,000 robots for each human. What is perhaps the strangest feature of this world is a reversal of what many consider a basic human need: the humans of Solaria are trained to despise in-person contact with other humans, though interaction with human-like robots is acceptable. Each human lives on a huge estate, though some live “with” a spouse. When the Solarians need to communicate, they make use of a holographic telepresence system. Interestingly, they have even developed terminology to distinguish between communicating in person (called “seeing”) and communication via telepresence (“viewing”). For some Solarians the fear of encountering another human in person is so strong that they would rather commit suicide rather than endure such contact.

While this book was first serialized in 1956, long before the advent of social media and personal robots, it can be seen as prophetic. One reason science fiction writers are often seen as prophetic is that a good science fiction writer is skilled at extrapolating even from hypothetical technological and social changes. Another reason is that science fiction writers have churned out thousands of stories and some of these are bound to get something right. Such stories are then selected as examples of prophetic science fiction while stories that got things wrong are conveniently ignored. But, philosophers do love a good science fiction context for discussion, hence the use of The Naked Sun.

Almost everyone is now familiar with the popular narrative about smart phones and their role in allowing unrelenting access to social media. The main narrative is that people are, somewhat ironically, becoming increasingly isolated in the actual world as they become increasingly networked in the digital world. The defining image of this is a group of people (friends, relatives or even strangers) gathered together physically, yet ignoring each other in favor of gazing into the screens of their lords and masters. There are a multitude of anecdotes about this and many folks have their favorite tales of such events. As a professor, I see students engrossed by their phones—but, to be fair, Plato has nothing on cat videos. Like most people, I have had dates in which the other person was working two smartphones at once. And, of course, I have seen groups of people walking or at a restaurant where no one is talking to anyone else—all eyes are on the smartphones. Since the subject of smart phones has been beaten to a digital death, I will leave this topic in favor of the main focus, namely robots. However, the reader should keep in mind the social isolation created by social media.

While we have been employing robots for quite some time in construction, exploration and other such tasks, what can be called social robots are a relatively new thing. Sure, there have long been “robot” toys and things like Teddy Ruxpin (essentially a tape player embedded in a simple amnitronic bear toy). But, the creation of reasonably sophisticated social robots is a relatively new thing. In this context, a social robot is one whose primary function is to interact with humans in a way that provides companionship. This can range from a pet-like bots (like Sony’s famous robot dog) to conversational robots to (of course) sex bots.

Tech enthusiasts and the companies that are and will sell social robots are, unsurprisingly, quite positive about the future of social robots. There are, of course, some good arguments in their favor. Robot pets provide a good choice for people with allergies, who are not responsible enough for living pets, or who live in places that do not permit organic pets (although bans on robotic pets might be a thing in the future).

Robot companions can be advantageous in cases in which a person with special needs (such as someone who is ill, elderly or injured) requires round the clock attention and monitoring that would be expensive, burdensome or difficult for other humans to supply.

Sex bots could reduce the exploitation of human sex workers and perhaps have other benefits as well. I will leave this research to others, though.

Despite the potential positive aspects of social robots and social media, there are also negative aspects. As noted above, concerns are already being raised about the impact of technology on human interaction—people are emotionally shortchanging themselves and those they are physically with in favor of staying relentlessly connected to social media. This, obviously enough, seems to be a taste of what Asimov created in The Naked Sun: people who view, but no longer see one another. Given the apparent importance of human interaction in person, it can be argued that this social change is and will be detrimental to human well-being. To use an analogy, human-human social interactions can be seen as being like good nutrition: one is getting what one needs for healthy living. Interacting primarily through social media can be seen as being like consuming junk food or drugs—it is very addictive, but leaves one ultimately empty…yet always craving more.

It can be argued that this worry is unfounded—that social media is an adjunct to social interaction in the real world and that social interaction via things like Facebook and Twitter can be real and healthy social interactions. One might point to interactions via letters, telegraphs and telephones (voice only) to contend that interaction via technology is neither new nor unhealthy. It might also be pointed out that people used to ignore each other (especially professors) in favor of such things as newspapers.

While this counter does have some appeal, social robots do seem to be a different matter in that they are something new and rather radically different. While humans have had toys, stuffed animals and even simple mechanisms for non-living company, these are quite different from social robots. After all, social robots aim to effectively mimic or simulate animals or humans.

One concern about such robot companions is that they would be to social media what heroin is to marijuana in terms of addiction and destruction.

One reason for this is that social robots would, presumably, be designed to be cooperative, pleasant and compliant—that is, good company. In contrast, humans can often be uncooperative, unpleasant and defiant. This would make robotic companions rather more appealing than human company. At least the robots whose cost is not subsidized by advertising—imagine a companion who pops in a discussion of life insurance or pitches a soft drink every so often.

Social robots could also be programmed to be optimally appealing to a person and presumably the owner/user would be able to make changed to the robot. A person can, quite literally, make a friend with the desired qualities and missing undesired qualities. In the case of sex bots, a person could purchase a Mr. or Ms. Right, at least in terms of some qualities.

Unlike humans, social robots do not have other interests, needs, responsibilities or friends—there is no competition for the attention of a social robot (at least in general, though there might be shared bots) which makes them “better” than human companions in this regard.

Social robots, though they might breakdown or get hacked, will not leave or betray a person. One does not have to worry that one’s personal sex bot will be unfaithful—just turn it off and lock it down when leaving it alone.

Unlike human companions, robot companions do not impose burdens—they do not expect attention, help or money and they do not judge.

The list of advantages could go on at great length, but it would seem that robotic companions would be superior to humans in most ways—at least in regards to common complaints about companions.

Naturally, there might be some practical issues with the quality of companionship—will the robot get one’s jokes, will it “know” what stories you like to hear, will it be able to converse in a pleasing way about topics you like and so on. However, these seem to be mostly technical problems involving software. Presumably all these could eventually be addressed and satisfactory companions could be created.

Since I have written specifically about sexbots in other essays, I will not discuss those here. Rather, I will discuss two potentially problematic aspect of companion bots.

One point of obvious concern is the potential psychological harm resulting from spending too much time with companion bots and not enough interacting with humans. As mentioned above, people have already expressed concern about the impact of social media and technology (one is reminded of the dire warnings about television). This, of course, rests on the assumption that the companion bots must be lacking in some important ways relative to humans. Going back to the food analogy, this assumes that robot companions are like junk food—superficially appealing but lacking in what is needed for health. However, if the robot companions could provide all that a human needs, then humans would no longer need other humans.

A second point of concern is stolen from the virtue theorists. Thinkers such as Aristotle and Wollstonecraft have argued that a person needs to fulfill certain duties and act in certain ways in order to develop the proper virtues. While Wollstonecraft wrote about the harmful effects of inherited wealth (that having unearned wealth interferes with the development of virtue) and the harmful effects of sexism (that women are denied the opportunity to fully develop their virtues as humans), her points would seem to apply to having only or primarily robot companions as well. These companions would make the social aspects of life too easy and deny people the challenges that are needed to develop the virtues. For example, it is by dealing with the shortcomings of people that we learn such virtues as patience, generosity and self-control. Having social interactions be too easy would be analogous to going without physical exercise or challenges—one becomes emotionally soft and weak. Worse, one would not develop the proper virtues and thus would be lacking in this area.  Even worse, people could easily become spoiled and selfish monsters, accustomed to always having their own way.

Since the virtue theorists argue that being virtuous is what makes people happy, having such “ideal” companions would actually lead to unhappiness. Because of this, one should carefully consider whether or not one wants a social robot for a “friend.”

It could be countered that social robots could be programmed to replicate the relevant human qualities needed to develop the virtues. The easy counter to this is that one might as well just stick with human companions.

As a final point, if intelligent robots are created that are people in the full sense of the term, then it would be fine to be friends with them. After all, a robot friend who will call you on your misdeeds or stupid behavior would be as good as a human friend who would do the same thing for you.

 

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06 Jul 05:55

Because Reading is Fundamental

by Jeff Atwood
Gabriel Ferns

Some great observations about encouraging certain behaviors

Most discussions show a bit of information next to each user:

What message does this send?

  • The only number you can control printed next to your name is post count.
  • Everyone who reads this will see your current post count.
  • The more you post, the bigger that number next to your name gets.

If I have learned anything from the Internet, it is this: be very, very careful when you put a number next to someone's name. Because people will do whatever it takes to make that number go up.

If you don't think deeply about exactly what you're encouraging, why you're encouraging it, and all the things that may happen as a result of that encouragement, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

Printing a post count number next to every user's name implies that the more you post, the better things are. The more you talk, the better the conversations become. Is this the right message to send to everyone in a discussion? More fundamentally, is this even true?

I find that the value of conversations has little to do with how much people are talking. I find that too much talking has a negative effect on conversations. Nobody has time to listen to the resulting massive stream of conversation, they end up just waiting for their turn to pile on and talk, too. The best conversations are with people who spend most of their time listening. The number of times you've posted in a given topic is not a leaderboard; it's a record of failing to communicate.

Consider the difference between a chat room and a discussion. Chat is a never-ending flow of disconnected, stream of consciousness sentences that you can occasionally dip your toes in to get the temperature of the water, and that's about it. Discussion is the process of lobbing paragraphs back and forth that results in an evolution of positions as your mutual understanding becomes more nuanced. We hope.

The Ars Banana Experiment

Ars Technica ran a little experiment in 2011. When they posted Guns at home more likely to be used stupidly than in self defense, embedded in the last sentence of the seventh paragraph of the article was this text:

If you have read this far, please mention Bananas in your comment below. We're pretty sure 90% of the respondants to this story won't even read it first.

The first person to do this is on page 3 of the resulting discussion, comment number 93. Or as helpfully visualized by Brandon Gorrell:

Plenty of talking, but how many people actually read up to paragraph 7 (of 11) of the source article before they rushed to comment on it?

The Slate Experiment

In You Won't Finish This Article, Farhad Manjoo dares us to read to the end.

Only a small number of you are reading all the way through articles on the Web. I’ve long suspected this, because so many smart-alecks jump in to the comments to make points that get mentioned later in the piece.

But most of us won't.

He collected a bunch of analytics data based on real usage to prove his point:

These experiments demonstrate that we don't need to incentivize talking. There's far too much talking already. We badly need to incentivize listening.

And online, listening = reading. That old school program from my childhood was right, so deeply fundamentally right. Reading. Reading Is Fundamental.

Let's say you're interested in World War II. Who would you rather have a discussion with about that? The guy who just skimmed the Wikipedia article, or the gal who read the entirety of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

This emphasis on talking and post count also unnecessarily penalizes lurkers. If you've posted five times in the last 10 years, but you've read every single thing your community has ever written, I can guarantee that you, Mr. or Mrs. Lurker, are a far more important part of that community's culture and social norms than someone who posted 100 times in the last two weeks. Value to a community should be measured every bit by how much you've read as much as how much you talked.

So how do we encourage reading, exactly?

You could do crazy stuff like require commenters to enter some fact from the article, or pass a basic quiz about what the article contained, before allowing them to comment on that article. On some sites, I think this would result in a huge improvement in the quality of the comments. It'd add friction to talking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a negative, indirect way of forcing reading by denying talking. Not ideal.

I have some better ideas.

  1. Remove interruptions to reading, primarily pagination.

    Here's a radical idea: when you get to the bottom of the page, load the next damn page automatically. Isn't that the most natural thing to want when you reach the end of the page, to read the next one? Is there any time that you've ever been on the Internet reading an article, reached the bottom of page 1, and didn't want to continue reading? Pagination is nothing more than an arbitrary barrier to reading, and it needs to die a horrible death.

    There are sites that go even further here, such as The Daily Beast, which actually loads the next article when you reach the end of the one you are currently reading. Try it out and see what you think. I don't know that I'd go that far (I like to pick the next thing I read, thanks very much), but it's interesting.

  2. Measure read times and display them.

    What I do not measure, I cannot display as a number next to someone's name, and cannot properly encourage. In Discourse we measure how long each post has been visible in the browser for every (registered) user who encounters that post. Read time is a key metric we use to determine who we trust, and the best posts that people do actually read. If you aren't willing to visit a number of topics and spend time actually listening to us, why should we talk to you – or trust you.

    Forget clicks, forget page loads, measure read time! We've been measuring read times extensively since launch in 2013 and it turns out we're in good company: Medium and Upworthy both recently acknowledged the intrinsic power of this metric.

  3. Give rewards for reading.

    I know, that old saw, gamification, but if you're going to reward someome, do it for the right things and the right reasons. For example, we created a badge for reading to the end of a long 100+ post topic. And our trust levels are based heavily on how often people are returning and how much they are reading, and virtually not at all on how much they post.

    To feel live reading rewards in action, try this classic New York Times Article. There's even a badge for reading half the article!

  4. Update in real time.

    Online we tend to read these conversations as they're being written, as people are engaging in live conversations. So if new content arrives, figure out a way to dynamically rez it in without interrupting people's read position. Preserve the back and forth, real time dynamic of an actual conversation. Show votes and kudos and likes as they arrive. If someone edits their post, bring that in too. All of this goes a long way toward making a stuffy old debate feel like a living, evolving thing versus a long distance email correspondence.

These are strategies I pursued with Discourse, because I believe Reading Is Fundamental. Not just in grade school, but in your life, in my life, in every aspect of online community. To the extent that Discourse can help people learn to be better listeners and better readers – not just more talkative – we are succeeding.

If you want to become a true radical, if you want to have deeper insights and better conversations, spend less time talking and more reading.

Update: There's a CBC interview with me on the themes covered in this article.

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11 Jun 16:31

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - InMANity

by admin@smbc-comics.com

Hovertext: Other favorite states include Oregonads and Louisiandrogen.


New comic!
Today's News:

Kelly did a guest comic for Surviving the World

10 Jun 21:23

Videos of a complete course on Deep Learning by Nando de Freitas (University of Oxford) - 2015

08 Jun 07:00

97% environmentalist

by Scott

I decided to add my name to a petition by, as of this writing, 81 MIT faculty, calling on MIT to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.  (My co-signatories include Noam Chomsky, so I guess there’s something we agree about!)  There’s also a wider petition signed by nearly 3500 MIT students, faculty, and staff, mirroring similar petitions all over the world.

When the organizers asked me for a brief statement about why I signed, I sent them the following:

Signing this petition wasn’t an obvious choice for me, since I’m sensitive to the charge that divestment petitions are just meaningless sanctimony, a way for activists to feel morally pure without either making serious sacrifices or engaging the real complexities of an issue.  In the end, though, that kind of meta-level judgment can’t absolve us of the need to consider each petition on its merits: if we think of a previous crisis for civilization (say, in the late 1930s), then it seems obvious that even symbolic divestment gestures were better than nothing.  What made up my mind was reading the arguments pro and con, and seeing that the organizers of this petition had a clear-eyed understanding of what they were trying to accomplish and why: they know that divestment can’t directly drive down oil companies’ stock prices, but it can powerfully signal to the world a scientific consensus that, if global catastrophe is to be averted, most of the known fossil-fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, and that current valuations of oil, gas, and coal companies fail to reflect that reality.

For some recent prognoses of the climate situation, see (for example) this or this from Vox.  My own sense is that the threat has been systematically understated even by environmentalists, because of the human impulse to shoehorn all news into a hopeful narrative (“but there’s still time!  if we just buy locally-grown produce, everything can be OK!”).  Logically, there’s an obvious tension between the statements:

(a) there was already an urgent need to act decades ago, and

(b) having failed to act then, we can still feasibly avert a disaster now.

And indeed, (b) appears false to me.  We’re probably well into the era where, regardless of what we do or don’t do, some of us will live to see a climate dramatically different from the one in which human civilization developed for the past 10,000 years, at least as different as the last Ice Ages were.

And yet that fact still doesn’t relieve us of moral responsibility.  We can buy more time to prepare, hoping for technological advances in the interim; we can try to bend the curve of CO2 concentration away from the worst futures and toward the merely terrible ones.  Alas, even those steps will require political will that’s unprecedented outside of major wars.  For the capitalist free market (which I’m a big fan of) to work its magic, actual costs first need to get reflected in prices—which probably means massively taxing fossil fuels, to the point where it’s generally cheaper to leave them in the ground and switch to alternatives.  (Lest anyone call me a doctrinaire treehugger, I also support way less regulation of the nuclear industry, to drive down the cost of building the hundreds of new nuclear plants that we’ll probably need.)

These realities have a counterintuitive practical implication that I wish both sides understood better.  Namely, if you share my desperation and terror about this crisis, the urgent desire to do something, then limiting your personal carbon footprint should be very far from your main concern.  Like, it’s great if you can bike to work, and you should keep it up (fresh air and exercise and all).  But I’d say the anti-environmentalists are right that such voluntary steps are luxuries of the privileged, and will accordingly never add up to a hill of beans.  Let me go further: even to conceptualize this problem in terms of personal virtue and blame seems to me like a tragic mistake, one on which the environmentalists and their opponents colluded.  Given the choice, I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted, drove gas-guzzling minivans, ate steaks every night, and had ten kids, but then also took some steps that made serious political action to leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground even ε more likely, ε closer to the middle of our Overton window.  I signed the MIT divestment petition because it seemed to me like such a step, admittedly with an emphasis on the ε.

03 Jun 10:03

Quantum Approaches to Consciousness

by Harald Atmanspacher
[Revised entry by Harald Atmanspacher on June 2, 2015. Changes to: Main text, Bibliography, notes.html] It is widely accepted that consciousness or, more generally, mental activity is in some way correlated to the behavior of the material brain. Since quantum theory is the most fundamental theory of matter that is currently available, it is a legitimate question to ask whether quantum theory can help us to understand consciousness. Several programmatic approaches answering this question affirmatively, proposed in recent decades, will be surveyed. It will be pointed out that they make...
21 May 21:52

The ultimate physical limits of privacy

Somewhat along the lines of my last post, the other day a reader sent me an amusing list of questions about privacy and fundamental physics.  The questions, and my answers, are below.

1. Does the universe provide us with a minimum level of information security?

I’m not sure what the question means. Yes, there are various types of information security that are rooted in the known laws of physics—some of them (like quantum key distribution) even relying on specific aspects of quantum physics—whose security one can argue for by appealing to the known properties of the physical world. Crucially, however, any information security protocol is only as good as the assumptions it rests on: for example, that the attacker can’t violate the attack model by, say, breaking into your house with an ax!

2. For example, is my information safe from entities outside the light-cone I project?

Yes, I think it’s safe to assume that your information is safe from any entities outside your future light-cone. Indeed, if information is not in your future light-cone, then almost by definition, you had no role in creating it, so in what sense should it be called “yours”?

3. Assume that there are distant alien cultures with infinite life spans – would they always be able to wait long enough for my light cone to spread to them, and then have a chance of detecting my “private” information?

First of all, the aliens would need to be in your future light-cone (see my answer to 2). In 1998, it was discovered that there’s a ‘dark energy’ pushing the galaxies apart at an exponentially-increasing rate. Assuming the dark energy remains there at its current density, galaxies that are far enough away from us (more than a few tens of billions of light-years) will always recede from us faster than the speed of light, meaning that they’ll remain outside our future light-cone, and signals from us can never reach them. So, at least you’re safe from those aliens!

For the aliens in your future light-cone, the question is subtler. Suppose you took the only piece of paper on which your secrets were written, and burned it to ash—nothing high-tech, just burned it. Then there’s no technology that we know today, or could even seriously envision, that would piece the secrets together. It would be like unscrambling an egg, or bringing back the dead from decomposing corpses, or undoing a quantum measurement. It would mean, effectively, reversing the Arrow of Time in the relevant part of the universe. This is formally allowed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since the decrease in entropy within that region could be balanced by an increase in entropy elsewhere, but it would require a staggering level of control over the region’s degrees of freedom.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the microscopic laws of physics are reversible: they never destroy information. And for that reason, as a matter of principle, we can’t rule out the possibility that some civilization of the very far future, whether human or alien, could piece together what was written on your paper even after you’d burned it to a crisp. Indeed, with such godlike knowledge and control, maybe they could even reconstruct the past states of your brain, and thereby piece together private thoughts that you’d never written anywhere!

4. Does living in a black hole provide privacy? Couldn’t they follow you into the hole?

No, I would not recommend jumping into a black hole as a way to ensure your privacy. For one thing, you won’t get to enjoy the privacy for long (a couple hours, maybe, for a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy?) before getting spaghettified on your way to the singularity. For another, as you correctly pointed out, other people could still snoop on you by jumping into the black hole themselves—although they’d have to want badly enough to learn your secrets that they wouldn’t mind dying themselves along with you, and also not being able to share whatever they learned with anyone outside the hole.

But a third problem is that even inside a black hole, your secrets might not be safe forever! Since the 1970s, it’s been thought that all information dropped into a black hole eventually comes out, in extremely-scrambled form, in the Hawking radiation that black holes produce as they slowly shrink and evaporate. What do I mean by “slowly”? Well, the evaporation would take about 1070 years for a black hole the mass of the sun, or about 10100 years for the black holes at the centers of galaxies. Furthermore, even after the black hole had evaporated, piecing together the infalling secrets from the Hawking radiation would probably make reconstructing what was on the burned paper from the smoke and ash seem trivial by comparison! But just like in the case of the burned paper, the information is still formally present (if current ideas about quantum gravity are correct), so one can’t rule out that it could be reconstructed by some civilization of the extremely remote future.

21 May 21:48

The ultimate physical limits of privacy

by Scott
Gabriel Ferns

Testing if I can share my share.

Somewhat along the lines of my last post, the other day a reader sent me an amusing list of questions about privacy and fundamental physics.  The questions, and my answers, are below.

1. Does the universe provide us with a minimum level of information security?

I’m not sure what the question means. Yes, there are various types of information security that are rooted in the known laws of physics—some of them (like quantum key distribution) even relying on specific aspects of quantum physics—whose security one can argue for by appealing to the known properties of the physical world. Crucially, however, any information security protocol is only as good as the assumptions it rests on: for example, that the attacker can’t violate the attack model by, say, breaking into your house with an ax!

2. For example, is my information safe from entities outside the light-cone I project?

Yes, I think it’s safe to assume that your information is safe from any entities outside your future light-cone. Indeed, if information is not in your future light-cone, then almost by definition, you had no role in creating it, so in what sense should it be called “yours”?

3. Assume that there are distant alien cultures with infinite life spans – would they always be able to wait long enough for my light cone to spread to them, and then have a chance of detecting my “private” information?

First of all, the aliens would need to be in your future light-cone (see my answer to 2). In 1998, it was discovered that there’s a ‘dark energy’ pushing the galaxies apart at an exponentially-increasing rate. Assuming the dark energy remains there at its current density, galaxies that are far enough away from us (more than a few tens of billions of light-years) will always recede from us faster than the speed of light, meaning that they’ll remain outside our future light-cone, and signals from us can never reach them. So, at least you’re safe from those aliens!

For the aliens in your future light-cone, the question is subtler. Suppose you took the only piece of paper on which your secrets were written, and burned it to ash—nothing high-tech, just burned it. Then there’s no technology that we know today, or could even seriously envision, that would piece the secrets together. It would be like unscrambling an egg, or bringing back the dead from decomposing corpses, or undoing a quantum measurement. It would mean, effectively, reversing the Arrow of Time in the relevant part of the universe. This is formally allowed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since the decrease in entropy within that region could be balanced by an increase in entropy elsewhere, but it would require a staggering level of control over the region’s degrees of freedom.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the microscopic laws of physics are reversible: they never destroy information. And for that reason, as a matter of principle, we can’t rule out the possibility that some civilization of the very far future, whether human or alien, could piece together what was written on your paper even after you’d burned it to a crisp. Indeed, with such godlike knowledge and control, maybe they could even reconstruct the past states of your brain, and thereby piece together private thoughts that you’d never written anywhere!

4. Does living in a black hole provide privacy? Couldn’t they follow you into the hole?

No, I would not recommend jumping into a black hole as a way to ensure your privacy. For one thing, you won’t get to enjoy the privacy for long (a couple hours, maybe, for a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy?) before getting spaghettified on your way to the singularity. For another, as you correctly pointed out, other people could still snoop on you by jumping into the black hole themselves—although they’d have to want badly enough to learn your secrets that they wouldn’t mind dying themselves along with you, and also not being able to share whatever they learned with anyone outside the hole.

But a third problem is that even inside a black hole, your secrets might not be safe forever! Since the 1970s, it’s been thought that all information dropped into a black hole eventually comes out, in extremely-scrambled form, in the Hawking radiation that black holes produce as they slowly shrink and evaporate. What do I mean by “slowly”? Well, the evaporation would take about 1070 years for a black hole the mass of the sun, or about 10100 years for the black holes at the centers of galaxies. Furthermore, even after the black hole had evaporated, piecing together the infalling secrets from the Hawking radiation would probably make reconstructing what was on the burned paper from the smoke and ash seem trivial by comparison! But just like in the case of the burned paper, the information is still formally present (if current ideas about quantum gravity are correct), so one can’t rule out that it could be reconstructed by some civilization of the extremely remote future.