Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorials and Democracy

Memorial Day seems to have turned into the kind of sickening mix of emotional pabulum and commercialism that has infected the entire spectrum of American holidays. And this tendency colludes with the divisive red-blue rhetoric to enhance the polarization of opinion on the ongoing war effort.

Here's what I mean.

Nowhere do we see the troops and the fallen being honored for their role as part of the system of American democracy. Nowhere do authors write that what they died for was the ideal of democratic, civilian and political control of the military. Rarely do authors state first and foremost that it is precisely the political indecision of Washington over unpopular and arguably unjust wars that is the first value for which they fight.

The worst system of governance...except for all the others, indeed.

Instead, we get a kind of deadening of the central questions of why public service matters by a continuous stream of emotionally leaden appeals to support the troops. At least they could put Samuel Barber's Adagio in the background now and again to really get the tears rolling. The individual sacrifice stories are important, don't get me wrong, but they need to be tempered by more than an occasional drumbeat that the role of military might is to protect us and our way of life, especially when there are so few clear examples of whether that role could be said to have fulfilled the claim.

The US military is a projection of democratic will, imperfect and occasionally driven more by triumphalist idealizations than clarity of forethought. And it is that political element of civics machinery that needs to be remembered around those graves on days like this. Otherwise, we are just praising a military ethos that is only important because it is ours. I prefer to find deeper moral justification for their sacrifice and loss.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Arguments and Video Games

James Fallows, in this month's Atlantic Monthly, mentioned a new company out of Australia that interests me. The company, AusThink, has a product called Reason!Able that is designed to assist in graphically managing arguments. It is based on the company principal's background in philosophy and cognitive science, and has been under development at University of Melbourne for several years.

The technology is remarkably simple, providing a graphical tree view of premises, objections to those premises and supporting reasoning for the premises. While it really does little more than you could achieve with paper and pencil, it has been empirically tested in a university setting. The results show that students who take a critical thinking class using the technology achieve an improvement of 0.8 standard deviations on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test after only one semester. This compares favorably to an improvement of 0.5 SD for students over three years of college without the course!

So they get smarter faster.

I was thinking about this in light of my engagements in the local paper's online forum. The level of coherence in argumentation is astoundingly bad for the most part. The modus operandi is to directly insult those politically opposed to you and use straw man arguments to justify your claims. Another common tactic is generalization of the author's feelings to those of others, even when there is clear variation in opinions on the topic at hand. Among these kinds of authors, I believe the levels of education are not very high and the amount of coherent argument that they have had to engage in with anyone except their educational peers is relatively low.

Yet, I also think many of them have improved over the last several years and have started writing more coherently as they have watched their discussions get publicly skewered. It takes time, though, and I like to think that getting a critical thinking program down to the level of high schools would help improve the overall dialog.

Brainstorming: Could a video game do this kind of thing? How about a video game wherein you argue with people about complex issues like what the mission and goals are of the invading alien species? I will slightly sheepishly admit that I let my son play Halo/Halo2 and that he spent quite a long time trying to understand the motives, goals and underlying theology of the Covenant and Flood, so I think there is a kernel in sophisticated new games. But perhaps the needed unmet component involves puzzles that require verbal analytic capacity (discovery of a written document) to reach a conclusion about next steps?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Startup and Dissemination

I've been running full-bore these last two weeks, writing commercialization plans and dispatching them to consultants for review, getting servers up and running in skyscrapers in San Jose, and pushing the whole system out for early public consumption. On top of that, I was drawn into the local paper's wonderful world of fora, sparing with those who use "seditious liberal" as a form of punctuation. Name calling is such a great debate tactic. Oh, and I did "Career Day" at my son's school, spending the morning repeating myself. Such is the fate of teachers, as I recall. I had my patter down by the third and final session and, of course, will go back again.

The forum engagements began as a follow-on to my original editorial, now followed up twice in print. The second follow-up calmly attacked the previous one for their anti-evolution stance. I post little notes on these topics, focusing on issues in epistemology and noting that I don't much care what others believe as long as policy provides for freedom of conscience. My unflappability results in the name calling, I suppose. Oh, I was also told to repent. That was expected.

But, more interesting, is the continued sense of support for my main business effort, which I will now reveal to my very limited readership! is an elaboration of my earlier platform and is designed as an online prosumer web clippings/tagging/social networking engine for online knowledge workers. I liken it to MySpace crossed with Salesforce for serious researchers. The system integrates with patent search and with citeseer (more sources to come) as well as with other user's content to provide discoveries related to your interests. From a business standpoint, the technology is a channel for personalization and advertising for a select audience (with high earnings) built around science, technology, legal and business research professionals. The early-stage funding came from consulting gigs, but I won a National Science Foundation grant to continue to expand the system and have been team building in an effort to try get a second wave of funding.

Meanwhile, I am hard at work on another government funding opportunity that builds on one component of the Ofamind system: indexable briefings and presentations. Specifically, a subcontractor has a tool for compiling voice together with PowerPoint slideshows, then uploading them for search and dissemination to Ofamind. The new funding opportunity builds off of that capability and expands on the idea that cross-citation of supporting documents and ideas via tagging, content and reference can provide a powerful new way of working on the web and distributing briefings and presentations to a wider audience.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pools and Editorials

Well, this last week saw my letter to the editor appear in print. My focus was on the incompatibility of various religious traditions and how strange it seems that people are willing to harm others over those incompatibilities. I addressed it as a letter to the children, suggesting that they should be skeptical of the claims of their parents about a great number of things, but that they should be especially careful about claims about the meaning of poetry.

There were several motivators in positioning it as a letter to children. First, I was able to simplify and operationalize the language in a way that points at the difficulties of treating religious texts as fact. Second, I was following Dennett's lead on the notion that young people need to be made aware that there are those who quite happily (and productively) live without religious belief and are smart, moral and interesting.

The responses in the online forum were very mixed, with the obvious "don't believe this guy" to heartfelt worries that popular culture is so negative an influence that only religion is capable of countering the impact on our children. I responded mellowly to all of the non-accusatory points and seemed to achieve the desired effect of being calm and learned at some level.

Saturday's paper contained the first in-print rebuttal, which focused on the author's own re-integration with organized theism following years of "freethinking". Yes, I avoided the A word in favor of a less-culturally charged term that is more inclusive of agnosticism, vagueness, humanism and rationalism. He was slightly antagonistic, suggesting that freethinking is the realm of liberals and people who believe we came "from pond scum." Sadly, it does reinforce the tendency for highly religious people to use debate tactics that are drawn from the shallower side of the gene pool. But I responded mostly positively in the online forum, describing the difference between "public knowledge" (observation, empiricism, experimentation) and "private knowledge" (revelation, subjective experience, prayer), and managed to avoid my own antagonism by not using the loaded phrase "magical thinking."

In fact, though, as we were heading towards Pyramid for Mother's Day lunch, I started processing the whole experience and we chewed a bit on how to escape the desconstructionist argument that there is nothing particularly favorable about private versus public, rational versus irrational, looking at the history of science. Freud, phrenology, alchemy. They all had their day in the sun as matters for learned discourse. Yet, can we still conclude that progressivism in science, history and culture is bankrupt due to classy arguments about a few failed social sciences? Thermodynamics is not nearly so porous.

I was reading Condi Rice's interview in Atlantic the other day and found myself agreeing with her on this notion of progressive, positive historical change, if not on any of the details or outcomes of our sloppy Iraq invasion and follow-up. The essential details, though, are tied to systems of governance that interfere with the urge to power on the part of individuals. Instead of a "Great Man" theory of history, I see a progressive unfolding of the assertion of individual rights and responsibilities through law that is gradually perfecting the inalienable rights of man. It is easy to be negative about this and decry income inequality or social justice, but the most effective players in government are those who find a creative dialog that is essentially positive in outlook, and who maintain a calm way forward that improves on the respect levels for the other players on the field.

I think I did that in my editorial engagement and follow-up, but time will tell.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Hitchens and Simpatico

It's odd. I decided to proceed with a defense of rationalism to my local paper. The timing was right based on some other editorial content that has recently found its way into that august publication. I got a call Saturday asking for a backgrounder to supplement the piece and shot off an email containing the requested information.

The day after I sent the letter in, though, I encountered both the Lou Dobbs interview with Chris Hitchens and Chris' spectacular talk at Sewanee University, The Moral Necessity of Atheism:

What's odd is how simpatico this talk is with the core thrust of my editorial. The only real difference is his depiction of religion as a form of mental totalitarianism, but I was amused by his juxtaposition of Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand, much as I recently did.

I was jazzed all weekend by the whole affair, but nevertheless forgot to pick up a copy of his new book.