Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas Rid
If you want a new idea, read an old book. Thomas Rid has done precisely that to reveal the lost history of ‘cybernetics’. In turn he provides new insight to many of our most pressing contemporary philosophical, technological and social questions.
It’s rare to read a current affairs book that doesn’t deal in some way with the vast new power of machines. Typically, this challenge is presented as both new and future-oriented. AI is just around the corner. Mass unemployment from robotics will soon disrupt society. Robots fighting robots will be tomorrow’s battlespace.
Only, none of this is actually new. Rid traces three recurring themes which have shaped the history of ‘cybernetics’. Originally a scientific discipline it came to serve as a launch pad and language for a wide variety of communities who used the emergence of complex ‘thinking’ machines to rethink and challenge existing forms of life and social organisation.
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Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark Colvin
An ideal beach read. Mark Colvin tells an engaging story with wit and passion. Through the exploits of father and son this book ranges from violence and intrigue in Revolutionary Iran to the jungles of Vietnam and wide open steppes of remote Mongolia. Along the way we get stories of English boarding school life, the birth of Double J radio station (now Triple J) and forays into British and Australian politics.
It’s hard to say what exactly the focus of this book is and in one revealing aside late in the book Colvin acknowledges as much. The book is nominally about his father’s role as a spy, yet Colvin knew about this identity while his father was alive and seems largely reconciled to it and their relationship.
The book is also about his time as a journalist and foreign correspondent, yet most of the recent decades are skipped over in just a few pages. Ultimately, ‘Light and Shadow’ is an enjoyable, insightful memoir of a widely admired figure. And as the book sales show, that’s clearly enough.
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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
A common refrain from high achieving new parents is that having kids has made them more productive at work. With less hours in the day to control, their time in the office is used more effectively. But as I’ve found over the last year of fatherhood, that doesn’t happen automatically.
‘Deep’ work, that is focused concentrated work at the upper edges of your cognitive performance is hard. And if you’re tired or distracted by family, office mundanity or the internet it’s very easy to spend long times not doing deep work.
You can even be productive and fool yourself into believing you’ve hit that zone. For calendar year 2016 I’ve published five academic papers, but in truth there’s issues with at least 3 of them and I’m only really proud of one of them. All the while sending countless emails, supervising students, administering a Masters program, teaching two courses, writing blogs and op-eds, co-editing a policy paper series and an academic journal and writing several (unsuccessful) grant applications.
This is work, and lots of it, but it’s not the life of the mind I’d envisaged academia to be. Much of it is ‘shallow’ in the sense of helping sustain my job rather than advancing it. Nor is it entirely satisfying. Cal Newport, another young father and academic (computer science at Georgetown University, Washington DC), however has an answer: Deep Work.
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“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf
Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.
Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.
What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.
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One of the main arguments of our era on behalf of public funding of education is the economic benefit it will produce. In the current 2016 Australian election, the Labor Party has argued its education spending policy will add up to 2.8% to growth. US President Barack Obama made a similar case a few years ago that ‘For every dollar we invest in these [education] programs, we get nearly ten dollars back’.
In ‘Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities’, Martha Nussbaum argues this is a fundamentally impoverished view of the role education plays in the functioning of a democratic society. Instead she provides a compelling ‘manifesto’ for a larger role for humanities (arts, literature, world history, religious studies and economic history) in the education of democratic citizens.
Nussbaum worries that in many countries around the world, and increasingly in the West, a ‘teach to the test’ model of rote and repetition seems to be gaining control. Professional skills are the demand, and opportunities for play, curiosity and questioning authority are reduced. While a digital world does require specific skills in science, maths, and technology, I would agree with Nussbaum that such skills will not solve or even salve our contemporary problems unless accompanied by an education in philosophy, politics and history.
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Talking To My Country by Stan Grant
The ideal book review is written by someone who knows more than the author. They set the story in context, they point out missed connections, and tie it to a broader story. This is not one of those reviews. I know precious little of what Stan Grant speaks, and understand even less. Not only in the history spoken of, but in some ways how the author connects to that history is also foreign to me.
Talking to My Country is part memoir of his family, part plea to understand what his people have been through. Early on I found myself somewhat arguing back, treating this as a politics book and looking for him to provide policy answers. But the quality of Grant’s writing soon calmed that impulse and by the end, I was grateful for having had a chance to simply listen to the experiences of his family and how he and his people have felt about Australia.
What fascinated me most in this powerful book was the relationship between the author and history. Grant escaped Australia for many years, yet felt compelled to return and re-immerse himself in the culture and history of his people. He knows this history is painful and enraging, and yet feels it vital his son truly understands. He feels Australia has moved on, and yet incidents like the booing of Adam Goodes make him fear nothing has changed. And despite being a highly successful man of the world, he finds himself in the land and practices of his family long before.
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I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?
In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.
Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.
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In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.
Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:
In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.
a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.
While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?
There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980’s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.
I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.
Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.
Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.
Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.
After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.
Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.
Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.
Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.
From my favorite WW1 poet Wilfred Owen
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
This country did wrong by far too many who served it. We gaily sent them to war for causes not our own, we ignored their needs upon their return. If the current revival in ANZAC day spirit is worth a damn, it is in the honour and honesty we owe those who fight for this country. To the men and women who have served and continue to serve this country in uniform, in the police and in other capacities, Thank you.
Over at Margaret Simon’s excellent blog The Content Makers, she has an interesting post up about technology and the changing way we are reading:
I suspect that the e-readers will merely speed up existing trends, rather than changing rules of the game. And the existing trends? More niche media targetting smaller interest groups, and more interaction between content providers and audience members. All this implies a more intense connection between audiences and media outlets, which may mean a greater preparedness to pay for some kinds of content – if it is good enough, and if it can’t be easily obtained elsewhere.
But I very much doubt that large numbers of people will pay for newspapers on the iPad if all they offer is commodotised news that is also freely available elsewhere.I agree that this will be the year in which e-readers become mainstream, and soon much of our reading will be done on such devices. Books will become “special” objects, rather than utilitarian.
I think the biggest shift is likely to be what we consider the activity of ‘reading’ to be. Sure we all say we ‘read’ the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, but when we use the word most of us would still conjure up images of sitting, alone, on a couch or on your bed for a substantial period of time with a book in hand.
Yet, while I still love that idea, and try to do so when I have a book good enough to compel it, I no longer think of reading in such terms. Instead I’m finding that the distinction between mediums is breaking down. When reading online it makes no difference if was written as a newspaper article, magazine article, blog post or book extract as we formerly knew them. If I am consuming written media, I am reading, and I do so seamlessly moving between short, medium and long pieces as my attention fancies. An evening reading might involve 10+ short articles, one long piece of journalism and 200 pages of whatever half-read book I need to finish soon and have closest to hand. With paper mediums, that’s a difficult task to consume so much, with digital mediums, its very very easily (especially when I have twitter and rss feeds sending it straight to me). However even that last connection to moving your eyes over written words is evaporating too. I caught myself the other day saying to a friend that I had ‘just read’ Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’. Only I hadn’t. Gladwell had read it to me via an audio book as I walked to work. I know the same amount of info, I finished the book in the usual time, and I got a similar pleasure & distraction from the real world from it. I read it, I just didn’t read.
Reading to me is becoming more like breathing oxygen than sitting down for a meal. Rather than heavy doses when I have the time, I find myself simply reading whenever I am not being forced to do something else with my entire focus (talking to others or in the shower seem about it). Books may be seen as losing their special status in such a view, but most books (esp non-fiction) are far too long anyway, and no article can ever approach the understanding gained, emotional attachment or carefully crafted prose of a top quality book. Homo litterarius has arrived.
In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.
In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.
Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.
But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.
Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.
Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students
AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).
In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.
The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)
This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.
Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.
One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:
If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.
Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)
1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.