Read Recently: Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel

The Ego Tunnel (2009) is a popular treatment of the ideas from Metzinger’s longer, denser book, Being No One. I’ve tried to read the longer book a couple times and bounced off, so I thought I would try the easier one out. Scattered thoughts follow:

Metzinger’s big idea is that the conscious self is an illusion of the “user interface” of something called a “transparent phenomenal self-model (PSM).” We have our consciousness, and experience of selfhood, because our brain contains a representational model of us (the organism) that can’t be inspected from inside — it is “transparent” — only the “contents” of the representation is available, not the form.

The best part of the book it its discussions of the science of the self-model. Through lucid dreaming accounts, and experiments like the famous “rubber hand experiment” and other experiments targeted at out of body experiences (OBEs), Metzinger goes beyond merely saying that we have a phenomenal self-model, and showing us what its parts are, how it works, and how it may be manipulated to act outside of its normal range and expose its workings.

Metzinger is very good on the science (which he has helped motivate and develop, not just reported), and less good on the claimed implications of the science. He does much to illuminate the phenomenology of the sense of self. But he wants to get from here to the further implications that 1) there is no “real” self, it is completely exhausted by these special effects, and 2) this special effect of a self is exactly what phenomenal consciousness is. I am very sympathetic to 1) and puzzled by 2). But in neither case does Metzinger really sell me.

Unlike Dennett, whose bottom-line claims are similar, Metzinger doesn’t really try to tackle the difficult parts of the theory. Who is being fooled by the illusory self? The PSM is “transparent” to us, but how do we cash that out? Perhaps the longer book answers these questions well. In Ego Tunnel there is basically handwaving about the temporal resolutions of the different processes. The PSM and the associated reality tunnel are transparent because internal monitoring processes do not run fast enough to interact with them at the level of implementation, only at the level of represented content. (It’s also not clear what association is being made between the PSM — the person-model — and the world-model. Some important connection is asserted.)

It is also not clear why this particular magic trick is what leads to conscious experience. For example, Metzinger seems to suggest that a non-transparent PSM would not be conscious. Why not? It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that adding more insight into the machine makes it less conscious. It’s also not clear to what degree the PSM / world-model is transparent — we can at least cognitively assimilate the proposition that appearances are not reality, even if we are born “naive realists.”

Some final musings consider consciousness ethics. Mostly too broad for my tastes, but I copied some passages for flavor. His big ethical commitment is that conscious states are what are morally relevant, or at least — conscious states are morally relevant (possibly among other things; he touches on Nozick’s experience machine). Pain and other contents with “negative valence” become moral bads exactly when they are internally attributed to a transparent PSM — then they seem to be “owned” by a conscious being, and from Metzinger’s point of view that makes all the difference. So there is a very sharp line demarcating moral concern.

We should be very cautious about acts that we perform that create conscious states, he says, and especially in the new area of artificial consciousness. (In Being No One he suggests that, whatever our different positive moral intuitions, we share a wide consensus of negative utilitarianism — suffering is bad.) Evolution so far can be viewed as the tuning and expansion of suffering — it may even be that consciousness itself is a moral bad.

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Colorblindness in practice: the politics of California affirmative action

Since a 1996 referendum, Prop 209, California public universities have been forbidden from using affirmative action in admissions. Since then, those schools have seen their black and hispanic populations shrink (in some cases almost to nothing), and their Asian-American populations balloon.

Recently, a multi-ethnic liberal coalition has been promoting a new referendum to bring back affirmative action. But Asian-american activists rebelled, and the bill has been dealt a serious setback. Much more detail; thanks Matt for the story.

Prop 209 was opposed by Asian as well as black and hispanic groups in 1996, but clearly the landscape has shifted. Why can’t everyone agree on a deal where affirmative action comes back, but only white people lose spots? Continue reading

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How is submarine combat like building a city?

Found this on my computer, apparently written in 2010. I guess I never posted it before because I didn’t decide on an answer to the question it poses: what is it that simulation games of very different subject matters have in common? I still am not sure what I think about that, but I think the question is well-posed so I’m posting it here.

A few months ago, I revisited an early Sid Meier game, Silent Service 2 (you can too). It’s a submarine combat simulation set in the South Pacific during WWII. Your boat takes off from an American port and then spends weeks in the field, hunting Japanese shipping and battle groups. You have to decide how far out from port you can wander, how to ration out your limited supplies, and what sorts of targets you can afford to engage over time. You also have to control your boat’s movement and weapons as you engage each target.

My thoughts while playing SS2: why is this a Sid Meier game? Where does it fit in the oeuvre that most prominently includes the Civilization series? One answer is that it doesn’t — Sid Meier made some combat flight sims, too, and they don’t have anything to do with Civilization (perhaps). But it feels like the planning and strategy of SS2 are related to the planning and strategy of Civilization and its successors, even if you in Civ you never pilot any vehicle or really fight.

I had occasion to think about this again recently when I started playing (the original, 1992 version of) X-Com, a tactical combat game with a wide-scope strategy overlay. In the game, you are managing the defense of earth against an alien invasion — you manage limited funds from the nations of earth and build facilities, hire soldiers, buy equipment, and choose engagements. Then you actually fight those engagements, in a simple but extremely tense tactical view. The game is brilliant and addictive, which of course doesn’t prove anything. On a hunch, I bought a copy for a lawyer friend who was not much of a gamer, but was a big fan of Sid Meier’s Colonization (a Civ-like from 1994), and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (another Civ-like game, from 1998). Pretty soon I was getting emails during the workday explaining theories about the best place to establish your base, the structure of X-Com’s international funding, and so on. Bingo. (Like Civ and SS2, the game was published by Microprose. According to Wikipedia, the game originally included only the tactical gameplay. Microprose — which was founded by Sid Meier — insisted on the inclusion of the larger-scale strategy elements when it decided to pick up the game.)

I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, what do strategy games have in common? It’s not about the subject matter. What do generalizations like “planning” and “resource management” actually describe, and why are they so addictive?

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CISPA, and the size of the Anglosphere vs. US politics

I’m interested in the ways the US derives rents from being a major imperial power. One way this happens is through the widespread use of English as international language. For example, people born in the US can travel and work abroad more easily. Another example is that US cultural industries can sell to a very large market — Hollywood movies can be sold not just domestically, but to the large English-speaking audience abroad (as well as the subbed/dubbed audience). (Other English-speaking countries also share these benefits to some extent.)

Because of all the “extra” profits from activities like movie-making, the cultural industry in the United States is probably a lot bigger than it otherwise would be. Accordingly, it wields more political influence than it otherwise would. This helps explain how Hollywood and the “content industry” generally can get so much of what it wants from Congress, like ever-increasing copyright extensions, or broad computer surveillance powers aimed at combating piracy. A pessimistic Metafilter poster said,

[CISPA], or a bastardization of it, will be introduced every year until people are too worn out to continue to fight it. The same thing happens with almost every modern publicly-funded stadium. The fact that we will have to fight this bill and similar bills EVERY YEAR for the foreseeable future is a testament to the fact that the system is responsive only to the continued growth of its own power.

So far online opposition to laws like SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA has proved a powerful obstacle to their success. But on the fundamentals the cultural industry looks very strong, because they are large, well-financed, and politically connected.

It’s an old story but for some reason I’d never thought of how it was connected to US influence abroad. But it makes sense. The Swedish film industry presumably just doesn’t have the scale to exert this kind of political control. The US film industry, bolstered by global US power does.

(Similarly, the US “defense” industry sector is much bigger than it otherwise would be because the US is committed to various security guarantees around the world. This in turn feeds back into US politics.)

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Court-appointed lawyers and the complexity of the legal system

There’s no shortage of horror stories about the lawyers (public defenders and otherwise) who are appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants. They are grossly underpaid and overworked, and as a result they can routinely be found sleeping through trials, skipping factual investigations, and ignoring legal arguments that could save their clients. A recent story on their difficulties.

It would be better if we could decently fund the defense of criminal defendants, and it’s worth fighting for. But I’m afraid that securing funding for lawyers for those accused of crimes is always going to be really hard, politically. The Supreme Court can (and did) mandate that everyone be provided a lawyer at public expense, but they can’t supervise every political subdivision of the country to make sure they live up to this promise, through tough budget years and tougher political environments. I am afraid it is sort of a doomed promise.

If we could go back in time, a better arrangement might be: have a system where you don’t need to be a master of legal intricacies to defend yourself against any charges, and one in which the criminal sanction is deployed much more sparingly. As is, we have chosen to create a supremely complex legal system, which every day puts a historically unprecedented number of people at risk for their liberty — and we have seen that this creates a demand for legal representation that we are not able to fill.
Continue reading

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On Bluerazz Sourpower Snackattackpacks

“Bluerazz Sourpower Snackattackpacks” is one of my favorite pages from A Lesson Is Learned, But The Damage Is Irreversible, by David Hellman and Dale Beran (I have many favorite pages). It’s got pathos, absurdity, references to classical and modern literature, and a silly but very appealing metaphysics that synthesizes ancient and contemporary visions. The look and flow of the art reflect the ideas of the story, like the broken images in panel 2ish, and the blue and purple coloring throughout that resolves into triangles in the middle of the page. Check it out.

Once you’ve gone and enjoyed it, I have some questions for you. Consider the beginning of the story:
It's these candy drops! They are so sour! They remind me of my bitter memories!

I have generally assumed that the “candy drops” (Dale’s speech in second bubble) are the same as what comes in the Snackattackpacks (Dale’s speech in fourth bubble). But, if so, they both trigger and are the only defense against the bitter memories. Do you think that is the intended reading? It seems to me to minimize the problem, in a way — to make the comic more about the candy drops and less about the anti-entropy of recollection, so less universal etc. — because the problem arises because of the candy drops in the first place. It’s not (explicitly) a condition of existence to be tormented by bitter memories; rather it is what happens to you when you taste the Snackattackpacks. Does that seem right to you? Perhaps that should be read ironically — it’s an obviously demented inversion of expectation to frame pain and regret as arising out of candy flavor (not to say I haven’t experienced that causal sequence).

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Is Archer mean? Yes.

Jesse Thorn interviewed Adam Reed, creator of TV’s Archer, in 2011. Not essential reading but some of what Reed says is interesting. In addition, Thorn goes out of his way to defend Archer against charges of meanness:

JESSE THORN: I want to read you this quote that frankly I entirely disagree with, from a review of the show that ran in the Washington Post when it first came out. Forgive me for doing this to you.

ADAM REED: Is it mean?

JESSE THORN: Oh, it’s spectacularly mean. It says, “Be warned, Archer is as obnoxious and cruel as it can possibly be and still call itself humor. I’d quote dialogue, but all the snappier stuff included naughty words for genitals.” Do you think of the show as being a mean show?

ADAM REED: I do now, after hearing that quote. I’m despondent. I do think it’s mean-spirited a lot of times, but I think there are unexpected moments of sweetness. Yeah, it’s a pretty mean show.

JESSE THORN: I just want to say that when I read that I was annoyed, because I felt like it’s not a mean show, it’s a show full of very petty shallow characters. There’s something very sweet about all of them, and I don’t think the shows perspective is a mean perspective.

ADAM REED: I think it’s more selfish than mean.

Continue reading

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From Christina Hoff Sommers in the Times:

There are some who say, well, too bad for the boys. If they are inattentive, obstreperous and distracting to their teachers and peers, that’s their problem. After all, the ability to regulate one’s impulses, delay gratification, sit still and pay close attention are the cornerstones of success in school and in the work force. It’s long past time for women to claim their rightful share of the economic rewards that redound to those who do well in school.

As one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?

A few decades ago, when we realized that girls languished behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted effort to give them more support, with significant success. Shouldn’t we do the same for boys?

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Some SF recommendations

I wrote up some recommended science fiction reading for a friend, and figured I would post it here. I’ve also been mentioning a couple favorite writers in my grad app Statements of Purpose, in the hope they might catch someone’s eye. A lot of the pleasure of science fiction for me is philosophical speculation.
Continue reading

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Is there a common error in Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics?

(This is just a super-sketchy idea I had. I don’t have any particular confidence that there’s any error in Chomsky’s politics or in his linguistics, and my knowledge of each is limited. I have no formal education in linguistics. But I was reading something and this clicked so here it is.)

Chomsky is known in linguistics for his idea that human language acquisition is helped along by an innate “universal grammar.” It hinges on an observation about “the poverty of the stimulus” from which infant children are able to learn language. The thought is that it seems like it should be really hard to competently learn a human language based just on the incidental exposure that infant children normally have — there’s just not enough evidence for the rules and structures of a language to be learned completely from scratch. Since they couldn’t be learned completely from scratch, they must be learned with the aid of an in-born cribsheet built into the brain. Since all languages are learned from the same cribsheet, the fundamental structure of all languages is similar. Hence, universal grammar.

Chomsky basically won the debate over universal grammar, but apparently there are still critics, and recently they have been empowered by advances in computational pattern recognition. Wikipedia: “A common argument is that the brain’s mechanisms of statistical pattern recognition could solve many of the imagined difficulties.” More.

If we agreed with the critics, we could say that Chomsky has made the error of thinking that there must be sort of a preset master plan for languages, when in fact they could be constructed by bottom-up learning with the right tools.

Now compare Chomsky on the media, explaining that sports are an opiate of the masses:

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on. (Source.)

Here and throughout the interview (see link), Chomsky is telling a story where pro-establishment features of the media seem to be an effect of a conspiracy among the powerful — corporate and government executives, etc. So something like televised sports is explained as top-down propaganda, which is intentionally cultivated in order to serve the function of inculcating pro-establishment values. The pattern of media institutions that we see is explained as the product of a propaganda plan that serves a particular purpose.

But we might think it’s just as likely that our media environment is explained by bottom-up instead of top-down forces. Entertainment providers, advertisers, etc., are all in competition blah blah to sell things people want. And so the sports leagues are just low-cost providers of feelings of band-belongingness etc. that people tend to want. No overarching plan necessary, just as for the critics of universal grammar no innate cribsheet or plan for the structure of a language is necessary.

See the connection? Maybe it’s just me. A thought, anyway.

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