The Order of Time - by Carlo Rovelli

dimanche 01 juillet 2018

I saw a panel discussion about time from the World Science Festival on YouTube. The panel was composed of several physicists and a few other people. One of the non-physicists was so disturbed by the fact that neither the math nor the physics requires that time pass in a single direction that he made up a whole different version of math that does require that time flows in one direction. While I admire the effort, it seems to me that when the science disagrees with our intuition we should abandon our intuition rather than come up with a science that does agree. Humans evolved in order to survive and reproduce, not in order to grasp the microscopic details of the universe.

This book presents the current physics of time in a way that lay people can understand, which is good because the science of time is radically different from how we perceive it. While we perceive time as flowing in one direction, in physics equations work the same regardless of which direction time flows in. While we assume that time flows at a constant speed everywhere in physics time is only consistent locally. In short, the way we perceive time seems to be an illusion created by our brains. The only real factor that determines which direction time flows in is the transfer of heat and increasing entropy.

This was an amazing, if brief, book that provides a clear and understandable overview of what we actually know about time, and I am thankful to Mr Rovelli for having written it.

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I was familiar with the case of Edgardo Mortara from having read Henry Charles Lea's "History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages" and I am very interested by the subject of the crazy things that are often done in the name of religion, so when I found out that this case had an entire book written about it I was anxious to read it.

For those who are not familiar with this affair here is a quick summary: In Italy in 1858 the pope was still the temporal leader of at least part of the territory, and church law said that a Christian child could not be raised in the Jewish faith. Jewish families frequently hired Christian servants because they could do things prohibited to the Jews on the Sabbath, such as light fires. The Mortara's had such a Christian servant, and when one of their young children was ill the servant thought he might die and secretly baptized him so that he would not go to hell. Years later, the Church found out about this and came to take the child away so he could be raised Catholic. 

If you are interested in the full details of this case, this book provides a very detailed and rich description of the kidnapping, the laws at the time, public response to the affair, and the eventual political consequences, which include the pope's temporal powers being dimished by the unification of Italy.

It was rather shocking to learn that at the same time as the Civil War was being fought in the United States the laws of the Papal States were still incredibly anachronistic and had not evolved all that much since the Middle Ages. Pope Pius IX, who initially had seemed to be a reformer who would bring the church into modernity, ended up becoming reactionary in response to the Italian unification movement and the threat of losing his temporal kindgom. While he had initiated some reforms regarding the Jews, such as tearing down the gates of their ghettos and relaxing the restrictions on them, in this matter he refused to budge and Edgardo never returned to his family and eventually became a priest who tried to convert other Jews.

I would say this book is a must read for anyone interested in this period of European history, Italian history, or the history of the Catholic church.

Libellés: books, politics, religion
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Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

mardi 20 mars 2018

The subject of this book is something I think about quite a bit - how Americans will pretty much believe anything, no matter how ridiculous. It may sound somewhat similar to "Bunk", but the books are completely different. While "Bunk" focuses on the hoax as a sort of benign joke, this book is more about how people are completely indifferent to facts of any sort.

The seed was planted with the Reformation. The main idea was that rather than just believing whatever we are told, we should think for ourselves, in this case that specifically meant read the bible yourself and draw your own conclusions rather than just believe whatever the Catholic church says. This is a very good thing - people need to think for themselves, but over the intervening hundreds of years that seed has bloomed into the current philosophy of "I will believe whatever I want and facts be damned." The book traces how that transformation happened.

One import milestone was the colonization of America, which gave people whose beliefs were not tolerated in Europe a place to go where they could be with other like-minded people. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, except that a lot of those people were Puritans whose peculiar philosophies largely influenced the new American culture.

Another turning point was the 60s in the US, when anti-establisment sentiment started making any facts that are said by "experts" suspect as elitist. This, combined with the New Age stuff that became popular at the time, really was the turning point when the "reality-based community" was overwhelmed by the fantasy-based community. It should be expected that when people discover they have been lied to by the government, they should start to question everything the government has ever told them, and again I don't really see this as a bad thing. I personally believe that one should not believe anything one is told unless one confirms it independently or can verify it on one's own. However the difference is that my way involves confirming alleged facts, while the American way is mostly to disregard them if they contradict your opinions, no matter how reliable a source they come from.

I have been watching this series on YouTube called "Retro Report" which is about old scandals. The funny thing is that most of the things that people got worked up about - be it Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic pre-schools, the "dangers" of vaccination, or "super predators" - turned out to be completely baseless. But even when the mistaken beliefs are confirmed as being false people don't really care - they still continue to believe them. A lot of this is attributable to cognitive biases - specifically the availability heuristic - which says that if you hear about something a lot - like someone who's child has autism and was also vaccinated who believes the latter caused the former - you will tend to believe it no matter how much evidence contradicts it. 

Although based in psychology, this phenomenon is somehow uniquely America. Living in Europe I find most people to still be a part of the reality-based community, of course there are conspiracy theorists and such everywhere, but the distrust of experts and science and evidence seems to originate in the USA. This is an extremely worrisome trend, and this book is a very interesting exploration of it.

Libellés: books, politics
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Bunk by Kevin Young

vendredi 23 février 2018

I am very concerned by today's "post-factual" climate, where what is actually true is less important than what we feel should be true, and that is why I was drawn to this book. I thought it would be in the same vein as Kurt Andersen's "Fantasyland." I was very pleasantly surprised because the book goes far beyond that subject, giving a very thorough overview of hoaxes from the 1800s to today. Starting with PT Barnum and what he called "humbug," the book traces the evolution of hoaxes as it evolved from Barnum's relatively benign versions, into the spiritualism of the late 1800s and early 1900s, into confidence schemes, the literary hoaxes and plagiarism of the early 2000s and finally finishing with the "post-truth" and "fake news" of today.

The book is something I would have liked to have read in a college sociology class - it is detailed enough to serve well in an academic context, with a great deal of analysis of the social trends underlying the phenomena described. It is also beautifully written, not surprising as Mr Young is a poet, which I did not know until I had finished it. 

"Bunk" does a great deal of exploration as to what the trends and types of hoaxes throughout history say about the culture, and one of it's major conclusions is that race, and racism, play very important roles. From PT Barnum taking advantage of a variety of non-white people in his shows, to modern authors taking advantage of stereotypes to disguise their made-up stories as truth, it seems that racism is much more deeply woven into American culture than most people realize. There are numerous cases cited of people making up stories about being from underground Taiwanese cities to being raised in the inner cities that take advantage of (incorrect) stereotypes of different colors and cultures to sell themselves as truth. As the confirmation bias would indicate, people are much more likely to accept something as true if it confirms their preexisting conceptions of the world than if it challenges them, and this is easily used by hoaxsters to dupe people.

The last chapter, which starts with "euphemisms" and ends with a dissection of "fake news" (which Mr Young says he preferred when it was simply called "propaganda") is especially striking. I have my own theories on why America today is so willing to entertain crazy theories, such as how victims of mass shootings are really actors paid by the anti-gun people, but Young draws a connection through the evolution of hoaxes through history directly to the fake news of today.

This is an amazing and important book, and one I believe should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of American culture.


Libellés: books
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Given my interest in data science I was very excited to read this book, and I was not disappointed. The book mainly discusses information that can be gleaned from web searches, and how it differs from how people respond to surveys and polls, which is a rather narrow topic, but the author manages to find some rather interesting tidbits from the data.

I am more interested in scientific applications of data science, but for people who are not interested in the subject, the book gives a nice overview of what data is really about. Here is an example - you want to find out about something, say how happy people are in their marriages. You send out surveys asking people about how happy they are with their spouses. The people who are responding to the surveys can say whatever they want. Maybe they are miserable, but they want to project a positive image so they say they are very happy. Maybe they see all of their friends on Facebook constantly posting about how wonderful their husbands are so they say their husbands are wonderful too. The researcher receives the surveys and concludes that all marriages are wonderful.

In the meantime the people who filled out the surveys are going onto Google and searching for "I hate my husband" or "how can I tell if my husband is cheating?" This turns out to not be too far from the actual case. For a variety of reasons people are going to say certain things although those things may not be quite true. On Facebook people tend to post idealized pictures of themselves and idealized versions of their lives. But when they go to Google the searches they perform are going to be more honest and revealing. 

Google records every single search made (although the data is anonymized) and Mr. Stephens-Davidowitz has gone through those searches to attempt to draw some actual conclusions about people. For me, the results were much as expected, though less cynical people may be in for quite a shock. One example - after Obama was elected searches for "n-word president" shot through the roof. And the places where those searches were concentrated voted heavily for Donald Trump. Search data seems to indicate that racism in the US is alive and well and also seems to indicate that the election of Trump was largely driven by a racist backlash against the election of Obama.

While the fact that most people do not describe themselves as racist may seem to contradict the search data, in my opinion not many people think of themselves as racist. The people who really are racist are probably going to say "I am not racist, it's just a fact that other races are inferior to mine." Depending on people to self-report their thoughts and attitudes and actions is a very unreliable way to gather information. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes how people who are experts in a subject matter tend to downplay their expertise, while those who are not experts tend to consider themselves far more knowledgeable than they really are. The experts know enough to know how much they don't know, while the non-experts think they know it all. This describes a general inability for people to really objectively evaluate themselves, and this is where data comes in.

Data is a truly objective description of reality. There is the saying "if you torture numbers enough they will confess to almost anything" which means that it is easy to draw almost any conclusion from a large enough data set. Data science is the science of trying to find signals in data in an objective way, and that is something that is desperately needed in the world today, especially as experts are labelled "elitists" when they say things people don't want to hear.

I, as a data scientist, enjoyed this book very much. However it is written in such a way that you do not need to be a data scientist to understand it. I highly recommend this book.

Libellés: books, data science
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