3. May, 2014

Disabled people aren’t handicapped, they are getting obstructed.

How We See Things

1. February, 2014

We don’t see things how they are, but how we are.

As Sheldon from Big Bang Theory said: “Text adventures run on the world’s most powerful graphics chip: Imagination!

Everything you see or hear happens in your brain.

Think about it.

That insult that really hurt? Only in your brain.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Just beware of the “everything is my fault” concept. There is no point in trying to take responsibility for everything.

Justice with Michael Sandel

5. May, 2013

Justice, even more than money, is a key motivator for people. This is true for simple experiments, like the Ultimatum Game, and big topics, like the global financial crisis of 2007/08.

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University and he routinely attracts thousands of listeners.

Sandel asks questions like “If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing, even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do?”

Or: “The tickets for my lectures are free but you have to get them because so many people want to attend. Now some people have started to pay money for someone to stay in line for them so they can attend for sure. Is that ethical?”

You can find videos of his lectures on the web site above. Here, I’ll collect a couple of important quotes from an interview he gave to Sternstunden (Swiss Radio and TV).

Most important point: Adding a financial incentive changes the meaning of a social practice. This is in contrast to the common belief that economics is neutral towards ethics.

Note: This is a loose translation how I understood him, not what he actually said.

  • The world has become more rich but the money is distributed unevenly. In recent years, the gap has widened and this places many difficult questions about justice.
  • The widening gap forces politicians to decide what a just world could be. It’s a necessity to discuss these questions in public life.
  • Taxes are collected to benefit the common good and to alleviate inequalities. If some people move their money to low-tax states, they’re opting out of the civic responsibilities. This isn’t only unjust, it’s also problematic because it allows to most rich and influential members of a community to “outsource” some of their duties (while they still very much want to control said community).
  • Justice and democracy are connected. It’s unfair when many people work hard and invest a lot of effort but some of them get a better pay. If this gap widens, it undermines the public spirit, the feeling that “we’re all in the same boat.” This feeling is one of the pillars of democracy. When the public spirit is undermined, democracy erodes.
  • Is it OK when a funds manager makes more money than a teacher? The market theory of laissez-faire says yes. But what if the results of a funds manager are purely luck? What if monkeys can beat them? Or a 64-year old housewife?
  • Financial incentives were created to make people invest in the common good – this is the philosophical basis for the appeal of incentives. Does a funds manager, who makes 1’000 times more money than a teacher, also contribute 1’000 times  more to the common good? If this can’t be proven, how can someone argue that the hedge funds manager deserves to keep all his income?
  • Book: “What Money Can’t Buy” (Amazon.com) Questions from the description: “Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?[…] how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets? Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be? how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?”
  • An important discussion that didn’t happen in the last decades is where the market benefits the common good and where they corrupt non-market values worth caring about.
  • Many countries don’t allow to sell organs on the free market. Reasons: Pool people could be forced to sell their organs to the rich. It’s doubtful that a pool farmer from India would sell his organs voluntarily if that’s the only way to pay for the education of his children. Or how about making children just to butcher them for their organs? But there is a second reason: Do we want people to think of their bodies as a collection of spare parts than can be sold for a profit? Wouldn’t that degrade a human person? Also, there are always risks when donating organs: Something can go wrong during the operation (scars, infections, death), if you donate a kidney, you only have one left which creates a greater risk for you later.
  • Markets only work when they are free. We always need to make sure they aren’t driven by forces like extreme poverty or would this debase/corrupt an important ethical value?
  • In Iraq and Afghanistan, more mercenaries from private companies served than US soldiers. There was no public debate whether we actually wanted this. Rousseau argued against this practice because it’s like outsourcing a civic obligation. This undermines national security, civic duties and democratic values.
  • Public Theater in New York plays Shakespeare in the Park. It’s a free Shakespeare play in the Central Park. Rich people pay homeless to stand in line which perverts the intent of the event: It’s to allow poor people to enjoy high-class culture. It puts a price tag on a free commodity. It also changes the audience and hence the public character of the event.
  • Something similar happens in Washington, D.C. Companies offer to stand in line for tickets for Congress hearings or important decisions of the Supreme Court. This means lobbyists can make sure they will have a seat in the law making process.
  • Both examples corrode democratic values; the latter one is just more obvious. But in both cases, commons, owned by all, are price tagged by a few and forced into a market system that the majority doesn’t want and which benefits only a few – if at all.
  • Laax offered visitors of their skiing resort VIP passes which allowed owners to skip past waiting lines. Half of the people asked for their opinion didn’t like this; they said it was part of skiing to wait in line. The other half found it OK. Notable: Laax only offered only 10 such passes each day and that one of them was only CHF 30,- more than the standard pass. According to M. Sandel, this is a slightly different situation: Slopes aren’t public areas. You’re paying for access anyway.
  • Airports offer fast lanes for passengers who pay extra for their ticket. Part of the service is early boarding and more room for hand luggage. This is OK since the airline sells a service and amenity. But how about the right for a quicker security check? Boarding early is a commodity – in-flight safety isn’t.
  • These examples show how market values/practices (in contrast to moral values/practices) have become more important in the last 30 years.
  • Politics should have a discussion about the moral limits, the question where markets belong and where they don’t, where they display, undermine or destroy moral or social values.
  • In the last 30 years, a pseudo religion has grown around the holy market. The core belief is that markets can define what’s fair and right for the common good. M. Sandel thinks this is a mistake. There must be an important relation between market and morals: Markets are tools. They don’t define justice nor the public good. They are useful to organize production processes and to distribute goods and one can discuss what democratic goals they serve. But they are just instruments. Therefore, the use of markets must be controlled by moral values and legal considerations.
  • Markets are great to distribute goods like TVs, cars, etc. They are dangerous when applied in the context of family life, health, public life, raising children, education and national security.
  • Only by discussion these questions, we can find out where markets are useful.
  • Theory of Justice by John Rawls, shared by Jürgen Habermas, based on Immanuel Kant: We can’t agree what is a good life, what are virtues and how we should value goods. Therefore, we have to find a way to decide matters of justice and what’s goodness without being biased by our prejudices. It’s one reason why the law and the government should be neutral towards gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
  • One reason for this is to avoid endless discussions about what’s “good”. Pluralistic societies don’t want to force values on other people when they don’t share the same view.
  • Unfortunately, there is no way to define justice when members of society have contradicting views: 1. There is no way to make law while ignoring the underlying moral controversy. 2. Trying to do so creates hollow politics, it leads to public discussions without depth nor goal. Technocratic discussions don’t inspire and therefore, people are frustrated. They feel that politics isn’t paying attention to the big questions. That’s why people should stand up for their moral and even spiritual beliefs and discuss them in public.
  • It’s impossible to separate justice from the public good.
  • Political parties try to avoid discussing moral issues because of the controversies.
  • We will have to come up with ways and places where we can discuss our moral views and values, justice in the civil society, social movements, the media and higher educations.
  • Young people should be raised to be able to discuss complicated ethical questions.
  • There is always a danger that a group takes control of such discussions. But democracy is always a risk. There simply is no way to avoid that the majority will get it wrong. To solve this, no decision can ever be fixed and frozen once and for all. It must always be possible to revert it later.
  • To teach philosophy, M. Sandel always invites students to discusses with him. It not only raises the attention of the students, it also allows to include current topics in the discussion. That’s how political and moral philosophy always worked: By dialogue, discussion, by challenging assumptions.
  • Some philosophers write books that are technical, abstract and even obscure. While it’s important that they exist and tackle their topics, an equally important part of philosophy must care for the world and society. This is especially true for moral and political philosophies.
  • Sandel himself is sometimes confronted with the problem that tickets for his lectures are sold on the black market. He uses this as a topic to kick off a discussion with the students.
  • In a kindergarten  the caretakers found themselves always waiting for parents to pick up their children. To improve the situation, they fined the lazy parents. But this backfired: Since the parents considered this as a “service fee”, even more parents were late. Important issue here: Adding a financial incentive can change the meaning of a situation.
  • In the kindergarten example, the parent felt guilty. When the financial incentive was introduced, the expectation was that demand drops when the price rises. But parents suddenly felt like they were paying for an additional service.
  • Many economic experts believe that this doesn’t happen. The reason for this is that it’s correct for material goods. A Flat-screen TV behaves the same, no matter at which price it’s being sold. The price doesn’t change the product. But money can change the behavior of products which depend on certain attitudes and norms.
  • Example: Speech of the father of the bride. He can write the speech himself or download it from the Internet or buy a professional to write one for him. One could argue that a good speech makes the father sleep better, it’s not embarrassing for the bridal pair. If you’re president or premier minister, then it’s not a big deal since everyone knows that these people don’t write their own speeches. But let’s assume the father gives a deeply moving, emotional, warm speech. Everyone is moved to tears. And later, people learn that he bought that speech online for $149. How would you feel if it was your father?
  • Example: Spiderman cake for birthday party. During the party, the mother confesses that she didn’t make it because the child didn’t like the design – it wasn’t “Spiderman” enough – so she bought one. Who is at fault? Would it be good if the mother had taught her son to value the work that went into her cake? Or was it wise to give in, depending on the age of the child? In this case, the decision probably had no negative impact. But let’s assume this was a project from the Mother and the other siblings to bake a cake for their brother. After much work, he doesn’t like it and asks to buy a “real” Spiderman cake. It’s easy to imagine that this could be negative for the family relations. The important question is which values, virtues and morals are involved and how buying a professional cake could corrupt them.
  • An example where people refuse the market is the municipality of Wolfenschiessen in the canton of Nidwalden in Switzerland. For 25 years, they are debating whether they should allow a terminal storage for nuclear waste in their area. 1993, a poll by Bruno Frey (PDF, German) showed that 50.8% were willing to accept such a dump. Offering a considerable financial compensation reduced acceptance to 24.6% (page 10). Without compensation, people felt it was their civic duty to take this burden. But the money smelt like a bribe. They were willing to accept a risk for the public good but they weren’t willing to sell the safety of their families and children.
  • It’s important to return economics to its roots. In the times of Adam Smith (18th century), the lecture was named “ethical and political economics”. The many great economists were always thinking how society can benefit best from economics (note: Karl Marx was a philosopher, not an economist). Before the 20th century, economics was always part of philosophy. Only recent decades, it has given itself a semblance of being stand-alone and neutral.
  • The most important things money can’t buy: Love, family, friends.

Related links:

Let Not RIP Aaron Swartz’ Legacy

8. February, 2013

Aaron Swartz is dead. There is no arguing the fact, we can only disagree why he died.

His girlfriend says: “I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty.” (source)

I, too, get the feeling that the world is turning from an adult into a child again.

When does someone stop being a child? When they realize that actions have consequences and that they have to take responsibility for their every action. Some even realize that you have a responsibility for your inactions as well but that’s probably too much to ask for most people.

So as soon as you refuse to take responsibility for your actions and start denying the consequences, you must be turning into a child again.

What are the consequences of incarceration of almost one percent of the whole population? Is adding more rules to a broken system the adult or the childish way out?

A lot of people argue in favor of the death penalty when there is no indication that any of the arguments is supported by facts. Isn’t it typical childish behavior to refuse to listen something you don’t want to hear?

Let’s all grow up again.

The End is Nigh

12. September, 2012

No, the world doesn’t end 2012 but it will soon be a much less hospitable place for us humans. Before I share my view, what do you believe will be the most prominent factor in the massive reduction of the human population?

Update: Polldaddy didn’t keep my poll alive and I missed to copy the results before it was gone. Sorry for that.

Jazoon 2012: Stay Human – on the future of men and robots

4. July, 2012

What I like about the Jazoon is that they try to widen your horizon. We had presentations how to publish books, psychology and the NASA. This year, the closing keynote was about androids – as in artificial humans, not Google.

Henrik Scharfe from Aalborg University talked about “Stay Human – on the future of men and robots” and Geminoid-DK, an android which Scharfe had built after his image (production notes). For this project, Time magazine put him on the “100 Most Influential People” list in 2012.

According to Scharfe, we’re all part of the “ultimate project: Make sense of the world” in a perpetual loop. To achieve this, we communicate. A very powerful means of communication is the story. Stories need not be true, they have to be relevant. In a sense, we talk to scale, to widen our influence.

During the presentation, Scharfe gave some insight into the production of the android. How odd it feels to enter a room where a copy of yourself is assembled. When the skin on the head is hanging open like from a nasty wound. When “your” arms are still missing. A head without hair. The different stages of coloring. When a worker stabs a needle through the skin to add the facial hair. Thoughts how the workers will treat your copy when you’re not around.

The team did celebrate its “birthday,” the date when it was first activated. For Henrik, it “felt like a friend waking from a long coma.”

After the android was assembled, automatic movements were programmed. We don’t usually notice but the facial expressions only “work” when all the details are right. This was hard to achieve because of the properties of the silicone skin, it’s thickness and the distance to the actuators. When the android is presented in public, this leads to opposite reactions by children and adults.

While adults are fascinated how human-like the android is, children are frightened by it because they sense that something is wrong. When the automatic movements (breathing, blinking) are deactivated and Henrik switches to manual control, this flips. Now, adult and teenagers are worried but the children suddenly see the android as a toy – something they can relate to.

When used as a mannequin, customers are hesitant to touch the clothes on the android while they have no problem to touch the dummies.

Looking at the future, Prof. Scharfe sees new modes of presence. Instead of traveling to Australia for a presentation, you might send your android (or just the skin). Over time, there will be a blended presence.

Beware: His android always causes a commotion at customs (when they stuff him into the X-ray) and the cabin crew (“Who is flying?” “I thought you were!”)

Of course, that causes questions: What happens if someone gets hurt by your android? Or when someone hacks into the remote control? As the androids get smarter (= they will be able to do more things on auto pilot like finding a room in a building), are they allowed to protect themselves against theft or attack?

Do we want to allow people to build androids for recreational activities? What about sex?

What if I order an android that looks like my girl friend? My ex-girl friend? Adolf Hitler? The pope? The President of the United States? My beloved dog? A Saber-toothed tiger (scale 1:1)? A child of mine that died in an accident or from an illness (like in A.I. Artificial Intelligence)?

Can I destroy this android? Walk it to a public square and club it with a baseball bat? Run it over with a car? Shoot it? Have it beg for mercy while I’m doing this? It’s just a recording, right?

If androids get really smart, will we grant them rights? How will you feel when your android greets you in the evening with “Honey, we need to talk. There is this really cute model at the other end of the city. Oh, and I’ll keep the kids.”

Will it be murder when I wipe the memory of such an android?

As you can see, these questions are important because technology just plows on. Technology doesn’t decide what’s right or wrong, we do. Answers will come through technology but we must still ask the questions. We must stay human where it counts.

To do that, more advanced research structured need to be built. It must be more simple for researchers to find relevant information (Watson comes to mind). It must be easier to share research. To collaborate. Today, it’s hard to combine resources. Some things aren’t on-line. Instead of individual PCs, universities and high-schools need to offer cloud services for their staff and students.

And most importantly, research needs to get out of the lab. It’s a neat story that people greet Geminoid DK when they enter the lab and say goodbye even when it’s switched off. But seeing surprise in the faces of children in a crowd only happens on the street.


Make Money Fast (Or Not)

4. July, 2012

There is no safe way to get rich.

Proof: There are still poor people.

How is that a proof?

If there was a simple, safe and legal way to get rich, a lot of people (= all those who know about it) would be rich. That would leave the rest (= those who don’t know) poor. But the poor would be wondering: Why am I poor?

And a some of them would eventually learn about this simple, safe and legal way to get rich and become rich, too. So over time, the number of poor people would inevitably shrink. Since it’s a safe way, the rich would stay rich. Even if they lost some money, they would just apply the scheme again to make up for the losses.

That means after a certain time, there couldn’t be any poor people left.