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We can’t let just anyone join our club June 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
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Israeli Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman has explained why the government must be in charge of determining who is a Jew and which Jewish conversions are valid:

Conversion has legal ramifications, unlike the US where it doesn’t. You can’t let anyone who wants to convert to do so, since that enables them to enter the country and receive citizenship, or change the status of an alien to legal.

So rather than fixing the source of the problem — by dismantling the original discriminatory, undemocratic laws, so that religious conversion will not have legal ramifications — we make matters worse by enforcing yet more discriminatory, undemocratic laws. This is like arguing that if we had a law giving exclusive tax benefits to Maccabi sports fans, the state couldn’t allow just anyone to become a Maccabi fan: the government would have to be put in charge of determining who qualifies as a real Maccabi fan.

Neeman also rebuked diaspora Jewry for getting so worked up about the conversion issue, when they have bigger problems of their own to deal with:

The major issue [facing diaspora Jewry] are the high percentages disappearing from the world of Judaism. What Hitler didn’t succeed in doing is happening now, there is terrible assimilation.

Apparently, Neeman is unable to distinguish between people being murdered and people making personal life choices that he disapproves of: if Jewish law is not your top priority, you might as well be dead.

(via Religion and State in Israel)

Those mental processes that we don’t understand June 23, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
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turingToday is the 99th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing also led the British code-breaking effort during World War II which succeeded in deciphering German communications, contributing greatly to the allied victory.

In a 1951 lecture entitled “Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory,” Turing  argued that “machines can be constructed which will simulate the behaviour of the human mind very closely.” At the end of the lecture, Turing speculated about the day when building such computers will be practical:

Let us now assume, for the sake of argument, that these machines are a genuine possibility, and look at the consequences of constructing them. To do so would of course meet with great opposition, unless we have advanced greatly in religious toleration from the days of Galileo. There would be great opposition from the intellectuals who were afraid of being put out of a job. It is probable though that the intellectuals would be mistaken about this. There would be plenty to do, trying to understand what the machines were trying to say, i.e. in trying to keep one’s intelligence up to the standard set by the machines, for it seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. There would be no question of the machines dying, and they would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control…

But there are those who object in principle to the idea that a machine could ever be truly intelligent, could ever be said to think. In a January 1952 BBC broadcast, Turing explained why trying to define “thinking” in this context is pointless and unnecessary:

I don’t really see that we need to agree on a definition [of thinking] at all. The important thing is to try to draw a line between the properties of a brain, or of a man, that we want to discuss, and those that we don’t. To take an extreme case, we are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge. We don’t want to say “This machine’s quite hard, so it isn’t a brain, and so it can’t think.”

Asking whether a computer could ever really think is like asking whether a jet plane can really fly: if you include “flapping wings” in your definition of flying, then the answer is no — a jet plane doesn’t fly using the same methods as a bird — but so what? What matters are competences. If a computer could perform all the tasks we consider as requiring intelligence, then the fact that its internal mechanisms are different from a human’s should be insignificant.

But could a computer ever mimic the most complex aspects of human intelligence, like natural language? When Turing suggested that a computer might be able to learn using methods analogous to those used in the brain, he was asked: “But could a machine really do this? How would it do it?” Turing replied:

I’ve certainly left a great deal to the imagination. If I had given a longer explanation I might have made it seem more certain that what I was describing was feasible, but you would probably feel rather uneasy about it all, and you’d probably exclaim impatiently, “Well, yes. I see that a machine could do all that, but I wouldn’t call it thinking.” As soon as one can see the cause and effect working themselves out in the brain, one regards it as not being thinking, but a sort of unimaginative donkey-work. From this point of view one might be tempted to define thinking as consisting of “those mental processes that we don’t understand.” If this is right then to make a thinking machine is to make one which does interesting things without our really understanding quite how it is done.

It used to be claimed that a machine would never beat a human grandmaster at chess, since good chess requires “insight.” As soon as computers became better at chess than the best human players, the goalposts were immediately moved: Deep Blue wasn’t really thinking — it’s merely a very fast machine with lots of memory following a program. (So apparently, playing good chess doesn’t require intelligence after all.) We are assured, however, that a computer will never write a novel — that requires genuine creativity (which only humans have). And when a computer does write a novel…

In the spring of 1952, Turing was tried and convicted for having homosexual relations, then illegal in Britain. To avoid going to prison, he had to agree to chemical castration via female hormone injections. His security clearance was revoked, barring him from continuing his cryptographic consultancy for the British government.

Alan Turing committed suicide on June 7, 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday.

People should be eccentric June 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution, Freedom.
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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, and there are parallels to be found between Mill’s vision of human individuality (and its role in society) and the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin taught us that there is no inherent purpose in nature, no predetermined goal that life is aimed towards; and Mill rebels against the notion that all people ought to be pursuing a single, predetermined ideal:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Mill considers conformity the chief danger which threatens human nature:

In our times… the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow…

According to some religious worldviews, Mill notes, this is actually the desirable condition: “man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.” But Mill argues that the betterment of humanity is achieved when every individual pursues his own goals in his own way:

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.

Natural selection produces designs of amazing skill and beauty by the accumulation of many small improvements; but every mutation first appears in a single organism. If the mutation is beneficial, it will survive and proliferate. The same is true of human innovation: it always starts with some individual, who does something different from those who came before. Most new ideas may be failures, but unless we encourage people to try new things, the good ideas will never be found. Just like natural selection, healthy societies require diversity and heterogeneity — the lack of which leads to stagnation:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life… without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.

Pluralism is a necessary condition for the emergence of positive change, and that’s why it’s so important to preserve the freedom of individual thought and action, and even to encourage idiosyncrasy — despite the fact that most people’s idiosyncrasies might seem to have no value:

In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric… the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

A logician in hell June 14, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic.
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The following is true.

I was arrested for breaking the laws of logic, and sentenced to be hanged unexpectedly within the week.

As I sat in my cell trying to reason my way out of my predicament, I saw the local executioner passing by. He looked like a logical fellow (and rather familiar), so I attempted to strike up a conversation: I asked whether he hanged all the condemned outlaws around these parts. “All those who don’t hang themselves,” he answered grimly. (I decided not to ask what would happen if he himself were sentenced to be hanged…)

I tried to bribe my way to freedom by offering the executioner a heap of gold coins; but he was not persuaded by my argument that zero coins constitute a heap.

Instead, he offered to set me free if I could guess the natural number he was thinking of. After an uncountable number of incorrect guesses, I gave up. (It turned out that he was thinking of the smallest natural number not definable in under eleven words.)

When the guards came (unexpectedly!) to take me to the gallows, I protested that I was insane and therefore unfit to be executed; but the executioner pointed out that insanity defenses are never accepted because anyone pleading for his own life must be sane.

As the rope was placed around my neck, I broke down and told the executioner that due to time travel gone wrong, I was actually his grandfather — so by killing me he would be undoing his own birth.

“I sure hope it works this time,” he said, and pulled the lever.

By the way, the first sentence of this post is false.

Everybody has a share June 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Humor.
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In chapter 22 of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, mess officer Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder finally explains to Yossarian why he buys eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sells them to the mess halls in his syndicate for five cents apiece:

‘I do it to make a profit.’

‘But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.’

‘But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.’

Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. ‘And the people you sell the eggs to at four and a quarter cents apiece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you and eliminate the people you buy them from?’

‘Because I’m the people I buy them from,’ Milo explained. ‘I make a profit of three and a quarter cents apiece when I sell them to me and a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when I buy them back from me. That’s a total profit of six cents an egg. I lose only two cents an egg when I sell them to the mess halls at five cents apiece, and that’s how I can make a profit buying eggs for seven cents apiece and selling them for five cents apiece. I pay only one cent apiece at the hen when I buy them in Sicily.’

‘In Malta,’ Yossarian corrected. ‘You buy your eggs in Malta, not Sicily.’

Milo chortled proudly. ‘I don’t buy eggs in Malta,’ he confessed… ‘I buy them in Sicily for one cent apiece and transfer them to Malta secretly at four and a half cents apiece in order to get the price of eggs up to seven cents apiece when people come to Malta looking for them.’

‘Why do people come to Malta for eggs when they’re so expensive there?’

‘Because they’ve always done it that way.’

‘Why don’t they look for eggs in Sicily?’

‘Because they’ve never done it that way.’

‘Now I really don’t understand. Why don’t you sell your mess halls the eggs for seven cents apiece instead of for five cents apiece?’

‘Because my mess halls would have no need for me then. Anyone can buy seven-cents-apiece eggs for seven cents apiece.’

‘Why don’t they bypass you and buy the eggs directly from you in Malta at four and a quarter cents apiece?’

‘Because I wouldn’t sell it to them.’

‘Why wouldn’t you sell it to them?’

‘Because then there wouldn’t be as much room for profit. At least this way I can make a bit for myself as a middleman.’

‘Then you do make a profit for yourself,’ Yossarian declared.

‘Of course I do. But it all goes to the syndicate. And everybody has a share…’

The blasphemous bible quiz June 7, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Humor, Religion.
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So, you think you can tell heaven from hell? Divine from delusion? Holy from hokum? All right, then: Which of the following are in the Bible?

  1. God makes a wager with Satan over how a good man will react to having his family killed.
  2. God provides one of his prophets with a ring of invisibility.
  3. A king of Israel demands (and receives) 100 foreskins as a dowry for his daughter.
  4. A queen of Israel uses a poison apple to put an enemy into a deep sleep.
  5. God forbids women from revealing their shoulders or knees in public.
  6. A dead prophet’s ghost is raised in order to foretell the future.
  7. A prophet uses a brass statue of a serpent to cure those bitten in a plague of fiery serpents sent by the Lord.
  8. An old prophet is killed in a duel with his former pupil, who has turned to evil. The old prophet’s body disappears, leaving only his cloak behind.
  9. God sends bears to kill 42 children for making fun of a prophet’s baldness.
  10. God forbids parents from beating their children.

The correct answers are below:
(more…)

If anything exists it changes June 3, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language.
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The New Yorker reports on a 300-person game of Telephone, played on the streets of Manhattan as part of the World Voices Festival of International Literature. Into the ear of the first person in the chain were whispered the opening three phrases of a Tibetan Buddhist sutra:

  1. Like a shimmering star, or a flickering lamp.
  2. A fleeting autumn cloud, or a shining drop of morning dew.
  3. A phantom, a dream, a bubble, so is all the existence to be seen.

These are the words of wisdom that emerged at the other side:

  1. Follow the glass stone. Follow the glass stone.
  2. The droid from hell.
  3. If anything exists it changes.