Another adjacent possible

Working my way through one of the more fascinating technology books I’ve ever come across, Code by Charles Petzold. I stumbled across this passage:

nobody in the nineteenth century made the connection between the ANDs and ORs of Boolean algebra and the wiring of simple switches in series and in parallel. No mathematician, no electrician, no telegraph operator, nobody. Not even that icon of the computer revolution Charles Babbage (1792–1871), who had corresponded with Boole and knew his work, and who struggled for much of his life designing first a Difference Engine and then an Analytical Engine that a century later would be regarded as the precursors to modern computers…

This is from a chapter on Boolean logic (aka Boolean algebra), which you might have come across if you have ever studied programming, statistics or electrical engineering.

I’ve never before had it explained to me in such a cogent fashion. But what this sections highlights in particular (and the book as a whole rams home) is the power of bringing together seemingly disconnected ideas, theories and fields.

…What might have helped Babbage, we know now, was the realization that perhaps instead of gears and levers to perform calculations, a computer might better be built out of telegraph relays…

This is a great book if you want to understand how computers work, as it combines engineering and information theory to construct a virtual computer, step by step. Starting with a simple light bulb circuit, through logic gates, operating systems and graphical interfaces.

But it is arguably more valuable in demonstrating how something as complex as a computer draws from many fields.

Exercising the democracy muscle

We have this view of America as a place of rugged individualism, but a piece in The Atlantic argues this is precisely why it faces a democratic crisis:

…participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century. The trend has, if anything, accelerated since then; one study found that from 1994 to 2004, membership in such groups fell by 21 percent…

…Trump secured the Republican nomination by speaking directly to those voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions… among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support

For two centuries Americans created, joined and participated in “democratic institutions”, ranging from parents associations to sports teams, unions and even freed slaves.

It’s an interesting concept, that democracy is not just something you are born a part of, but a skill or temperament that can be developed through practice. It also makes intuitive sense – teamwork and going through a process doesn’t come naturally, building connections and friendships can make it all easier. It’s why incumbent politicians are often more effective than rookies.

It also makes sense that operating at a sub-political level creates space for this kind of development. There aren’t the cataclysmic debates over things like abortion. It’s a lot easier to see how a fellow parent at your child’s school is on your side – both your children will benefit from higher standards.

Voluntary associations have provided the people with their greatest school of self-government, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote in 1944. Rubbing minds as well as elbows, they have been trained from youth to take common counsel, choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the expressed will of the majority. In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way

…Democratic governance is never the most efficient means of running an organization, as anyone who’s attended a local zoning hearing can attest. Its value lies instead in harmonizing discordant interests and empowering constituents. A nation of passive observers watching others make decisions is a nation that will succumb to anger and resentment, witness the United States

I’m not sure how you replace this kind of volunteerism, as it seems to be the victim of several irreversible trends, such as the rise of online communities (supplanting the local one), the explosion in activities to distract yourself with, and human sorting. But it does seem the importance is the practice, rather than education.

…One recent study found that, holding all else equal, greater knowledge of civics among high-school seniors correlated with a 2 percent greater likelihood of voting in a presidential election eight years later. Active participation in extracurricular activities, however, correlated with a 141 percent increase.

Fixing the news

…the news actually fails to deliver on its single biggest promise: to tell us whats happening in the world… It portrays the world to us as a never ending string of sensational, unusual, terrible, rapidly forgotten events. In contrast to fake news, which is misleading because its simply untrue, real news misleads us in a more subtle and fundamental way. It gives us a deeply skewed view of probability, history, progress, development, and relevance

This is from a piece by Rob Wijnberg, founder of the Dutch media startup De Correspondent. It is something I desperately wish I had written.

I became a journalist because I love learning and telling stories. I have a peculiar bent on the world and wanted to throw that into the mix. But I’ve found myself constantly foxed by many of the journalistic conventions that Wijnberg writes about.

The laser focus on the aberrant, the binary rather than probabilistic nature of expression, outsourcing of analysis to the establishment or a small pool of experts, bothsidesism, viewing everything through the lens of politics, and the need to publish discrete rather than iterative content.

These are just some of the many biases in modern journalism. But, unfortunately, none of them seem to be about fostering deeper understanding.

Most of all, I found my life ruled by “hooks” – filtering stories through arbitrary calendar events or something that has just happened. There needs to be a reason to publish this now, it goes, and the lens we have chosen is time. So we forego the issues that should always be published.

…news also makes us blind to the influential that is not exceptional at all. Thats why we often don’t hear about major developments until something highly improbable happens… The 2008 financial crisis, for example, didn’t become huge news until the Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for bankruptcy  a highly unusual event. But the lead up to this event –   banks that kept piling risk on top of risk, little by little, day by day   never made it to the front page because of the fundamental mismatch between what was happening (gradual risk increase) and the way news commonly signals what is happening (event-driven sensationalism)

I’m not sure if De Correspondent’s model is the antidote, or part of a suite of necessary reforms (I almost just fell into the binary trap there again), but it’s certainly one to watch.

…the first thing we do is teach our correspondents to seriously moderate their own consumption of news. We encourage them to seek inspiration for article ideas outside of the days newspapers, talk shows, and tweets  by going out into the streets, by reading books, and, above all, by asking our readers the question, What do you encounter every day at work or in your life that rarely makes the front page, but really should?

Truth as a process

Wikipedia’s governance is a clever mix of technology, norms and processes. It started with the wiki technology invented by Ward Cunningham, which allowed anyone to write and publish (and edit) live web pages, together with an acceptance that while “truth” might be unattainable, nevertheless achieving what it called “a neutral point of view” was a worthwhile aspiration

This from a great article about Wikipedia as the last bastion in an internet taken over by corporations.

What really strikes me, though, is the notion of Wikipedia not as a respository of information, but as a process for finding the truth.

Modern society is built around truth as revealed wisdom from on high. Now, Facebook and Google etc. suck up most of the attention and avertising dollars, putting many traditional sources of truth in jeopardy.

But the broadcast model of truth has always been flawed. Not least by how it is inherently captured by those who own and operate it. It is also predicated on passivity among those who consume it.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, offers a model of truth as something we can all be engaged in, as something ongoing. It is by no means perfect – as nothing really is – but its potentially much better than what we are used to. And this is largely achieved through design, the tenets of which can be copied or extrapolated.

…From a contemporary perspective, though, the most significant design decision was that every page would have a public discussion page attached to it, which meant that there would be a record of all the arguments that had led to particular changes… Controversial changes made without any corresponding explanation on the discussion page could be reverted by others without having to rely on a judgment on the merits – instead, the absence of explanation for something non-self-explanatory could be reason enough to be sceptical of it…

Reading Wikipedia discussion pages provides a way of understanding how a particular proposition or assertion came to be made and how it evolved over time. It’s like reading the transcript of an argument that has gone on for a long time – an attempt to track rationality in action. Like every other human-made thing, it’s imperfect. But in a polarised political climate, it shows what can be done to preserve us from the madness of hysterical, uncivil, conspiracist discourse that now characterises social media…

Immigrants assimilate

…Overall though, lessons from the Age of Mass Migration suggest that fears that immigrants cannot or will not fit into American society are misplaced. It would be a mistake to determine immigration policy based on the belief that immigrants will remain foreigners, preserving their old ways of life and keeping themselves at arm’s length from the dominant culture. The evidence suggests that over time immigrant populations come to resemble natives, and that new generations form distinct identities as Americans

Not sure about using names as a proxy for "foreigness", but it’s an interesting paper that is in line with other research in this area. Particularly notable are the results for lower socioeconomic immigrants, given the emphasis on skilled migration in so many countries.

…We compare the cultural assimilation of immigrants during two waves of mass migration to the United States, the first from Europe and the second from Asia and Latin America. Using five million census records from 1920 and 1940, and nearly ten million California birth certificate records between 1989 and 2015, we start by constructing a “foreignness index” indicating the probability that a given name is held by a foreigner or a native at the time the name was given…

…In both periods, cultural assimilation is somewhat faster for immigrants from lower socioeconomic status. The rapid pace of cultural assimilation observed in our names-based measure is consistent with other indicators, including learning to speak English, applying for US citizenship, and marrying spouses from different origins…


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