Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Canada should pull its troops out of Afghanistan

Today a Canadian soldier was killed in Afghanistan. That makes 11 since 2002.

For the record, I opposed Canada's involvement in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. I didn't question the brutality of the Taliban regime, nor that they provided a haven for Al Qaeda. But I wasn't convinced at the time that invading the country was the best way to improve matters. The events that ensued haven't altered my opinion. Did the invasion improve life for Afghanis? Did it stabilize the region? Did it stop al-Qaeda?

What is clear is that a lot of innocent Afghanis were maimed or killed, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and the Taliban remain a force to be reckoned with. Hundreds of "enemy combatants" were shipped off to Guantánamo Bay where, according to Amnesty International, many
"... remain held in a legal black hole ... many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits. Denied their rights under international law and held in conditions which may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the detainees face severe psychological distress. There have been numerous suicide attempts."
A recent Globe and Mail story quotes NDP defence spokesman Bill Blaikie as saying "Canada's silence on Guantanamo is related to the fact that we are complicit in the whole process".

Many Canadians cherish our role as peacekeepers, but it's quite evident that "peacekeeping" doesn't really describe the Canadian military role in Afghanistan. What should our role be? I'd say that's a question for the Afghani people to answer. In the mean time, we can do more good by providing financial, technical, and moral support.

Cursed by its strategic location, Afghanistan has been repeatedly invaded over the years. Foreigners seem intent on butting in. Could it be that we're the problem?
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Monday, March 27, 2006

A defense of blogs - part 1

Back in January, I commented on a newspaper article that took shots at both blogs ("high on opinion and low on fact") and readers of blogs ("getting only the 'daily me'"). In fact negative attitudes about blogs are quite widespread. What's more, predictions are often made that the "fad" of blogging will soon pass.

I'm planning to look at this in three posts. In this one, I'll explore what might be behind these negative attitudes. My second post will defend the blog as a form of communication. And in my third post, I'll try my hand at predicting what the future holds for blogging.

Dissing blogs

The blog of stereotype is truly a thing to be scorned: an online diary packed with inane details of the blogger's life together with uninformed rants—an exhibitionistic ego trip. Admittedly there are plenty of blogs like that. But there are lots of trashy books and magazines and nobody feels the urge to dismiss all books and magazines.

Where does the bad rap come from? I don't think there's a single answer, but here are a few contenders. A straightforward explanation is the Google effect: when people search for information on the Internet, increasingly they are stumbling onto blogs, and often stupid ones at that. An irritating distraction like this is unlikely to leave someone with a good impression of blogs. You can understand this reaction, but it's hardly a sensible way to judge the worth of the whole blogosphere.

A relatively subtle explanation may relate to the difficulty of adequately describing to someone just what a blog is. If you say "It's kind of like an online diary" (a quick but clearly inadequate description), it may perpetuate the notion that blogging is something only an exhibitionist would do.

But I think an authoritarian impulse lurks behind some of the criticism of blogging. Blogs let anyone express their opinions, not just the chosen few. Bloggers don't have to spout opinions that'll please the boss, the advertisers, the market, or the government. Bloggers don't have to express the consensus opinion, or bow to the prevailing fashions. And that makes them a threat.

This is not the first occasion when a new form of communication has threatened the status quo. The introduction of the printing press ushered in the era of mass communication. The revolutionary consequences were soon felt, not the least with the widespread printing of political pamphlets. No longer did the crown and the church have a monopoly on political expression.

Whenever democracy is ascendant, an authoritarian response is not far behind. This is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. In China, old-fashioned methods are favoured: dissident voices are simply silenced. In the West, there is no need for such a blunt approach. Authoritarian impulses take a more subtle form. Blogs are denounced as frivolous displays of vanity, offering only drivel or perhaps third-rate analysis. Blogs are just a passing fashion, a bandwagon that will soon crest the hill. But perhaps the true offense is something else: the officially sanctioned organs of mass communication have been bypassed, and (gasp!) they might eventually be displaced altogether.

Noam Chomsky has discussed what he calls "the crisis of democracy" (after the title of a report by the Trilateral Commission), namely the perception by elites that there is too much democratization, and I wonder if we're not witnessing something similar. This kind of argument is often dismissed as conspiracy theory, but it's nothing of the sort. I'm not supposing there's a cabal secretly meeting to plan the downfall of blogs (though it would make a great movie). Thought control in our society doesn't require such exotic methods: the threat is far more effectively neutralized by ridicule and marginalization. A few popular mainstream blogs are given the official blessing, and the rest are written off as juvenile nonsense.

Respect for authority and the urge to conform is sufficiently ingrained in our society that a few respected "opinion leaders" can often set the tempo for the rest. Just as the top dogs in the fashion world dictate which colours we should wear this year, a relatively small number of cultural and political sources provide clear guidance on how we should see the world. The last thing they want is to see their influence diluted.
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Saturday, March 25, 2006

I don't CRUNCH numbers!

As a statistician, I'm sometimes asked to "crunch the numbers". Now, I don't mean to sound sensitive, but I don't ... ahem ... "crunch" numbers. The onomatopoeic word CRUNCH suggests roughness, the application of brute force, perhaps in the form of raw computing power.

If you've seen the movie The Horse Whisperer, you'll remember how the character played by Robert Redford worked with horses. Instead of trying to "break" them, he tried to understand them and work with them. Maybe you can see where I'm going with this ...

A good data analysis requires care, patience, and understanding. It's a collaborative endeavour that should make use of subject-area knowledge wherever possible. Every number has a story to tell, and that story is not always immediately apparent. What did the researcher want to measure? How did they measure it? How did the measurement get turned into a number in a data set? And that's only the beginning, because a typical data set is the product of numerous different measurements, perhaps made on several occasions. Once the pedigree and provenance of each variable in a data set have been determined, the picture they form can be brought into focus, and the underlying patterns can be explored. Sensitivity is paramount: Are the modeling assumptions appropriate? Is something being overlooked? Would a different approach provide more relevant insights?

It seems that the term "crunching the numbers" is most commonly used to refers to what accountants do, and on this I can't comment. But for statistical data analysis, the metaphor is all wrong.
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Mind matters: or mind boggling mind blogging

I just got back from a trip to the San Francisco Bay area. To the left is a photo of a T-shirt I bought at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose (which is well worth a visit, by the way). Various family members have opined that it's just too geeky to wear in public, but what do I care? It certainly encapsulates some of my recent thoughts about consciousness (together with humour, one of the mind's stranger characteristics).

I just finished reading Mind : A Brief Introduction by John Searle, which is a fairly accessible work on the philosophy of mind. It seems that some people believe that scientific study of the workings of the brain will eventually reveal all the secrets of the mind. Even if that were true, we're obviously a long way from a good understanding of the brain. On this point, here's a quotation my mother pointed me to:
If the human brain were so simple
That we could understand it,
We would be so simple
That we couldn't.

- Emerson M. Pugh (as quoted by George E. Pugh, Emerson's son in G.E. Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values, 1977, p. 154)
Hmmm ... not sure I agree, but maybe there's something to it.

In any case, the brain and the mind are not the same thing. I think I'm probably quoting John Searle in saying that "The mind is what the brain does." Understanding how the brain works, through the methods of neurophysiology and cognitive science, can inform our understanding of the mind, but the scientific method only goes so far.

The mind is certainly not unique in this respect. For example, science may inform an understanding of music (through the physics of sound, our auditory system, and the brain's response to music), but there is more to music—and likewise other aesthetic experiences—than science. Likewise, science may inform an understanding of ethics (through evolutionary biology), but surely notions of right and wrong go beyond biology. My point here is that many of the things that concern us (and I haven't even touched language, literature, culture, or politics) are not entirely—or perhaps not even primarily—matters of science.

Incidentally, mathematics seems to me the clearest example of something to which the scientific method has no application. Mathematics proceeds not by empirical observation but by deductive reasoning. Of course, as a scientist, I place enormous value on the scientific method, but I don't think that reality is exclusively physical.

Ultimately, what puzzles me most is this: how is it that matter can develop the ability to contemplate itself? To me, this is a fundamental mystery.

Searle explores a number of other mind-boggling mind questions, concerning things like free will and the self. And here's one for the A.I. researchers: Could we create robots who would behave just like humans, but with no mental life at all? Or does consciousness click in at some point? Is free will the key issue?

Finally, here's a link to a piece by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist who has worked on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness, along with comments from a bunch of people including Daniel Dennett.

I'd be delighted to hear other people's thoughts on this subject ... or should I say, I wouldn't mind hearing what you have to say?
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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Privacy policies

Everywhere you go these days—online and off—there are privacy policies. I presume most of these are boilerplate. It would be nice if there were some standards. Then instead of having to wade through a page of legalese, you might only have to read one or two lines: "We follow privacy standard XYZ except in the following respects ...".

In spite of their verbosity, privacy policies seem like a good thing. I want to know that my private information is kept as private as possible. I don't want my contact details shared with marketers, let alone more personal stuff. It's good to have the rules spelled out in black and white. But let's not kid ourselves: the important stuff is never written down (a piece of wisdom that was imparted to me several years ago, and that I keep returning to).

Now, in a recent post, I noted that even the NSA has a privacy policy (the word ironic seems pathetically inadequate). Which brings me to my point. Intelligence agencies, by their very nature, are the enemies of privacy. But not only do they covertly obtain private information, they have a nasty habit of sharing it with their friends. Consider the infamous case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who suffered an "extraordinary rendition" to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured. All kinds of information apparently changed hands between the intelligence agencies of Canada, the U.S., and Syria. Well apparently this wasn't an isolated case: at least three other Canadians
"... were also all detained by the same branch of the Syrian military intelligence where they were interrogated and brutally tortured before eventually being released. None were ever charged with any crime. All of these men say their interrogations were based on information that they believe could only have originated with Canadian investigators."
The quote is from Amnesty International, who is hosting an open letter to the Prime Minister of Canada calling for
"... the government of Canada to launch a fair, independent, comprehensive and public review of the possibility of Canadian complicity in the detention, interrogation and torture of Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmed Abou El-Maati"
I encourage you to add your name to the petition.
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