The 4th Revolution

Something interesting to think about this morning…

In an interview I heard recently the guest made the case that the information revolution is the latest of four great revolutions that fundamentally change the way we humans see ourselves in relation to the rest of the universe, continuing a process of “de-centering” humanity.

The first, he argues, was the Copernican Revolution, following the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. The second followed Darwin’s discovery that humans are animals, sharing common ancestors with all other animals on earth. And the third followed Freud’s arguments for the existence of subconsciousness and his claim that that we don’t have full volitional control over our own minds and thoughts. Each of these “revolutions” had the effect of breaking down our anthropocentric world view and the belief that humans occupy a special, central place in the universe.

The argument that the Information Revolution is a fourth revolution continuing this trajectory is interesting. Now, with the development of artificial intelligence and deep-learning neural networks, it appears that thinking, perhaps even consciousness, are not uniquely human, or even uniquely biotic. Many of the capabilities that distinguished humans from “lower animals” can now be done by machines, and the machines are becoming more capable at an amazing and accelerating rate. In the past we might have said, “Sure a computer can do math, but a computer can’t play chess.” Now computers routinely beat human chess grandmasters. Then we might have responded, “OK, but a computer can’t teach itself to play chess.” Now computers can. And the same process is occurring in countless other ways.

It’s interesting to consider (if you’re as nerdy as me) how humanity’s self-perception may change over the next generation or so. In the past it would have seemed absurd to deny that the earth is the center of the universe, to claim that humans are descended from lower animals, or to claim that our actions can be attributed in part to the working of an unconscious mind. Will it someday be absurd to claim that high intelligence and self-consciousness are uniquely human?

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we’re privileged to be alive during a time of such fascinating change.

All That Is Gold

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All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Free Speech

Something interesting to ponder this morning–the appropriate limits to the right of free speech.

Free speech is an essential bedrock of a free and democratic society. Almost everyone would agree with that. But should any limits be imposed on speech?

Because free speech is so essential to free society generally, I suspect most of us are inclined to answer that question “No.” But in fact even in a free society there are limits to what a person is allowed to say freely. In some cases false or misleading statements are illegal–as in the case of fraudulent misrepresentation, defamation, false advertising, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, etc. Likewise there are legal limits to when some truthful statements can be made–for example it can be a crime to reveal confidential information.

What about speech intended to be insulting? In our society such speech is generally legally permissible, but not always. For example the intentional infliction of emotional distress is a long-recognized tort, encompassing speech that is considered outside the bounds of human decency and specifically intended to cause emotional distress.

Salmon Rushdie is a well-known proponent of unrestrained free speech, having written a book that offended fundamentalist Muslims leading some to call for his murder. I’m not sure how he would respond to the examples above, but he has said, “When someone says ‘I believe in free speech, but…’, I stop listening.” He has also said, “Once you start limiting free speech, it’s not free.”

Mr. Rushdie has a purely deontological free speech ethic–meaning he believes free speech is so important that it must be allowed and defended regardless of the consequences of the speech.

A consequentialist, by comparison, would decide whether speech should be allowed based on the consequences of the speech. Speech that does more harm than good, according to consequentialist reasoning, is unethical and may be prohibited.  So for example a consequentialist might conclude that there being no positive benefit to society from holocaust denial, and some potential negative consequences from it, then it may be ethically prohibited.

That example doesn’t seem very troublesome, but what about something like climate change denial? The negative consequences may be enormous and the positive benefits minimal or non-existent (I’m just using this as an example–not looking to start a debate about climate change). So would it be best for society to prohibit climate change denial? What about “fake news” stories on Facebook? If there is evidence that gullible people are accepting the stories as true, and that is in turn affecting election results, should such stories be prohibited?

What about the Charlie Hedbo cartoons mocking Muhammad? The negative consequences were predictable and tragic, and the public benefit was arguably minimal or non-existent. So should such cartoons be illegal? A deontologist would answer “No,” on the grounds that free speech should be permitted and defended regardless of the consequences–even the deaths of innocent people, while a consequentialist would likely answer “yes,” on the grounds that it is better to prevent the likely deaths of innocent people than to permit speech that would lead to those deaths, where the speech is of no benefit to society. Of course both of those positions are easily critiqued by ethicists–would the deonotologist feel differently if the persons to die were known in advance? If they were people he knows and loves? Would the consequentialist allow the parameters of free speech to be defined by the most violent and thin-skinned members of society?

J.S. Mill said that the collision of ideas produces truth. And there is one of the rubs. Aside from the deontological attraction of free speech, allowing offensive or scientifically incorrect speech may contribute to the collision of ideas and therefore the generation of truth–a consequential benefit that is difficult to measure but would have to be factored into any consequentialist equation.

The answer to the question of where the line should be drawn isn’t as easy as it might seem on first glance. Even as we continue to grapple with the proper limits of free speech, my guess is that we’ll continue to tilt in favor of allowing speech, even when it has likely negative consequences and minimal or non-existence public benefit, on the grounds that free speech is a public good unto itself, and that seems to me the right thing to do.

I’ll close this morning’s ramblings with this quote from Thomas Jefferson, which I have loved since I first saw it on an archway on the grounds of the University of Virginia:

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Wise words still.

Leisure

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Leisure
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies (1911)

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I do a lot of standing and staring these days, but not enough.

For me it isn’t enough to just admire a flower, for example. I want to categorize it. What is it called? What information is there about it?

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I am a foolish collector of information. At this stage of my life, any new stuff I cram into my disorganized mind only has room to go there if something else is squeezed out.

Still, I wonder what that star-shaped purple flower is. Is there an app for that?

Hoop House

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Growing in a hoop house is new to me, so I’m still learning.

Everything looks great, and it’s nice to work without having to slosh in the mud produced by 4.5 inches of rain this week.

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I’ve been dealing with the effects of two mistakes this week–one minor and easily remedied, the other more challenging.

The first was not realizing that pollinators hadn’t discovered the zucchini blooms. I’ve been lowering the side curtains and raising the garage door (when it wasn’t pouring down rain), and have just been assuming the bees were doing their work. But little shriveled up zukes prove that pollination didn’t occur, something I could easily verify by looking for bees in the morning and seeing none.

So lately I’ve added a new task to my regular morning chores–hand pollinating the zukes. This is done by removing a male flower and brushing the anther (the male squash part) against the stigma (the female squash part) inside the female flower. The pollen on the anther is sticky and comes off when touched. Normally it sticks to the legs of foraging bees, who pollinate the female flowers when walking around on them. Until the bees get to work, I’ll have to do it by hand.

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A male flower

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A female flower.  The females have little zukes beneath the flower, while the males have long stems and no fruit.

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This little zuke didn’t get pollinated. Bad farmer.

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Healthy and pollinated. Almost ready to pick.

The other problem is entirely my fault. I didn’t grade the pad when we built the hoop house, so the ground isn’t entirely level. I measured to confirm that it was within the allowed tolerances for the building, but didn’t consider that during heavy rains water would seep under the house as it slopes downhill. Consequently the northernmost row gets soaked from beneath during hard rains, producing lots of grass and weeds. I’m sure there is a solution to this, but I haven’t taken the time to work on it yet.

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The first row is soggy and grassy. We’re growing a bush Roma called Roma II–a flat and tasty green bean. Our favorite. We have some growing outside too.

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The October beans at the other end of the house look much better. Called October beans around here, this is a very old variety with several other names. Some may know them as Taylor beans, speckled bays, cranberry beans or “dwarf horticultural” beans.

In the hoop house this summer we’re growing 3 varieties of tomato, green beans, zucchini, delicata squash and October beans. I expect we’ll always grow some tomatoes in the house–the other items are experiments as we try to figure out what other veggies make the most sense in there.

Time now to pick for market. This week we’ll have onions, beets, lettuce, tatsoi, collards, kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, turnips and Swiss chard. It’s a great time of year.

The Good Old Days

Reading about regulations intended to prevent children from being exposed to agricultural toxins (HERE) brings back memories of my childhood, when that either wasn’t an issue or if it was the concern hadn’t reached this deeply into the country.

I was probably about seven years old when I first began “dusting” the garden. Our mother would send us out with a five gallon bucket, with Sevin dust in it, and an applicator she made out of old panty hose. The hose were tied at the bottom and we’d scoop out the dust (with our hands, as I recall) and put in in from the top. Walking down the row of vegetables we’d hold the hose/dust over a plant then “pop” it, lifting then jerking down suddenly, sending a coat of dust through the hose and onto the plants. Protective gear? I would be barefoot and wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off shorts.

Even worse, I imagine, was what we did in the tobacco fields, from when I was old enough to reach the top of a plant. When the plants began to bloom it was time to top them. So we’d walk down the rows, breaking out the tops. To prevent suckers we squirted some kind of poison out of oil cans or poured it out of plastic jugs, which we filled from a barrel at the end of the row. We’d squirt or pour the stuff onto the top of the stalk so it would run down the sides. Us kids would do this job barefoot, but because the black gum on the surface of tobacco leaves would stick to your hair and body (and was very difficult to remove) we had to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Topping happens on hot humid summer days and the smell of the chemicals was powerful and unsettling. I can only imagine how much of that stuff I must have breathed in.

Nowadays when I see the Mexican work crews wearing face masks in tobacco fields I have to smile. Times have changed.