The Kaczynski Dilemma

May 12, 2009

For some reason that I fail now to recall, I recently went on a pre-9/11 domestic terrorism reading kick on Wikipedia. From Timothy McVeigh to Theodore Kaczynski, Wikipedia is a fascinating read when you’re looking for broad brush-stroke outlines. But the footnotes are where the real nuggets lie.

One footnote, linking to “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” is cited in support of this passage:

Students in Murray’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student… Instead, they were subjected to the stress test, which was an extremely stressful and prolonged psychological attack by an anonymous attorney. During the test, students were strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a two-way mirror. This was filmed, and students’ expressions of impotent rage were played back to them several times later in the study. According to Chase, Kaczynski’s records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski’s lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study.

Needless to say, I had to read that article. Fortunately, the June 2000 Atlantic article is available online here. Alston Chase summarizes his article as follows:

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files…

Murray’s experiments were horrifically unethical by today’s standards – and sadly lacking in any clear redemptive value – on a level only attained by Stanley Milgram and a few others. But Chase’s discussion of Murray’s psychological experiments interest me less than his focus on the “prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair.” This atmosphere smelled slightly familiar to me, as my undergraduate education was in certain ways post-dated to the 1960’s: many of the philosophies and prevailing cultural norms that my devoutly Christian professors warned us against seem to have faded into history. Of course, many of the central ideas are there, but they have evolved and cross-pollinated to the point where the counter-arguments seem a bit stale.

Here’s a bit more about Kaczynski’s philosophy (which Chase sees as an all-too-natural outgrowth of ideas ascendent at Harvard during Kaczynski’s undergraduate tenure):

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski’s strong desire to have his ideas — as described in the manifesto — taken seriously.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” Kaczynski’s manifesto begins, “have been a disaster for the human race.” They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system.”

By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens.

This perfect storm of philosophy – that science is both all-powerful and soul-crushing – led to a worldview full of despair. “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” Kaczynski wrote. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” That brutal, grasping despair – if not Kaczynski’s wanton disregard for human life – once held a huge segment of the educated American public captive in a sad cycle:

From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope.

At its core, much of this philosophy is still embraced today. We (speaking general of irreligious Western society) venerate nature in ways that were set aside for hundreds of years in the Industrial revolution, if not longer. We stand in collective awe of the power of science to map our DNA and connect us through the Internet, and recoil in horror from its power to split the atom, mass-produce cluster munitions, and engineer biological plagues. And we, whether we like it or not, we cannot roll back the knowledge of nature and reality yield by science.

Kaczynski’s rage was directed at society, and at technology, and thus he targeted individuals closely associated with the scientific-academic-industrial complex. But the Kaczynski dilemma – how to reconcile our love of nature, our belief in the power of science, and the unavoidable conclusion that the greatest damage caused by nature has been a consequence of our science – can be answered in many ways. Kaczynski solved the dilemma through ironic use of simple technology, by sending bombs to targeted individuals to disrupt the flow of society, and, ultimately, to propagate his beliefs.

If the underlying tenets of Kaczynski’s views hold true, why haven’t more people resorted to his methods? Why aren’t his ideas preached far and wide? (Admittedly, a small anarchist core of disciples exists.) I suggest that the underlying despair has been eroded in part by the moden environmental movement in at least two ways.

First, science used to be synonymos with industrialization. Today, industrial production and the pollution it creates is perceived as being decidedly low tech. Science – especially climate science – is about finding smarter solutions to energy and transportation. While “old science” with its domination of nature is vilified, the new science is embraced as the key to our salvation from an earthly hell.

Second, the environmental movement – here less driven by science than by philosophy – has shifted from a massive scale to an individual one. Whether this shift was intentionally driven by leaders in the field is unclear to me, but it has been effective. Consideration of the world system as a whole can lead one to despair, but individual action can provide redemption. Shifting to consuming less or no meat, to burning less fossil fuel, or blindly acquiring more stuff – all these are personal acts lauded (rightly in my view) by the modern environmental movement. And regardless of whether those actions are effective global solutions (again, I think they are a great start) they are indeed an effective salve for the Kaczynski dilemma.

Apples and Onions

January 6, 2009

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

Do watch. However, the best part is the MacBook Wheel’s sentence completion function. Megorious provides a list of the sentence you see briefly in the video. I knew this was worth looking up when two of the suggested sentences caught my eye:

The aardvark asked for a dagger.

The abortion went well.

Wow. The complete list–my favorites are in bold:

The aardvark admitted its fault.
The aardvark admitted it was wrong.
The aardvark asked for an aardvark.
The aardvark asked for a dagger.
The aardvark asked for health.
The aardvark asked for a ride.
The absinthe arrived by airmail.
The abortion went well.
The actor asked for an aardvark.
The actor asked for abstinance.
The actor asked for redemption.
The advertisement was effective.
The agile aardvark arrived by airmail.
The agile aardvark bathed with beauties.
The agriculture was cultivated by the coral.
The aggravated driver beeped on his horn.
The aggravated rooster scratched the dirt.
The Althusserian scholar gave his copy of Lacan’s “Ecrits” to the abortion doctor.
The amiable Althusserian scholar asked the aardvark for an absinthe.
The amiable crocodile brushed his teeth with a toothbrush.
The amiable doctor performed the operation admirably.
The annex was covered with asbestos.
The annex was crawling with beetles.
The apple was airmailed by the doctor.
The apple was consumed by the amiable crocodile.
The apple was inquiring about the amiable crocodile’s friend.
The aquamarine lifevest was not used.
The aquamarine lifevest was unpopular.
The armchair was uncomfortable.
The armchair was favoured by the amiable housecat.
The ass asked for a better absinthe.
The ass brayed the moon.
The assumptive doctor did not accept our personal check.
The assumptive agricultural expert eyed out absinthe suspiciously.
The attractive peanut farmer graded the term paper.
The attractive rooster preened its feathers to attract absinthe.
The auxiliary generator has malfunctioned.
The awning covered the agile aardvark during the amiable rainstorm.
The awning was too tall to touch.
The babbling baby asked the aardvark for some absinthe.

Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?

A Well-Balanced Robot

March 10, 2008

As far as walking goes–emotions are another matter.

From the Anybots website, with my emphasis added:

Dexter is quite different from other robots that have walked on two legs. The Honda ASIMO and related robots use a walking algorithm called Zero Moment Point or ZMP, a geometrical constraint that guarantees stability. To use this approach, a robot must have stiff joints (driven by geared servo motors) and fairly large feet. In the simplest version, the robot is given pre-planned movements that guarantee that a perpendicular drawn from the center of whichever foot is on the floor passes through the center of gravity, with some compensation when it accelerates. Such a robot does not need active balance feedback to walk. While the most advanced ZMP-based robots do include active balance control to adapt to sloped floor surfaces or external forces, this is a refinement to a passively stable gait.

Dexter has a different, more human-like body on which ZMP control does not work. Its joints, driven by air cylinders, are springy and flexible like human muscle. There are no stable postures that it can be put in where it can balance without active feedback, so it has to constantly adjust based on its sense of balance, the robot equivalent to your inner ear. It walks and balances the same way humans do, even wearing the same shoes humans wear.

Dexter’s harder-to-control body has major advantages in the real world. It can walk just as easily on soft surfaces, like the deep carpet shown in the video, as on hard surfaces. Because its joints are flexible and able to absorb impact, it will be able to run at high speed over uneven ground and jump over obstacles. If it accidently steps on your toe, it won’t hurt any more than a person stepping on your toe. But most importantly, because there is no geometrical principle by which we could have programmed a walking motion, it had to learn to walk. Its learning software will soon lead to a much wider range of walking abilities than could ever have been programmed.

And Ray Kurzweil shudders in fear…

Checklist for Quacks

July 13, 2007

Have you ever sat down and wondered, “Am I a scientific quack?” Well, probably not. But I’ve met enough True Believers in pseudoscience to give myself pause. What I really am the person to come up with a scientific breakthrough? How will anyone ever believe me? Doesn’t science trudge along, a la Thomas Kuhn, in the dominant paradigm until the evidence suggesting otherwise is just too overwhelming to ignore? What if I’m part of the new paradigm that will supplant the old, and I want to get the word out?

After all, weren’t many breakthroughs originally derided? Who believed the Earth actually revolved around the Sun? Who knew that Helicobacter pylori bacteria played a role in ulcers? Who knew that RNA interference played such a large role in cell function? Or that cells were programmed to self-destruct as a natural part of development? Or that a thing as wacky as prions actually existed? (After heliocentricity, these ideas won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005, 2006, 2002, and 1997, respectively).

Luckily for all of us, Cosmic Variance has compiled an Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist. Excerpts follow:

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective… Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

No sarcasm there. Rule 1:

Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

But! But! Seems a bit demanding, doesn’t it?

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no.

Rule 2:

Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.


Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously…. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant.

And finally, Rule 3:

Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

Not likely. But in case someone still needs convincing, have them submit their theory to the Crackpot Index.

Digital Ethnography

June 10, 2007

I like this. I don’t think it says anything new, but it’s certainly said in a neat way, and makes some connections you may not have made. Possibly with a pinch of naive optimist as well. And sweet music.