Category Archives: Book review

Machine envy

By Philip Ball – The tools of science are so specialised that we accept them as a kind of occult machinery for producing knowledge. We figure that they must know how it all works. Likewise, histories of science focus on ideas rather than methods — for the most part, readers just want to know what the discoveries were.

Even so, most historians these days recognise that the relationship between scientists and their instruments is an essential part of the story. It isn’t simply that the science is dependent on the devices; the devices actually determine what is known. You explore the things that you have the means to explore, planning your questions accordingly.

Today, however, they have become symbols of prestige as never before. I have several times been invited to admire the most state-of-the-art device in a laboratory purely for its own sake, as though I was being shown a Lamborghini.

One of the dysfunctional consequences of this sort of attitude is that the machine becomes its own justification, its own measure of worth. Results seem ‘important’ not because of what they tell us but because of how they were obtained. more> https://goo.gl/4HQWRQ

What a State-Owned Bank Can Do for New Jersey

By Ellen Brown – Consider the possibilities, for example, for funding infrastructure. Like most states today, New Jersey suffers from serious budget problems, limiting its ability to make needed improvements. By funding infrastructure through its own bank, the state can cut infrastructure costs roughly in half, since 50 percent of the cost of infrastructure, on average, is financing.

Again, a state-owned bank can do this by leveraging its capital, with any shortfall covered very cheaply in the wholesale markets. In effect, the state can borrow at bankers’ rates of 1 percent or less, rather than at market rates of 4 to 6 percent for taxable infrastructure bonds (not to mention the roughly 12 percent return expected by private equity investors).  The state can borrow at 1 percent and turn a profit even if it lends for local development at only 2 percent—one-half to two-thirds below bond market rates.

That is the rate at which North Dakota lends for infrastructure. In 2015, the state legislature established a BND Infrastructure Loan Fund program that made $150 million available to local communities for a wide variety of infrastructure needs. These loans have a 2 percent fixed interest rate and a term of up to 30 years; and the 2 percent goes back to the State of North Dakota, so it’s a win-win-win for local residents.

The BND is able to make these cheap loans while still turning a tidy profit because its costs are very low: no exorbitantly-paid executives; no bonuses, fees, or commissions; very low borrowing costs; no need for multiple branch offices; no FDIC insurance premiums; no private shareholders. Profits are recycled back into the bank, the state and the community. more> https://goo.gl/QrGLBD

Related>

Raising good robots

We already have a way to teach morals to alien intelligences: it’s called parenting. Can we apply the same methods to robots?
By Regina Rini – Philosophers and computer scientists alike tend to focus on the difficulty of implementing subtle human morality in literal-minded machines. But there’s another problem, one that really ought to come first. It’s the question of whether we ought to try to impose our own morality on intelligent machines at all. In fact, I’d argue that doing so is likely to be counterproductive, and even unethical. The real problem of robot morality is not the robots, but us.

Can we handle sharing the world with a new type of moral creature?

We like to imagine that artificial intelligence (AI) will be similar to humans, because we are the only advanced intelligence we know. But we are probably wrong. If and when AI appears, it will probably be quite unlike us. It might not reason the way we do, and we could have difficulty understanding its choices.

Plato’s student Aristotle disagreed. He thought that each sort of thing in the world – squirrels, musical instruments, humans – has a distinct nature, and the best way for each thing to be is a reflection of its own particular nature.

‘Morality’ is a way of describing the best way for humans to be, and it grows out of our human nature. For Aristotle, unlike Plato, morality is something about us, not something outside us to which we must conform. Moral education, then, was about training children to develop abilities already in their nature. more> https://goo.gl/cVSt0W

Related>

Why Most Government Reform Plans Die

BOOK REVIEW

Working With Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs, Author: Anne Khademian.

By Howard Risher – “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” That quote is credited to the father of modern management, Peter Drucker. He was saying that leaders need to understand and address their organization’s culture in their planning.

Writers tell us that culture encompasses the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people. It sets forth the rules—unspoken and unwritten—for working together.

It’s relevant to reform because it governs behavior in work groups. It influences virtually every interaction of people in performing their jobs. It affects the time they start work, their tolerance for sexist comments, the way they deal with customers—everything.

Culture plays an important role in every successful organization. More than a few writers have argued that it would be great if government could develop a performance culture. That’s one where employees are committed to achieving results. Employees in high performing companies are energized by the culture. It’s reinforced by their reward and recognition practices. more> https://goo.gl/AiEOKL

Updates from Chicago Booth

Can we save retirement?
What the US and other countries can learn about social security reform
By Alex Verkhivker – When it comes to pension crises, American workers are not alone. In the United Kingdom, many of the country’s almost 6,000 employer-sponsored, defined-benefit programs are underfunded.

In Greece, Poland, and across the European continent, a demographic mismatch means there are not enough incoming taxes to fund promised payouts.

Privatization is often suggested as a solution to pension crises. Rather than have governments or employers fund workers’ retirements, why not give retirees more control over funding their retirements, with private individual accounts?

Many critics of privatization are quick to point to Chile as a cautionary tale. The Chilean government privatized its pension system in 1980, its secretary of labor and social security inspired by Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom.

In Mexico, money is automatically deducted from workers’ wages and placed in individual accounts. Then individuals choose from a menu of assets in which to invest and work through regulated, professional money managers, each of which offers a single investment product.

But competition did not materialize as the government had hoped it would. Hastings, Hortaçsu, and Syverson looked at where investors lived, which fund managers they invested with, how much money they saved—and earned after fees. They find that while many people expected competition to drive down costs, the average asset-weighted load was a steep 23 percent, and balance fees were another 0.63 percent. Those fees ate away—a lot—at returns. more> https://goo.gl/usSmNP

Related>

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions?

BOOK REVIEW

Human Rights: From Morality to Law, Author: John Tasioulas.
The Law of Peoples, Author: John Rawls.

By John Tasioulas – Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation.

Since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. more> https://goo.gl/AXTYg3

Now it’s time to prepare for the Machinocene

BOOK REVIEW

Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Author: Huw Price.

By Huw Price – One way or another, then, we are going to be sharing the planet with a lot of non-biological intelligence. Whatever it brings, we humans face this future together. We have an obvious common interest in getting it right. And we need to nail it the first time round. Barring some calamity that ends our technological civilization without entirely finishing us off, we’re not going to be coming this way again.

If we are to develop machines that think, ensuring that they are safe and beneficial is one of the great intellectual and practical challenges of this century. And we must face it together – the issue is far too large and crucial to be tackled by any individual institution, corporation or nation. Our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, are likely to be living in a different era, perhaps more Machinocene than Anthropocene.

Our task is to make the best of this epochal transition, for them and the generations to follow. We need the best of human intelligence to make the best of artificial intelligence. more> https://goo.gl/dHx4jd

Hierarchy in organizations: when it helps, when it hurts

BOOK REVIEW

Friend & Foe, Authors: Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer.

By Steve Kelman – You can’t say either hierarchical or participatory arrangements are always good or always bad. Instead, there are some organizational tasks for which hierarchy works best, and others where hierarchy creates problems.

How does hierarchy help?

It helps groups of people coordinate their activities and gives people information about who does what. It reduces the need to bargain and argue over such decisions.

Google initially tried to work without managers, but found that “the lack of hierarchy created chaos and confusion. … As they learned, even Google needs hierarchy.”

How does participatory management help?

It helps when the information the group needs to have to make good decisions is more complex and uncertain. The danger of hierarchy is that it tends not to generate a wide range of information.

“The more complex the task, the more likely we are to make a mistake or miss something critical” in a hierarchical organization.

Hierarchy can also suppress dissent, because people don’t want to take on those at the top. more> https://goo.gl/qSusGs

The slow professor can dish out a more nutritious education

BOOK REVIEW

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Authors: Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg.
Slow Food Nation, Author: Carlo Petrini.

By Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg – Distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary life. In order to protect the intellectual and pedagogic life of the university, we need to create opportunities to think and to shift our sense of time. This might mean getting away from having everything scheduled down to the minute. We can’t do our best work if we are frantic.

Slow teaching is not about lowering standards. Rather, it is about reducing our distractedness so that we can focus on our students and our subjects. We need to be able to concentrate on creating a convivial classroom in which our students can meet the challenges – and we can foster the joys – of learning a discipline.

Slow scholarship is about resisting the pressure to reduce thinking to the imperative of immediate usefulness, marketability and grant generation. It’s about preserving the idea of scholarship as open-ended enquiry. It will improve the quality of teaching and learning. more> https://goo.gl/bpngGv

Hierarchy is either strictly constrained or it is indefensible

BOOK REVIEW

Just Freedom, Author: Philip Pettit.

By Philip Pettit – This thesis really is unfashionable, because of the extreme way in which they understand hierarchy at the abstract level.

‘When we talk about hierarchies here,’ they say at the outset, ‘we mean those distinctions and rankings that bring with them clear power differentials.’ And, sharpening the concept even further, they say later that it is ‘a condition in which one adult commands, threatens or forces another adult to do something’.

Nor is this a sort of hierarchy justified by fault or failing on the part of the subordinated individual: that person might be ‘innocent of any wrongdoing, competent to make decisions’ and so on. It is illustrated, they suggest, by ‘political paternalism’, which is defined as ‘coercive interference with autonomy’.

More generally, the essay sketches an attractive architecture of political power in which experts certainly command requisite esteem but their role ‘is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists’. This architecture, it is said, would involve ‘a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them’.

There are no objectionable power differentials in a system where there is ‘democratic accountability’ – however proximately insulated – and where there are checks and balances that restrain the different authorities. more> https://goo.gl/812tkO