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Notes of a curious mind

Category: books (Page 1 of 27)

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

I really don’t know what to make of this book.  It was on my bedside table for more than 3 weeks. This is very, very unusual. It is not that I couldn’t read it, it was actually quite interesting but I could manage only a few pages at a time, and that’s because I needed time to think about and reflect on what I had just read. It sounded so weird and so unbelievable that I wasn’t sure if this was a serious work from an accomplished academic, as Dr Robin Hanson, or a science fiction dystopia. Perhaps, it’s both.

Ok, let’s start.  Nowadays, our economy doubles roughly every 15 years, from every 1000 years during the farming period. If this trend were to continue, we should expect, according to the statistics models, that sometime during the next century, our economy to go to doubling every one month, or so.  This will last for a couple of years maybe, and then something entirely different will happen that would change everything. What will cause that disruptive change? The arrival of artificial intelligence, that is robots, smart enough to substitute wholesale for human workers.

There are several stories how this will become possible. One scenario is that we will keep writing and accumulating better software. At this rate, we need about three to four centuries for a full AI. Another scenario is that humans would be able to modify their biology so as to achieve a superhuman intelligence. Robin Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he become an economics professor at George Mason University, believes there is an entirely different way, and that is porting software from where it already exists, and that is the human brain.

To do that we need three things. First, fast computers, much faster than those today, second, scanning machines that will be able to produce a most detailed scan of the human brain with all its particular cell features and connections, and finally, computer models that would be able to process signals for each brain cell.  If we have all these, then we can have robots which will be whole brain emulations or “ems,” for short.  Robin Hanson expects that the first ems will appear within roughly a century or so.

Emulations are not a new idea, there have been in science fiction for many decades. Arthur Clarke investigated this idea in his novel The City and the Stars, in 1956 and more recently in 2003, in his novella The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge explores the idea of conscious computer simulations.

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson focus on robots and how the world would look like at the next big era after ours. He explores what happens in this strange world that it is dominated by trillions of ems that live and work in liquid-cooled skyscrapers, in very dense and very hot cities where they can quickly interact with other ems. He talks about the physics the economy, the organisation and their attitudes to law, politics, love, sex, and a lot of different other things.

Ems are smart, efficient, conscientious and workaholics. They basically work all the time but despite their hard work, they earn just enough to survive. Because they are so many and because it is easy – although not inexpensive – to make a lot more, the value of the work goes down. It is the supply- demand concept of economics.

Ems congregate in related “clans” and make use of Decision Markers to make key group decisions. Psychologically are very human.  They are not ordinary humans, but they have all the psychological tendencies that humans have. They are after all emulation of human brains that are put on a computer. Therefore, they develop relationships, they have friends, lovers, work connections. Some ems have bodies, others do not.

Emulations do not have to feel pain, or hunger. They don’t have to face death as they can make billions of copies of themselves.  Em ethics are different from ours. Their society is less democratic and gender-balanced, more divided into district classes, and its leaders are more accessible and trusted.

But what about humans? If they survive, they will retire somewhere outside the dense cities and will live on pensions doing whatever they want to do. It is not very clear, humans are not the purpose of Robin Hanson.

The Age of Em is an efficiency, undemocratic utopia or dystopia, depending on your perspective.  The em scenario is not entirely persuasive to me but the book provides a baseline for future study in the important topic of artificial intelligence.

Ο Αγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου

«Δεν νομίζω ότι υπήρξα μεγάλος. Φαίνομαι ίσως μεγάλος, γιατί δεν είχα άξιους αντιπάλους.»

Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής

Πρωτοδιάβασα  το  Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου το 1984. Ο Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής έκτιε την πρώτη του προεδρική θητεία (μέχρι το 1985 που τον  διαδέχθηκε ο Χρήστος Σαρτζετάκης). Δεν είμαι σίγουρη ότι είχα τότε αξιολογήσει σωστά ούτε το βιβλίο, ούτε ειχα σκεφτεί αρκετά για τον Κ. Καραμανλή. Κάποια πράγματα απαιτούν μια  απόσταση και  μια ωριμότητα, τόσο χρονική όσο και συναισθηματική.  Το να  διαβάζεις για έναν πολιτικό, όταν ακόμα αυτός βρίσκεται εν ζωή, σε μια εποχή έντονων μεταβολών τόσο σε επίπεδο κοινωνικών συμπεριφορών όσο και σε επίπεδο πολιτικών και διοικητικών θεσμών, ίσως  να μην ειναι και  ο καλύτερος τρόπος να αποτιμήσεις την πορεία, το πολιτικό έργο και τον χαρακτήρα ενός πολιτικού.

Οι αυταπάτες, οι παλινωδίες και οι λαϊκίστικες εξάρσεις των τελευταίων χρόνων, με έκαναν να γυρίσω πίσω,  να ξαναδιαβάσω για το παρελθόν, όχι τόσο για να καταλάβω το παρόν, αλλά περισσότερο για να θυμηθώ και να ξαναγνωρίσω έναν από τους ανθρώπους που διαμόρφωσε την νεώτερη πολιτική πορεία της χώρας και που ξεχώρισε για τον πολιτικό πραγματισμό του, αλλα και για τα στοιχεία, θετικά και αρνητικά, που συνέθεταν την προσωπικότητα του.

Η φιλία και η εκτίμηση του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου προς τον Κωνσταντίνο Καραμανλή είναι γνωστή. Παρόλο που Κ. Καραμανλής δεν ταυτίστηκε απόλυτα με τη φιλοσοφία του Κ. Τσάτσου η εκτίμηση ήταν αμοιβαία και ο Τσάτσος υπηρέτησε ως υπουργός στις κυβερνήσεις του. Ο φόβος του κομμουνισμού αποτελούσε τον κεντρικό άξονα των πολιτικών και θεσμικών επίλογων του  Κ. Τσάτσου, ενώ ο Κ. Καραμανλής δεν πίστευε στην ιδεολογική απομόνωση και δεν είχε μιλήσει “για κομμουνι­στική απειλή ούτε για ανάγκη να περιορισθούν τα δικαιώματα των μη εθνικοφρόνων.” [1]

Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής  είναι ένα δοκίμιο που αποβλέπει σε μια ενδοσκόπηση της προσωπικότητας του Κ.  Καραμανλή. Μελετά τον Καραμανλή σαν προσωπικότητα, τον εσωτερικό άνθρωπο, το ήθος και τον χαρακτήρα. Πως, αυτός άνθρωπος, με αυτόν τον χαρακτήρα, έρχεται σε επαφή  και πως συνεργάζεται με τον κόσμο γύρω του.

To βιβλίο δεν είναι ιστορικό, ωστόσο o K. Τσάτσος αναφέρεται σε ορισμένα ιστορικά γεγονότα, κυρίως των ετών 1955-1967 που συνδέονται με το πρόσωπο του Καραμανλή, για να γίνει πιο πλήρης η σκιαγράφηση της προσωπικότητάς του και για να εξηγήσει την θέση του Καραμανλή μπρος στην Ευρώπη και τον κόσμο. Στο δοκίμιο περιλαμβάνονται και κάποιες επιστολές του Κ. Καραμανλή όπου εμφανίζεται η πολιτική σκέψη του.

Απόσπασμα από επιστολή του Κ. Καραμανλή το 1945

Δυο πράγματα στον Καραμανλή εντυπωσίασαν τον Κ. Τσάτσο. Πρώτα ότι η πολιτική πορεία του Καραμανλή ήταν ευθύγραμμη. Οι βασικές του αρχές και σκέψεις  ήταν οι ίδιες από την νεαρή του ηλικία, στην περίοδο της Κατοχής και ήταν πολύ προοδευτικότερες από εκείνες που επικρατούσαν στην παράταξη από την οποία προερχόταν.  Δεύτερον, την ενδεχόμενη πολιτική άνοδό του την αισθανόταν σαν κάτι φυσικό.

Το πήδημα από τη θέση του υπουργού, του πετυχημένου εκτελεστή, στη θέση του πρωθυπουργού μου φάνηκε ότι το έκανε χωρίς δυσκολία, διότι μέσα του το είχε εκτελέσει ήδη προ πολλού ….. Χωρίς να το δείχνη, χωρις να το διακηρύσση, αναγνώριζε στον εαυτό του την ιδιότητα του ηγέτη, σαν να είχε γεννηθη γι’ αυτή την αποστολή.

Ο Καραμανλής έζησε μια μοναχική ζωή. Ενσυνείδητα  και προμελετημένα είχε πλάσει την εμφάνισή του, αυστηρή, αινιγματική και δυσπρόσιτη για να κρατά τον τρίτο σε απόσταση.  Πίσω όμως από τη βιτρίνα του απρόσιτου, λακωνικού, ακόμη και αγριωπού πολιτικού ηγέτη υπήρχε ένας βαθύτατα συναισθηματικός άνθρωπος, που όμως δεν επέτρεπε να ξεφύγει τίποτε από μέσα του που θα μπορούσε να χαλάσει την εικόνα του εαυτού του, όπως την ήθελε ο ίδιος να παρουσιάζεται στους άλλους.

Ουσιαστικά,  ο Κ. Καραμανλής έκτισε απο πολύ νωρίς, αυτό που σήμερα ονομάζουμε πολιτικό branding. Μια εικόνα / προιόν (brand) δηλαδή που ενισχύει το κυρίαρχο αίσθημα και την εντύπωση που έχει το κοινό ή  ο λαός για έναν πολιτικό, και δημιουργεί – παρ’ όλα τα αρνητικά χαρακτηριστικά που αυτό το  πρόσωπο μπορεί να έχει – ένα αίσθημα και μια σχέση εμπιστοσύνης μεταξύ του πολιτικού και του λαού.

[1] Ν. Αλιβιζάτος Ο Κ. Τσάτσος και το Σύνταγμα του 1952, 1947-1967.

Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide by Lynsey Hanley

Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another,”  wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992. A couple of year later, John Major hailed Britain’s “classless society” and just before the 1997 elections John Prescott announced that “we’re all middle class now”.

Politicians used to pretend that there are no class differences in Britain and therefore the “class gap” received almost no attention at all. But pretending does not mean that class differences don’t exist or that they are no longer important.

Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” wrote thirty years ago the British sociologist Richard Hoggart. In the second decade of the 21st century, class distinctions still pervade almost all aspects of English culture and life.  And continuously, find new ways of expressing themselves.

According to a BBC survey in 2013, the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated (only 39% of the people in Britain fit in these three categories). They have been replaced by seven social classes which include, in addition to traditional occupation, wealth and education, the economic (income, savings, house ) and cultural (interests and activities) capital.

Class is such a complex concept, after 20 years living and working in the UK, I am still struggling to grasp all the aspects of class divide and social mobility. We have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and that is failing; the university access gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years.

In her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide,  Lynsey Hanley describes her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in the 1980080s, as well as the experience and the significance of undertaking social mobility in the context of wider social inequality.

Hanley also writes about respectability as a condition within working class communities. Respectability as against rough. She examines the idea of respectability as a way of how individuals are preserving dignity and self-respect and also as a way of getting closer to the values of dominant society.

“Respectability is a property of your specific circumstances: circumstances which permit you, or at least make it easier, to maintain the appearances and felling of self-respect.”

Richard Hoggart, and especially his book in The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a great influence to Lynsey Hanley. Following Hoggard’s detailed description of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war, Lynsey Hanley also sets her book and the story of social mobility in a specific time and place.

“This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal.”

_Richard Hoggart

Lynsey Hanley’s book helps to bring class back on the map and the conversation. She also sets a few existential questions about social mobility and describes how the physical walls of council estates sustain what she calls ‘walls in the head’ – the ‘invisible barriers to knowledge, self-awareness and social mobility’. It is a fantastic book.


Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

“Think of a flower blooming,” says the midwife to Agata. “A rose opening, the petals pushing out ….out …..”

But childbirth is not as gentle as the opening of a rose, and the baby girl is not the perfect baby, her parents have dreamed.  She looks “like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts,” cries the mother. The baby girl is a dwarf, a disfigured little thing with a big head and short limps that smells of roses. The mother called her Pavla, which literally means little.

Pavla lives in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, perhaps. When her parents let her attend school, the other children call Pavla Little Nothing and they assault her in a deliberately humiliating way. These humiliations prepare her for the struggles that await her in the next years.   As she matures, something enticing happens, ‘an unmistakable loveliness reveals itself.’ Her beauty agitates the villagers, makes them wonder if she is really real.

Fearing for their daughter’s future, her parents visit local doctors looking for a treatment to her dwarfism. It is when one of these “doctors” slowly stretches her apart that Pavla’s physical form makes a radical change, the first of several body transformations that seem to be motivated by some existential experience: life and death, meaning and happiness, good and evil.

“How easy is to admire evil, to become entranced by its singularity of purpose and its amoral beauty.”

Little Nothing reaches back into a magical and horrified world of gypsy curses, circus shows, werewolves, war and rural poverty. It a story about love, but it is not a love story, not in the classic sense anyway. It is a love that exists beyond the realm of the physical, it is a love that motivates, it is a way to find out who you are.

Marisa Silver’s writing is raw, intense and vivid. Little Nothing is not an easy book, the impossibility of some of the events may not appeal to everyone.  It is a thrilling and wonderful book, an allegorical, complex and ambiguous fairy tale about metamorphosis.

“Marcus fell silent. Danilo looked at the sky and watched the sound disappear into the vast emptiness where nothing and everything exists and where all stories begin.”

A Day in the Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield

“Without consciousness, life would indeed be pretty much the same as death. The conscious condition makes life worth living: yet what is it, this insubstantial, intangible inner … what exactly?”

Consciousness, once the province of philosophers and theologians, has become in the past few decades one of the great scientific challenges, a fascinating topic of research in psychology and neuroscience.

Susan Greenfield, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, heads a multi-disciplinary research group exploring novel brain mechanisms linked to neurodegenerative diseases. In her book A Day in the Life of the Brain draws on her own research to illuminate the mystery of consciousness in the course of a single day in the life of the brain.

Susan Greenfield takes everyday activities – waking up, walking the dog, eating breakfast, at the office, problems at home, sleeping and dreaming – to explore how the human brain is working. Her theory is that coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness. These ‘neuronal assemblies’ play a central role in organising all the networks in the brain and somehow these neuronal assemblies provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness.

The book shows how the brain works, its complexity and the functionally of certain areas. It   has some good insights and it is written in a simple style, devoid of difficult jargon. It sheds some light on consciousness.

A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp

“behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

What is feminism anyway?

To start with, feminism is not the belief that one gender should be raised in power above another. Feminism is not against men. Feminism is against patriarchy, that is the system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Feminism is one of the most important and certainly most enduring and progressive social movements of the past two centuries. It is common to divide the history of modern feminism into a First, Second, and Third Wave. As times are changing, we are now entering in the fourth phase with feminism moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse.

Women are coming out of the closet, they dare to discuss difficult subjects, such as violence and sexual harassment. Intersectionality, race, ethnicity gender, class, and ability, are all part of the discussion.

Now, the book. A Brief History of Feminism is a  graphic novel about the history of feminism. It is a short book, just 80 pages. It begins with antiquity and the early days of Christianity, it moves to Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and finally at the beginnings of the organised women’s movement and the third-wave feminism and intersectionality. It examines – briefly – the fights for autonomous pregnancy and against domestic violence.

Along the way, you learn about a few of the most important figures in the history of feminism. Flora Tristan, a courageous woman, who in 1825 fled her violent husband and broke the social behaviours of a nineteenth century woman. Flora described herself as “an unfortunate Pariah”, and linked the oppression of women and the oppression of the proletariat before Marx and Engels. Also, the poet Audre Lorde,  Elizabeth Cady Standon, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Sulamith Firestone, Angela Davis, and more.

It is not a complete history of feminism. The focus is Western Feminism, mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. It could be characterised as a guide on the history of Western Feminism. I really enjoyed it. It is beautiful, clever, funny and informative.

Translated by Sophie Lewis

Published by The MIT Press

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