Surfing Uncertainty

Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind

[Amazon Link]

I was encouraged to read this book (written by Andy Clark, professor of philosophy and Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland) via this post on Eric Raymond's blog, which pointed to this review at Slate Star Codex. I regret to say it's one of those "I looked at every page" books. It's not aimed at the dilettante or layman; I would expect that you would need a thorough grounding in neurophysiology and neural networks to fully appreciate it. Lots of references, endnotes, etc.

Professor Clark is (also) clearly articulating his own views here, engaging in a debate/discussion with people with other views. I have no idea whether the thesis he's expounding is actually on target, or if he's engaging in easily-debunked handwaving bullshit. I expect more the former, but don't take any bets on my say-so.

His thesis is, broadly, that the mysteries of consciousness, perception, decision, action, etc. are tied up with the predictive nature of the nervous system. That is, the whole shebang works its magic by building internal predictions of what outside stimuli will be incoming from our senses. This is never a perfect match, but when it happens, it sets off a bunch of nervous activity "error" events that look to obtain better information (for example, automatically pointing your eyes at different locations to figure out what's going on).

This activity involves neurons up and down the chain, and also back and forth. It's a very holistic view, and one that's been in development for years.

There are a number of telling observations that I could understand and appreciate, mostly involving optical illusions. For example, the picture here; seeing a cow may be a challenge at first, but once you see it, you can't go back to not seeing it. Funny how that works.

Bottom line, writing-wise, Andy Clark is no Steven Pinker. But he may be onto something.

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

[Amazon Link]

I believe I put this book by Malcolm Gladwell in my to-be-read list a long, long time ago. Back during its initial hype-filled publication, circa 2000. After waiting for it to come off the reserve list at the UNH library (it never did, I think), I picked up the 2002 paperback. And it sat on my shelves until now.

And it did not age well.

These days, we would say it's a study of how things "go viral". Or, more soberly, how dramatic cultural changes can happen in a relative eyeblink. Gladwell's first example is how Hush Puppies shoes made a dramatic comeback in the mid-90s after dwindling to their near-demise. And then he moves on to the dramatic decrease in New York City crime, starting in the 90s. And (along the way) there are other examples, described in an attention-grabbing way (Gladwell's a good writer): Sesame Street vs. Blue's Clues; a suicide epidemic in Micronesia; the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. And many more.

Gladwell attempts to come up with a theoretical framework that would explain all these examples of sudden change. He describes three kinds of people that can set things off, change agents: "Connecters, Mavens, and Salesmen". He looks at the concept of "stickiness"; once people adopt a change (or catch a disease), it has to stick around long enough so that other people can "catch" it. And there's the power of "Context": how receptive the target population and the surrounding environment to the change.

Gladwell's examples, each interesting, seem at times to be round pegs that Gladwell tries very hard to pound into the square holes of his big theory. The predictive value of his insights seems to be negligible; the thing about "viral" outbreaks is that nobody sees them coming. True back when Gladwell wrote, true today.

Which brings me to the point mentioned above: Gladwell wrote at the dawn of the 21st century. And the closest he gets to writing about the Internet is his 2002 Afterword, when he muses on e-mail, and notes that he has a website: (, currently inactive).

In other words: before Facebook (est. 2004), Yelp (est. 2004), YouTube (est. 2005), Twitter (est. 2006), Instagram (est. 2010). I can't help but think that popular social media sites haven't irrevocably changed the landscape Gladwell discusses.

URLs du Jour


■ If you think that stand-up comics have difficulty coming up with fresh material, consider Proverbs 20:23:

23 The Lord detests differing weights,
    and dishonest scales do not please him.

If you're experiencing déjà vu, there's a good reason: the Proverbialist said the same thing just 13 verses earlier:

10 Differing weights and differing measures—
    the Lord detests them both.

OK, we get it, Mr. Consumer Reports.

■ More University antics: Texas Southern University president storms into student event, shuts down speech. The TSU Federalist Society had invited Texas state Rep. Briscoe Cain to speak. The event was initially disrupted by student protesters, but campus cops escorted them out. The speech continued until…

Then [TSU] President [Austin] Lane, accompanied by Democratic state Sen. Boris Miles, entered the room. Rep. Cain, a Republican, then exited the room and president Lane invited the protesters back into the room.

Mission accomplished, speech censors!

President Lane's quoted remarks invoked "time, place, and manner" regulation—at least four times—as an excuse for the shutdown. See if you can fit his reasoning in with this explanation of time/place/matter regulation. And see if you can guess how a court case might come out.

■ So I haven't gotten too excited about the Harvey Weinstein thing, because the hypocritical pervyness lurking behind the thin, shiny veneer of the entertainment industry is not exactly shocking to anyone paying attention. But people, like Roger L. Simon, are making some interesting observations: Harvey Weinstein Has Destroyed Hollywood -- Now What?

Hollywood’s politics have always been a self-serving charade, a liberal masquerade for a rapacious and lubricious lifestyle. But now, thanks to the Weinstein scandal, we see it more clearly than ever. And it couldn't be more repellent. (I had always thought Bill Clinton would have made the greatest studio executive of all time. Now I'm convinced of it.)


@JonahNRO casts a somewhat wider net: The Harvey Weinstein Scandal Leaves a Trail of Hypocrisy. Specifically, after noting the selective courage of stars who "bravely" spoke out about Trump while giving Weinstein a pass:

So far, many right-wing readers are probably nodding along to this column. Well, stop. If you never spoke up about Trump, or if you responded to those accusations with a dismissive, “What about Bill Clinton?” you should probably just sit this one out.

Because if you decry piggish behavior only when it helps your side, or if you think accusers are telling the truth only when they speak up about people you hate (or don’t need professionally), then you don’t actually care about sexual harassment.

Jonah's right: a lot of folks have forfeited their membership in the Morality Police by looking the other way when members of their political tribe misbehaved.

■ At Reason, Jacob Sullum asks: Does Reproductive Freedom Mean Forcing People to Sin?

Last Friday the Trump administration unveiled regulations that let a wider range of employers claim a religious exemption from the Obamacare mandate requiring health plans to cover birth control. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) responded by invoking The Handmaid's Tale, the Margaret Atwood novel, now a Hulu series, set in a patriarchal dystopia where the government controls women's bodies and forbids them to read, write, or work outside the home.

Lowey is not the only critic of the new regulations who conflates freedom from coercion with a right to forcibly extracted subsidies. Such overwrought reactions obscure the real issue raised by religious exceptions to the contraceptive mandate: When does respect for religious freedom require relieving some people of the obligation to obey rules that everyone else has to follow?

Sullum does a fine job delineating the areas of controversy in a short column.

■ And Gregg Easterbrook, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback, didn't watch the games this week. (He has a good excuse.) But he makes a decent argument as to why we should Ban Youth Football. After summarizing recent research:

Such research suggests a bright line. Organized tackle football before age twelve does engage tremendous neurological risk; but don’t start football until middle school and the sport’s neurological hazards are roughly the same as those associated with soccer, diving, and bicycling. Maybe someday soccer, diving, bicycling, and football all will be banned as too dangerous. Based on what’s known today, football is not notably more dangerous—so long as you don’t start until middle school age.

If youth tackle football were abolished by legislation—or if parents and guardians refused to allow young children to join full-pads leagues and endure helmet-to-helmet hits—the societal harm caused by football would decline dramatically.

I find Easterbrook's argument pretty convincing, but see what you think.