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Posts Tagged ‘knowledge

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…



After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy…

Knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response.  But in an age of all-knowing algorithms, how do we choose not to know?  Two scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development argue that “We Need to Save Ignorance From AI.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin


As we consider closing our eyes, we might send discoverable birthday greetings to Tim Bray; he was born on this date in 1955.  A seminal software developer and entrepreneur, he is probably best known as the co-author of the original specifications for the XML and XML namespace, open standards that fueled the growth of the internet (by setting down simple rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable), and as the co-founder of the Open Text Corporation, which released the Open Text Index, one of the first popular commercial web search engines.

40990080840_2a593e7046_o source


Written by LW

June 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.”*…


Belgian information activist Paul Otlet (1927)

More than a century ago, Belgian information activist Paul Otlet envisioned a universal compilation of knowledge and the technology to make it globally available. He foresaw, in other words, some of the possibilities of today’s Web.

Otlet’s ideas provide an important pivot point in the history of recording knowledge and making it accessible. In classical times, the best-known example of the knowledge enterprise was the Library of Alexandria. This great repository of knowledge was built in the Egyptian city of Alexandria around 300 BCE by Ptolemy I and was destroyed between 48 BCE and 642 CE, supposedly by one or more fires. The size of its holdings is also open to question, but the biggest number that historians cite is 700,000 papyrus scrolls, equivalent to perhaps 100,000 modern books…

Any hope of compacting all we know today into 100,000 books—or 28 encyclopedic volumes—is long gone. The Library of Congress holds 36 million books and printed materials, and many university libraries also hold millions of books. In 2010, the Google Books Library Project examined the world’s leading library catalogs and databases. The project, which scans hard copy books into digital form, estimated that there are 130 million existing individual titles. By 2013, Google had digitized 20 million of them.

This massive conversion of books to bytes is only a small part of the explosion in digital information. Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Pritchard notes that humanity generated almost 2 trillion gigabytes of varied data in 2011, an amount projected to double every two years, forming a growing trove of Big Data available on about 1 billion websites… Search engines let us trek some distance into this world, but other approaches can allow us to explore it more efficiently or deeply. A few have sprung up. Wikipedia, for instance, classifies Web content under subject headings…

But there is a bigger question: Can we design an overall approach that would reduce the “static” and allow anyone in the world to rapidly pinpoint and access any desired information? That’s the question Paul Otlet raised and answered—in concept if not in execution. Had he fully succeeded, we might today have a more easily navigable Web.

Otlet, born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1868, was an information science pioneer. In 1895, with lawyer and internationalist Henri La Fontaine, he established the International Institute of Bibliography, which would develop and distribute a universal catalog and classification system. As Boyd Rayward writes in the Journal of Library History, this was “no more and no less than an attempt to obtain bibliographic control over the entire spectrum of recorded knowledge.”…

The remarkable story in full at: “The internet before the internet: Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum.”

* Alan Moore, V for Vendetta


As we try to comprehend comprehensiveness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the first .com Internet domain, symbolics.com, was registered by Symbolics, a now-defunct Massachusetts computer company.



Written by LW

March 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information”*…


Instructions for carrying heavy equipment at the Columbia University Computer Music Center

  1. In Silicon Valley, startups that result in a successful exit have an average founding age of 47 years. [Joshua Gans]
  2. Traders in Shenzhen electronics markets now rely on smartphone translation apps to communicate — not just with foreigners, but with people speaking other Chinese dialects. [Mark Pesce]
  3. “Artificial intelligence systems pretending to be female are often subjected to the same sorts of online harassment as women.” [Jacqueline Feldman]
  4. Laser Snake is a writhing robotic arm with a 5kw laser mounted on one end. It’s first job: cutting up old nuclear power stations. [James Condliffe]…

The beginning of a fascinating list from Tom Whitwell at Fluxx— a collection of “varied” (if not random) gleanings from science and tech through commerce to society and culture.  They’re immediately fascinating… and ultimately– that’s to say, with some thought, and in the fullness of time– useful [the very effect for which (Roughly) Daily strives :]  Enjoy it in its entirety: “52 things I learned in 2017.”

* Oscar Wilde


As we read it and reap, we might recall that on this date in 1732 Benjamin Franklin published the first edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanack,”  a similarly not-so-randomly-fact-filled pamphlet series that he continued, to great success, annually through 1757.  (Indeed, with print runs typically numbering 10,000, the series made Franklin’s fortune, allowing him to spend the bulk of his time on scientific experiments, diplomacy…  and in his own consciousness-altering experiments in The Hellfire Club.)

The first edition (published in 1732 for 1733)


Written by LW

December 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”*…


Complex nature

Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the ‘commonsense’, everyday world in which we evolved.

But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence…

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity, spanning tens of millennia at most, will probably be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the post-human era – evolved not by Darwinian selection but via ‘intelligent design’. Whether the long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with electronic super-intelligent machines is a matter for debate. But we would be unduly anthropocentric to believe that a full understanding of physical reality is within humanity’s grasp, and that no enigmas will remain to challenge our remote descendants…

Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow), cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal since 1995, past Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former President of the Royal Society, on the limits of human understanding (and how we might transcend them): “Black holes are simpler than forests and science has its limits.”

For a “companionable” take on the character of the knowledge that we do (seem to) have, see “Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?“; and for an argument that we should stop worrying about the limits of human knowledge, and start worrying about wasting the knowledge we already have, see here.

* J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)


As we prepare to call (an artificially-intelligent) friend, we might send acutely observant birthday greetings to an astute student of the human animal, anthropologist Margaret Mead; she was born on this date in 1901.  Best-known for her studies of the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, she was 23 when she first traveled to the South Pacific, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. The book that resulted, Coming of Age in Samoa, was– and remains– a best-seller.




Written by LW

December 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in”*…


In European societies, knowledge is often pictured as a tree: a single trunk – the core – with branches splaying outwards towards distant peripheries. The imagery of this tree is so deeply embedded in European thought-patterns that every form of institution has been marshalled into a ‘centre-periphery’ pattern. In philosophy, for example, there are certain ‘core’ subjects and other more marginal, peripheral, and implicitly expendable, ones. Likewise, a persistent, and demonstrably false, picture of science has it as consisting of a ‘stem’ of pure science (namely fundamental physics) with secondary domains of special sciences at varying degrees of remove: branches growing from, and dependent upon, the foundational trunk.

Knowledge should indeed be thought of as a tree – just not this kind of tree. Rather than the European fruiter with its single trunk, knowledge should be pictured as a banyan tree, in which a multiplicity of aerial roots sustains a centreless organic system. The tree of knowledge has a plurality of roots, and structures of knowledge are multiply grounded in the earth: the body of knowledge is a single organic whole, no part of which is more or less dispensable than any other…

As Krishna observed in the in the Bhagavad-Gītā, “stands an undying banyan tree.”  Explore it at “The tree of knowledge is not an apple or an oak but a banyan.”

* Isaac Asimov


As we celebrate diversity, we might spare a thought for Douglas Carl Engelbart; he died on this date in 2013.  An engineer and inventor who was a computing and internet pioneer, Doug is best remembered for his seminal work on human-computer interface issues, and for “the Mother of All Demos” in 1968, at which he demonstrated for the first time the computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and the earliest versions of graphical user interfaces… that’s to say, computing as we know it.



Written by LW

July 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.”*…


As of earlier this week, the English-language Wikipedia contains 4,985,975 articles. If these were printed and bound into books — each 25cm tall by 5cm thick, like Britannica — there would be 2,207 volumes, each containing 1,600,000 words…

All of this content is, of course, user-submitted. It is also user-policed: the site requires constant maintenance from a massive pool of unpaid editors, who do things like fix typos, remove instances of vandalism (like de-categorizing George W. Bush as a “sexually-transmitted disease”), and improving the breadth and accuracy of each and every page.

Of Wikipedia’s 26 million registered users, roughly 125,000 (less that 0.5%) are “active” editors. Of these 125,000, only some 12,000 have made more than 50 edits over the past six month. And of these selfless few, one man is king of the domain.

Since joining Wikipedia a decade ago, 32-year-old Justin Anthony Knapp (username “koavf”) has established himself as the the site’s most active contributor of all time. He has made an astonishing 1,485,342 edits (an average of 385 per day), ranging in topic from Taylor Swift to the history of blacksmithing.

What’s life like as Wikipedia’s most prolific editor? And what has compelled this man to dedicate thousands of hours of his time, knowledge, and energy to an online encyclopedia for absolutely no compensation?…

Find out at “The Most Prolific Editor on Wikipedia.”

* Dalai Lama XIV


As we contribute to the commonweal, we might recall that it was on this date in 1760 that Denis Diderot, Enlightenment paragon and co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie, wrote to his friend Sophie Volland of the very phenomenon that koavf has devoted so much of his life to avoiding…

Diderot transcribed the words of Galiani, who seized the occasion to shine before his audience: “My friends, I recall a fable. Listen to it.” The story tells of a contest between two birds of different species, the cuckoo (supposed to be the representative of method) and the nightingale (the spokesman of genius). Which voice is more beautiful? The dispute is submitted to the ass for judgment. He is lazy and, without investigating the case or listening to the litigants, declares the cuckoo the winner. The story came from an Italian work, the burlesque epic Ricciardetto (1738), by Niccolò Fortiguerri (1674–1735), which Diderot also knew, having recently read it and found cause in it “to weep alternatively from pain and from pleasure.” The ass’s iniquitous judgment in favor of the cuckoo is a perfect example of resorting to antiphrasis: the good response, in a case of this sort, is obviously the contrary of the one given by a bad judge, that is, a judge who does not listen




Written by LW

October 20, 2015 at 1:01 am

You can lead a man to knowledge…

… but you can’t make him think.


There is enough iron in a human being to make one small nail.

A raisin dropped in a glass of fresh champagne will bounce up and down continuously from the bottom of the glass to the top.

Rapper Ice Cube’s real name is O’Shea Jackson.

There are 336 dimples in a regulation golf ball.

Readers can recharge with hundreds of other fatuous facts at Unnecessary Knowledge.

Episteme, the personification of knowledge, at the Celsus Library (source)


As we perfect our impersonations of Mr. Nigel-Murray, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that Ivan Boesky copped a plea, accepting a $100 million dollar fine for insider trading– he confessed to making $200 million trading illegally on inside information–  and agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors in rolling up the nationwide network of nods-and-winks that had fueled the Wall Street boom of the 80s.  Among those caught in the subsequent round-up was Junk Bond king Michael Milken, who was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud, and pled guilty to six.  Milken’s fines and payments-in-restitution totaled over $1 billion.  Boesky served 22 months of a three year sentence in Federal prison.  Milken was sentenced to 10 years; but served only 19 months.

Boesky (top), Milken on their ways into the courthouse (source)

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