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Monday, October 13, 2014

When prestige has merit

The web is a vast distribution network which moves information around the globe, and the quality of that information will I think move the world to a merit measure for prestige.

Like consider the Wikipedia. If you want to know a lot about its potency you can check studies. As much as I'd like to link to independent ones the most definitive source is, yup, the Wikipedia itself:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia

That is a bit irritating as I prefer independent sources, and didn't see any that seemed suitable when I did a search on Google for this article. Some government or something should have something up, if they knew what they were doing. But a lot of governments today clearly do not.

Prior to the ability to have a world pick for itself, institutions gained prestige by many means and carried that over time. But notice the ignominy now hovering over the prestigious news agency The New York Times, which in my mind is that group of people who with President George W. Bush helped more than most to lead the United States into war. That may sound harsh, but why sugarcoat it?

To me then there is what I'll call classical prestige, and functional prestige.

The Wikipedia has functional prestige: people know it works as they use it, and some people have checked it against other prestigious sources.

While The New York Times has classical prestige: it retains prestige despite some of the greatest press failures in recorded history. People see it as prestigious with it debatable as to whether or not it is functioning at that level.

But that appears to be a learned response. And as new generations arise without being taught that a particular institution has prestige then they are more likely to switch to functional prestige.

The difference with functional prestige is people know the value from moment to moment from what they can use in their daily lives.

That has practical importance to me, as I have various ideas out there in prestigious areas, like my own definition of science, and my own ideas for a science of money.

Those are functional ideas in areas where far more prestigious sources have a lot of dominance. But the web lets me put forward new ideas where I can rely on the discretion of many people.

If the ideas are valuable because they work, then they can gain their own functional prestige, which then is entirely about merit.

The science of money by itself can change the world, not because the original source--me--is prestigious. But because the functional need is so great.

People need to understand money in our modern world. It's just that simple.

In the old world people or organizations could build prestige over time, becoming reliable sources, who could lead the world down dark and wrong paths based primarily on that prestige alone.

The new world pushes your ideas to always work, and catches you immediately when you slip up, and then keeps reminding you constantly of your failure.

And that is how civilization will work best.

It's a new way of doing things. It's the best way of doing things.

Prestige should have merit. Now thanks to the inexorable progress of science and technology which connects people in a way that allows constant checking and accurate reporting on those checks--it can.

And I do think that most prestigious institutions around the world are ready for that challenge and are meeting it.


James Harris

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Predictive certainty

Something which fascinates me is the calmness with which many people I'm sure flip a light switch. The idea of light on demand is so common in my country that many people are simply shut down to a large extent with a power outage. There may be a rushing about to find a flashlight or candle, as people worry about when power crews will get the power back on.

The predictive certainty with which many of us operate allows us to live daily lives without thinking of it that way, while some seem certain we live in uncertain times, when we don't usually worry about crops on any given year, unless maybe a farmer. Few of us are keeping up with livestock, or worrying about what vegetables or fruits are in season. For many a trip to the grocery store is a casual process.

Reality is that living in the most advanced countries brings an extraordinary amount of certainty. And many know that science has something to do with it, but I found myself wondering why concerns about climate sparked so much questioning, and realized that few people may realize that science is about predictive certainty.

So why are people calm about a light switch but ready to challenge the best scientific experts about whether or not the climate is changing?

How do people get into their automobiles and calmly turn the key, to get to work on time, yet feel free to question related scientific principles when it is something as important as the climate of the planet?

Looking around at established definitions of science I think they are problematic. How do you read an established definition of science and know if someone is doing it or not? How do you carry confidence about the electricity flowing in your house yet question the possibility of epic change to the climate of your planet.

So I came up with my own definitions. These are not established. But I'm going to use them to give a functional view of science, show how predictive certainty works, and point out how you can know when someone is doing science.

science (noun): the art of prediction using methodologies and tools to expand zones of certainty by discovery of a predictive framework.

scientific theory (noun): predictive framework found by using science.


scientist (person): practitioner of science.


Science can be about medical science, where a doctor can set a broken bone with predictive certainty. Or it can be about bureaucratic science, where an MBA can learn management techniques for a particular size company. Or automotive science can allow a mechanic to fix your car, or hype up the performance of a race car.

But can a scientist just wake up one morning and definitively say a solution exists for a particular problem?

Usually, no. Experiments and theory and more experiments and studies by various scientists over time can find things that people may have never even realized were possible, so there is an art to it.

My definitions may seem extremely abstract. Where is the scientific method? Why no mention of the natural world or phenomena? How can I not use the word "experiment" or "hypothesis"?

Yet all those things are encapsulated within the abstraction. That's what abstraction is for: getting to the essence of the thing without unnecessary extra.

Experiments involve tools and methodologies to expand zones of certainty by discovery of a predictive framework. That predictive framework lets you do things like wire a house. Work on more efficient propulsion systems. Or produce a new vaccine.

Scientists make predictions.

Let me repeat: scientists make predictions!

That physicist tells you what will happen if you gather enough weapons grade plutonium together into a nuclear bomb.

That biologist tells you how to combat a particular bacterium.

That computer scientist tells you how to build a massively scalable architecture to process Big Data from a billion users around the globe.

Science is not about the unknown. Science is our predictive certainty of the known. It's about those things for which we are sure. That ever growing body of predictive certainty is what our civilization relies upon.

Scientists work to grow that predictive certainty. Beyond the boundaries of that work there are vast stretches of unknown areas. But mystery is not science. It can drive our best scientific minds to discovery.

But mystery is where our science has not yet arrived.

And if you dare to plan, rely on your vehicle to get you there on time, feel confident on that alarm to wake you, or that phone to make the call if needed, you believe in that predictive certainty which came from science.

So believe in it too when it tries to help you and others save your world.

Climate science has much that is certain. But more emphasis where it is uncertain which is where the excitement for scientists exists. That's unfortunate for those who seize upon the edges of predictive certainty to cast doubt on it all.

But I'm sure they have no qualms when they flip a light switch.


James Harris

Friday, September 26, 2014

Brilliant, complex and disturbing, reality of Henry Ford

Back March of last year I put up a post where I noted the importance of Henry Ford and found myself wondering if I'd said enough about his controversial side. Reality is I didn't completely understand it myself, while I also under-appreciated a lot of what he managed to accomplish.

For instance, consider that Ford helped a lot to create a middle-class by raising wages against the opinion of just about everyone around him. He more than doubled the salary of his workers. Pause, reflect if you're an American worker on that one! Can you imagine if your bosses decided tomorrow to double your salary? Yet in later life he faced accusations of anti-semitism, and violent anti-unionism. Definitely a complex character who deserves the full picture.

Which I got thanks to PBS so this post is to link to what I saw:

Henry Ford . American Experience . WGBH | PBS

Today I'm more convinced than ever that fights over wages have the greatest impact of all when it comes to the health and vitality of the middle-class. Henry Ford was bizarre for his time--a wealthy man who fought everyone in his way who tried to stop him from sharing the wealth with his workers.

And consider, his move in that direction made him one of the most powerful and wealthiest of them all!

So what gives? Why do wealthy people fight against fair wages even against their own interests?

Good question. I've recently considered various issues around money, but will admit am puzzling over that one still. After all, the example of Ford shows that the naive self-interest involved in hoarding as much wealth to one's self as you can and fighting against your own workers as the enemy doesn't work as well as, well, doing what he did. Though in later life he clearly lost his way.

Maybe there is something about some wealthy people that makes them behave in a way that actually makes no rational sense, where they mindlessly hoard wealth against their own interests, and that of their society.


James Harris