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Showing posts from 2007

Flu and its books 3

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How many times can one read Aeschylus without getting tired, but learning new lessons? I've just had the courage to "waste" some time, and re-read the Oresteia , wasting time being what I do when - instead of reading something new and climb the Olympus of the Unread a few hundred pages higher - I indulge myself in revisiting a favourite text, lingering in the valley of the well-known and familiar. What a pleasure. The intensity of the existential choices, the purity of a culture that was able to open the book of life with philosophical eyes for the first time. I wish I could say "Ich bin ein Athenian!" One way of reading the Oresteia is, of course, in terms of the emergence of that civilization, represented by fair law and justice, that will stay with human history forever after, at least as a regulative ideal. It was invented by the Greeks and globalised by the Romans. In the end, the Eumenides and their thirst for revenge are irregimented by an Athens wh

Memorable

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Every now and then, you meet someone who remembers your name from last year's conference. I'm usually amazed, since I cannot move from the living room (first phone) to the office upstairs (second phone) without either writing down the number that I do, really do, wish to remember, or walking like a mad, broken record, reciting it alound all the way to the next keyboard, which I normally reach safely, if nobody interrupts me. But then... Oxford is a strange place. Kia (my brainy neuroscientist wife) has taught Ed Cooke , a memory grandmaster and a former undergradaute at New College . Before Ed, I knew absolutely nothing about World Memory Championships . When I came across Ed, it was like meeting someone from Mars. It's simply extraordinary. I cannot remember a telephone number but Ed, who was number 7 during the WMC in 2007, can memorise, for example, the order of a shuffled deck of cards in under 45 seconds, a 1,200 digit number in an hour and a sequence of 155 words

Flu and its books 2

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I got hold of a copy of The Screwtape Letters by accident. Indeed, it was hidden in the theology section at Blackwell's in Oxford. Impossible to find, unless you're looking for it. But trust me: if you need to choose only one book to read this Xmas or indeed for the whole 2008, this is the one. The plot is easily summarised. This is the one-sided correspondence (thirty-one letters) between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood. The topic is advises by Screwtape to Wormwood about ways in which he might secure the damnation of an man, known as 'the Patient'", of whom Wormwood is in charge. No letters from Wormwood are available, nor any communication from the Enemy (i.e. the angels). I shall not spoil the end. Screwtape's letters are a refined, brilliant and subtle dissection of human attitudes towards life. This is a masterpiece, whose sarcasm and wit allow the reader to reflect, at almost every sentence, on our condition,

Flu and its books 1

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Nothing better that some flu to appreciate life (admittedly once you start recovering) and make a dent in the huge pile of books that one has accumulated for those days when the fire is on, and friends, now absent, have left behind a good bottle of Martel . The books I went through in the last few days are pure gems. Moby Dick . Shame on me for having reached this age without having actually read this classic before. This is epics at its best, literature of the finest kind. Some of the fights are Homeric, and meant to be so. There is an endless amount of information on whaling (you can tell Melville knew about it first hand) and some amazing arguments about how whales will never become extinct, even if, already in the middle of the nineteenth century, whole fleets were systematically clearing the sea of this extraordinary animal. The Japanese should definitely use Moby Dick to support their "scientific", inhumane, cruel massacres. The book is too full of images, reflectio

Philosophy of Mathematics: 5 Questions

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If you have a bit of time this Xmas, you may wish to read Philosophy of Mathematics: 5 Questions , edited by Vincent F. Hendricks & Hannes Leitgeb. This is a very nice series. 5 Questions collects together answers on 5 provocative questions by many of the leading contemporary figures in a given area, in this case the Philosophy and Mathematics. The book in question contains a lot of first-hand, interesting considerations, well beyond what one may find in more uptight, academic publications. CONTRIBUTORS: Jeremy Avigad, Steve Awodey, John L. Bell, Johan van Benthem , Douglas Bridges, Charles S. Chihara, Mark Colyvan , E. Brian Davies, Michael Detlefsen, Solomon Feferman, Bob Hale, Geoffrey Hellman, Jaakko Hintikka, Thomas Jech, H. Jerome Keisler, Ulrich Kohlenbach, Penelope Maddy , Paolo Mancosu , Charles Parsons , Michael D. Resnik, Stewart Shapiro, Wilfried Sieg, William Tait, Albert Visser, Alan Weir, Philip Welch, Crispin Wright, Edward N. Zalta. Discl

Gadgets I don't want for Xmas (aka Gaxets)

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Few weeks, the countdown has already started and the shops in the street know it too well: Xmas is coming. Plenty of gadgets that people with no ideas and too much money might be inclined to give you as a present. A house cluttered with visible, intruding IT... no thanks. Where is the mythical transparency? I fear the worst, so, dear reader, we need to join forces. Let me know which IT gadget you do not want for Xmas, and it might end up in this blog. Send an email . Subject: Gaxets. Let me start with my first Gaxet: " The chumby is a compact device that displays useful and entertaining information from the web using your wireless internet connection. Always on, it shows — nonstop — what's online that matters to you." At least it takes no battery, so when you will bin it the environment will suffer less.

if you could have a wish...

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When, in the previous post, I wrote that I was hoping to do a crash course on issues relevant to understanding what life is, I definitely did not have in mind my visits to the Buddhist temples in Kyoto. This is an experience that stays with you. It's like the Pantheon, Agia Sophia, St. Peter or the Parthenon. Surprisingly, the crowd of tourists was mainly "local", if huge. And, even more surprisingly, I found myself able to get "far from the madden crowd", the shops and the souvenirs. It required only a few steps at every temple and shrine I visited. People are unable to resist, here as everywhere, the powerful attractors of popular spots and large gatherings. I visited, among many other places, Kiyomizu-dera . Sometimes being alone, detached and with the game of life on halt, helps to think. You walk and kneel down in gigantic temples, which wood should not make possible. Strange, suggestive sounds; intentional noises that remain unexplained; prayers i

Metaperception in Tokyo

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Two days in Tokyo and I'm still recovering. First, on Thursday afternoon, I was invited by Prof. Syun Tutiya to give a talk on the future impact of IT on our lives at the National Institute of Informatics . It went very well, or at least I enjoyed it enormously. Superbright colleagues gave me a hard time and we kept discussing for four hours (yes, 4: one hour presentation and three hours of grilling). Much later, on Friday afternoon, a great meeting at the Uehiro Foundation , whose hospitality was simply overwhelming. We are planning the second international conference on information ethics, which will take place in NY in 2009 (the first took place in Oxford last year). In between, I was kindly invited to visit, on Friday morning, the Ishikawa Namiki Komuro Laboratory of the University of Tokyo. I was ready for something extraordinary but I was left speechless. I saw the future, thanks to two brilliant scientists: Alvaro Cassinelli , Carson Reynolds and a meeting with P

Nishinomiya-Yukawa Memorial International Syposium: What is Life? The Next 100 Years of Yukawa's Dream

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"What is life?" is not a question that Pilate asked, but it is as difficult as "what is truth?", so he might. Since Schrödinger's classic , there have been endless attempts at providing a satisfactory answer. The Nishinomiya- Yukawa Memorial International Syposium seeks to provide a multidisciplinary framework to tackle the nature of life in its many forms. It is a very worthwhile project. Some papers will probably be too technical even for a scientifically-minded philosopher (check the program here , you may need to install Japanese fonts). I'm supposed to provide the philosophical contribution, and my talk will be on bioinformation. Schroedinger kepts apologising in his classic for not being a biologist. I shall apologise twice, for not being a physicist (or Schrödinger) either. I hope that my participation will also be a crash course in life-related issues.

Rate and Rank

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Good and bad days make no news and are soon forgotten. But the best or worst moments in you life are memorable, worth mentioning and indeed ranking. The same applies to books and DVDs, restaurants and hotels, sofas and lamps, jokes and quotes. We love ranking because it’s fun and because it takes away the unpleasant doubt that accompanies every daily choice. It’s a mental-energy short-cut that can make you laugh (“what’s the most embarrassing thing Bush ever said?”) or get you through the roundabouts of life more smoothly. “This is the best fridge you can buy for that price” doesn’t get any straighter ( http://www.pricerunner.co.uk/ ). Ranking used to be done with friends in a pub or other social occasions, but the Web is clearly the perfect arena for the ranking aficionados. They can go global, harness whole databases and never miss a niche of interest. Web ranking has transformed the word of mouth to a word of mouse. And with the ease and transparency of the web, there emerges a so

30th International Wittgenstein Symposium: pictures

Some pictures are available here .

30th International Wittgenstein Symposium: Saturday

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Closing day, yesterday, more rain, less people. I hoped my paper "Understanding Epistemic Relevance" went well. The topic was how we might understand the concept of relevant (semantic) information. The discussion was extremely enjoyable and fruitful, at least on this side of the dialogue. We managed to avoid the " veridicality " issue (should x be true in order to count as semantic information?) and concentrated on a number of interesting aspects of relevance and semantic information. One of the best questions was asked by Fred Dretske . It addressed a crucial assumption in the paper, namely that in order to understand what relevance means, if one relies on an analysis in terms of questions+answers, then one has to assume that the agents involved are fully rational. Fred's concern was that this leaves out concrete applications to cases in which the agent is either unable (a child, a mentally handicapped person) or unwilling (e.g. for moral, religious or psycho

30th International Wittgenstein Symposium: Friday

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Friday, penultimate day at the Wittgenstein Symposium. It's raining. Several people have already left. First corrigendum : I failed to mention that I missed some talks at the beginning of the meeting. In particular, I was told by reliable sources that two were very interesting: Fred Dretske 's and Allen Renear 's. I cannot comment on either, but I heard that the audience was apparently unable to accept Fred's point that something may count as semantic information only if it is true. It must be people who also think that whales are fish, since they live in water. Intuitions can be a great point of departure, but they are certainly an awful point of arrival. We had a similar difficulty today, during the pannel session (see below). Second corrigendum : I was wrong, yesterday (see previous post below). There was another poor (I'm being kind) talk today, on ethical challenges posed by the internet . I've seen this done so many times. Someone wakes up and bang, he

30th International Wittgenstein Symposium: Thursday

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A flight from San Francisco to LA + a flight from LA to London + 24 hours in Oxford + another flight to Vienna (Austrian Airlines are excellent, I fully recommend them) + one hour car drive later (that is, after the Google meeting, see previous post), and here I'm, a bit jet-lagged, attending and speaking at the 30th In. Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg am Wechsel. This is not California, or Silicon Valley, or Google Headquarters. At the meeting, you pay 1 euro for your coffee (sic) and there is no wireless, but half a dozen, arthritic PCs, which are so sluggish that the 10cents per minute you are charged to check your email (airport business model?) become a fortune. Luckily, the staff is helpful, the weather is fine, and the close Mamas restaurant offers a very nice refuge: free WiFi, decent food (pizza/coke being your nerdy blogger's unimaginative usual food; but I am trying to switch to salads, thinking of the next squash season and the team back in College) and co

SciFoo 2007

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I seem to be the only philosopher among the ca. 200 people invited to this year SciFoo . Flattering, certainly, but perhaps also evidence of the marginal nature of philosophy? I wonder. I arrived with great expectations. This is a unconference or, as they say, the wiki of all conferences. Free thinking, free association, chatting and discussing about anything, sodas and food anytime you wish, great facilities at Google place. The program takes shape by having invitees volunteering to chair or organise sessions on the spot, or giving presentations on anything they would like to talk and get a discussion about. It sounded too good to miss it. I accepted and took the flight from Chicago , where I was for NACAP anyway. Getting here is not easy, the nearest truly international airport being LA, but, with some effort, I found the hotel. Nice place. On Friday (yesterday) I had the disconcerting experience of realising I did not know anyone, if not by name, fame, or wiki profile.

A book that should be read

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Here is another book I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the computational/informational turn in philosophy and especially in philosophy of science: Paul Humphreys, Extending Ourselves - Computational Science, Empiricism, and Scientific Method (Oxford: OUP, 2004; 2007 paperback). That it took me so long to read it merely shows how high the pile of my "legenda" is, it is not an indication of the quality of the text. Humphreys provides one of the best assessments known to me of the new form of computational empiricism that we might see develop in the future. The book is short, but full of information and packed with good ideas and suggestions. It has a very urbane, no-frills way of "being real" about several philosophical issues too often treated as scholastic untouchable dogmas and emptied of real life. His discussion of the realism debate is refreshing, for example, and the chapter on simulations is most interesting. In a way, it could almost be

Semantic Web and Chinese

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Recently, I've been doing research on the semantic web and be astonished by the number of utterly unjustified claims and the conceptual mess that circulates. But all this will be a matter of more structured and academic discussion at NACAP 2007 . In this blog, I like to call your attention to the following point. We all know that China will probably dominate the international scenario for years to come. Chinese has been a fascinating language for philosophers at least since Leibniz. Indeed, his idea of a characteristica universalis owes much to his interest in Chinese. Now, there is a major difference between Indo-European languages (like English) and Chinese: the former are more subject-prominent languages, the latter belongs to the family of more topic-prominent languages. ( note ) Oversimplifying, in one case (subject-prominence) there is preference for sentences likes "Mary likes pizza", with a subject, a predicate and an object; in the other case (topic-prominen

Levels of Abstraction: the rules of the game and their exceptions

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When you wish to play a game, the first thing you do is to try to grasp its basic rules. The story goes that the four-years old Capablanca learned to play chess by looking at his father playing. I tried that with cricket and I still haven't got a clue. Wrong approach, I guess I am not a natural. Normally, we get some explanation from a player or we read the instructions in the box. Now, there are very general rules which seem to apply, more ore less loosely, to a lot of games. Things like: you do not try to harm your opponent, e.g. by shooting the tennis or squash ball or football , or rugby ball or... at his face. Is there any very general rule that applies to conceptual games? I do not mean just Sudoku or Scrabble, I mean conceptual/philosophical games/challenges like Gettier problem or The Tower of Hanoi . Yes, and I would argue that among the most important, if not the most important is this: get your level of abstraction (LoA) right. Most philosophical problem

Second Life in First Life?

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Some time ago I argued that the next step in the informational revolution would be something that is now happening under our eyes: the erasure of a clear discrimination between online and "onlife". We are logged in 24/7, but... this is not what I meant! Enjoy the video :) PS thanks to Chiara (aka DarkSoul), a graduate student I supervise in Bari, for showing it to me.

Second Philosophy

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On May 23, the Maldives became the first country to open an embassy in Second Life (SL), the web-based, virtual world inhabited by more than 6.5 million avatars (computer-generated residents), beating Sweden by a week. A quick look at the daily press shows that the popularity of SL is increasing exponentially. But this is not the main reason why philosophers should pay attention to it. SL is nothing short of the largest and most realistic thought experiment ever attempted, a true mine for philosophical research. Of course, this is not exactly how Linden Lab sees it, but just a few examples can easily drive the point home. Ontologically, in SL the existential criterion seems to be some degree of “interactability” (x exists only if it can be interacted with) rather than a modal or temporal feature (x exists only if its essence is eternal and immutable) or an epistemic test (x exists only if it can be perceived). Your avatar might be there, but if it does not interact with its environme

Understanding the universe: priceless. For anything else: there is information theory

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I recently read two books: Information: The New Language of Science (2003) by Hans Christian Von Baeyer and Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes (2006), by Charles Seife. Both belong to that very readable, scientifically well-researched form of literature so popular in the English-speaking world. You know you are part of the semi-mythical EP ("educated public") if you enjoy reading such books. Both books talk about information in terms of Shannon's mathematical theory of communication, i.e., not in terms of something out there (like patterns in the environment, for example) and not in terms of something inside here (like meaningful things in one's head, for exampel). Both books are based on the same idea: information is everything. Both leave unclear whether this means that scientifically , everything can be explained in terms of information (theory); or whether, co

Italian Biotech Law Conference 2007

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This year the topic of the Italian Biotech Law Conference 2007 was "ownership of bioinformation", a very thorny issue. The conference turned out to be very interesting. It was, unfortunately, too short and perhaps badly timed, as most people at IFOM seemed to be thinking more about the Easter break than research. Having said this, I probably learnt much more than I contributed, since all the papers were very insightful. In my own contribution, I argued that, ultimately, genes are literally information (although a procedural kind of it) and that this interpretation allows one to unify, in a single approach to informational realism, both physics and biology. Basically, it makes a lot of sense to adopt a level of abstraction at which all processes, properties and entities, no matter whether just physical or also biological, are ultimately made of information. The previous thesis can be summarised through a slogan: in biology, the medium is the message. Linguistically, this me

IEG newsletter

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Welcome to the IEG newsletter ------------------------------------------------------------------------ In this issue: - Publications - Forthcoming - Conferences & Talks - Others ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Publications ----------------------------------------------------------------------- - P. Allo: . "Local Information and Adaptive Consequence", Logique & Analyse , 49(196): 461-488. - P. Allo & L. Floridi: . "Logic and the Philosophy of Information", Special issue of Logique & Analyse , 49(196). - L. Floridi: . "A look into the future impact of ICT on our lives", The Information Society . 2007, 23.1, 59-64. An abridged and modified version was published in TidBITS . . "Ética de la Información, su Naturaleza y Alcance" Spanish translation by Roberto Fel

The Digital Image

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The Digital Image , an interdisciplinary symposium from the Oxford e-Research Centre, took place on Friday 16th March. David Shotton had the brilliant idea to bring together Oxford academics who have interests in or are actively working with digital image data, across all disciplines. We described existing projects and activities, discussed state-of-the-art digital imaging and image processing techniques, talked about common interests concerning the description of images and knowledge extraction from digital image resources. It fell on me to present a philosophical view of digital images today. I talked mainly about avatars in Second Life . I should say that, as a member of the audience, the meeting was a fantastic success. I personally felt that I learnt more during that symposium than by attending so many boring conferences. The thing is that the speakers made a real effort not only to talk about digital images but also about their own fields in a way that was informati