Thursday, January 30, 2020

From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid NEXT meeting 9th February 2020: Does philosophy give us answers?

 
Dear Friends,
 
We are not meeting this Sunday the 2nd February. Our next meeting will therefore be the 9th February 2020.

Our next topic is: Does philosophy give us answers?
 
I will post an essay on Thursday next week.
 
Best Lawrence
 
tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/  OR  PhiloMadrid.com
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid
 
 
From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid NEXT meeting 9th February 2020: Does philosophy give us answers?
 
 
 

 







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Thursday, January 23, 2020

From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid 6:30pm meeting 26th January 2020: The utility of the useless





Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: The utility of the useless.

Pedro kindly sent us a letter explaining his ideas on the subject which we did to the point and succinctly.

I have also written an essay on the subject, although I have not tried to discuss the subject in the context of thousands of years the subject has been around.

The utility of the useless – Letter by Pedro
https://www.philomadrid.com/2020/01/the-utility-of-useless-letter-by-pedro.html

The utility of the useless – Essay Lawrence
https://www.philomadrid.com/2020/01/the-utility-of-useless.html

Best Lawrence


tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/  OR  PhiloMadrid.com
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid


From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid 6:30pm meeting 12th January 2020: The utility of the useless



 






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The utility of the useless


The utility of the useless

This subject is quite a common topic in the literature dating back into the mist of history. A quick search in a search engine will lead to many useful links. I include a few references at the end of the essay, although I won’t be discussing these references specifically.

I shall start my essay by referring to a number of words and common expressions in the language that express the idea of uselessness. Then, I follow up with what we mean or can mean by useless and utility. I’ll finish off with a short discussion on the question: Is philosophy useful?

Regarding direct synonyms for ‘useless’ we have, amongst others: worthless, ineffective, futile, junk, and for people we might use words such as hopeless, stupid, unskilled, unqualified, and so on. We can expand this list with expressions: not fit for purpose, white elephant, to buy a pup, and for a person, an incompetent person, an inept person and so.

Although in our language we recognise the concept of “useless” it seems that the meaning is always one of not being able to perform the function intended. However, we’ll be hard pressed to find a varied vocabulary to mean something without an intrinsic and intended function. If we accept that useful is always one of function then surely usefulness cannot refer to something which never had or does not have a function. But rather we really use “useful” in terms of something being able to perform a function it was intended to have.

On the one hand, usefulness (or useless) can refer to a feature that stopped performing its intended function: for example my finger print security device on the PC has stopped working (probably due to a corrupt driver) as opposed to a function that the intended utility is indeed not worth it. For example the flash fitted on top-end digital cameras. They are fine to take the occasional photo but useless to take repeated photos in complex situations.

So what is useless (useful/utility)? A more import aspect of our subject is that something might be useless because we do not know how to use what we are calling useless. For example, the function of manually adding or subtracting an exposure value on a camera from what the camera meter indicates. In art we can refer to some paintings that are dark (Goya), or seemingly random brushstrokes (Sisley/Renoir etc). We might get the impression that these works of art have no soul and therefore useless (as art) with no utility as works of art.

In the case of the exposure compensation function it can have a utility or value if we understand how a camera meter can be biased because of how cameras interpret light. In an art painting the chances are we are not viewing the painting under the correct light conditions and from the correct distance. Don’t forget the first duty of a museum is not to create the best conditions to view a painting, but rather to create the best conditions to preserve that painting without causing it any damage.

In trying to understand utility or usefulness we have to ask ourselves two questions: useful for whom? And useful for what? In other words, who has the authority to justify what is useful and what is useless?

Leandro Herreo, in his blog entry discussing the essay by Nuccio Ordine “The usefulness of the useless”, refers to money as a possible meaning for usefulness. In the Zhuangzi tale, Carpenter Shih comes across a serrate oak near the village shrine. When his apprentice questioned him why he didn’t look at the tree he told the apprentice that the tree was useless which explains why it grew old. In a dream the tree asks the carpenter how he knew that the tree was worthless, especially when other trees are abused. From the tree’s perspective being near the shrine saved its life since no one abused it.

In today’s world we are told that usefulness is indeed a function of money. We speak of investments rather than purchases for example a house in a prime location, or an art painting by a master and so on. Of course, a house is a place where we live and a painting is something we enjoy and admire. But buildings and paintings have always served as things to project wealth and power. Not to mention that especially buildings/property are also means of keeping money safe: assuming a steady increase in inflation.

Thus, surely, as the Carpenter’s tale suggests useful for those who can unlock and release the utility in the thing in question.  An aperture compensation function is useful for the photographer who is well skilled in photography. Ironically, even the carpenter knew the usefulness of the tree eve if it came to him in his dreams; maybe he was upset for not being able to cut the tree.

At this juncture the subject really hinges on the Zhuangzi quest for the useless or the question whether there could ever be something that is intrinsically useless but has a use; it sounds like a contradiction to me.

Finally, what is the usefulness of Philosophy? Or, if you like, is philosophy useful? As I have argued when it comes to utility we have to ask ourselves the two questions: Useful for whom and for what? But this leaves us with who is asking the questions. Unfortunately, it is a pity that philosophy is highly criticised by scientists who, themselves, are performing philosophy and asking philosophical questions. In effect, philosophy is what one does and not what one says one is saying one is doing. People in general also speak of philosophy as if there was one sort of philosophy, in the same frame of mind that painting is only one form of painting, oil painting.

I won’t go into the various forms of philosophy suffice it to say that the philosophy that fits the context of science is analytical philosophy, in other words the validity of methodology and more recently analysis of language. It is not that there is only one valid philosophy style but that each philosophy style has its own domain.

Maybe we can conclude that usefulness or utility is a matter of things being in their natural domain or habitat.


The usefulness of the useless
Blog Entry by Leandro Herreo discussing the subject in the essay by the Italian Professor, Nuccio Ordine.


The Zhuangzi translated by Burton Watson from the Chinese (The History of Chinese Philosophy): Carpenter Shih and the serrate oak.


The Utility of the Useless1. Nature 100, 176–178 (1917). https://doi.org/10.1038/100176b0

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/  OR  PhiloMadrid.com
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid


The utility of the useless - Letter by Pedro


Dear Lawrence:

Last Sunday I met my friend Jesus. He told me about a book he has read recently and found interesting.

The book is entitled: "La utilidad de lo inutil" written by Nuccio Ordine. An italian literature professor.

I bought it on Monday morning and began to read it.

To write an essay about the topic is far beyond my abilities.

To deal with this topic, this man, Ordine, offers in only 170 pages a salad with the opinions from: Dante, Aristoteles, Platon, Ovidio, Kant, Montaigne, Leopardi, Gautier, Garcia Marquez, Baudelaire, Keynes, Locke, Boccaccio, Garcia Lorca, Cervantes, Dickens, Heidegger, Ionesco, Calvino, Cioran, Gramsci, Euclides, and others... Just to mention a few.

This means that our topic has captured the interest of mankind all ever since the origin of time. Something similar has happened with religion.

So after beginning to read this book and hearing excerpts from his speeches on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=nuccio+ordine

I come to the conclusion that our body needs to eat, drink and breath. For this we need some money. Easy.

And our spirit needs to read, think, hear music, love, pray, dance, travel, make sport, know people, dream, and things like these. Which are qualified as useless. For these we need a lifetime. Not so easy.

And so, is living useful? I'm rather confused now.

I beg your pardon if I don´t write a real essay. Instead I offer you and our friends this little approach to the question which got so many votes.

Thank you once again for your dedication Lawrence!

Yours sincerely

Pedro Rodriguez

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Collateral damage of new technology

 
Dear Friends,
 
This Sunday we are discussing: Collateral damage of new technology.
 
At face value we might find it hard to see the connection between new technology and philosophy. A possible reason could well be that we focus on the bits of metal that make up the technology rather than the people who are responsible for the technology.

Link to my essay: Collateral damage of new technology
https://www.philomadrid.com/2020/01/collateral-damage-of-new-technology.html
 
Best Lawrence
 
tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/  OR  PhiloMadrid.com
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid
 
 
From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid 6:30pm meeting: Collateral damage of new technology.
 
 
 






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Collateral damage of new technology


The term collateral-damage is today part of our daily language and a mild meaning would be any unintended damage or effect of our actions. An extreme meaning would be death or serious damage or injury due to the physical technology itself. In modern times the term was introduced into the language to identify injury or death due to military action or technology.

What is important is that the use and meaning of the term is well defined and uncontroversial. From the language perspective we should not encounter any big issues regarding use and meaning. But like all terms once these are imported into other natural languages the use and meaning might change and even take a life of its own. Take for example the term “terrorism/terrorist” which has been completely bastardised and emasculated beyond recognition in all modern languages.

By definition collateral damage is a negative term and used to describe issues that are more serious in nature than the norm. Very few people complain about packaging board or printing paper even though today these technologies are well advanced and very efficient in energy use. At most we might think of recycling of paper as an environmental issue but the technology to make paper is both efficient and clean. The problem with paper is when pulp is sources from unscrupulous people who cut down virgin trees rather than managed forests. And at the paper making end when water is not recycled properly but discharged into clean waterways.  The problem of paper pollution is not the technology per se but the people who run and invest in the technology.

In other words, new technology is an issue because the people who build and commission the technology and those who use the technology are indeed human beings and therefore make mistakes, cheat and have limited foresights about the future. This factor makes the topic a legitimate philosophical issue.

Mulder K.F. (2013) in the Handbook of Sustainable Engineering* discusses the very same issue we have at hand: Impact of New Technologies: How to Assess the Intended and Unintended Effects of New Technologies? You can find the abstract, which is enough for us, at the link below. Mulder starts his abstract saying: New technologies change the world irreversibly. These changes do not necessarily need to be only positive.
In my opinion new technology per se can have two types of key risks: inherent risks by being new and risks due to abuse by becoming familiar  by the technology. An inherent risk would be for example the introduction of the motor car. At end of the 19th century this was really new technology and it was a risk for people because it was something never experienced in the streets before.

Hence a lot of measures were introduced over the years to mitigate the risks and effects of this new technology: a person running in front of a car with a red flag to warn people and later the driving licence. This is not to say that horses and carriages were not dangers and horses polluted for their time just as much as the motor car.

Again we move from the inherent risk of new technology to abuse or misuse of the technology, for example driving fast, drink driving, lack of skills and so on and so forth. Whilst these are at the extreme end of a Gaussian curve, there are also serious risks with new technology that are due to human-made risks. By human-made risks I mean risks that the designers, commissioners, manufacturers, and users should have foreseen, or negligently did not account for the risk when making or using the technology.

I shall use two examples from Japan to illustrate this type of human-made risks which in reality causes is much concern when new technology is introduced. The Wikipedia entry on the: “Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster”* refers to an article from the Japan Times 2011, and I quote:
“The reactor's emergency diesel generators and DC batteries, crucial components in powering cooling systems after a power loss, were located in the basements of the reactor turbine buildings, in accordance with GE's specifications. Mid-level GE engineers expressed concerns, relayed to TEPCO, that this left them vulnerable to flooding.” (Link below) (Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) maintained the plant and General Electric (GE) designed the plant.)

Nuclear technology is indeed at the top of “new technologies” that give us concern and we are all familiar with the headline collateral damage of this industry. But even our headline information of this technology can be deceptive and misleading. Indeed there is a danger, as I have already mentioned, of failing to see the wood, in our case human beings, from the trees i.e. the technology.

Now compare this quote with The Japan Times article, now only available at Archieve.org because the article is not available on the newspaper’s site: “Interviews with former engineers and an examination of documents by The Japan Times show it was GE that decided to place the critical backup systems in the turbine buildings' underground floors, and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. did not allow any alternation to the U.S. company's blueprints.” (Link below)

The collateral damage here is of course the hundreds of victims after the Tsunami that were affected by the failure of the nuclear plant as a consequence of the negligence of the project leaders be they American or Japanese. But we have a secondary collateral damage here: the lack of accountability for designing what should have been a safe technology an unsafe power station as proven by historical facts. How many technologies are compromised because of human-made risks? How many historical facts have been misrepresented to avoid accountability of those responsible for the technology?

Mulder’s argument is that new technologies are not always for the good and even in the abstract he identifies many cases that we take for granted. But sometimes fate or the nature of events turn a human-made risk into our advantage. Of course, I have no intention of discussing how many times this happens but at least I have a very relevant example below.

The Japanese fighter aircraft, the Zero*, was well known during the Second World War for two characteristics: it was a very good plane for most of the war and it was a flying coffin for the pilot because it lacked a self-sealing fuel tank; see the article on the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum website: The Problem with Self-Sealing Fuel Tanks: Capacity, not Weight. (Link below).

Basically a self-sealing fuel tank would seal any bullet holes if ever it was hit or punctured thus preventing the fuel from exploding. Hence, the chances are that the plane would explode and in most cases kill the pilot during combat; this was not an issue in planes used the Europe. Thus one of the most effective war machines in the Pacific war turned out to be an asset for the allies. In this case the issue was well known for the designer and the Japanese navy even though the compromise was due to lack of power of the engine. I would argue that this is a good example not only of human-made risks but even criminal disregard to human life. In contrast consider the grounding of the new Boeing 737 MAX passenger last year: another case of collateral damage of new technology.

The most important factor in the examples above is that either by design or by default we disassociate the technology from the human beings responible for it. Thus our ire is directed towards the pieces of metal rather than the people who make and, most important, commission the technology and who might have financial and political interest to cut corners and maybe fail to assess risks properly.

A key issue for our discussion is that the assumptions we make and risks we take with new technology and fail to mitigate might have serious moral, legal and human consequences that ought not to be tolerated in a civilized law abiding society.



* Mulder K.F. (2013) Impact of New Technologies: How to Assess the Intended and Unintended Effects of New Technologies? In: Kauffman J., Lee KM. (eds) Handbook of Sustainable Engineering. Springer, Dordrecht
    DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-8939-8_35

* Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster

* GE plan followed with inflexibility
Tepco wouldn't change blueprint that left emergency backups vulnerable
The Japan Times July 13, 2011

* Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum: The Problem with Self-Sealing Fuel Tanks: Capacity, not Weight - https://www.pearlharboraviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/problem-self-sealing-fuel-tanks/
Also the Wikipedia entry Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/  OR  PhiloMadrid.com
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid


From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid 6:30pm meeting: Collateral damage of new technology.



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