Monday, January 28, 2008

One Laptop Per Reviewer

A few months ago (in "One Laptop Per Child: Will It Fly?" on Oct. 22, 2007), I commented on the XO laptop designed by some MIT folks who want to bring the benefits of computer technology to millions of children in third-world countries. It's now been long enough for several reviewers to write independent judgments of the unit, and the results are interesting, to say the least.

Andrew "bunnie" Huang, a recent MIT Ph. D. graduate who writes a blog on computer hardware, thinks the mechanical design of the unit is "brilliant." He was impressed by clever little tricks such as the way the designers used the WiFi antennas to fold down and seal the ventilation holes when the unit's not being used. Along with several other reviewers, Huang liked the way the screen remains visible even in bright sunlight—an intentional design choice that makes the unit usable in outdoor settings.

Huang was less impressed with the software, which consists mainly of a custom-tailored word processing program, a web browser, and a few games. The games ran okay, but the web browser was challenged by all but the simplest websites and the keyboard, a sealed-membrane type, was tiring to use for more than a few minutes.

Since the XO is designed for children, several reviewers turned the unit over to their kids to see what would happen. This is hardly a fair test of how the device will fare in Ulan Bator or Rwanda, because the children of people who write computer reviews for a living are going to be a little more tech-savvy than your average child in a developing country. Not surprisingly, the reports from the younger set were mixed. One kid liked the "squishy" feel of the membrane keyboard, but gave up on the gizmo when he found he couldn't use some functions on one of his favorite websites. In order to get her XO to work properly, another reviewer had to face the challenges of downloading a new operating system from the OLPC website. She pointed out that following instructions like "At your root prompt, type: olpc-update (build-no) where (build-no) is the name of the build you would like" is not something that many non-techie adults will be able to handle. Kids adapt faster, but they have to have some initial guidance too.

Many of the units reviewed were pre-production prototypes, and so we should make allowances for that. Also, since each reviewer got only one unit, no one ever tried the mesh-networking capability. Mesh networking means that in a village with a dozen XO's, every laptop could in principle communicate with every other laptop as well as with the one internet hub in the village, all without fancy network setups or wires. We have to take the developers' word that this feature works as advertised.

Overall, the reviewers were enthusiastic about the genuinely good features—mainly hardware ones—and tried to be kind about the limitations, mainly in software and capabilities.

I've been sitting here racking my brain for an example of something like this in the history of technology which actually worked. What I'm trying to think of is a situation where a bunch of experts saw a need for a specially stripped-down version of something that was successful elsewhere in the context of a wealthy set of economies, and designed it and implemented it through government channels. And the only example I can come up with is the Trabant, which can hardly be termed an unqualified success.

For those who don't recognize the name (probably nearly everyone), the Trabant was the only car made in East Germany from 1957 to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle lawnmower-type engine, a plastic body, and could go from 0 to 60 in only 21 seconds—on good days. I remember reading in the early 1990s about a resident of East Germany who bought a "real" car and was so disgusted with his Trabant that he drove it into a dumpster and left it there. By now, the few remaining "Trabis" have become collector's items, but back when the Trabant was the only car you could buy in East Germany, demand for them outside the country was approximately zero.

Will the XO become the computer world's version of the Trabant? One reason to think not is that the XO seems to be designed better in some ways than most of today's laptops. My guess is that engineers will cherry-pick the XO's design, taking the good features and putting them into higher-end commercial models, but probably leaving the software alone. And unless some huge institution like the Department of Defense or a national government enforces the use of a particular software that is otherwise not as attractive as commercially viable products, its doom is generally sure.

All the professional computer reviewers in the world can say nice things about the XO, but that won't make it popular among its target audience: children in the poorest parts of the world. Trying to do something about poverty—economic and intellectual—is a good thing. And it's only natural for computer experts to try to use their expertise to benefit poor people with computers. But in trying to get the technology to the people who need it, the OLPC people will have to deal with matters even more complex than open operating systems and mesh networks: the root causes of poverty, unemployment, and oppression. And the realm of those matters is not to be found in hardware or software, but in the human soul.

Sources: I consulted XO reviews by Martha Mendoza of AP (reprinted in the Jan. 28, 2008 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, Jamie and Nicholas Bsales at, Kenneth Barrow at, and "bunnie" at A story on the collector's renaissance of the Trabant can be found at The One Laptop Per Child website is

Monday, January 21, 2008

Did Morality Evolve? Part 2

Last week I commented on an article by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker about what he called the "moral instinct." Pinker reviewed scientific efforts to study moral thinking in the brain and across cultures which showed that (a) moral issues are treated differently in the brain than other kinds of thought processes and (b) there seems to be a core of moral principles or categories that show up in every culture studied. I pointed out that the second fact was noticed long before Pinker and his colleagues came along, in the form of the theory of natural law. But I left for today the question of where these core principles come from.

As a subscriber to the evolutionary origin of everything human, Pinker believes that morality is ultimately attributable to evolution. However, he is sensitive to the jaundiced eye with which the general public tends to view evolutionary psychology. As Pinker puts this dim view, "Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes."

This is all wrong, Pinker says, and he gives two reasons for why we shouldn't be afraid or concerned when people like him show us the true foundations of morality.

For one thing, the idea of the "selfish gene" is only a metaphor. Genes aren't really selfish, he says, but in order to simplify complex concepts for mass consumption, geneticists have sometimes talked about genes as though they had personality traits such as selfishness and a determination to survive. And people take this the wrong way to mean that if my genes are selfish, then I must be too, even when I think I'm being generous or self-sacrificing, because it's all really a ploy to perpetuate my genes.

Okay, but Pinker can't have things both ways in this regard. Either the idea of the selfish gene is a reality, or it is a metaphor. If we are moral and believe in the absolute rightness of certain moral principles merely because we evolved that way, then the selfish gene is more than a metaphor: it is the bottom level of reality, the ultimate explanation. And if talking about selfish genes is just a metaphor, and the reality is that genes are just molecules, then what does that make people? Just bigger collections of molecules. And if genes can't be selfish in any meaningful sense, why can the larger collections of molecules called people be selfish, or moral, or anything else other than passive followers of physical law?

To his credit, Pinker senses these questions at some level, because next he asks with regard to the idea that morality evolved, ". . . where does it leave the concept of morality itself?" Does it have a real, objective existence independent of genes or evolution, or is it just foam on the ocean of evolved life, a superficial feature that would cease to exist if the evolved creatures called human beings died out?

Pinker notes that many people attribute the origin of moral principles to God. Then he misapplies what is known to philosophers as the "Euthyphro dilemma." Euthypro is the title of one of Plato's dialogs in which Plato describes a conversation between Socrates and a young man named Euthyphro who wants to prosecute his own father for murder. Disrespect for elders was an impiety in Greek society, but so was murder—hence the dilemma. Socrates asks why the moral or pious act is regarded as moral or pious: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

Pinker takes this dilemma and uses it as a supposedly bulletproof response to anyone who claims a divine origin for morality. And he does it not by asserting anything, but by throwing up a cloud of questions which he leaves to the reader to answer in the desired way: "Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist?"

After disposing of the God alternative, Pinker admits that maybe moral principles have a kind of Platonic existence "out there," like the truths of mathematics. Even atheists can believe in the Pythagorean Theorem, and Pinker seems to be comfortable with the idea of "moral realism"—the notion that maybe there really are moral principles that we discover, but which would be there even if people weren't around to understand them. And he winds up by saying that maybe we'll behave better if we understand where our morality comes from and how our bodies work when we deal with moral issues.

If Pinker had looked a little more seriously at the Euthyphro dilemma, he would have realized that Socrates didn't so much dispose of the idea of a divine origin for morality as he tried to lead Euthyphro to a deeper understanding of what piety is. Philosophers still discuss various ways of concluding the Euthyphro argument, which is by no means universally regarded as a knockout response to the contention that God invented morality.

If one believes in a God outside the natural universe and time, a God who created everything, then morality must be one of the things God created. Philosophers like to pose "what-if" questions that are titillating to our intellects, but often these questions disregard the character of the personalities involved. My own answer to the question of whether God would suddenly turn around and make the good today bad tomorrow, is that "God wouldn't do a thing like that." Maybe in some abstract God-of-the-philosophers world, such a thing is a logical possibility. But those who know God, which is just an extension of how one person knows another, know that God doesn't act that way. Never has and never will.

So a viable alternative to Pinker's Platonic moral realism is a theologically informed belief that somehow—perhaps by using evolutionary processes—God wrote the moral law on our hearts. Either way, I can say along with Pinker that we didn't just make it up by ourselves.

Sources: Pinker's article can be found at Both Wikipedia ("Euthyphro dilemma") and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ("Religion and morality") have good discussions of the Euthyphro dialogue and its implications. The quotation from Socrates above was taken from the Wikipedia article.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Did Morality Evolve? Part 1

Every now and then I like to ruminate on the paradox of engineering ethics. Modern engineering is founded on the principles of objectivity, the scientific method, and the rule of accepting only ideas that can be defended by logical arguments based on observations and measurements. But the foundations of ethics and morality look very different, to say the least. So how can you do engineering ethics without betraying the principles of either engineering or ethics?

The latest stimulus to re-examine this topic came in the form of an article in the Jan. 13 online edition of the New York Times Magazine by Steven Pinker. Pinker holds a chair in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a comparative rarity among academic psychologists in that he writes clearly and actually listens to the arguments of his opponents. In "The Moral Instinct," Pinker surveys the rapidly advancing science of studying moral behavior by using the tools of experimental psychology.

One of the most interesting recent findings is that the brain has a kind of morality switch built into it. Psychologists can study the activity of particular areas of the brain by using a technique called functional MRI, which shows a picture of brain regions that are taking up more oxygen and presumably working harder. A region called the "dorsolateral surface of the frontal lobes" handles rational thinking such as trying to balance your checkbook without a calculator. On the other hand, the medial frontal-lobe regions deal with emotions about other people—a morality switch that gets turned on some times but not other times.

In one study, the researchers posed a series of moral dilemmas to the subjects and asked them to decide what to do. One question—call it the utilitarian question—involved throwing a streetcar-track switch to save five workers' lives by sending a runaway train to run over a sixth worker. Another question—call it the emotional question—was basically the same dilemma, but instead of throwing a switch, the subject had to decide whether to throw a fat man off a bridge. Of the tests that were not spoiled when the subject laughed so hard at the questions that he fell out of the chair and away from the fMRI machine, the researchers found that only the rational part of the brain got involved when the critical act was just throwing a switch. But when the subject had to imagine walking up to a living, breathing man and throwing him to his death, even if it would save five other lives, the emotional part of the brain lit up and got into a fight with the rational part, which also woke up a third part of the brain that acts as a kind of referee between conflicting signals.

The point of this is that psychologists can now use fMRI and other techniques to distinguish between questions and issues that we use mainly rational thinking to answer, and ones which we respond to by appealing to a more basic, non-rational process that Pinker calls the "moral instinct." And Pinker says some very interesting things about this instinct.

For one thing, studies of people from all walks of life and from a variety of cultures all indicate that there may be a core of instinctive moral beliefs that we all have in common. The very fact that Pinker is willing to admit this shows that he is not captive to the "morality-is-subjective" school of thought which has flourished in academia in recent years. Pinker says what he says, not because of any ideological conviction, but because survey and laboratory data from all over the world confirm it. He cites the work of another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who says there are basically five categories of moral principles that cover most of the ground for everybody. What are they?

Without going into too much detail, here's the list: (1) Harm—don't hurt other people and help them if you can. (2) Fairness—people in comparable situations should be treated comparably. (3) Group loyalty—other things being equal, take care of your own (family, friends, city, nation) first. (4) Authority—there are rules, rulers, and rulemakers who should be respected and deferred to. (5) Purity—Saintliness, cleanliness, and being without spot or blemish are good things, and grubbiness, filth, and disorder are bad ones.

Pinker says a lot more, but perhaps I will save some of it for next week. I'd like to stop right there and note that what Pinker and his psychological colleagues are doing is searching for experimental validation of something called natural law. And it looks to me like they've found it.

Natural law is the idea that certain principles of morality are not simply agreed upon by mutual consent, but somehow inhere in the nature of things. And not only that, but in some sense these principles of natural law are built into human nature. The idea of natural law goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who saw it as something God put into all human beings, whether or not they believed in God. It was viewed as a strong basis for human laws until the Enlightenment, when other philosophies of law became more popular. But natural law still has its defenders in the legal profession, political science, and religion.

One of the most articulate defenses of natural law was written in 1947 by C. S. Lewis, the Oxford literary scholar and author. In a small book called The Abolition of Man, Lewis appended a list of what he discerned to be the central principles of what he called the "Tao" or universal laws of morality. Lewis's "Law of General Beneficence" and his "Law of Mercy" look a lot like the moral principle pertaining to Harm above. His "Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors" pertain to the principle of Authority, and you can link Lewis's "Duties to Children and Posterity" and his "Law of Special Beneficence" (that is, to family, country, etc.) to the Group Loyalty principle above.

How did Lewis come up with a list that overlaps in so many ways with the product of the latest modern psychological research? By studying the writings of ancient cultures: Babylonia, Egypt, China, and the Norsemen, among others. Pretty good for a guy with no research funding or graduate assistants, way back in the dark ages of 1947.

The point of this little lesson is that ethics and morality, far from being founded on criteria that are purely subjective, and therefore culturally bound and changeable, seems to come from a source that is pretty constant in its basic outlines across time, space, and cultures. And the latest deliverances of modern experimental psychology back up that idea. We will say more about Pinker's article next week, but this point is worth pondering till then.

Sources: Pinker's article appeared at Besides Lewis and his The Abolition of Man, another highly readable proponent of natural law is J. Budziszewski, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Written On the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997).

Monday, January 07, 2008

NASA's Air Transportation Safety Survey: Light, Heat, and Fog

Regular readers of this blog know that NASA is not my favorite government agency. Once upon a time in the 1960s, it had a clear mission, attracted some of the world's best professionals, and landed men on the moon. But since then the organization has swayed between focused, clear projects (space telescopes such as Hubble come to mind), and disasters ranging from the tragic (the Challenger and Columbia disasters) to the merely expensive (I could cite numerous space-probe projects that went awry here). The disasters have won a place of prominence for NASA in most engineering ethics textbooks, which usually use the Challenger disaster as an example of how bad management can kill people.

Well, it is my sad duty to comment on yet another episode of what looks like a good idea gone awry due to internal conflicts, bickering, and bad management inside NASA, plus possibly a little help from the media. After NASA started to implement what promised to be a great idea about how to improve airline safety (there's the light), the agency got in a tussle with freedom-of-information-act requestors, NASA head Michael Griffin intervened and took hostile questions from Congress and other agencies (there's the heat), and finally released the data in a close-to-unusable form (there's the fog).

First, the light. Everybody familiar with engineering ethics problems knows that for every major disaster (a bridge that actually falls down, a spaceship that crashes), there are dozens to hundreds of lesser problems and issues that, if noticed and properly acted upon, can serve as warnings about some truly major problems that can then be prevented. Knowing this, some clever people at NASA and outside it (notably a questionnaire expert at Stanford named John Krosnick) organized a big telephone survey of thousands of airline pilots and did interviews from 2001 to 2004, asking them about potentially hazardous incidents that they had personal experience with. This was called the National Aviation Operation Monitoring System.

The normal way that the Federal Aviation Administration (an agency separate from NASA) finds out about near-misses and so on is when pilots file reports on them. Apparently there are rules about when a pilot is supposed to report a near accident, but if pilots are human (most of them are, anyway), they probably don't always follow such rules. If other pilots are involved, the whole process smacks somewhat of ratting on one's colleague, and I suppose there is no reward for reporting these things other than the knowledge that you're following the rules. Anyway, to my knowledge, that is the only current mechanism for detecting incidents that might tell us about dangerous trends having to do with new equipment or procedures, for instance, that might lead to serious accidents in the future.

The NASA-sponsored survey project was an advance on this method. It didn't just wait for pilots to report incidents—it went out and asked about them in random phone surveys. In the nature of things, this kind of survey will turn up more data than one that relies upon the pilot's initiative to write up and submit a report. But there are ways of calibrating out that difference and arriving at something close to the truth, if the survey is checked by other means and completed under the supervision of qualified experts such as Prof. Krosnick.

Well, that didn't happen. Or if it did, we don't know about it yet. Evidently, when the numbers of incidents reported by pilots through the phone survey turned out to be a lot higher than the numbers the FAA was getting, some news media people got wind of the information and submitted requests for it under the Freedom of Information Act. Now if I were in NASA's shoes, this might give me some pause, admittedly. It takes a certain amount of time to process and analyze data, but it seems like with computer-aided methods, a year or two should be enough for the survey investigators to write up and issue a report. No report was issued. Why is not clear, except that NASA is quoted as saying it didn't want to harm the airline industry. Well, fine, but crashes harm the airline industry too, and if this data can be used to improve the already good airline safety record further, it's a shame that NASA has sat on it so long.

In congressional hearings about the matter held last October, NASA head Griffin promised to release some data from the project by the end of the year. He kept the letter of his promise, anyway, by posting a 16,000-page .pdf document somewhere on NASA's website on Dec. 31, 2007. A number of indications show that NASA was not especially eager for people to do anything with this data.

For one thing, the news release announcing the document said it was to be found at NASA's website, "" For anyone familiar with NASA's huge and almost Byzantine website, that's like saying "It's in Arkansas." Your scribe spent fifteen minutes looking for it there and with Google, without success. This is not to say it's not there—the Associated Press people found it, but they're paid to do things like that. A search with NASA's own website search engine under "National Aviation Operations Monitoring System" done while I was looking at that very phrase in one of their own news releases on their own website—turned up zero results. Go figure.

What I figure is what many news outlets have concluded: for some reason, possibly the one NASA stated about fear of scaring customers away from airlines, they are reluctant to make these results public or useful in any meaningful way that could actually serve the original purpose of the survey, which was to come up with a better way of catching potential airline accidents before they become real ones. So we have a situation where $11 million of the taxpayer's money has been spent on a media flap and a release of data in a form that one of the survey's own designers—Prof. Krosnick—says is intentionally designed to mislead anyone who tries to use it.

After one of the old movie comedy team Laurel and Hardy's epic screwups involving ropes, stairs, ladders, cream pies, a piano, and a goat, Oliver Hardy would turn to Stan Laurel and say, "Well, Stanley, this is a fi-i-i-ne mess!" That about covers this latest NASA episode. The best thing I can say about it is that nobody got killed, although if it had been done better, we might have been able to prevent some fatalities in the future.

Sources: Two news reports on the NASA data release are at the Houston Chronicle website and the Chicago Tribune website,0,3362253.story. NASA's own news release announcing the data is at If a sharp-eyed or patient reader locates the actual URL where the NASA survey data is available, I would appreciate it if you could send it to me so I could mention it in a revised blog.