Monday, December 27, 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope: Science, Engineering, or Worship?


A lot of astronomers, scientists, and engineers got a nice Christmas present when the James Webb Space Telescope was launched successfully from the French Guiana Ariane rocket site on December 25.  A lot could still go wrong with this instrument, which has cost about $8 billion so far—a lot more than the $500 million that was originally planned back in 1996.  But if you ask whether the telescope was worth it, right away you get into imponderables that are hard to quantify.


With the possible exception of high-energy physics, astronomy has to be today's most costly pure-science endeavor.  Looking at the stars used to be the purview of professional astrologers, who kings and priests of many religions relied on to forecast auspicious times for major undertakings such as battles.  Ironically, at least up to the Middle Ages, astrology was viewed as a very practical endeavor, much as weather forecasting is viewed today.  Royal personages didn't pay astrologers to study the stars just for the heck of it—they wanted results.  And in the nature of prediction, they got results too—usually wrong ones, but just enough right guesses to keep the astrologers going. 


With the Scientific Revolution, astrology gradually gave way to astronomy, the scientific study of the stars for their own sake, so to speak.  Again ironically, one of the founders of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wanted to free what we now know as science from its tendency toward idle speculation, and make it more practical "for the relief of man's estate."  Anyone who uses modern engineered technology of any form has realized Bacon's ambition to employ scientific knowledge for practical purposes, and Bacon's dream of relieving man's estate has come to pass in ways that Bacon could not have imagined.


The improvement he might be most impressed with is the extended lifespan most of us enjoy compared to Bacon's day, and that is due in no small part to modern medical technology, although things like sanitary water systems and sewers, electric grids, and power machinery have all contributed to extending our lifespans as well. 


But the realm of pure knowledge for its own sake has also benefited in countless ways from technology, notably computer technology, which was developed initially for terribly practical reasons having to do with World War II.  Once developed by mathematicians, scientists, and yes, engineers, computers turned out to have applications in both science and engineering, neither of which could do without them today.  In the last few decades, computer software has not only relieved engineers of much tedious grungework with slide rules, tables, and graphs, it has rendered superfluous many kinds of jobs that engineers formerly did.  As technology companies will tell you, they have not yet managed to replace all their engineers with software, but some of them would like to.  Because, as a wise manager once told me, engineers are carried on balance sheets as overhead, like the light bill, and accountants are always on the lookout for ways to lower overhead.


From the point of view of gross national product, the James Webb Space Telescope is all overhead.  Yes, a lot of engineering firms got contracts to build components of it.  Yes, a lot of engineers held jobs largely because of it.  So in that respect, it generated economic activity.  But unlike giant tech firms like Google, Apple, or Facebook, NASA's piddly little $8 billion or so spent on the telescope is a small blip on the economic radar.  Yet the public pays a huge amount of attention to it.  Why?


Not because of the engineering involved, although that engineering must be the peak of the art in terms of aerospace design—hundreds of square feet of precision reflector mirrors and sheets of thin heat reflectors deployed in the unforgiving vacuum of space where you can't call up the serviceman if something goes wrong, and a coordination among a lot of disparate parts and organizations that makes an automotive company look simple. 


No, for most people, the appeal of the telescope isn't the engineering of it, necessary as that was.  It's what the thing may be able to do, which is to look farther and more carefully into the distant past than ever before, and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of living beings outside of our own planet. 


With its enhanced infrared imaging capability, the James Webb Space Telescope can potentially image exoplanets beyond our solar system, and who knows what that will tell us?  If we knew, it wouldn't be research.  In an age for which the ideas of God and life beyond the grave are losing their appeal, people need something to hope for.  And for many, astronomy seems to be a kind of substitute religion, an asking of the question, "What else is out there?" in a materialistic way that modern science is more than happy to do, in exchange for a few billion dollars here and there.


Feeling wonder at seeing the stars on a cold, clear night was what led the ancient poet, who may have been King David himself, to write in Psalm 8,


    When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast   ordained;

    What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

    For thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.


That poet did not have the benefit of a telescope to see how many more stars there were than he could see with the unaided eye.  But he saw enough to see evidence of God's handiwork in them, and how small humanity seems in comparison to the vastness of the universe. 


Far from the village-atheist view that religion resisted the demotion of man from the center of the universe that the Copernican revolution brought, the Jews at least recognized that, physically speaking, humanity is just a tiny speck on the astronomical map.  What makes humanity worthwhile isn't our size, or our engineering of things like the James Webb Space Telescope, or even the knowledge that we may discover with it.  It's that we are creatures—created ones—of God, who loved us enough to "make us a little lower than the angels," and to come in human form to Earth about two thousand years ago, on a day we traditionally reckon as December 25.


Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article on the James Webb Space Telescope.  The quotation from Psalm 8 is from the King James version of the Bible, verses 3-5.

Monday, December 20, 2021

What's Global Warming Like in San Marcos?


Strictly speaking, I can't answer that question, although I live in San Marcos, a town of some 50,000 people halfway between San Antonio and Austin.  The reason is that global warming (or climate change, whichever you prefer) is such a large-scale event in both space and time that it's hard to attribute any particular thing to it exclusively. 


Some people have seized on this fuzziness to assert either that it doesn't exist at all—you can always debate about how accurate climate models are and whether the scientists have neglected some factor they don't know about—or that its effects are so random on a small scale that you can't say for sure what it's doing.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, many people on this side of the argument are evangelical Christians.


Other people have used the same large-scale characteristics to reach the conclusion that humanity is headed straight to the wastebasket unless we revolutionize the world, including every level of government in every country, to stop global warming in its tracks, which itself would take several generations to do.  For reasons that are also not that clear, many people on this side of the argument don't believe in God, or at least don't believe God is going to bail us out of the looming mess at the last minute, anyway.


One person who combines aspects of both sides, and is highly qualified to speak on the topic, is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech in Lubbock.  Hayhoe has a Ph. D. in atmospheric science and has spent her professional career of two decades or more publishing both in the technical literature and in efforts to publicize the science of climate change in a way that the average person can understand.  She is married to a pastor, who co-authored a book with her (A Climate for Change:  Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions), is chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and holds an endowed chair in public policy and public law.  If anybody is qualified to talk about climate change to religious people, Hayhoe is.  And almost alone among people who talk a lot about climate change, she has a good attitude about it.


Attitudes are a lot more important than people give them credit for.  The unique thing about humanity, in comparison to the rest of the living beings on this planet, is that we can think about our situations historically over time and make long-term plans to deal with various challenges.  Plants and other animal species can adapt to changing circumstances to a degree, but not if all members of a species get killed by a sudden shift in the environment.  Only humans can anticipate something by looking at preliminary signs of its coming and plan to deal with it in advance.  But attitude will determine how well we do that.


Planning in advance is essentially what Hayhoe wants us to do.  In an interview she conducted with Tim Reckmeyer of SW Newsmedia last February, after Texas' Big Freeze, she pointed out that one side effect of global warming is to weaken the jet stream, because the Arctic is warming even faster than the rest of the world.  Weakened jet streams tend to wobble more north and south, and an unusually large wobble to the south was what let extremely cold air all the way down to Texas last February, leading to multiple power-generation failures and a week without water and power for millions of Texans, a couple of hundred of whom died as a result.  So, paradoxically, it is possible that global warming contributed to the extraordinary cold snap of last February.


On the other hand, my wife and I planted some tomato vines last March, once it got warm enough that we weren't worried about another freeze.  Our little cherry tomatoes in particular did very well this year, and the fall and winter so far have been so mild that we are still harvesting cherry tomatoes with only twelve days to go till January.  If this is global warming, it's good for cherry tomatoes, anyway.


Hayhoe points out that there are basically three kinds of things we can do about global warming:  mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.  By mitigation, she means doing something about the main things that cause global warming in the first place, chief among which is carbon emissions.  By adaptation, she means dealing with the consequences of global warming: rising ocean levels and all that means for coastal regions, and changes in crop patterns and weather cycles, including more of certain types of severe weather in some cases.  And the third thing, suffering, will happen without us doing anything about it. 


Hayhoe says that it's up to us to choose what mix we're going to have of these three things.  Obviously, if we ignore mitigation and adaptation and just pretend everything will be fine, she thinks we'll have more of the third thing—suffering.  And she may well be right, although suffering due to global warming is not always that easy to distinguish from suffering as part of the general plight of humanity since the dawn of time. 


Mitigation means things like carbon taxes and the panoply of world-government-like policies that the more extreme members of the Democratic Party would like to impose on the U. S.  I think Hayhoe would say about this that it doesn't have to be as painful as it looks, and there are plenty of opportunities to preserve economic growth for poor as well as rich countries if mitigation is done wisely.  If Hayhoe was in charge, that might work as well as she says, but not all government policymakers are as wise as Hayhoe.


And adaptation I think is something that everyone can agree on.  With CO2 levels doing what they're doing, we can fairly reliably predict that certain things are going to happen, and it's just carelessness not to prepare for them.  Conscious and planned adaptation is one of the things humanity does best, and sensible actions along these lines are probably what will get the most consensus among disagreeing parties.


We've enjoyed our cherry tomatoes this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if it all comes to an abrupt end in a world-beating cold snap.  Global warming won't change the old saying that goes "if you don't like Texas weather, just wait a few minutes."  It just may make it more true than ever. 


Sources:  I referred to Katherine Hayhoe's website ( which has a link to the Reckmeyer interview at

Monday, December 13, 2021

Will Facebook Kill Holly?


I have to be careful about how I write today's column.  I do not want to betray any trusts.  But on the other hand, a topic that up to now has been an abstraction for me has become personal.  A statistic has turned into someone I know by only two degrees of separation.  To protect anonymity, I have changed names and some details of what I will write here.  But I assure you that what I am going to write is based on facts as personally told to me yesterday by someone I will call Holly, who is a twelve-year-old girl.


Facebook, which has now renamed itself Meta, has been in the news a lot lately, and in this column as well, because of revelations by a whistleblower named Frances Haugen.  Haugen is a former Facebook employee who has made thousands of pages of internal company documents public, and has testified to Congress that Facebook's own research showed how harmful Instagram and other Facebook services are to teenagers (girls especially) at the same time that Facebook's CEO (and owner of 55% of Facebook's voting stock) Mark Zuckerberg was saying that his firm did not have such data.  The blowback from articles in the Wall Street Journal and other outlets detailing the hypocritical actions of Zuckerberg and his company have been so severe that the firm dropped plans it had announced to develop a new service for preteens called Instagram Kids. 


A recent article on the Mind Matters website described these problems and quoted results of a 2017 survey by the UK's Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement that showed, among other damning evidence, that the average age at which a child creates an Instagram account is 10, even though the software says you must be at least 13 to join.  Among users aged 14 to 24, all but one of the social-media platforms surveyed showed a negative score for well-being. 


With all this as a background, let me introduce Holly.  My wife and I have known her slightly for at least a couple of years, and when she was ten she invited us to see her elementary school's production of Peter Pan, which for an older couple with no children was quite a treat.  Although she has since moved to a nearby town, she has the opportunity to visit us now and then, and yesterday was one of those visits.


Holly is one of those girls who will rattle on about whatever she's doing if you just stand there and look interested, so my wife and I invited her in and we listened to what she had to say about what she'd been doing since we saw her almost a year ago.  She talked about horses, a vacation trip her family took back East, and then school.  She attends school in a medium-size town that has a reputation for old-fashioned conservative family values, and if something bad is happening there, it's probably happening everywhere else too. 


She had her smartphone with her, of course, and as she took it out she said her parents have put some controls on it to limit her social-media use.  While I cannot recall her exact words, the following is substantially what she said next, when we asked her how things have gone at school with COVID-19. 


"Oh, it's been bad.  One of my friends committed suicide over the summer.  They were bullying her and it just got so bad she couldn't take it anymore.  That's why I don't mind my folks doing what they did to my phone."


After Holly left and I had a chance to think about the enormity of what she told me, it began to sink in that here was a twelve-year-old girl having to deal with the suicide of a personal friend of hers, caused at least in part by the baleful influence of social media. 


I don't know anything about this incident other than what Holly told me.  Scientists would call this "anecdotal evidence" and dismiss it as useless for analytical purposes.  But it brings home the diabolical influence of social media on children in a way that no amount of statistics or studies have done for me.  Somewhere there are parents of the sixth-grader who committed suicide who will never see their daughter reach adulthood, get married, or have children of her own.  And during the girl's lifetime, because she was one of the twenty-two million users of Instagram or whatever social media platform contributed to her death, she enriched Mark Zuckerberg personally by some amount of dollars he could charge for ads on her phone.  I hope he enjoys them now, because he won't get a chance to enjoy them where he's going.


Holly, at the tender age of twelve, already seems to have a realistic sense of how dangerous social media can be.  And, Lord willing, this sense will preserve her from the hazards of using Facebook products when one is a teenage girl.  But she has all of her teenage years to negotiate ahead of her, and she is not out of the social-media woods yet.


We live in an age that is hostile to children and teenagers in many ways.  If a child manages to survive the first nine months of its existence in the womb without being aborted, as about 600,000 children are each year in the U. S., she or he becomes a kind of hobby that our economy tolerates but does not encourage—a "lifestyle choice" that burdens the otherwise ideal worker with expenses and obligations that distract him or her from being totally devoted to the job and to consumption of products and services such as Facebook.  Upon entering school, an institution that was formerly safeguarded from commercial exploitation back in the 1960s when I experienced it, the child becomes the target of 24/7 ads from streaming services, the various entertainment platforms such as video games, and eventually from smartphones.  Arrayed against each individual child is the Big Tech oligopoly of world-class expertise that extracts the last drop of attention with manipulative artificial-intelligence-enhanced algorithms that do things no ordinary human being can understand, algorithms that can intensify social interactions into a tornado of abuse that makes death at one's own hand look like the only alternative. 


We prayed with Holly before she left, for protection from the many dangers that life as a girl in America presents today.  God is more powerful that Mark Zuckerberg.  But Mark Zuckerberg doesn't seem to think so.


Sources:  I thank Denyse O'Leary for drawing my attention to the article "Facebook's . . . Er, Meta's Instagram Problem" by Heather Zeiger, which appeared at 

Monday, December 06, 2021

What Could Go Wrong With Engineered Life Forms?


That question left the hypothetical realm for reality when Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University, and Josh Bongard, professor of computer science at the University of Vermont, teamed together to turn frog stem cells into robots.  During the robots' seven-day lifetime, they can move, collect small particles into piles, and even reproduce after a fashion.  Developed with the essential assistance of an artificial-intelligence supercomputer, the new entities—called "xenobots" after the Latin name of the frog species from which the cells were taken—are the first step in a long-anticipated field that has up to now existed only in the realms of dystopian science fiction.


Starting with knowledge of what frog skin and cardiac cells can do, the scientists tried billions of different combinations of cells in the computer to see which ones could do interesting things.  The computer eventually came up with recipes for the assembly of hundreds of cells, which the scientists then carried out in the laboratory in a finicky process like assembling microscopic Legos, only the Legos are incubated frog stem cells.  The resulting robots did indeed move around, carry small objects in custom-designed pouches, and a Pac-Man-shaped version could even reproduce, spitting out a smaller version of itself every now and then. 


Asked about the ethical implications of their research, Levin said, "When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences."  Bomgard added, "There's all of this innate creativity in life. . . . We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms."


Levin and Bomgard are working scientists, not philosophers, so when they talk out of school, so to speak, addressing not the technicalities of AI-driven biological multicell-organism fabrication, but the wider implications of their work, they tend to say things that are not particularly profound or original.  Anyone who has had trouble driving an unfamiliar rental car has learned that messing around with complex systems that we don't understand can have unintended consequences.  The question is not whether unintended consequences will happen—they will—but what you do about them if they do, and how you keep the bad ones from hurting yourself or others.


What Bomgard said encapsulates three streams of philosophy and religion that have been flowing since prehistoric times.  The first stream is the wonder one feels at the awesome abundance and variety of life on Earth.  "Innate creativity" implies that it's simply there somehow, a brute fact of existence that Bomgard uses the passive voice for ("There is . . . creativity.")  This ignores the fact that in every other area of human endeavor—music, art, literature, and science itself—creativity appears to arise only from human intelligence.  The elaborate architecture of termite nests, in which somehow thousands of individually unintelligent creatures cooperate to build sophisticated towers and walls, is sometimes called "creative," but is more realistically categorized as instinct.  No termite colony has ever built a Corinthian column.  It takes human ingenuity to do that.


No reasonable scientist can deny that there is a creative spirit or principle in life, but the universally-observed prohibition on talking about God in this connection forces them simply to say it's out there without saying where it came from.  But a failure to acknowledge the source of all that creativity may lead to something worse than unintended consequences later on.


The second great stream of philosophy is the human desire to know, as Aristotle points out in the first words of his Metaphysics:  "All men by nature desire to know."  Bomgard echoes this when he says "We want to understand that more deeply," meaning the creativity of life.  Up to the time of Sir Francis Bacon, philosophers sought wisdom as the highest secular good.  But since Bacon, the unadulterated desire simply to know something has been subordinated most of the time to the third great stream of philosophical inquiry:  how can we use this knowledge to, in Bacon's words, "better man's estate"? 


In more prosaic terms, the difference between the two streams is the distinction between pure and applied science, although the distinction is often more hypothetical than real.  Ask any mathematician who has spent years pursuing a theory simply because it was beautiful and interesting, and then turns around to discover that the National Security Agency has made it an essential part of their latest encryption technology.  The fact is, pure science can turn into applied science at any time, and a lot of applied science has accidentally led to advances in pure science as well.


But that ignores the question of intent, which is the critical question that so far has remained unanswered, at least by Levin and Bomgard.  I will admit that the first thing I thought of when I read about what they were doing is a phrase first used by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, a half-science and half-fiction speculation on the future of nanotechnology.  Gray goo is what the world would turn into if we managed to develop a type of bacteria that could live and multiply by consuming almost anything.  Readers will recognize the xenobot as possibly a first necessary step in making gray goo.


Levin and Bomgard say there is no chance their modified frog embryo cells will escape the lab, as they can't live outside the specially prepared soup that they were incubated in, and when they die they are as harmless as the thousands of skin cells each of us shed from our bodies every day.  Well, maybe so.  But the same curiosity and "if we can do it, we must do it" attitude that drove these researchers to make their xenobots can (I don't say will) lead to the kind of disasters that we've seen in the last couple of years.  We may never know whether COVID-19 originated in a lab accident in Wuhan or by natural means.  But even the remote possibility that it was man-made should make us all take very hard and long looks at efforts to manipulate living things in a way that could lead to harm, even if it is accidental.


Sources:  CNN carried the article "World's first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say" by Katie Hunt on Nov. 29, 2021 at  I also referred to the University of Vermont press release on the research at, and the Wikipedia article on gray goo.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Judging the Judgments of AI


If New York City mayor Bill De Blasio allows a new bill passed by the city council to go into effect, employers who use artificial-intelligence (AI) systems to evaluate potential hires will be obliged to conduct a yearly audit of their systems to show they are not discriminating with regard to race or gender.  Human resource departments have turned to AI as a quick and apparently effective way to sift through the mountains of applications that Internet-based job searches often generate.  AI isn't limited to hiring, though, as increasing numbers of organizations are using it for job evaluations and other personnel-related functions. 


Another thing the bill would do is to give candidates an option to choose an alternative process by which to be evaluated.  So if you don't want a computer evaluating you, you can ask for another opinion, although it isn't clear what form this alternative might take.  And it's also not clear what would keep every job applicant from asking for the alternative at the outset, but maybe you have to be rejected by the AI system first to request it.


In any case, New York City's proposed bill is one of the first pieces of legislation designed to address an increasingly prominent issue:  the question of unfair discrimination by AI systems. 


Anyone who has been paying attention to the progress of AI technology has heard some horror stories about things as seemingly basic as facial recognition.  An article in the December issue of Scientific American mentions that MIT's Media Lab found poorer accuracy in facial-recognition technologies when non-white faces were being viewed than otherwise. 


Those who defend AI can cite the old saying among software engineers:  "garbage in, garbage out."  The performance of an AI system is only as good as the set of training data that it uses to "learn" how to do its job.  If the software's designers select a training database that is short on non-white faces, for example, or women, or other groups that have historically been discriminated against unfairly, then its performance will probably be inferior when it deals with people from those groups in reality.  So one answer to discriminatory outcomes from AI is to improve the training data pools with special attention being paid to minority groups.


In implementing the proposed New York City legislation, someone is going to have to set standards for the non-discrimination audits.  Out of a pool of 100 women and 100 men who are otherwise equally qualified, on average, what will the AI system have to do in order to be judged non-discriminatory?  Picking 10 men and no women would be ruled out of bounds, I'm pretty sure.  But what about four women and six men?  Or six women and four men?  At what point will it be viewed as discriminating against men?  Or do the people enforcing the law have ideological biases that make them consider discriminating against men to be impossible?  So far, none of these questions have been answered.


Perhaps the best feature of the proposed law is not the annual-audit provision, but the conferral of the right to request an alternative evaluation process.  There is a trend in business these days to weed out any function or operation that up to now has been done by people, and replace the people with software.  There are huge sectors of business operations where this transition is well-nigh complete. 


Credit ratings, for example, are accepted by nearly everyone, lendors and borrowers alike, and are generated almost entirely by algorithms.  The difference between this process and AI systems is that, in principle at least, one can ask to see the equations that make up one's credit rating, although I suspect hardly anyone does.  The point is that if you ask how your credit rating was arrived at, someone should be able to tell you how it was done.


But AI is a different breed of cat.  For the newest and most effective kinds (so-called "deep neural networks") even the software developers can't tell you how the system arrives at a given decision.  If it's opaque to its developers, the rest of us can give up any hope of understanding how it works. 


Being considered for a job isn't the same as being tried for a crime, but there are useful parallels.  In both cases, one's past is being judged in a way that will affect one's future.  One of the most beneficial traditions of English common law is the custom of a trial by a jury of one's peers.  Although trial by jury itself has fallen on hard times because the legal system has gone in for the same efficiency measures that the business world goes for (some judges are even using AI to help them decide sentence terms), the principle that a human being should ultimately be judged not by a machine, but by other human beings, is one that we abandon at our peril.


Theologians recognize that many heresies are not so much the stating of something that is false, as they are the overemphasis of one true idea at the expense of the other true ideas.  If we make efficiency a goal rather than simply a means to more important goals, we are going to run roughshod over other more important principles and practices that have given rise to modern Western civilization—the right to be judged by one's peers, for example, instead of by an opaque and all-powerful algorithm. 


New York's city council is right to recognize that AI personnel evaluation can be unfair.  Whether they have found the best way to deal with the problem is an open question.  But at least they acknowledge that all is not well with an AI-dominated future, and that something must be done before we get so used to it that it's too late to recover what we've lost.


Sources:  The AP news story by Matt O'Brien entitled "NYC aims to be first to rein in AI hiring tools" appeared on Nov. 19 at  The Scientific American article "Spying On Your Emotions" by John McQuaid (pp. 40-47) was in the December 2021 issue.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Does Money Trump Ethics in Architecture?


Not too long ago, I was talking with an alumnus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who mentioned plans for a strange new dorm on campus.  When I was attending Caltech in the 1970s, I had the privilege of visiting UCSB, and it has classic California vistas:  beautiful beaches, palm trees, hills in the distance.  You'd think that any dormitory there would take advantage of the view and at least allocate one window per dorm room. 


Well, Charlie Munger doesn't think so.  Mr. Munger, an investing associate of Warren Buffett, is a billionaire who has donated $200 million to UCSB to build a new dormitory for 4500 students, which would make it one of the largest campus dormitories in the U. S.  But he is saying that the dorm has to be built to his specifications, which are eccentric, to say the least.


For one thing, most of the rooms where people actually live will not have any windows.  Mr. Munger says they can have TV screens like staterooms in Disney cruises have—a kind of artificial view that can show anyplace in the world, presumably.  The building will have windows, but they open into common areas, not individual dorm rooms.  And so far, the plan is for the building to have only two entrances. 


Architect Dennis McFadden has served on UCSB's building design review committee for about fifteen years.  But he resigned when the university overruled his opposition and accepted Munger's plans.  In his letter of resignation, he said that “[t]he basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being."  That about covers the field.


I'm assuming that the university has not yet run the plans by the Santa Barbara building-code enforcement authorities.   When they do, I think the fire marshal will have a few things to say about plans for 4500 students to exit in a few minutes through only two doors.  Maybe Mr. Munger won't mind the university hanging fire escape stairs on the exterior, like you used to see in old noir movies of nighttime chase scenes in Manhattan.  But that's an issue for another day.


The more fundamental question here is, how loudly does money talk when it comes to building a fairly permanent thing like a dorm that promises to create problems?  If we judge by UCSB's actions so far, you'd have to say it talks pretty loud. 


It's one thing if an eccentric millionaire leaves her dog a $12 million trust fund, as the late Leona Helmsley did for her Maltese, appropriately named Trouble.  But buildings in general, and dormitories in particular, affect the lives of thousands of people over their useful lifetime. And while I doubt that anyone staying in Munger Hall will actually die from it (unless they really do build it with only two exits and there's a fire), they may not grow weepy at their thirtieth class reunion remembering how wonderful it was to wake up every morning to a TV screen instead of an ocean view.


In The Aesthetics of Architecture, the late philosopher Roger Scruton tackles the old saw de gustibus non est disputandum (Latin for "in matters of taste, there can be no disputes.")  He disputes learnedly through some three hundred pages that just as there are right and wrong ways to behave in society and to execute works of fine art, there are right and wrong ways to design buildings—not simply from a safety point of view (which goes without saying) but from an aesthetic point of view as well. 


If UCSB builds Munger's dorm exactly the way he wants it built, it won't fall down.  And with appropriate fire codes observed, it won't be dangerous to live in.  But judging from the exterior artist's renderings posted online, the building can't avoid looking like what it is:  a big box to house as many students as possible in as small a volume as possible. 


We have something similar on my campus at Texas State University.  Called Tower Hall, it is a monolithic oblong block dotted with tiny four-foot-square windows, and from the outside (I've never been inside, although my nephew survived a semester in it) looks like a nice, well-designed prison.  I'm not sure what combination of poor judgment, penny-pinching, and administrative absence of mind led to the construction of Tower Hall, but fortunately the mistake has never been repeated, and since the advent of our current President Trauth twenty years ago, she has imposed a pleasing Romanesque style on any building built during her watch. 


Engineers, and possibly even some architects, spend little time or effort to consider the long-term effect of the appearance and aesthetics of their works on the spirits of those who use them.  Americans are not accustomed to think in terms of decades, and perhaps the enticing bait of a $200 million donation beguiled the UCSB authorities to throw good judgment to the winds and agree to Mr. Munger's plans for a building that will ultimately cost more than five times that amount.  Such issues have imponderable effects that may not seem important, but accumulate over time. 


If we're looking for bad examples, I will hold up for inspection the school I served for seventeen years:  the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  While it is a highly regarded research institution that would be better known if it were not in the shadows of Harvard and MIT, the Amherst campus is a collection of nearly every major architectural style used for public buildings in the U. S. from 1880 to 2020, from a faux-Gothic chapel to a 1960s-bunker-style administration building to a 26-story library that is wildly out of place in a small New England town.  It shows what happens when every administration wants to make its presence known by doing something different than the last one did with whatever money comes to hand.  Although there were other factors involved, I blame the architecture of that campus for at least some of the most depressing days I have ever experienced in my life.


I recommend that the building planners at UCSB take an extended field trip—in February, let's say—to UMass Amherst to see what happens when other considerations prevail over aesthetic ones in architecture.  If that doesn't change their minds, nothing will.


Sources:  The website ArchDaily carried Kaley Overstreet's article "Health, Safety, and Welfar:  What Happens when Design Trumps Ethics?" on Nov. 14 at  I also referred to an NBC news article at, and Wikipedia articles on Charlie Munger and Leona Helmsley.  Roger Scruton's The Aesthetics of Architecture was published in 1979 by Princeton University Press.  I thank Michael Cook of for drawing my attention to the ArchDaily article.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Aristotle Questions Innovation


Innovation—the introduction of new technologies, systems, and ways of doing things—is such a fundamental part of modern engineering, and life in general, that we rarely stop to question it.  One person who has, however, is Gladden Pappin, a professor of political science at the University of Dallas.  In the December issue of First Things, he describes how innovation has become an automatic part of modern Western civilization, and why this is not necessarily a good thing.


Pappin is no Luddite (the Luddites were allegedly followers of nineteenth-century Ned Ludd, a weaver who protested job losses to factory production).  Pappin recognizes the benefits of modern sanitation, medicine, electric power, and other technologies that were largely in place by the end of the 1900s.  But he sees our continual fascination with, and enslavement to, constantly new things as unthinking and possibly harmful. 


He uses Uber as an example of an apparently novel enterprise which is really just a variation on the well-known theme of taxi companies.  Uber managed to outgrow conventional taxi firms by cutting pay and benefits to drivers in order to beat the established firms' prices.  As a result, you have a lot of overstressed gig workers who try to hold down two or three jobs in order to survive, and a company that has never yet made a profit.  Pappin claims that this kind of "creative destruction" (in Joseph Schumpeter's phrase) is far more destructive than creative.


Although Pappin doesn't mention social media in detail, it is another example of an innovation that is essentially a repackaging of a prehistoric idea:  gossip.  But social media put gossip on steroids, enabled key gossipers to gain a worldwide audience, and profits mightily thereby, but at an unknown and probably negative net cost to the body politic.


Pappin looks to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle for guidance about how a regime should treat innovation with a mind toward self-preservation.  It turns out that Aristotle gave a lot of thought to political change, devoting an entire chapter of his book Politics to it. 


As you might expect, Aristotle starts out with some common-sense notions.  Before a regime permits a change, it should consider whether the change will truly improve things, or whether it's just a change for change's sake.  Admittedly, that is sometimes hard to tell in advance.  But keeping in mind the ultimate goal—the preservation of the regime—it only stands to reason that things that might tend to harm it should be restricted, or even not allowed in the first place.


One of the boldest recommendations Pappin draws from this general principle is that "[w]e should, for instance, consider state actions to limit the destructive 'innovations' of modern firms."  For example, brick-and-mortar stores have suffered or disappeared as a result of online retailing.  A suitably-scaled tax on online shopping could fix that.  Social media companies have thrived by staying several steps ahead of the sluggish democratic legislative process.  An energetic legislative and executive effort to get ahead of them could work wonders in alleviating the distortions, vindictiveness, and even deaths from bullying-inspired suicide that social media now is responsible for. 


Pappin is rather short on ideas about how we could get from here to there.  Part of the problem is that the very innovations we would try to regulate have crippled the democratic process by which we would regulate them.  Nevertheless, there is hope in discussions about how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could be modified or even eliminated.  Currently, it protects social media companies from being sued because of what third parties put on their websites.  As the recent success of the Texas "fetal heartbeat" law shows, passing laws allowing private citizens to effectively enforce laws rather than making the government do it can, at the least, throw a monkey wrench into corporate and governmental attempts to counter them.  So that might be one of the best methods to approach the problem of social media outlets whose operations do more harm than good.


There is of course the danger of going overboard with such regulation.  My standard example of overweening government control of technology is Cuba.  When Castro took over in 1959, he installed a top-down micromanaged regime that essentially froze large sectors of the economy in place.  The fact that no imports of foreign automobiles were allowed eventually made Cuba one of the largest repositories of working vintage cars in the world.  But as the former owner of a 1955 Oldsmobile, I can say that this situation is probably not what the vast majority of Cubans prefer in the way of transportation. 


My point is that freezing all innovation can be just as harmful, if not more harmful, that allowing all innovation.  And Aristotle himself would probably agree that the optimum situation lies somewhere between the extreme poles of total government control of anything novel coming into the economy, and complete passivity in the face of unbridled competition manipulatted by an oligarchy of the wealthiest few, which is pretty much what we have now. 


As a Christian, Pappin ends his piece with a call for family-friendly innovations that would go so far as to pay cash to people who want to raise larger families.  But there's nothing exclusively Christian about this idea.  In another article in the same issue, an economist points out that the West in general is entering a period of demographic decline that could be extremely destabilizing.  Again, simple common sense says you can't have a nation of urban singles forever, even if you open the immigration floodgates and hope everyone will get along. 


Pappin's call to take a second look at our unthinking "innovation-is-good" attitude is something that goes counter to most corporate policy statements and the can-do engineering state of mind itself.  But just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.  Asking whether an innovation is really going to help society is a different question than asking whether it will help a given company's bottom line.  But the ethical engineer considers both.


Sources:  Gladden J. Pappin's "Advancing in Place" appeared in the December 2021 issue of First Things on pp. 25-30, and can be viewed online at