Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blank Slaters

The defining characteristic of a blank slater is the belief that human intelligence, personality, and physical attributes are largely trainable and conditionable. The definition of largely is of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it variety. So far as I know, there had been no formal definition of blank slater attempted by anyone who uses the term.

If you care about mine, I believe that intelligence differences in adulthood are somewhere between .6 and .8 heritable in First World countries, with the true factor most likely being toward the .8 end. See here for a short summary of the latest Minnesota Twins Studies findings.

Anyone who believes that intelligence differences are only trivially heritable, say less than .3, I would most likely consider a blank slater.

I believe that broad personality differences are about .5 heritable. Again, I would tend to classify as a blank stater anyone who believes they are significantly less than that.

I believe that there are other intellectual capacities, such as musical ability, that have a large genetic component. I know of no study that tried to measure it.

I believe that athletic abilities have a huge heritable component. Take, for example, a persons ration of fast twitch muscle fiber to slow twitch muscle fiber. That is ratio is inborn, and it has a major effect on what sports a person can be good at. I would characterize anyone who thinks a good athlete can be created by taking a random student and making him practice a lot as a blank slater, good being defined as, say, a high-school star.

I used to laugh at the people who declared that blacks average so much better in basketball than whites because blacks play so much more basketball as kids. No, white me can't jump because white men are usually born with less fast twitch fiber in their legs than people of West African descent.

Now, the average person, when asked, isn't going to be willing or able to provide his heritability estimates on demand. One can, however, recognize blank slaters by what they do. Using NCLB again as an example, one can see that the congress that passed it and the media who continue to treat NCLB's goals as reasonable are working from blank-slate assumptions.

Those who believe that different races, sexes, and ethnicities would be proportionally represented in a given job if hiring were free of discrimination are working from blank-slate premises.

Those who believe that their schools are failing black students who score about one standard deviation below white students on academic tests are working from blank slater premises.

The fact is many human differences are inborn. They are either genetic or the result of something that happened in the womb. They are intractable. Pretending it isn't so doesn't make it not so. It just gets in the way of doing things that might actually work.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


This sounds interesting. Also see the NYT article.

It reminds me of what I read about twenty years ago or so, AI researchers trying to build huge databases to give computers context of the natural world and the human social sphere. This idea, if it takes off, would harness the information and skills of millions of participants.

Furthermore, Google is trying to build an AI, and I'm sure the Google AI would be just as happy to slurp up the Freebase database as Freebase is to slurp up Wikipedia and other databases.

Folks, we are building God.

Friday, March 09, 2007

If you aren't paranoid, you haven't been paying attention.

One needs to get used to the fact that, unless civilization is crippled, there are going to be huge archives of data collected about everyone. The government is already starting to make it illegal to erase these archives. Growing computational power will make it increasingly simple to search, collate, and analyze these archives. Some examples:

Your cellular telephone company is going to track the location of your phone at all times. This "service" will be sold to the public as useful for 911 calls. It might already be implemented; I haven't kept track of the issue.

Your phone company keeps track of all the numbers being dialed from your phone and calling to your phone.

Your cellular telephone can be used as a bugging device.

Your friends, acquaintances, coworkers, rivals, etc. are going to take your picture and make videos of you with and without your knowledge. These photographs and videos are going to get posted to the Web. As computational resources get better and cheaper, it is going to become increasingly easy to identify you, even if you currently aren't identified. The coeds who get a little crazy during spring break this year might have to answer some tough questions ten years from now when they are trying to make partner at the law firm. (Or not, the mores might change as everyone's skeletons get pulled from the closet.)

If you get mentioned in the local paper or written about in the company newsletter, it is going to available forever. It might not be posted to the Web, but it will be there to be searched if someone subpoenas it. The same will all of your business emails. Remember it is becoming increasingly illegal for businesses to delete anything.

Businesses right now make certain privacy guarantees, but all of them will roll over for the government, and their guarantees aren't necessarily honored if the company is acquired. Sure, Real Doll guaranteed your privacy, but when Sony (or Hustler) buys them out, they made no such promises to you.

Everything you buy with a credit card is part of your permanent record.

Everything you buy while using a store loyalty card is part of your permanent record.

Your ISP will bend over for the government.

If you fly somewhere, it is part of your permanent record.

If you cross the border, it is part of your permanent record.

I repeat, searching, collating, and analyzing your permanent record is getting steadily easier.