February 27, 2004


Arnold Kling has published the top 10 answers given in a poll of university presidents asked what books they believe “every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century." Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. The Republic
  4. Democracy in America
  5. The Iliad
  6. Hamlet
  7. The Koran
  8. The Wealth of Nations
  9. The Prince
  10. The Federalist Papers

Kling is disturbed by the vintage of these books, and he notes rather dourly that the university presidents have apparently failed to sanitize the canon of its over-reliance on “dead white males.” He also points out that the top ten list is void of books on science and technology, and that there are few books on the longer list of about 70 that were written since 1950.

I have a couple of preliminary comments on this list:

1. The presidents were asked to give a list of books, not topics of study. Science, technology, and current events would no doubt have had a much stronger showing had the presidents been asked to name topics, rather than books. As one of the commenters over on Randall Parker’s blog pointed out, science and technology are topics that need not rely so heavily upon a defined canon:

It may be that university professors were considering works that really ought to be read in the original. Science and mathematics benefit from an approach that can treat the latest theories and arguments, as well as providing a grounding in the history of the doctrines. An up to date textbook is better for that than actually reading Darwin's writings.

The Iliad, on the other hand, is not improved by being made into a textbook. It ought to be read in the original Greek, but failing that, in an accurate translation—I like the Fitzgerald myself. Many of these other works are of the same type—literary masterpieces that everyone ought to actually read. They can't be substituted with excerpts or textbooks, whereas Darwin not only can, but [is] thereby improved upon.

The canon of science is important for understanding the history of science, but perhaps less important for understanding science itself.

2. They were asked to provide a list of books they recommend, not books that are actually read. For my part, when my daughter starts college in a few years, I will be delighted to learn that she is being required to read any of the books named on the list (absent some anti-Western smear job in which the books are required so that the student scan learn how wrong they are or, in the case of the Koran, how much better it is.) The presidents may be recommending them, but I doubt that these titles are making it on to the required reading lists at many universities.

That being said, I think Kling is right in concluding that the list is deficient. If we want to truly prepare young people for life in the 21st century, those books alone are not going to cut it. Kling proposes his own reading list.

  1. The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

  2. The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil

  3. The Transparent Society, by David Brin

  4. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

  5. Eastward to Tartary, by Robert Kaplan

Excellent selections. If some of the titles look familiar, they should. The Transparent Society has been mentioned in many of our recent discussions on The Speculist, and hardly a week goes by that we don’t make a reference to The Age of Spiritual Machines.

As Stephen has been pointing out in his recent entries on rapid change, today there is simply more to know than there has been at any previous point in human history. As has always been the case, the path to usefulness in society — that is, to having a career — involves picking out a subset of knowledge in which to specialize. Nobody can know everything about everything; however, the notion of a “liberal” education came from the idea that there was a core of highly generalized knowledge that a productive and responsible citizen of a free society should have.

So we have to be specialists, but we should also be generalists. Unfortunately, the idea of a liberal education has fallen by the wayside. There are abundant examples of stories of academicians who specialize in the humanities or social sciences, where they appear to get by just fine, and yet who have staggeringly under-developed or erroneous knowledge of science and mathematics. Here’s one of my favorites.

The equal and opposite stereotype is that of the soulless technocrat who can’t be bothered by the kind of “mushy thinking” that a typical philosophical or aesthetic discussion would entail. There are no measurements to be taken, no numbers to be recorded, so such a conversation is a pointless waste of time. We were given a very mild nod toward this kind of thinking in a recent comment from one of our readers, responding to the proposition that qualitative as well as quantitative differences can be identified between two information processing systems:

Well, the word "information" must be a term of art then. You're using it to mean "words and ideas and stuff" (a lay definition), while those of us who study information flow in complex systems use it to capture the Shannon information measure of a system, which describes the system's state.

If you'd like to propose a reasonable and mutually agreeable replacement word, which describes the very limited and special form of information processing you're talking about, I'm game. Give me something you can measure, and we can have this entertaining discussion like adults.

Would it help this reader in his work to know that the “lay” definition of information is what the word has meant for hundreds of years, that its Latin and Greek roots have to do with the idea of in-formed, that is to say, changed from within by the acquisition of “words and ideas and stuff?” Probably not. He can capture the Shannon information measure of system with or without knowing any of that.

On the other hand, would such background knowledge help him to have discussions on other (albeit closely related) subjects with people outside his discipline? Clearly it might, if only by freeing him from the insistence that his discipline’s (rather recent) co-opting of the term represents its only possible valid use. The broader our knowledge, the greater our ability to see an issue from a variety of perspectives.

With that in mind, let’s turn away from negative stereotypes. It would be helpful to find an example of someone whose knowledge was balanced between the old and the new, between the humanistic and the scientific.

Someone like Isaac Asimov.

Here’s a guy who wrote more than 300 books, and who was as interested in Shakespeare as he was in Physics, as interested in Biology as he was in the Bible. He had his own special interests, of course. His doctorate was in biochemistry. (He also specialized in robotic ethics and future history, but that’s a different story — or rather set of stories.) His annotated edition of Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books.

I remember reading one of his books on astronomy, years ago, and being struck by a side passage in which he pointed out how silly and redundant it is to talk about “the Milky Way galaxy.” (Galaxy, it turns out, is Greek for milky way.) Always looking ahead, he was very much aware that knowledge is rooted in the past. Would he have approved of the university presidents’ list of books? Definitely. In fact, he wrote commentaries on several of them. Would he have liked Kling’s list of books? Without question. And it’s a shame that he’s not still around to write on some of those topics.

Here in the 21st century, the old questions are still with us. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is truth? As difficult as these questions have always been to grapple with, rapid technological change promises to put a new spin on each of them. The “free citizen” would do well to be familiar both with traditional approaches to these questions and with the science and technology that promise to turn them on their heads.

Anyhow, that’s what Isaac would do.

Posted by Phil at 02:26 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

Required Reading

Stephen's piece on Hanging Around, below, is especially interesting when read along side Reason's new essay on Bootstrapping to Radical Life Extension.

While you're over at Fight Aging!, don't miss out on my new "director's cut" of Death Sucks.

It isn't too early to start thinking about those mid-term grades, folks.

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Posted by Phil at 11:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 12, 2004

Yes, It Will Be on the Final

To begin a new term here at Speculist University, everyone should familiarize themselves with Kurzweil's law:

In an evolutionary process, positive feedback increases order exponentially. A correlate is that the "returns" of an evolutionary process (such as the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall "power" of a process) increase exponentially over time -- both for life and technology.

This is why the world works the way it does. This is what the buzzkills just don't get. By all means, drop whatever it is you're supposed to be doing and read the whole thing.

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Posted by Phil at 10:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 16, 2003

Well, Which One is the Prettiest?

A simple multiple choice question.

Genetically speaking, human beings are most closely related to:

  1. The fruitfly Drosophila
  2. The nematode worm Caenorhabditis
  3. Coral

Not only closer, but much closer. Very interesting.

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Posted by Phil at 06:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 11, 2003

Pop Quiz

I hope you've all been studying. You have thirty minutes. And don't forget to pur your name in the upper right-hand corner.

Read the entire piece linked here, paying particular attention to the sections excerpted below.

Global warming killed 150,000 people in 2000, and the death toll could double again in the next 30 years if current trends are not reversed, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

One heat wave killed 20,000 people in Europe alone this year, the WHO said, launching a book on health-weather links at a U.N. environment conference.

The book estimated climate change was to blame for 2.4 percent of cases of diarrhea because, Campbell-Lendrum said, the heat would exacerbate bacterial contamination of food.

Climate change was also behind 2 percent of all cases of malaria, because increased rainfall created new breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry the disease, he said.


1. What are the major logical fallacies employed by the authors of this piece?

2. Using the same logic, explain how a global increase in temperature could save 500,000 or more lives per year.

3. True or false: those claiming a death toll from global warming are pushing a religious agenda. Explain your answer.

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November 14, 2003

Potluck 101

To paraphrase a Minnesotan star of radio and print: "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wo...er, here at the Speculist." Therefore, this week's quiz is a short-answer essay. Please write a short persuasive paragraph (in the Comments section) on the following theme:

"I think the idea of Speculist University, especially as envisioned in this week's All Hail, Old Spec. U! entry, is..."

Responses will be evaluated for completeness of thought, constructiveness of criticism, and how well they demonstrate that the author has read and understood the relevant entries.

Bonus Points will be awarded for creatively including cows and / or moose into your essay.

Penalty Points will be assessed for any reference, direct or otherwise, to the following: Flying Squirrels, Wossamotta U., Frostbite Falls, or Pottsylvania.

Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 12:10 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

All Hail, Old Spec. U!

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F. 2003 A.V.

Motto: Vitus Id Spectare (Lat. "Live to See It")

Last week, Phil founded the Speculist University and gave a brief glimpse at the curriculum to be offered by said august institution. (And, believe me, we of the Fast Forward Posse have long believed an institution is exactly where Phil belonged.) In these few remaining hours of my tenure as Deputy Speculist, I'd like to elaborate upon that foudation and begin giving substance and direction to our putative alma mater.

The two initial courses of study, Master of Arts in Writing Predictions and Master of Science in Practical Time Travel fall rather neatly into the framework of classical pedegogy (the art and science of learning), corresponding to the artes triviales or artes sermocinales (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic, or Language, Oratory, and Logic) in the first case and to the artes quadriviales or artes reales (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. Corresponding to the modern "hard" sciences.) in the latter case. Doctor of Speculism, in its turn, would include elements of all of these seven liberal arts, the artes liberales. (Literally, the proper studies of a free citizen, as opposed to the artes illiberales the artisanal arts of slaves and non-citizens. These distinctions correspond most closely to our modern concepts of "white collar jobs" and "blue collar jobs", respectively. Before you send me any hate-mail, or get up a petition recommending that Phil render me up to the village mob for a proper tarring and feathering, allow me to categorically state that, while I admire the structural devisions of classical education, I do not now, nor have I ever engaged in, or supported in any sense, moral or material, and will never in the future engage in or support the institution of chattel slavery! There, now I've got the disclaimer out of the way, where was I? Oh, right! A point, I was making a point.)

Each of these artes will, in turn, serve as foci, points of concentration for future blog entries. (And you, beloved readers, thought I'd forgotten that this is, after all, "only", "just", a weblog and not some kinda' high falutin' factory for skull sweat and fancy words.) The breakdown should resemble the following:

Grammar / Language: A series of entries devoted to explaining the terminology and jargon associated with our favorite topics. (Suggested Title: Lexicon)

Rhetoric / Oratory / Writing: These entries might address the art of fashioning compelling cases, clear hypotheses, and illustrative examples and parables regarding future developments and their impacts.

Dialectic / Logic: Entries presenting and evaluating the tools and techniques available to us in our quest to discern and determine the shape of future events would fall into this category. Similar in spirit to the current Time Traveler's Notebook. (Possible Title: Fabrile (Lat. Tools))

The artes reales correspond in our case to our oft-mentioned favorite topics: Nanotechnology, Negligable Senescence and Life Extension, Artificial Intelligence, Space Exploration, et. al. Our ongoing, practical investigations of these topics will continue to serve them well.

Finally, I'd like to introduce another course of study, one that might equally-well serve as a separate body of knowledge, meriting its own "Masters"-level program, and as a supplementary extension to those already in place. The Masters of Applied Science in Technics would involve fundamental studies in basic Physics and Chemistry (Now aren't you REALLY glad that the tuition is low and the grading system is, ahem, conveniently voluntary) and examinations of specific Technologies that support the artes reales, such as Metallurgy, Electronics, Biology, and the ever-popular Rocket Science.

Well, that bell ringing in the background must mean that it's time for this lecture to end. Until next time, then.

Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 12:08 AM | Comments (28) | TrackBack

November 07, 2003

Rocket Science 101

Today's test is multiple choice. You have 30 minutes. Don't forget to show your math.

1. According to Glenn reynolds, an appropriate theme for a new moon mission might be:

A. More Green Cheese, Please
B. Flags and Footprints
C. Show me the Money
D. Moons Over My-Hammy

2. Which likely future development does Rand Simberg look forward to with great anticipation:

A. Arbitrarily long life, in good health
B. Flying cars
C. Gene therapy for personality disorders
D. Robot sex slaves

3. Which of the following has been declared not to be an immediate goal of the Chinese space program

A. Space station
B. Space dock
C. Moon shot
D. Death Star

4. According to Rand Simberg, heavy lift capability is

A. Absolutely essential
B. Highly overrated
C. No easy thing
D. What it's all about

5. According to Rand Simberg, what would motivate governments to get serious about space travel?

A. Precious metals found in the asteroids
B. Discovery of life on other planets
C. A UN-sponsored international competition
D. Imminent threat from a celestial object

6. In order to be considered a truly interstellar probe, Voyager I needs to travel beyond the

A. Kuiper belt
B. Orbit of Pluto
C. Heliosphere
D. Oort cloud

Posted by Phil at 06:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

About Speculist University

Some have asked about the subtle western motif that underpins much of what we do here at The Speculist. Why does a blog devoted to the future have posses and round-ups?

Good questions.

Beats me.

It might have something to do with the fact that the subdivision I live in was once an enormous ranch. Maybe I’m picking up on a vibe.

Actually, I doubt it. It turns out that there were several ranches. The property where my house sits was part of what was called the Cheese Ranch. A Dutch immigrant and his family raised dairy cattle and made cheese here. I suppose there might have been some round-ups, but I doubt there was much going on here in the way of poker games and saloon girls and heading them off at the pass.

It occurred to me a while back that a better choice for an organizing theme for The Speculist would have been a university. We could fund research, offer degrees, all that stuff. Instead of a posse, we’d have a faculty. Instead of a weekly round-up, we’d have a weekly symposium.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. So I’ve decided to add Speculist University as a regular feature. The Posse and the Round-up will keep their current form, but everything else we publish will be considered part of the course work towards one of our degree programs. Those may include:

Master of Science in Practical Time Travel

Master of Arts in Writing Predictions

Doctor of Speculism

Speculist University is a fully non-accredited institution. All readers are of The Speculist are eligible to attend. To attend classes, just read the blog entries. There will be an exam every Friday.

We’ll celebrate our first graduating class in May of 2007. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to organize a kegger, let me know.

Posted by Phil at 06:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 31, 2003

Non-Linear Thinking 101

This week's essay questions are taken from our readings in climatology. Answer any two of the following:

  1. Explain how driving a big stonking SUV is actually the responsible thing to do for those concerned about our future environment.

  2. What role might plankton play in supporting greenhouse emissions in warding off the next ice age?

  3. True or False: If plankton had evolved earlier, the Andes wouldn't be as tall as they are now. Defend your answer.

You have 30 minutes. Remember to show your math.

Posted by Phil at 03:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack