Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

Leaureate Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit.

It is with great sadness to learn today that one of my all-time favourite philosophers has died overnight, in the beginning of this year. He was an odd character, certainly, but had a fantastic mind for philosophy and went out of his comfort zone to push his field forward. He was for this reason also, in my opinion, a great academic example of collegiality, transparency, and engagement in the social and public life of academia; despite his reclusive nature he engaged readily and frequently with the media and fellow researchers in order to get at and share the ‘truth’.
In true Parfit style, in the closing paragraphs of his third volume of On What Matters (being published next month by OUP), he wrote: “I regret that, in a book called On What Matters, I have said so little about what matters. I hope to say more in what would be my Volume Four.”
Sadly we may never read volume four. However, in what Peter Singer kindly shared, we may read Parfit’s final, fitting printed words before Feb:
“What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.
Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.
If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.”
Rest well, mighty mind.

A curious time


Enschede city centre. Photo: Kleuske.

The month was July and the coldest Australian days were beginning to appear. I had escaped to Okinawa and the Japanese mainland in June, and fared well enough during my three winter weeks back home, but now I was able to escape again, this time to Europe.

I chose an interesting time to travel there, the last time I went. It was during the Australian summer of 2014/15, and during my time – from Geneva to Kosovo – there had been snow and cold like I’d never seen or felt. Weather-wise, I’d done myself a medium-term disservice, going from Australian winter to European winter to Australian winter (and then finally to a summer); for more than a year I only caught glimpses of our Sol. This time I was making things right, I was going in summer.

My first stop was in London, England, where it sadly didn’t feel like summer at all. I met several students from the Okinawan summer school whose labs were at King’s and UCL. One good friend, a Spaniard, showed me around the developmental neuroscience floor he worked on. He showed me the many single-cell electrophysiology set-ups, two-photon microscopes, and a fascinating light sheet fluorescence microscopy set-up which was able to image large slices of translucent organisms at speeds of up to 1000 times that of comparable confocal microscopy. Quite an impressive and well-equipped institution.

After some Cuban jazz in Camden Town and a tour through the Houses of Parliament, I was off to Oxford to visit the lab of Tim Vogels. He was and is a highly respected theoretical neuroscientist who trained with Larry Abbott and Wulfram Gerstner. His students and post-docs were all very welcoming and interesting. A few of us even went out to enjoy some more ‘English’ jazz, this time played by an American, an Israeli, and two Italians. In perhaps perfect Oxford style we were cramped into an ancient bookshop a few blocks from the Bird and Baby. For half the concert, Bill and I peeked over an old piano and between piles of books to gaze upon the motely quartet.

In the next, long day I travelled south from Oxford, all the way to Dover, crossed the English Channel by ferry, and made my way to Paris to visit another friend. He showed me the most peculiar and wonderful electrophysiology set-up for in-vivo, awake recordings of mice. His work is in spatial navigation and memory, and the interactions between the hippocampus and the cerebellum. One of the better ways of studying this was by placing the mouse on a large styrofoam ball suspended by a constant flow of pressurised air. This allowed the mouse’s head to be fixed in position while facing a set of screens to simulate a virtual environment. The mouse could navigate this virtual environment by walking or running on the ball. All this meant that the electrophysiological recordings were less noisy and that the results from the experiment could not be affected by, for example, the mouse using their whiskers to probe and explore the environment – plus, one could let the mouse learn a particular gain (one step on the ball equals one step in the virtual environment) and then alter that gain (like perhaps making one real step equivalent to half a virtual step), testing how they reacted and re-learnt.

After spending the weekend in Paris, I caught a high-speed train headed for Frankfurt on Monday morning. That afternoon I perused the streets and replaced some personal electrical equipment I had left behind in Paris (my friend was generous enough to post the others back home for me). The next day I visited my old roommate from Okinawa, Tim. He had a background in physics and did theoretical work at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Science. It was wonderful to see such lively and modern institute with such strong mixes of experimentalists and theorists working together. To keep the music tour going, we saw a blues concert that night.

I spent the next few days visiting Luxemberg and some old WHO friends in the south of Belgium before heading for the real reason for this summer expedition in Europe: the CuriousU Summer School at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands. The university there is famed for its mission to be ‘the most entrepreneurial university in Europe’. And from my short time there, it seemed like it already was.

For a significant portion of my early scientific journey, I would have told you that business had no business poking its nose in science. But as the years go on, and my idealism is balanced by some facts of the world – like balance sheets and debt – I have slowly come to realise that science and business (and government) ought to be deeply connected around some major junctures. Rather than being at odds with one another, they rely on one another to effect positive changes in the world; science needed business and government to act in the world and business and government relied on science to innovate and give them more efficiency or economic opportunity. For instance, there is little point in developing a cure to cancer that businesses and governments cannot reasonably or ever afford to provide to patients. Perhaps worse, in some sense, would be developing a cure for some ailment which was accessible but relies upon obscure infrastructure or other technology that the business community or government doesn’t yet have ready access to. Such an infrastructure gap, if identified ahead of time, could be filled in anticipation of new technologies and science. Such connectedness could save needlessly delaying the public’s access to scientific discoveries that would benefit them. And of course what good scientist don’t want the fruits of their labour seen in action?

During the course in Enschede, I lead a small team in a hypothetical early-stage start-up. With me was a mathematician, a psychologist, and two engineers, who all worked together to design a business plan and pitch to investors for a new neuromorphic computing architecture I had thought to turn into a company one day. Throughout our hypothetical business development and the associated lectures, I became amazed at how complex, really, business can be. Having a good idea hardly mattered (although it helped). What seems to matter most is the execution of that idea. How you protect your intellectual property and how you choose to sell your product or service to customers is vital for a successful enterprise. And should you be a selling a product or a service, anyway? A preconception I had was that we would of course be selling a computer chip to our customers for them to put into their machines, as a product. But actually, it made much more business sense to create a complex sort of loan and maintenance agreement with our future customers. Though negotiating such agreements would be time consuming and especially challenging with our fist and second customers (before we had much of reputation behind us), in the long-run we would have a more regular income stream for ongoing R&D and continuing to better our service offering to our customers. Compound these challenges with the risks of financial loss, competitors in the form of big tech companies, and occasionally unscrupulous business people, and it becomes plain to see how The Next Big Idea can be easily squashed by a few significant errors made early on.

So it was a curious time in Enschede. I can’t say I’ve been altogether swayed to agree with the likes of Larry Marshall and co., and nor will I be rushing for the exits from academia any time soon. But I’ve gained some perspective. I have a set of basic business thinking tools to pull out from the drawer if I spot something potentially commercialisable in my research. And I can spot such potential in others’ work, too, and offer some initial advice on who to talk to. So, to that end, you may or may not see me involved in a profit-making business one day, and surprisingly it may not be so begrudgingly as my past self may have once feared.

Okinawa Computational Neuroscience Course 2016: Thoughts from a Student


OIST Campus, Okinawa, Japan.

By an isolated beach on an isolated island in the East China Sea lies a place where people gathered to study the most complicated biological organ known to humankind – indeed, the organ which has made humankind possible. Shoes were deemed optional by most, even for the morning lecture; indeed, appearances and formalities and the regular trappings of the world seemed to have no relevance here. Here was a monastery of science, nestled in the sub-tropics. Our prayers were programs and our sermons were lectures. It would be preferred by most that you had combed your hair in the morning and bathed appropriately, but beyond that it was not the external you that people were interested in, but the internal you. And what a mixture of internal yous we had.

With 32 students, some half a dozen tutors, and a steady stream of lecturers from all around the world, there was hardly a single moment which wasn’t filled with some kind of fascinating conversation. While in one corner there could be a deep discussion on the merits of different exploration techniques of solution space for parameters of advanced simulations, in the other corner there could easily be a passionate discourse about the free jazz evolution of Miles Davis. And all the while there would be several people tapping away at keyboards, working, and still others relaxing or eating sushi. It was marvellous.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University, our generous hosts. They provided us with three square meals a day, lodging, airfares for those who could not otherwise afford it, as well as transfers to and from the airport. That actually meant our yen could only be spent in only one of three places: trinket shops about the tourist places we visited on Sundays, the local Family Mart, or the beer vending machine in the lobby. Can you guess where most of most people’s yen went?

A few of the visiting lecturers were kind enough not just to share their devotion to knowledge with us, but to share their enthusiasm for karaoke or beer. It seemed only natural to do so in that here we were, many hundreds or thousands of miles away from our regular environments, trapped on an island together with only learning and conversation and beer (assuming one can distinguish learning from conversation, and conversation from beer).

It was these three things, or really just the time we spent together, that made this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make life-long friends. Many were made and many will be treasured.

3 keys to success in student networking

sobr dinner 2016

Students of Brain Research 2016 Professional Development Dinner on 25 May at the State Library of Victoria, Australia. Photo: Dr Marguerite Galea ‏@MVEG001

This week saw the culmination of months of dedicated work by the Students of Brain Research  (SOBR) 2016 Committee, of which I am a part. A professional development and networking dinner is held annually for (as you might guess) students of brain research in the state of Victoria, Australia. This year it was held at the State Library of Victoria on 25 May, where 170 guests attended what was the largest and most diverse event in SOBR’s history.

Here is my à la Buzzfeed listicle, odd in number (per the suggestion from consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, one of the event’s speakers), which will likely be a rare format for this blog, but which might hopefully give some insight into what I consider to be the three keys to success in student networking:

  1. Be prepared. If you’re attending a function where you know other students and senior people in your field are going to be, such as at a conference or event like SOBR’s, prepare. Prepare answers to the undoubted questions which will be asked, like what your research topic is, and what your plans are in the immediate and longer terms for your career. Prepare to ask questions of others, too! This means doing your homework about the people who are likely to be there, especially the big-wigs. Knowing who they are and a bit about their research will help guide you on who might be most appropriate to approach for conversation and what questions to ask of any who start conversation with you. Oh, and prepare some business cards. Yes, I hear your complaints about how this isn’t business and an exchange of ideas shouldn’t begin with such tokenism – well, it’s not tokenism and this is business: business cards are practical tools for quickly making an initial connection with someone for later follow-up in time-sensitive scenarios; and research is business these days, I’m afraid, none of it gets done without money.
  2. Be confident. This comes with time but only if you let it. Sitting or standing in the same place in the room, even throughout the breaks, is a big no-no. While it might feel less intimidating, don’t fall into the trap of very literally limiting your interactions with others. There could very well be few if any people you think you want to speak with, but how can you be completely, totally sure that there’s not someone in the crowd who isn’t someone you wouldn’t want to meet? There might be someone in that crowd who are starting a project that suits your skills perfectly and are looking for collaborators, or perhaps someone else has a friend who is running a course that you could benefit from, or perhaps someone else has a rich aunt who wants to invest in people’s research. The possibilities are endless, so brave up and approach people – you will never know what you might have missed otherwise.
  3. Be savvy but open-minded. At a large event like SOBR’s this week or at a major conference, you might not have time to meet everyone you want to. You therefore need to prioritize your conversations; don’t be afraid to tell someone you’re engaged with that you’re glad to have met them but that you have to move on. Slip them a business card (see step 1) and practice your confidence (step 2) by approaching the people you really want or need to talk to. That said, try to be open-minded. A large part of the value of networking opportunities is to meet people you mightn’t otherwise (and mightn’t have planned to otherwise), be it due to distance of discipline, of geography, of institution, or of anything else – so you should be willing to get a bit out of your comfort zone, I think; be prepared to learn something new, something that’s perhaps just left of your field. Because, who knows? Perhaps that conversation or connection will, in 10 or 20 years, help propel your field forward with innovative research.

Now go and put it into practice! The success of our collective endeavour to progress knowledge depends on collaboration, and to that extent the formation of those collaborations through networking.

How Udacity Scammed Me


Udacity website screengrab.

I’ve been on both sides of the classroom when it comes to e-learning. I watched as KhanAcademy went from humble YouTube channel to being worthy of Bill Gates’ endorsement; I created similar content via TutorTom10 in my undergraduate years, now seen by tens of thousands of people; I worked with education innovators at world-leading universities in various e-learning roles and as a consultant; I’ve been involved in delivering and designing curricula in traditional educational settings; and I’ve contributed to institutional education policy, including one that was in the midst of moving into MOOCs (massively open online courses). Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve never met anyone particularly greedy or in it for the wrong motives. Sure, at times the hype which results from the ‘e-‘ prefix isn’t always realistic, but at least those involved are relatively pure of heart.

However, pure motives and (frankly) any semblance of educational standards is apparently bereft in some of the more recent commercial operators to enter the MOOC and e-learning scene. One company in particular, whom I’ve had recent experience with, typify the very essence of what’s wrong with these operators and how little integrity they actually possess. The company in question? Udacity. (That’s ‘audacity’ without the ‘a’ – and, well, their business practices are very audacious …)

I signed up for a free trial of one of their courses, or ‘nanodegrees’ as they incessantly refer to them as, after exploring their site a little and browsing through the courses. Everything seemed quite normal and innocuous. Wrong. Churning beneath the clean, white design are the machinations which lead to their out-and-out scamming me for hundreds of dollars.

The first dead giveaway, in hindsight, is the payment structure itself: 200 USD a month, with half that refunded if you complete the course within 12 months. On the surface, that seems rather expensive, but reasonable if you complete it in a few months. On closer inspection and with experience, however, you find yourself at the mercy of hapless ‘assessors’.

Completion of the course requires the submission of several projects. ‘Assessors’ then ‘mark’ the project against criteria to determine if the project, in essence, ‘passes’. But here’s the problem: if you’re paying 200 USD a month and the assessors don’t pass you by this pay cycle’s end, well, you pay another 200 USD. So Udacity actually have a strong financial incentive to delay assessment for this direct reason, but also in the long-term they wish to avoid payout of the 50% refund scheme if they can.

To blatantly delay assessing students’ projects would be a little too obvious, however, and Udacity ‘assessors’ (while they take longer than they should) aren’t so obvious. Instead, they offer impersonal, copy-and-paste blocks of text in an unaddressed e-mail for anything that wasn’t quite right. Such a response would be considered so totally outside the realms of education normally that we could close the case right about there, but to additionally give false information in that e-mail would be an even graver sin, wouldn’t it? In fact, Udacity committed this graver sin against me not just once – but twice!

Keep in mind that while such mistakes might be more forgivable if the course were a free MOOC or if these long, copy-and-paste e-mails were not so obviously copied-and-pasted. But the fact is that if this ‘assessor’ is telling me the wrong information and giving me bad instruction, they’re probably giving exactly the same wrong information and bad instruction to other students. What’s worse is that when a student goes to correct this ‘error’ in their project, and resubmits it for re-‘assessment’, a new ‘assessor’ will then give them feedback and potentially further or differently wrong information or bad instruction (or, worse yet, miss the mistake altogether and let the student carry on thinking they have learnt something when in actual fact they have learnt precisely the wrong thing).

This then leads to the misinstruction loop:

  1. assessor #1 instructs me to do A when I did B
  2. I do A when B is correct (not A)
  3. assessor #2 instructs me to change it back to B
  4. I change it back to B, and it’s a coin-flip as to whether the next assessor will let me move on or stay stuck in the loop

And, of course, just exiting the loop isn’t sufficient; this is a fundamentally flawed and impersonal mode of instruction. In fact, it leads to confusion in the student’s mind about the content and causes them to become disenfranchised with their learning.

That this is the only means of ‘personal’ instruction when Udacity plasters their site with this selling point is sufficient reason enough to realise that they are misleading their students. This is a course, and a course I was paying 200 USD a month for, and the only form of actual instruction I receive are copy-and-paste e-mails with misinstruction? Not once but twice?

With that amount of money, Udacity could and should provide a much higher quality of service or should otherwise cease with the charades about caring for students’ education. The fact of the matter is that as soon as I had the first incident of that misintruction loop (and saw how low the bar for ‘personal instruction’ was set), I let them know this wasn’t okay. The response was highly apologetic and I trusted them when they said it was a very rare occurrence and that it wouldn’t happen again. My trust was misplaced.

The nature of special places

A busy canal in Venice.

A busy canal in Venice.

Venice is a bit like Amsterdam when it rains, except that instead of it being bikes which seem to outnumber faces, it’s umbrellas – streets and streets full of them. Large wooden and steel platforms are laid down when flooding is expected, raising you twenty or so centimeters above the old cobblestone. The higgledy-piggledy (dis)organisation of it all begs exploration.

After a few hours of getting lost in the maze of Venetian mask stalls, churches, and quaint stone bridges, the similarities with Amsterdam begin to fade, however, and the Italian culture becomes more pronounced.

Memory of the once glorious city state, the Venetian Republic,­ fades much slower in the minds of many who call this place home, however. Ornate gold and rose flags don window-cum-­balconies along nearly every street. A secession referendum was held as recently as a few years ago, but failed by the slimmest of margins. Though how well Venice could function without the mainland was an open question. Tourism would surely account for almost its entire export, except whether it should is a sticky topic in the half-floating city.

Venetians seem to have a love-hate relationship with tourists. Large posters promoting anti-tourism rallies lined at least one back-alley and not all locals greeted you with a smile. It’s easy to sympathise with the historic city’s 70,000 residents playing host to millions of gondola-riders and mask-­wearers and clothes-­buyers and glass-­blowing-watchers. Whether Venice is for the Venetians or for the tourists should be a question with an obvious answer, and yet I don’t know if there is one.

When Egyptians make decisions about access to or maintenance of the pyramids, or Athenians decide things about the Parthenon, I think they ought to make decisions which aren’t purely and always in their own interests. There is, at least to me, a shared human heritage which we are all responsible for and should all have access to. Sadly, not all states and actors agree (see extremists blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan or the wreckage of much of the Levant’s ancient history).

But, for the Venetians, I ask: for how long can your home be a stranger’s hotel? In such a small place, can space ever be personal and if not, at what point does its invasion become tantamount to assault on a culture or on a place or on a people?

Perhaps I was wrong in adding to the masses or perhaps this is simply the nature of special places.

Why animals should be treated as co-citizens

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Cats, dogs, dolphins, chimps, and humans – we’re all technically animals, but do some of us deserve more rights than others? There is a tiny town in northern Spain that thinks not. In late July, the municipality of Trigueros del Valle unanimously passed a local law which officially defines cats and dogs in the town as ‘non-human residents’.

“The mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others,” the Spanish town’s mayor told The Independent.

While it might seem a bit far-fetched, the idea that non-human animals should be given human-like rights is gaining traction in jurisdictions as far as India and Argentina to Romania and the United States. But what are the cultural and philosophical implications of all this? And isn’t giving ‘human-like rights’ going a bit too far? I don’t think so, in fact, I think we should be prepared to grant not just human-like ‘rights’ or ‘residency’ to animals, but indeed we should be prepared to give them citizenship and let their interests be directly represented in our governments.

Such a radical shift in thinking about non-human animals is unlikely to occur quickly, and there seem to be some clear stepping stones which will first need to reached. One of the most pivotal steps centres around the debate of whether some animals have a level of ‘personhood’ that can be legally meaningful.

Personhood – that an entity has the essential capacities of a person, like self-consciousness, intellect, experience of suffering and complex emotional states, etc. – comes in different forms and to varying degrees. We would not say, for instance, that a human infant was criminally liable for their own actions, even if those actions caused serious harm to another human, since we know the infant wouldn’t be properly aware of their own actions or the consequences of those actions. However, if a competent adult harmed an infant, that adult would definitely be criminally liable for their own actions, since they have adequate foresight and self-awareness. In this context, then, both the adult and infant have different levels of legal personhood and this is reflected in how the law treats them.

If non-human animals like chimpanzees or orangutans could be argued as being at least somewhat equivalent in a legal or moral sense (courtesy of their intellectual and other human-like capacities) to a human person – even on the level of a human infant – then courts could be persuaded to recognise them as non-human persons. And with the status of personhood can come great things.

The English Somerset case, which gave an African slave his freedom in 1772, was prompted by a writ of habeas corpus, a legal summons that requires the custodian of a prisoner to demonstrate before a court that their detention of the person in question is lawful. Animal rights activists in Argentina and New York have argued that the same legal summons should be employed to require a zoo or university to demonstrate their lawful detention of an orangutan or chimpanzee, respectively. The question for such cases hinges on whether the zoo or university is detaining a legally-defined person.

While these cases are currently ongoing, some politicians and scientists have already made up their minds, and it’s easy to see why. Advanced non-human animals like dolphins or chimpanzees or others are highly intelligent and share huge swaths of genetic heritage with us humans. They lead rich emotional lives and have human-like capacities such as self-awareness.

But personhood should not be the only game in town when it comes to thinking about animals. My pet dog is quite dull, but that shouldn’t mean I can get away with mistreating it any more than I could get away with mistreating a clever orangutan. The ability to experience suffering, therefore, seems to be important in this regard. That said, there can be indirect negative effects or suffering which results from killing something as basic as even an ant (even though it’s unlikely insects experience pain). Sure, stepping on one accidently from time to time won’t cause a catastrophe, but we couldn’t live a world without ants altogether. They, along with the rest of the insect class, form the basis of the food chain. Crops couldn’t grow and cows couldn’t eat grass if it weren’t for creepy crawlies. So even suffering doesn’t seem to capture everything there is to value about animals. In a broad sense, I think most of us recognise that we ought to value our ecosystem as a whole, if not for its own sake then for our own survival’s.

I’m not arguing that trees or bees ought to be considered our co-citizens, however, but rather the non-human animals which form a part of our societies: companion animals like dogs and cats, produce or working animals like horses and sheep. These are the animals which we have actively enlisted into the ranks of our societies for our own purposes. They are the biggest modern caste group worldwide and are regularly exploited for financial gain without full consideration of their welfare.

Just like we wouldn’t expect a co-citizen to work their whole lives and never be given adequate time for rest and relaxation, we shouldn’t expect this of animals. In most high-income countries, we expect that our co-citizens will enjoy a basic level of provision and protection in the forms of food, medicine, and housing; the same should all be true for animals as well.

What might be a touch difficult is getting hoof and paw prints on electoral votes in a meaningful manner. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely any non-human animal could be expected to understand the complexities (and absurdities) of modern politics. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t seek to know what is in their best interests and have those interests represented in our governments’ decision-making and services. We don’t expect children to know their best interests or be able to fully care for themselves outside of their families, but we still make concerted efforts to care for children who cannot be cared for by their own families; we, as a society, take it upon ourselves to care for them and to avoid their being exploited or abused. In the same way, perhaps we ought to create policies and agencies which care for animals.

It is likely that the way we treat animals will change and one day we might even call them our co-citizens. A few decades ago the animal rights movement seemed to some like a fringe fad, but it is now part the mainstream. Call me barking mad, but I suspect that in a few more decades we might be talking about co-citizen adoption agencies rather than pet shops.