Thursday, August 22, 2019

A window of opportunity?

A critique of pure learning and what artificial neural networks can learn from animal brains

The article linked in the tweet: Anthony M. Zador,  A critique of pure learning and what artificial neural networks can learn from animal brains, Nature Communication:
Abstract: Artificial neural networks (ANNs) have undergone a revolution, catalyzed by better supervised learning algorithms. However, in stark contrast to young animals (including humans), training such networks requires enormous numbers of labeled examples, leading to the belief that animals must rely instead mainly on unsupervised learning. Here we argue that most animal behavior is not the result of clever learning algorithms—supervised or unsupervised— but is encoded in the genome. Specifically, animals are born with highly structured brain connectivity, which enables them to learn very rapidly. Because the wiring diagram is far too complex to be specified explicitly in the genome, it must be compressed through a “genomic bottleneck”. The genomic bottleneck suggests a path toward ANNs capable of rapid learning
From the article, on learning:
In ANN research, the term “learning” has a technical usage that is different from its usage in neuroscience and psychology. In ANNs, learning refers to the process of extracting structure—statistical regularities—from input data, and encoding that structure into the parameters of the network. These network parameters contain all the information needed to specify the network. For example, a fully connected network with ๐‘ neurons might have one parameter (e.g., a threshold) associated with each neuron, and an additional ๐‘^2 parameters specifying the strengths of synaptic connections, for a total of ๐‘+๐‘^2 free parameters. Of course, as the number of neurons ๐‘ becomes large, the total parameter count in a fully connected ANN is dominated by the ๐‘^2 synaptic parameters.

There are three classic paradigms for extracting structure from data, and encoding that structure into network parameters (i.e., weights and thresholds). In supervised learning, the data consist of pairs—an input item (e.g., an image) and its label (e.g., the word “giraffe”)—and the goal is to find network parameters that generate the correct label for novel pairs. In unsupervised learning, the data have no labels; the goal is to discover statistical regularities in the data without explicit guidance about what kind of regularities to look for. For example, one could imagine that with enough examples of giraffes and elephants, one might eventually infer the existence of two classes of animals, without the need to have them explicitly labeled. Finally, in reinforcement learning, data are used to drive actions, and the success of those actions is evaluated based on a “reward” signal.

Much of the progress in ANNs has been in developing better tools for supervised learning. If a network has too many free parameters, the network risks “overfitting” data, i.e. it will generate the correct responses on the training set of labeled examples, but will fail to generalize to novel examples. In ANN research, this tension between the flexibility of a network (which scales with the number of neurons and connections) and the amount of data needed to train the network (more neurons and connections generally require more data) is called the “bias-variance tradeoff” (Fig. 1). A network with more flexibility is more powerful, but without sufficient training data the predictions that network makes on novel test examples might be wildly incorrect—far worse than the predictions of a simpler, less powerful network. To paraphrase “Spiderman”: With great power comes great responsibility (to obtain enough labeled training data). The bias-variance tradeoff explains why large networks require large amounts of labeled training data.
Much later:
In this view, supervised learning in ANNs should not be viewed as the analog of learning in animals. Instead, since most of the data that contribute an animal’s fitness are encoded by evolution into the genome, it would perhaps be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to rename it “supervised evolution.” Such a renaming would emphasize that “supervised learning” in ANNs is really recapitulating the extraction of statistical regularities that occurs in animals by both evolution and learning. In animals, there are two nested optimization processes: an outer “evolution” loop acting on a generational timescale, and an inner “learning” loop, which acts on the lifetime of a single individual. Supervised (artificial) evolution may be much faster than natural evolution, which succeeds only because it can benefit from the enormous amount of data represented by the life experiences of quadrillions of individuals over hundreds of millions of years.
And so:

Cutting the financial sector down to size [it's in the air]

That’s the provisional title I used for my latest piece in Inside Story. Peter Browne, the editor, gave it the longer and clearer title “Want to reduce the power of the finance sector? Start by looking at climate change”.

The central idea is a comparison between the process of decarbonizing the world economy and that of definancialising it, by reducing the power and influence of the financial sector. Both seemed almost impossible only a decade ago, but the first is now well under way.

There’s also an analogy between the favored economists’ approach in both cases: reliance on price based measures such as carbon taxes and Tobin taxes. Despite the theoretical appeal of such measures, it looks as if regulation will end up doing much of the heavy work.
Note yesterday's post about Farhad Manjoo making pretty much the same call

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Farhad Manjoo sees revolution on the horizon, around the bend, and at the end of the tunnel


Here's his NYTimes column, "C.E.O.s Should Fear a Recession. It Could Mean Revolution." He's been reflecting on the recent announcement by the Business Roundtable (CEO's of 200 megacorporations):
that the era of soulless corporatism was over. The Business Roundtable once held that a corporation’s “paramount duty” was to its shareholders. Now, the Roundtable is singing a new, more inclusive tune. A corporation, it says, should balance the interests of its shareholders with those of other “stakeholders,” including customers, employees, suppliers and local communities.
He think's that's empty PR nonsense. I think he's right.

He believes they're scared: "A recession looms". And they may well be scared. But revolution? He points out that, while many people lost their homes and rural areas were devastated in the wake of the 2008 financial implosion,
Corporate profits grew as if there were no tomorrow, but they didn’t trickle down to everyone else. Instead, dividends and stock buybacks got bigger while C.E.O. pay went through the rose-gold roof. The rest of us got smartphones, money-losing conveniences — Uber, WeWork, Netflix and meal delivery apps — and mountains of student debt.
What happens when the next recession hits? Who knows, but we'll find out soon enough. But here's what Manjoo thinks/hopes:
And so, when recession comes, we’ll be right to ask: Was that it? Is this the best it gets? And if so, isn’t it time to go full Elizabeth Warren — to make some fundamental, radical changes to how the American economy works, so that we might prevent decades more of growth that disproportionally benefits the titans among us?
And, so he thinks, we the people will revolt. Just how we'll do that, he doesn't say.

Now, as some of you may know, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book about that, New York 2140. As the title indicates, it's set in the future, a very different world where the seas have risen 50 feet. But the institutional structure of that (imagined) world is much like that of our current world. Disaster strikes and millions of people are saddled with housing debt they can't pay. They go on rents strikes and so forth and this time the banks get nationalized as a condition of bailout (p 602): "Finance was now for the most part a privately operated public utility." The revolt worked. Perhaps. Robinson ends the book at that point, so we don't know how things worked out. 

But I don't see that happening now. I don't think the organizational infrastructure is in place to make it happen.


But who knows?

Synaptic overload, orthogonal views along the galectic

This is your brain on stories – "the representation of language semantics is independent of the sensory modality through which the semantic information is received"

The article cited: Deniz et al., "The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality":

An integral part of human language is the capacity to extract meaning from spoken and written words, but the precise relationship between brain representations of information perceived by listening versus reading is unclear. Prior neuroimaging studies have shown that semantic information in spoken language is represented in multiple regions in the human cerebral cortex, while amodal semantic information appears to be represented in a few broad brain regions. However, previous studies were too insensitive to determine whether semantic representations were shared at a fine level of detail rather than merely at a coarse scale. We used fMRI to record brain activity in two separate experiments while participants listened to or read several hours of the same narrative stories, and then created voxelwise encoding models to characterize semantic selectivity in each voxel and in each individual participant. We find that semantic tuning during listening and reading are highly correlated in most semantically-selective regions of cortex, and models estimated using one modality accurately predict voxel responses in the other modality. These results suggest that the representation of language semantics is independent of the sensory modality through which the semantic information is received.


Humans can comprehend the meaning of words from both spoken and written language. It is therefore important to understand the relationship between the brain representations of spoken or written text. Here we show that although the representation of semantic information in the human brain is quite complex, the semantic representations evoked by listening versus reading are almost identical. These results suggest that the representation of language semantics is independent of the sensory modality through which the semantic information is received.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Those were the days, 51 Pacific, Fall 2012

Outside & Up Top (w/ flare) (Bayonne in the distance)

Inside, Work in Progress (reference material, yes, why not?)

Deep Inside, contemplation ("she came in thru the bathroom window")

Deirdre McCloskey on liberalism (in the classical sense)

Eric Wallach interviews economist Deirdre McClosky in The Politic, February 2019.
The Yale Politic: According to Bourgeois Equality, the average U.S. resident’s real income per head increased from $3/day in 1800 to $132/day in 2010– an increase of 44x. You attribute this ‘betterment’ to the ideas of dignity and liberty. What do you mean more concretely?

Deirdre McCloskey: It’s not exactly “according to [that excellent volume of 2016] Bourgeois Equality.” It’s rather “according to the solid scientific consensus of economic historians.” Concretely I mean that the bizarre 18th-century idea of liberalism—which is the theory of a society composed entirely of free people, liberi, and no slaves—gave ordinary people the notion that they could have a go. And go they did. In the earliest if hesitatingly liberal societies such as Britain and France, and among the liberi in societies still fully dominated by traditional hierarchies such as Russia and much of Italy, or the slave states of the United States, the turn of the 19th century saw a sharp rise of innovation. “Innovation” means new ideas in technology and organization and location, ranging from the electric motor to shipping containers to opening a new hairdressing salon in town, or to moving to Chicago away from Jim Crow and sharecropping. Since 1800, with no believable signs of letting up, it has improved the material lives of the poorest among us by startling percentages—4,300 percent in some places (that factor of 44), or 10,000 percent including improvements in quality, or at worst 1,000 percent worldwide by conventional measures including stagnant places, in a world in which rises of 100 percent had been rare and on Malthusian grounds temporary.
This reminded me of a passage from Health of Nations (Basic Books 1987, p. 184), by Leonard Sagan:
The history of rapid health gains in the United States is not unique; the rate at which death rates have fallen is even more rapid in more recently modernizing countries. The usual explanations for this dramatic improvement—better medical care, nutrition, or clean water—provide only partial answers. More important in explaining the decline in death worldwide is the rise of hope ... [through] the introduction of the transistor radio and television, bringing into the huts and shanties of the world the message that progress is possible, that each individual is unique and of value, and that science and technology can provide the opportunity for fulfillment of these hopes.
I note as well "the bizarre 18th-century idea of liberalism" is a Rank 3 idea, to invoke the account of cultural ranks that David Hays and I have developed.

Continuing with the interview:
In Bourgeois Equality, you caution: “But in any event the safety net, with or without holes, is not the main lifter of the poor in the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, or the others. The way to lift is the Great Enrichment.” To what extent is the social safety net instrumentally valuable for ‘betterment?’ What might the U.S. look like with no safety net whatsoever, and what might it look like with a perfect safety net?

It’s unwise to turn the issue of helping the poor into an on/off, none/perfect, exist/not question. We need to be seriously quantitative about such matters. On/off doesn’t answer the important question, which is always more/less. People think they are making a clever remark against liberalism by saying, “Well, we need some government.” Yes, certainly. But how much? (Will Rogers in the 1920s used to say, “Just be glad you don’t get the government you pay for.”) And the liberals think they are making a clever remark in reply when they say, “But look at such-and-such an example of governmental failure.” Neither makes a lot of sense. We need to know How Much, how much the market fails, how much the government fails, what number between zero and 100 percent should be run by experts in Washington as against you in your neighborhood and business and home. I have an essay a few years ago making the point in technical economics, “The Two Movements in Economic Thought, 1700-2000: Empty Economic Boxes Revisited.”

But from the non-technical point of view one can assemble the ethical justification for liberalism by honoring both versions of the Golden Rules (and not Trump’s version: “Those who have the gold, rule”). The late first-century BCE Jewish sage Hillel of Babylon put it negatively yet reflexively: “Do not do unto other what you would not want done unto yourself.” It’s masculine, a guy-liberalism, a gospel of justice, roughly the so-called Non-Aggression Axiom as articulated by libertarians 1.0 since the word “libertarian” was coined in the 1950s. [...]

On the other hand, the early first-century CE Jewish sage Jesus of Nazareth put it positively: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s gal-liberalism, a gospel of love, placing upon us an ethical responsibility to do more than pass by on the other side. Be a good Samaritan. Be nice. It is “positive” liberty, which Berlin and I think is a misuse of “liberty,” yet agree that some amount of it is anyway an ethical responsibility. No woman is an island, entire of herself.

In treating others, a humane libertarianism 2.0 attends to both Golden Rules. The one corrects a busybody pushing around. The other corrects an inhumane selfishness

So here’s what a Liberalism 2.0 favors. It favors a social safety net, which is to say a clean transfer of money from you and me to the very poor in distress, a hand up so they can take care of their families. It favors financing pre- and post-natal care and nursery schools for poor kids, which would do more to raise health and educational standards than almost anything we can do later. It favors compulsory measles vaccination, to prevent the big spillover of contagion that is happening now in Clark County, Washington. It favors compulsory school attendance, financed by you and me, though not the socialized provision of public schools. The Swedes have since the 1990s had a national voucher system, liberal-style. It favors a small army/coast-guard to protect as against the imminent threat of invasion by Canada and Mexico, and a pile of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to prevent the Russians or Chinese or North Koreans from extorting us. All this is good, and would result in the government at all levels taking and regulating perhaps 10 percent of the nation’s production. Put me down for 10 percent slavery to government. Not the 30 to 55 percent at present that rich countries enslave.
On the Nordic Model: 
People who dote on the Nordic Model need to realize that such folk are, well, Nordic, with astonishingly high standards of integrity in public administration by world standards. It’s not genetic, but may be Lutheran, and is certainly historical. I have a professor friend in Gothenburg who served on an ad hoc committee to look into a terrible case of corruption in the city. The corruption? A company had bought a city councilor a luncheon.

Transparency International in Berlin ranks annually the 190 or so countries in the world in perceived integrity from the top (New Zealand, Denmark) to the bottom (North Korea, Zimbabwe). Suppose we take the top 30 of the 190 in 2016 as capable of running an efficient safety net without horrible malfeasance, in the net and elsewhere. Portugal is on the margin. Italy, sadly, is ranked 79th. The U.S. makes it into the top 30, but many individual states—my own Illinois, for example—would rank lower. All right, what is the percentage of the world’s population wretchedly governed in what everyone agrees is a horribly incompetent and corrupt fashion? Ninety percent. Such are the governments to which you wish to give more money and power. Gothenburg, sure. Des Moines, OK. Chicago, not. Palermo and Moscow–are you nuts?
On inequality:
Yes, I know, we do lament inequality, by confusing it with poverty, which poverty all should in liberal justice lament. The Liberal Lady Glencora Palliser (charmingly, nรฉe M’Cluskie) in Anthony Trollope’s political novel Phineas Finn (1867–1868) declares, “Making men and women all equal. That I take to be the gist of our political theory,” as against the Conservative delight in rank and privilege. But Joshua Monk, one of the novel’s radicals in the Cobden-Bright-Mill mold, sees the ethical point more clearly, and replies to her: “Equality is an ugly word, and frightens,” as indeed it had long frightened the political class in Britain, traumatized by wild French declarations for รฉgalitรฉ, and by the example of American egalitarianism (well . . . egalitarianism for male, straight, white, Anglo, middle-aged, educated, high-income, nonimmigrant, Republican, New-England mainline Protestants). The motive of the true liberal, Monk continues, should not be equality but “the wish of every honest man . . . to assist in lifting up those below him.” (“Honest” at the time also meant “honorable.”) That’s right. Lifting up the poor, following the philosopher John Rawls, is what we should focus on, and that is achieved chiefly by 4,300% increases in average income, out of innovation, which might well earn a Steve Jobs a bundle, too. That we pay to see Wilt Chamberlain make jump shots, as the philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, and Wilt therefore ends up richer than we are, is not an ethical problem.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Orange wind sock

Monday, August 19, 2019

Behind the scenes at Davos: The coming revolution shall be celebrated, defanged, and neutered

Jonah Bennett, A Trip Behind The Spectacle At Davos, Palladium, Feb. 9, 2019.
There’s a great NowThis video that’s been circulating around from the Forum of first-time attendee and historian Rutger Bregman explicitly calling out the use of ‘saving the planet’ rhetoric, even as elites attend Davos in private jets, and noting how philanthropy is just masking the real problem, namely that elites aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. Oxfam called for more taxes, too.

The Davos audience loudly applauded. This is actually quite typical and unsurprising. One characteristic of Davos attendees is that they love being called out in a safe and defanged manner, and they love safe and defanged activism. It’s a comfortable dialectic. [...]

As another example of this dynamic, sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg camped out in -18 °C weather, rather than staying in a hotel. She spoke on a panel alongside Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Bono, Jane Goodall, and, where she called out members of the audience as being directly responsible for contributing to climate change.

Here, too, the reaction was not of genuine fear regarding a substantial threat to existing power structures. Instead, the response was, “Oh, how sweet and lovely that she cares. Yes, of course we must remember to save the Earth.”

This is what activism looks like when it’s highly normalized, defanged, and incorporated into the power structure’s mode of being. It is not a direct challenge to power from a wholly oppositional force, but rather an acceleration of shared pieties. A couple of CEOs complained about proposals for high marginal tax rates, and elsewhere a separate audience laughed at the idea of rates as high as 70%, but these seemed to be disagreements about means, not ends. The dangers of rising inequality have become clear to nearly all involved. Besides, self-preservation is one of the primary activities of power.

Whether those participating are conscious of it or not, this praise is a key part of recuperation: the process of co-opting potentially threatening radical movements and discourses. This has been long-standing practice throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In our walks through Davos, panels and exhibits on everything from women’s issues to ecological crisis to cryptocurrency testified to the successful pacification of groups and causes once thought irreconcilable with elite power. Political energy directed against the ruling class weakens as some proportion of the radical movement defects in exchange for personal and ideological advancement.
This is rather a bit like what Marcuse called this expressive desublimation.

The bottom line, as it were:
The great thing about Davos is that it has more prestige than a Washington, D.C. trade show. After that, attendance is what you make of it. Most of the panels lack insight, but walk into the right party and it’s possible to encounter real talent.

Machine creativity Zuckerberg style: "move fast and break things"

The paper has 34 authors and is entitled: "The Surprising Creativity of Digital Evolution: A Collection of Anecdotes from the Evolutionary Computation and Artificial Life Research Communities". Here's the abstract:
Abstract: Evolution provides a creative fount of complex and subtle adaptations that often surprise the scientists who discover them. However, the creativity of evolution is not limited to the natural world: artificial organisms evolving in computational environments have also elicited surprise and wonder from the researchers studying them. The process of evolution is an algorithmic process that transcends the substrate in which it occurs. Indeed, many researchers in the field of digital evolution can provide examples of how their evolving algorithms and organisms have creatively subverted their expectations or intentions, exposed unrecognized bugs in their code, produced unexpectedly adaptations, or engaged in behaviors and outcomes uncannily convergent with ones found in nature. Such stories routinely reveal surprise and creativity by evolution in these digital worlds, but they rarely fit into the standard scientific narrative. Instead they are often treated as mere obstacles to be overcome, rather than results that warrant study in their own right. Bugs are fixed,experiments are refocused, and one-off surprises are collapsed into a single data point. The stories themselves are traded among researchers through oral tradition, but that mode of information transmission is inefficient and prone to error and outright loss. Moreover, the fact that these stories tend to be shared only among practitioners means that many natural scientists do not realize how interesting and lifelike digital organisms are and how natural their evolution can be. To our knowledge, no collection of such anecdotes has been published before. This paper is the crowd-sourced product of researchers in the fields of artificial life and evolutionary computation who have provided first-hand accounts of such cases. It thus serves as a written, fact-checked collection of scientifically important and even entertaining stories. In doing so we also present here substantial evidence that the existence and importance of evolutionary surprises extends beyond the natural world, and may indeed be a universal property of all complex evolving systems

Invitation to a discussion

Joe Rogan and his middle-bro audience

Devin Gordon, Why is Joe Rogan so Popular? The Atlantic, August 2019.

The podcast:
Rogan’s podcast gushes like a mighty river of content—approximately three episodes a week, usually more than two hours per episode, consisting of one marathon conversation with a subject of his choosing. Over the course of about 1,400 episodes and counting, his roster of guests can be divided roughly three ways: (1) comedians, (2) fighters, and (3) “thinkers,” which requires air quotes because it encompasses everyone from Oxford scholars and MIT bioengineers to culture drivers such as the marketing entrepreneur Hotep Jesus and the rapper turned radio co-host Charlamagne tha God all the way across the known intellectual galaxy to conspiracy theorists like Rogan’s longtime buddy and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones. Also Dr. Phil. And David Lee Roth. And B-Real from Cypress Hill.

It’s impossible to be a Joe Rogan completist, so most of his fans pick a few tributaries. The rest may as well not exist. Who can keep track? Rogan is a key figure in the rise of MMA—Dana White once called him “the best fight announcer who has ever called a fight in the history of fighting”—but I don’t care about fighting, so I didn’t listen to any of Joe’s podcasts with fighters. I also didn’t listen to Dr. Phil, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who skipped it, which is just another way of saying there’s no real way to describe “Joe Rogan fans.” They’re not aligned around any narrow set of curiosities or politics. They’re aligned around Joe.
The audience:
As popular as he seems to be with quote-unquote regular guys, that’s how unpopular Joe Rogan is with the quote-unquote prestige wing of popular culture—Emmy voters, HBO subscribers, comedy nerds. Thought leaders. Thought followers. There are plenty of Joe Rogan fans among them, too, but they tend not to bring it up. [...]

The bedrock issue, though, is Rogan’s courting of a middle-bro audience that the cultural elite hold in particular contempt—guys who get barbed-wire tattoos and fill their fridge with Monster energy drinks and preordered their tickets to see Hobbs & Shaw. Joe loves these guys, and his affection has none of the condescension and ironic distance many people fall back on in order to get comfortable with them. He shares their passions and enthusiasms at a moment when the public dialogue has branded them childish or problematic or a slippery slope to Trumpism. Like many of these men, Joe grumbles a lot about “political correctness.” He knows that he is privileged by virtue of his gender and his skin color, but in his heart he is sick of being reminded about it. Like lots of other white men in America, he is grappling with a growing sense that the term white man has become an epithet. And like lots of other men in America, not just the white ones, he’s reckoning out loud with a fear that the word masculinity has become, by definition, toxic.

Most of Rogan’s critics don’t really grasp the breadth and depth of the community he has built, and they act as though trying is pointless.
Technique and craft:
The hard truth for some of Rogan’s critics in the media is that he is much better at captivating audiences than most of us, because he has the patience and the generosity to let his interviews be an experience rather than an inquisition. And, go figure, his approach has the virtue of putting his subjects at ease and letting the conversation go to poignant places, like the moment when Musk reflected on what it was like to be Elon Musk as a child—his brain a set of bagpipes that blared all day and all night. He assumed he would wind up in a mental institution. “It may sound great if it’s turned on,” he said in his blunt mechanical way, “but what if it doesn’t turn off?”
And a key thing Joe and his fans tend to have in common is a deficit of empathy. He seems unable to process how his tolerance for monsters like Alex Jones plays a role in the wounding of people who don’t deserve it. Jones’s recent appearance on the podcast came after he was sued by families of children and educators murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre—a mass shooting that Jones falsely claimed was a hoax, which families of the victims say prompted his gang of fans to harass them. (Jones has since acknowledged that the Sandy Hook massacre occurred.) So is Joe really nurturing a generation of smarter, healthier, more worldly men, or an army of conspiracy theorists and alt-right super soldiers? At the very least, he shows too much compassion for bad actors, and not enough for people on the receiving end of their attacks. [...] More revealing is who he invites onto his podcast, and what subjects he chooses to feast on in his stand-up specials. And if you cast a wide enough net, clear patterns emerge. If there’s a woman or a person of color (or both) on Joe’s podcast, the odds are high that person is a fighter or an entertainer, and not a public intellectual.
And so:
My Joe Rogan experience ended because he wore me out. He never shuts up. He talks and talks and talks. He doesn’t seem to grasp that not every thought inside his brain needs to be said out loud. It doesn’t occur to him to consider whether his contributions have value. He just speaks his mind. He just whips it out and drops it on the table.

Through the broccoli leaves

Richard Macksey at 3QD [TALENT SEARCH]

I’ve taken my Richard Macksey post from July 30, tweaked it a bit here and there, and posted it at 3 Quarks Daily: Why repost at 3QD? Because 3QD has a much larger readership than New Savanna, and people need to know about Dick Macksey.

Macksey is one of the three smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with. David Hays and Zeal Greenberg are the other two. They are very different men.

Both Hays and Macksey were academics; both were polymaths and both were interested in language. Unlike Hays, Macksey never really developed a line of thought that was his own. He published a bit, read ferociously across many disciplines, but he was mostly a teacher and an editor. Hays had and published about his own lines of thought. We collaborated closely from the time I met him when I was a graduate student until he died two decades later of lung cancer.

Zeal never went to college; he was a businessman. I met him long after I’d met the other two, in fact Hays had been dead almost by the time I’d met Zeal in November of 2003 or 2004. By that time he’d retired from business and was pushing a Quixotic project he called World Island – “a permanent world’s fair for a world that’s permanently fair”. I worked quite closely with him on that project for a couple of years, but then things tapered off. But I still keep in touch.

Here’s the question: How come I believe these are the three smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with? What’s my criterion of judgment? There’s really no way to compare them directly. Zeal is not at all an academic and so doesn’t have the kind of learning Macksey or Hays had, though he is immensely curious and knows many things. Macksey doesn’t have a body of original thought like Hays had and Hays, though broadly learned, was not like Macksey was – no one I’ve ever met was. I have no idea how these three would compare on any of the various tests of ability, and I wouldn’t pay any attention to those numbers if I had them.

That is to say, I wouldn’t value those numbers beyond the intuitive sense I’d developed through working with these men. That would be foolish. And that’s my basis of judgement, intuition based on direct experience. I certainly don’t claim any particular objectivity for that judgement. But remember, I’m only talking about people I’ve worked with directly. As for all those other people, how would I know?

It’s a strange business, this matter of talent and ability. We just don’t know.

Addendum, a day later: Walter Freeman may be as smart and creative as Macksey, Hays, and Zeal. I had extensive email correspondence with him while I was writing Beethoven's Anvil and for a year or three after, but I didn't work with him as much as I had with the other three.