Friday, May 7, 2021

Friday Fotos: Hoboken Spring [Hallucinated City]

Analyze This! Screaming on the flat part of the roller coaster ride [Does GPT-3 get the joke?]

Here’s Seinfeld’s first television appearance. It is from 1977 on Celebrity Cabaret, a nationally syndicated show. He’s doing a bit that starts with the Roosevelt Island tramway. You know what that is?

Background knowledge and common sense

Or don’t you? Just to be sure Seinfeld helpfully explains what a tramway is. What it is, really, is something he uses to set up the joke, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in background knowledge, often known as common sense knowledge in the rarified world of artificial intelligence (AI).

If you look at the version of this bit that Seinfeld published in his book, Is This Anything?, you’ll see that he doesn’t explain it at all (I’ve placed it immediately below). He just assumes – Bam! – you know it is. He also assumes you know that the South Bronx is a rather sketchy neighborhood – back in the day it was said that “the Bronx is burning.” Because sometimes it was. But if you didn’t already know that you wouldn’t get the joke.

But Seinfeld doesn’t say “the South Bronx” in the version in the clip. He simply refers to “the ghetto.” That tells you want you need to know to get the joke. Though I’ve not consulted him on this, I assume he did that because he figured that most people in a national audience would not know about the sad state of the South Bronx. New Yorkers would know that; it’s background knowledge for them – unless of course they’re actually in the South Bronx, in which case it’s in their face. But others are not likely to know that.

So that’s what interests me, the background knowledge, the common sense knowledge, that holds the bit together. You also have to know that roller coasters go up and down (did you notice the gesture he made during the bit?), that they’re a little scary on the downslope, that bankruptcy isn’t consistent with amusement park rides, that cities have governments and that it’s those governments that do things, etc. We know all this stuff without thinking about it.

But computers do not. So we’re going to quiz a computer about the punch line.

The Bit: Roosevelt Island Tramway

I see they just finished the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

That’s nice…

The city’s going bankrupt,

they’re putting up rides for us.

Next thing you know, there’ll be a roller coaster through the South Bronx.

That would be the first roller coaster where the people scream on the flat part of the ride.

Analysis and Commentary from GPT-3

GPT-3 is a massive AI engine that OpenAI revealed in June 2020. Massive? It’s got 175 billion parameters. Parameters? Don’t worry about it. Think of a parameter as a control knob on your TV – do TV’s have knobs anymore? Imagine a TV with 175 billion, with a “B”, knobs. That’s a lot of twiddling. It was trained on 499 billion tokens (think, roughly, words) of text sucked in from the internet. So it has processed text about Roosevelt Island, tramways, roller coasters, the South Bronx and a lot of other things, such as Antarctica, green cheese, Mata Hari, redwoods, giant Komodo dragons, fried rice, the Saturn V rocket, Jerry Seinfeld, pencils, The Tale of Genji, whales, catapults, looms, fruit flies, and anything else laying around on the Internet.

What GPT-3 does is to produce text. You feed it a bit of text and it takes it a runs with it by producing a continuation of the text. The text it produces is often astonishingly natural. It seems like a human wrote it. But no human did, just a dumb, but huge, just ginormous, machine.

If you feed GPT-3 some text and then ask a question, it will answer the question. That’s what I did with GPT-3. Well, not me, my friend Phil Mohun is the one who quizzed the machine. He gave it Seinfeld’s bit, and then asked a question. GPT-3 answered. Since I was particularly interested in the last line, the punch line, that’s what Phil asked about.

1] Here’s the first interaction. I’ve set Phil’s words in boldface.

Jerry Seinfeld tells the following joke:

I see they just finished the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
That’s nice…
The city’s going bankrupt,
they’re putting up rides for us.
Next thing you know, there’ll be a roller coaster through the South Bronx.
That would be the first roller coaster where the people scream on the flat part of the ride.

Q: Why would the people scream on the flat part of the ride?
GPT-3: Because it’s the Bronx.

Well, yeah. So what? I wanted to see if GPT-3 understood the relationship between being scared on a roller coaster and being scared on the ground in the South Bronx. So Phil tried again.

2] He increases the “temperature.” Don’t worry about just what that is, but increasing the temperature raises the amount of randomness in GPT-3’s response. Note that on this try Phil also gave GPT-3 the whole bit, as in example 1. That’s true of the other examples as well, but I’m omitting that part because it’s redundant. Just assume GPT-3 got the whole deal.

Q: Why would the people scream on the flat part of the ride?
GPT-3: There’ll be nothing to see for miles but rubble.

We’re getting somewhere. It seems like GPT-3 “knows” something about the South Bronx. But what does rubble have to do with screaming?

3] Here’s another response:

Q: Why would the people scream on the flat part of the ride?
GPT-3: So the people in Queens can see them.

That’s very interesting, and indicates some knowledge of geography as Queens and the South Bronx adjoin one another. But the roller coaster would have to be pretty close to Queens in order for the screams to reach people there. How far does GPT-3 think screams can be heard, under what wind conditions, and so forth. It’s not clear what’s going on inside GPT-3 – why would people on the roller coaster want to be noticed by people in Queens? – but the reply is not flat-out nonsense.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Ferry at dawn

Sketches After Latour: A Working Paper

Title above, abstract, contents, and introduction below. Download at:

Research Gate:

Abstract: Thirteen various observations on the thinking of Bruno Latour, from We Have Never Been Modern through Reassembling the Social and up to modes. Excursions into Stanley Fish, Paul Feyerabend, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Topics: religion, history, social organization, culture, mind, language, truth and felicity. Thread running throughout: Latour’s “flat ontology”, in which everything has agency, has fruitful, perhaps even substantial and revelatory, implications. COI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.15423.64164


Introduction: Latour in the bushes 2
Latour Modern, Not 5
From Fish to Latour, Really 8
Latour's Modes of Existence 12
Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth? 14
Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour 16
Ontology and Epistemology: gone, together? 18
Some Latour Litanies from Feyerabend 19
The Living Cosmos 20
Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits 22
Latour and the End of the End of History 24
Latour and Culture 26 Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence 27
Latour, Language, and Translation 33

Introduction: Latour in the bushes

Just yesterday, May 5, 2021, I was looking through my hard-drive for something-I-forget-what and I came upon this, an all but complete draft of a working paper on Latour. It was from late November of 2017. All I had had to do was complete the front matter, this introduction plus the abstract, and I would have been done.

Why’d I drop it? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

In any event, I’ve now completed it. This working paper collects posts written between April 1, 2012 and August 12, 2015. I’d started blogging about Latour on August 17, 2011, with my first post on Assembling the Social; that project continued until October 11. I issued those posts as a working paper two days later, Reading Latour: Reassembling the Social. And I suppose that my engagement with Latour reached its peak when I issued Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches in January of 2013, which is what its title implies: I’d taken Latour’s ideas, sifted them through my own work and coughed up an outline for a metaphysics. Surprised me, but there it is.

In some way, reading Latour was a return to my intellectual roots, in philosophy, in Continental thought. But a strange return. Figuring I wanted his recent thinking, I deliberately began reading him with a late work, Reassembling the Social, which turned out to be a high-level methodological manual rather than a systematic exposition of a philosophical position. It was only some months afterward that I took Graham Harman’s advice and read We Have Never Been Modern. I found it strange, a segment from an ongoing-conversation where I missed the beginning. Graham Harman thought it was easy, I thought it was tough. I marked it up quite a bit, a habit from my undergraduate days, and continued on. The posts I’ve collected here represent some of that continuing on.

* * * * *

Some of these are little squibs, some are longer.

Latour Modern, Not: In the process of reading (three chapters in) We Have Never Been Modern: “...this virtual Constitutional Convention is mostly a conversation among humans about how they’re going to talk and think about relations among humans and non-humans. In the end, though, in that Parliament of Things that Latour leaves to his successors, does he not want the Things to be among the constitutional conveners?”

From Fish to Latour, Really: Stanley Fish talks about ideas as though they are just out there in the ether. Latour seems them as embodied in a vast meshwork of intersecting networks: “While I can’t imagine Fish denying the existence of such networks, I don’t see that they’re uppermost in his mind either. It’s not what drives his intuitions. It’s like the Gestaltist’s duck-rabbit. Fish and Latour may look at the same state of affairs, but one is driven by the intuition that it is a rabbit while the other sees a duck.”

Latour's Modes of Existence: For Latour, each mode of existence has its own characteristic type of veridication. Charles Tart advanced a similar idea in the 1970s: “When you take a psychedelic drug you (may well) have a (so-called) peak experience in which deep truths are revealed to you. Those truths often seem like trite nonsense to those who've not experienced a psychedelic peak. Let's posit that those deep truths are, in fact, specific to one's biochemical neural state and can ONLY be judged and appreciated from within that state.”

Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth?: Lévi-Strauss had a tremendous influence on me early in my career. Latour has an interesting passage about him in We Have Never Been Modern. And so: “...are the two thinkers so very different as Latour’s little critique aims to suggest? There would seem to be at least one major difference, one at the center of Latour’s thinking, and at the center of Lévi-Strauss’s. Both talk a lot about the opposition between nature and culture. Latour aims to undermine it while Lévi-Strauss would seem to be enmeshed in it, as Derrida argued in ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.’”

Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour: Latour talks of risk-taking rocks and networks of humans and everything else. But he’s rather thin on how people think and reason.

Ontology and Epistemology: gone, together?: Once you allow for multiple modes of existence, things get tricky.

Some Latour Litanies from Feyerabend: Allies in pluralist syntax.

The Living Cosmos: In an oblique way, consider this squib an homage to the John Cage of Silence.

Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits: I’m all of three pages into the just-released English translation of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. Latour talks of climate science; I remember Hurricane Sandy. I conclude, “The weird aliens have come home to roost.”

Latour and the End of the End of History: Fukuyama was wrong about the end of history, an idea born out of washed up Hegel/Marx. “...lurking in Politics of Nature [...] are the seeds of a philosophy of history as a process of negotiations beyond the boundaries of society, of existing institutions, negotiations of collectives in dragon territory.”

Latour and Culture: He’s missing something. He fails to distinguish between society, conceived as a group of people oriented toward and interacting with one another, and culture, the beliefs, practices, a mores of those people. A tricky distinction to be sure: “Still, it changes how I think about Latour to realize that, in effect, those actor networks are important because they are the genetic substrate of culture. Finally, I’ve thought from the beginning that Latour is missing a psychology. He has little to nothing to say about the mind, and yet it is the mind that holds those actor networks together.”

Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence: About Latour’s modes of existence, each with its own “felicity” conditions, with an excursion into a sermon delivered by a local preacher in a Black church. Religion is one mode. Science, waaayy over there, is different (Reference perhaps?). I conclude, however, that “Latour is missing some modes. He’s flattened a bunch of them into this single mode, Reproduction. Thus he’s giving us a scheme that bears an echo of that old nature/culture distinction he’s worked so hard to replace. His scheme has 14 modes which center on human activity and this one mode that, while humans as physical beings must participate in it, seems to be a single mode only in contrast to, by comparison with, the other fourteen.”

Latour, Language, and Translation: Language, whether written or spoken, is a double system in which a string of signifiers carries or encodes a string of signifieds, to use Saussure’s terms. The signifiers are physical events in the public domain, vibrations in air, marks on a page, while the signifieds exist within the privacy of individual minds and brains. In Latour’s terms, signifiers act like intermediaries while signifieds are mediators. In translation from one language to another, intermediaries must function as mediators.

Sunk boat

On bringing bioligcal data to bear on artificial neural networks [I think we're getting somewhere]

Comedy gold, the missing comma [much ado about nothing]

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Do Wide and Deep Networks Learn the Same Things? [I think we're getting somewhere]

From Google's AI Blog: Do Wide and Deep Networks Learn the Same Things?

A common practice to improve a neural network’s performance and tailor it to available computational resources is to adjust the architecture depth and width. Indeed, popular families of neural networks, including EfficientNet, ResNet and Transformers, consist of a set of architectures of flexible depths and widths. However, beyond the effect on accuracy, there is limited understanding of how these fundamental choices of architecture design affect the model, such as the impact on its internal representations.

In “Do Wide and Deep Networks Learn the Same Things? Uncovering How Neural Network Representations Vary with Width and Depth”, we perform a systematic study of the similarity between wide and deep networks from the same architectural family through the lens of their hidden representations and final outputs. In very wide or very deep models, we find a characteristic block structure in their internal representations, and establish a connection between this phenomenon and model overparameterization. Comparisons across models demonstrate that those without the block structure show significant similarity between representations in corresponding layers, but those containing the block structure exhibit highly dissimilar representations. These properties of the internal representations in turn translate to systematically different errors at the class and example levels for wide and deep models when they are evaluated on the same test set. 

More on the blog.

Go West, into the purple

The relationship between religiosity and authoritarian values varies with education and level of societal development

Reality is not perceived, it is enacted

Reality is not perceived, it is enacted – in a universe of great, perhaps unbounded, complexity.

David Hays and I published that in a little article, we called it a note, we published over thirty years ago (see below). It was Hays’s formulation, but I liked it then. And I still like it?

But what does it mean? Forget the stuff after the dash, it’s that first part I’m thinking about. It clearly implies that without actors there’s no reality. Since we humans are the actors does that mean that before us, there was no reality? That’s absurd. The earth and the universe existed before we did, no?

Yes. Perhaps it means that they weren’t real. You mean they were imaginary, or illusions? No, more like the difference between the real and the not-real had no meaning.

That seems a little better. Let’s try something else. Let’s go the Latour route and say that everything is an actor, not just us humans. That leaves plenty of actors to enact reality prior to us.

That’s beginning to make sense.

It seems to me that we’re haunted by an old picture that we might as well attribute to Descartes, though it’s likely older. In this picture we are over here and the (external) world is way way over there somewhere. Our problem is to figure out what that’s like. How do we do that? By perception.

But that’s never really worked out. There’s always the problem of figuring out whether or not perception really matches the world. It never does or, what amounts to the same thing, there’s no place where we can stand to verify the match. The only way out of that bottle is to stop playing that game. We drop the convention of assigning agency only to humans and all the creatures get to enact reality.

We still have to verify our perceptions and theories, etc. But we accept that they’re always going to be provisional. But as long as we can use them to act effectively in the world, we’re OK.

Where does that leave the foundations of physics, with all that fancy mathematics and no way to test it with empirical observation? It means that the foundations of physics is no longer enacting science, which requires empirical verification. It’s doing something else. Ironic science, as John Horgan has it?

Let’s consider a very different example, “The Rite of Spring” from Disney’s 1941 Fantasia. It depicts an enactment of the solar system and the earth prior to human habitation. It’s certainly not a perception. You can call it an artistic imagining, with considerable license taken, if you will – for example, the T. Rex and the Stegosaurus couldn’t have fought because they lived a hundred million years apart (and Disney knew that). But that’s an action, no? Yes. Disney isn’t doing science, though it obviously interests him a great deal in this episode. He’s doing art.

Science and art are two different ways of enacting reality. Two different modes. Which brings us back to Latour again, who has advanced a theory of modes. Note, however, that I have decided to take a somewhat different view of modes and have offered a preliminary sketch: Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches, Working Paper, January 2013,

I could go on and on, and probably should. But not now. Later. Meanwhile here’s the paper where Hays and I offered that formulation along with the immediate context.

* * * * *

Rest your eyes on the balloon

Does human habitation cause extinction of other species? Not until the Holocene [c. 10 kya]

Well-trained dogs

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Humans have been terraforming the earth for 12,000 years ['pristine' habitats aren't so pristine]

From the linked article, People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years:


The current biodiversity crisis is often depicted as a struggle to preserve untouched habitats. Here, we combine global maps of human populations and land use over the past 12,000 y with current biodiversity data to show that nearly three quarters of terrestrial nature has long been shaped by diverse histories of human habitation and use by Indigenous and traditional peoples. With rare exceptions, current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies. Global land use history confirms that empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities will be critical to conserving biodiversity across the planet.


Archaeological and paleoecological evidence shows that by 10,000 BCE, all human societies employed varying degrees of ecologically transformative land use practices, including burning, hunting, species propagation, domestication, cultivation, and others that have left long-term legacies across the terrestrial biosphere. Yet, a lingering paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers is that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive. Here, we use the most up-to-date, spatially explicit global reconstruction of historical human populations and land use to show that this paradigm is likely wrong. Even 12,000 y ago, nearly three quarters of Earth’s land was inhabited and therefore shaped by human societies, including more than 95% of temperate and 90% of tropical woodlands. Lands now characterized as “natural,” “intact,” and “wild” generally exhibit long histories of use, as do protected areas and Indigenous lands, and current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are more strongly associated with past patterns of land use than with present ones in regional landscapes now characterized as natural. The current biodiversity crisis can seldom be explained by the loss of uninhabited wildlands, resulting instead from the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of the biodiverse cultural landscapes long shaped and sustained by prior societies. Recognizing this deep cultural connection with biodiversity will therefore be essential to resolve the crisis.

Leaves above [green red new]