Monday, December 31, 2018

Lest you think Longwood Gardens is all pretty flowers...

Toward a Theory of the Corpus [#DH]

I've just posted a new working paper. Title above, abstract, table of contents, introduction and section introductions are below. Download from:

Abstract: Recent corpus techniques ask literary analysts to bracket the interpretation of meaning so that we may trace the motions of mind. These techniques allow us to think of the mind as being, in some aspect, a high-dimensional space of verbal meanings. Texts then become paths through such a space. The overarching argument is that by thinking of texts as just ordered collections of physical symbols that are meaningless in themselves we can examine those collections in ways that allow us to recover the motions of mind as it constructs meanings for itself. When we examine a corpus over historical time we can see the evolution of mind. The corpus thus becomes an arena in which we investigate the movements of mind at various scales.


Meaning, text, and mind: Notes toward a theory of the corpus 2
1. Can you learn anything worthwhile about a text if you treat it, not as a TEXT, but as a string of marks on pages? 6
2. Computational linguistics & NLP: What’s in a corpus? – MT vs. topic analysis 13
3. Why computational critics need to know about constitutive computational semantics 18
4. Augustine’s Path, A note on virtual reading 23
5. Mapping the pathways of the mind 29
6. Inferring the direction of the historical process underlying a corpus 39

Meaning, text, and mind: Notes toward a theory of the corpus

The set of observations I’ve collected in this working paper has two sources; it was spun out to scratch two conceptual itches. One is my long-standing interest in literary form. The other is the opposition or tension between meaning and, well, computation that has been dogging computational criticism for, I don’t know, a decade. Even computational critics who otherwise refuse to take that opposition as a criticism nonetheless tend to treat their mathematical models as scaffolding to support, or as gadgets for detecting, what really interests them. In the end I spent more time scratching that second itch than the first.

Computational critics have an opportunity to map the human mind that is qualitatively different from what interpretive critics accomplish by uncovering meanings ‘hidden’ in literary texts. But to avail themselves of this opportunity computational critics must understand the broad disciplinary framework in which “meaning” is opposed to “distant reading”. It is not simply that these are two different phenomena, or that “distant reading” is not intended to replace or supplant the explication of “meaning”, but that yoking them together in that opposition makes no more sense than opposing “salt” to “NaCl”.

The first three sections – Part 1: Mapping a new ontology of the text – deal with that kind conceptual difference. The last three sections – Part 2: Virtual reading: Paths through the mind and the mind over historical time – are about those new conceptual possibilities. I’ve provided some introductory material for both parts that is intended to help stitch these various arguments together. The overarching argument is that by thinking of texts as just ordered collections of physical symbols that are meaningless in themselves we can examine those collections in ways that allow us to recover the motions of mind as it constructs meanings for itself. We bracket the interpretation of meaning so that we may trace the motions of mind.

* * * * *

Part 1: Mapping a new ontology of the text – My overall objective here is to outline a way of thinking about language and texts that is centered on form and mechanism (linguistics) rather than meaning (literary criticism).

1. Can you learn anything worthwhile about a text if you treat it, not as a TEXT, but as a string of marks on pages? – Conventional literary criticism talks a lot about the text, but has no coherent conception of it. That is because it is focused on meaning and meaning doesn’t exist in the marks on pages, the physical text. Corpus techniques, topic modeling for example, have nothing but those marks and yet manage to reconstitute something that looks like meaning (but really isn’t, not quite). How is that possible? Moreover, by focusing on certain kinds of patterns in those marks, we can uncover formal structure in texts, structure that is otherwise invisible to conventional criticism, which also talks a lot about form without offering a coherent account of it.

2. Computational linguistics & NLP: What’s in a corpus? – MT vs. topic analysis – Corpora play very different roles in topic modeling and in machine translation. In topic modeling a corpus is the object of investigation while in machine translation a corpus is used to build a tool which then, in turn, does the translation. In MT the corpus allows us to create that Martin Kay calls an “ignorance model”. We would really like to be able to us a robust account of natural language semantics in MT; alas, we don’t have such a model (ignorance), so we use corpus techniques to construct a very crude approximation of semantics.

3. Why computational critics need to know about constitutive computational semantics – Simple, you need to know the lay of the land. That can be expressed in four contrasts: 1) close reading vs. distant reading, 2) meaning vs. semantics, 3) statistical semantics vs. computational semantics, and 4) corpus as tool vs. corpus as object. More often than not, corpus as tool is a substitute for constitutive computational semantics.

Part 2: Virtual reading: Paths through the mind and the mind over historical time – Assuming that we can think of the mind as, in some aspect, a high-dimensional network of verbal meanings, we can use statistical techniques to reveal the paths different texts trace through the mind and, beyond that, follow the mind as it evolves over historical time.

4. Augustine’s Path, A note on virtual reading – If we think of the mind as a high-dimensional space that can be approximated by statistical techniques, including those in analyzing texts, then we can see Andrew Piper’s statistical analysis of conversion texts, chiefly Augustine’s Confessions, as an analysis of mental structure. The statistical structure uncovered in the location of the 13 books of the Confessions can thus be reinterpreted as a pathway in the mind, of Augustine, but also of his readers. What are these different mental regions that are traversed in just this way?

5. Mapping the pathways of the mind – Michael Gavin uses vector semantics to examine a passage from Paradise Lost. After arguing that a word-space model is, after all, a model of the mind, I suggest that vector semantics could be used to map paths through the mind. I illustrate this conjecture by drawing a path for the Milton passage by picking words that had been brought to my attention by Gavin’s analysis. There’s no reason why such a path couldn’t be traced computationally.

6. Inferring the direction of the historical process underlying a corpus – Mathew Jockers’ final study in Macroanalysis (2013) attempted to investigate influence in a corpus of 3300 19th century novels. I argue that what he in fact discovered is that the socio-cultural process that created those novels is inherently directional. Without intending to do so, Jockers had in effect operationalized the 19th century idealist notion of Spirit and provided a way of thinking about “an autonomous aesthetic realm” (in a phrase from Edward Said).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Longwood Gardens at night, December 2016

Andreessen & Horowitz discuss Culture, Tech, and Talent with Tyler Cowen: Hollywood & Silicon Valley and the African-American connection

Andreesen Horowitz, as you may know, is a venture capital firm located in Silicon Valley. Tyler Cowen is an economist at George Mason University and a prolific blogger at Marginal Revolution. They recently had a conversation:

This is a very interesting conversation, one which, from my point of view, hinges on and revolves around the difference between Hollywood as a producer of culture and Silicon Valley as a producer of technology. Will the twain meet, can they? [What do you think Disney was doing back in the 30s and 40s?] At about 19:22 Cowen mentions that has started a Cultural Leadership Fund. Horowitz observes that it’s an attempt to “apply culture to the venture capital model”, whatever that means.

He continues, c. 20:29:
We thought it was a good thing to share with the rest of the industry and so we would have these cultural geniuses, but geniuses who didn’t look like the geniuses our guys were used to like Mark Zuckerberg or Brian Chesky [Airbnb]; they kind of felt different. But our guys were interested in working with them so we put them together. They get to know each other, which has got value on both sides, and it also gives a lot of value to our CEOs, because not only do they get to kind of learn how to move culture, but they also get to learn about how a different kind of talent looks like. Which is very very valuable when you’re kinda’ in the war for talent.

And then we invest it back in a kind of young African-Americans who are wanting to come into tech. So we create a talent pipeline with the fund and we have straight access to the pipeline. So I would just say we get a lot of credit for being nice but really just winning. So its gone great. And I think it works well and

And look, the main thesis is if you’ve got like a very small group of people that created every new musical art form in the last century from jazz to blues to hip-hop to rock ‘n roll, you know, that’s a real thing. Like to be able to do that, and that’s a real talent base that we need to figure out how to get to.
There’s a lot wrapped up there and I don’t know what I think about it.

Basically, sure, it’s good. They’ll have to be fleet to achieve maximum benefit. But obviously they’ve done very well to date. And yet, something about this – I can't put my finger on it – seems a little old to me.

* * * * *

As for that “very small group of people that created every new musical art form in the last century”, that’s very deep in the culture, African American and more generally American for it’s a niche that African Americans have been allowed to occupy. But can THAT be transferred to tech? Just what kind of transfer to they have in mind, coding skill, device design and fabrication or, you know, content creation?

That musical culture starts young. I’ve seen black five and six year olds who can dance more fluidly than most white college students, but then they likely started dancing before they could walk. How’s that possible? In their mother’s arms. Then there’s the church, which provided and continues to provide an institutional home for music. The music that happens in church may be restricted in some ways, but those restrictions aren’t of such a nature as to stand in the way of a rollicking good time. Musicians who come up learning to make music like that easily shed those restrictions in secular venues.

And then there's tech, the sampling culture of hip-hop is at least halfway there, no?

What about games, video games? Some years ago I’d thought that if I ran a games company that I’d hire Richard Pryor as a consultant. He’s brilliant and imaginative, and an interesting actor; he knows how to move. A video game infused with the spirit of Richard Pryor should have great appeal. Alas, spirit is all that’s left of him now. Who could take up the mantle? I’d go for Dave Chapelle.

* * * * *

Getting back to my inchoate misgivings, which have to do with Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley and culture vs. tech. That first opposition, I assume, is about socio-cultural ecosystems. These two places developed as networks of interlocking goods, services, skill sets, and training grounds organized around different economic engines. But it’s not as though Los Angeles is devoid of tech; there’s a lot of aerospace and petroleum there, and the movie industry floats on underlying technology (hence my earlier remark about Disney). And Silicon Valley, it’s right around the corner from the old hippie mecca of Haight-Ashbury, with its sex, drugs, and rock and roll. My guess is that it’s more like high rank 3 culture (Hollywood) vs. emerging rank 4 culture (Silicon Valley) – but to explicate that I’d have to insert a mini-discussion of the theory of cultural ranks. There’s plenty of that on elsewhere New Savanna, so I don’t intend to do it here.

And then we have Horowitz’s paradigm examples of Silicon Valley genius, Mark Zuckerberg and Brian Chesky. Whatever those guys are, they aren’t technical types. They’re well, they’re entrepreneurs. Are we now recognizing that as a distinct type, maybe even rank 4 (though the term has an older provenance)? In a slightly different corner of the conversation he – or was it Andreeseen? – talked of systems thinking, a sort on catch-all phrase that may well correspond to a well-developed set of intuitions and perceptions (probably does), but that doesn’t mean much in itself.

I take it, then, that much was left unsaid. Some of it simply because they didn’t get around to it. But the most important part is unsaid because they don’t know how to articulate it. I’m thinking of that old cliché about icebergs: the visible portion is only 10% of the berg; it’s resting on a submerged 90%. That conversation, like all conversation, was a display of the visible 10%. It’s the invisible 90% that’s doing most of the work.

Cultural Leadership Fund? We’ll see.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

I like it, but it's out of focus [RGB]

This is the kind of focus that keeps me thinking about what I'm doing. I like it. I like the colors, I like the textures. But it's out of focus. For some purposes that's obviously a show stopper. But for others, does it matter, really?

It's obviously the leaves of some plant, if you care about that. Does it matter? That's an interesting question. One can think of it as just and abstract pattern of color. But can you see it that way? Or do you pretty much have to see it as an arrangement of physical objects with light playing over them? I think the latter.

And if we change the colors so they're unnatural?

Gray scale is unnatural too, but we're used to it. After all, everything is gray in the dark.

FDR 2: War and Peace

Continuing commentary on politics at FDR SK8park in Philly.

Stylistically, it's a roller. That is, the paint was applied with rollers rather than aerosol. This style is common and is used for large dramatic letters, as here.

I don’t know what “SFO” stands for, but the “O” takes the form of a sign that is generally known as the peace sign. I was first introduced to it in the anti-war movement back in the 1960s, but it is about a decade older than that. It originated in Great Britain in the nuclear disarmament movement and consists of the semaphore (signal flag) signals for “N” and “D” (nuclear disarmament). I’ve seen it at a number of graffiti sites in Jersey City. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it showing up at FDR; in fact, I’d almost be surprised if it weren’t here.

But let’s look at something a bit more interesting. Consider the skull and helmet at the center of this photos:

There’s a lot happening on that surface. It appears to me that the skull was painted along with the background of flames as a single image. Someone went over it with a yellow throw-up on the left and someone else put a white throw-up on the right. Both of those violate and norm the requires that, when you go over someone else’s work, you go over it with something better. But that’s not what interests me.

I’m interested in the lettering on the helmet. Here’s a close-up.

I detect at least four hands at work plus who knows what else. First we have the hand that did the flames, skull, and helmet. That doesn’t look like aerosol; it looks like paint and brush. Our first hand. I’m guessing that the green and white we see at the bottom edge of the helmet is from whatever is beneath it.

Then we have the letters in white aerosol. Our second hand. “WAR” is obvious. If we look beneath the black “NO” – our third hand – we can see “TO”. So, after the skull and helmet was painted someone came along and sprayed “TO WAR” on the helmet. Am I certain of that; am I sure that “TO WAR” isn’t the work of the original artist. “Sure?” No, I’m not sure. But I doubt they’re the same hand. Why would the original artist have switched from paint and brush to aerosol? No, chances are that someone else sprayed “TO WAR” on the held and then a third person cancelled out the white “TO” with a black “NO”.

And then a fourth person came along and sprayed “BE KIND [heart]” in light green on top of the rest. At least two other people made comments by placing stickers on it, a green on in the center and a purple and yellow on at the upper right. They came along before the green painter as his words go over those stickers.
What about the dark red we see? I simply don’t know. It may well be lettering, but I can make it out; it’s too obscured. If you look closely at some of the edges it looks like it may be paint-and-brush work. Perhaps it was part of the original image. We just can’t say.

Alan Liu is reading beyond literary studies, check 'em out

Friday, December 28, 2018

You see it everywhere: Who's flicking whom? [Longwood Gardens, outside Philly]

Politics on Display at FDR SK8park in Philadelphia [Friday Fotos]

THAT^ is why FDR exists, for the thrill and freedom of riding a skateboard.

And THIS^ will give you a very rough idea of the style and scale of the place, which covers three to five times the area you see in that photo. Notice the naval ships in the background, the underside of the interstate above, and the shoes suspended from the girders.

But this isn’t exactly about skateboarding, not directly. It’s about some of the imagery that’s painted on the surfaces of the park, the vertical surfaces of the support pillars for I-95 above and for the park’s various features, and on the skating surface itself.

This is going to be a long read, as they say, albeit one with pictures,. You might want to pour yourself a scotch or, better yet, pop the top of a PBR and relax.

Click on photos to enlarge them.

Independence Day (born on the 4th of July)

Consider this photo, which I took this year (on 12.24.18):

Across the center we see “FDR”, “4th of July 2018”, “FDR Since•96” and the Liberty Bell, all against a background of red, white, and blue, the colors of the American flag. The initials “FDR” stand for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, but the skate park is not named after him. Rather, it is known as FDR because it is at the far end of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park at the south end of Philadelphia, near the football stadium and the naval yard. For anyone in the skateboarding world “FDR” means this skate park, not the larger park and not the president that park is named after.

The 4th of July is, of course, Independence Day, a national holiday in the United States that commemorates the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Where was it signed? In Philadelphia, the home of the Second Continental Congress. The Liberty Bell hung in Independence Hall, formerly the Pennsylvania State House, and is a symbol of American Independence.

And then we have “FDR since•96”. Here’s a bit of history written in 2001 on the Transworld SKATEboarding site on the web:
FDR is to Philadelphia as Burnside is to Portland: city-owned, skater-built, and not for the meek. This sacred space beneath Interstate 95 in South Philly has come a long way since its fledgling days in 1994, when it was born as a result of Philadelphia government’s desire to eliminate skateboarding at Love Park. As a peace offering to Philly skateboarders, the city set aside approximately 16,000 square feet of real estate beneath the highway, laid down a blacktop slab, threw in a couple of pyramids and a grind box, and called it a “skatepark.” City Hall thought this was enough to solve the problems caused by skaters at Love Park; nothing further happened for about a year and a half, until the locals got restless. Inspired by Burnside, and tired of waiting on the City, they took matters into their own hands and started building a transition up a support pillar here, a corner bowl there, a mogul or two in between.
Notice that phrase, “sacred space”. I assure you that’s not used casually.

A year and a half from ‘94 would give us ‘96, in effect the year that the skate boarders took over the park and made it their own, designing and constructing their own features. The park has been growing ever since and remains under construction to this day. Around the edges of the completed section you’ll see mounds of dirt, piles of scrap and not-so-scrap wood and wooden forms for pouring concrete. I don’t know where the money comes from – though at one point the city kicked in $25K – nor do I know anything about the administrative structure of the park. As far as I know there is no legal entity taking responsibility for the park (nothing listed in the Wikipedia entry for example). Somehow it just happens: of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Let’s continue with another paragraph from Transworld SKATEboarding:
The story of FDR Skatepark is much like the story of the United States of America. They both began when a government used unpopulated land in an attempt to move a community of people who needed freedom to express themselves. What followed was not expected by anybody; the colonization of these lands did not happen immediately or as planned. It took time, a lot of work, dedication, dreams, sacrifices, and pain. In an effort to tell the skateboarding world how the colonization of FDR Skatepark happened, the following is a collection of conversations, stories, memories, and feelings from skateboarders who have been there since the beginning, as well as recent immigrants.
And that’s what I see in some of the imagery painted at the park.

In my experience graffiti writers and street artists do not normally employ patriotic imagery, but some of them at FDR do. It is not clear to me just how the story/mythology of this park became infused with the story/mythology of the nation, but that is clearly what has happened. If people were thinking that way in 2001, when Transworld SKATEboarding article was published, then it’s not at all surprising to see such imagery on the walls.

National symbols and skate board mythology

I took that photo last year. In the foreground we see standard graffiti, layers of it (also standard). There is a large well-executed semi-wild-style name in red tones – STEM – that went over something in aqua; that something is now all but obliterated. There is an informal rule about this: If you go over someone else’s work, go over with something better. Otherwise, going over is considered an act of aggression and makes your own work a target for retaliation. STEM seems to have followed that rule. There’s a lot of little nonsense around the periphery, again, pretty standard for sites like this. This is a different kind of politics, the arrangements among graffiti writers about how to interact with one another on the walls they share.

But let’s return to that other kind of politics, where the mythology of nation building has become the mythology of FDR. In the background we see some version of the American flag painted on the surface, the so-called Betsy Ross version. We’ve got 13 stars in a circle against a field of blue at the upper left and then the standard 13 red and white stripes. The “76” isn’t part of the flag design but was added by the artist, whoever it is.

Notice the beer can at the right, sporting the red, white, and blue colors of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which fit in nicely with the ongoing patriotic mythology. But where a real can would proclaim “Pabst Blue Ribbon” we see instead, fdr. Pabst Blue Ribbon is often referred to as PBR, which transmutes easily into fdr. Beyond this, PBR has some considerable currency in popular culture, though just why that is so, I don’t know (Wikipedia lists a bunch of occurrences in movies, TV, and song).

Off there to the left someone is wishing “Happy Birthday” to Jeremiah Risk. This sort of thing is common enough at popular graffiti sites.

This is another photo from this year. As you can see, the painted surface has been degraded through constant skating – it will likely be repainted sometime in 2019. Notice that “NO BIKES” is inscribed at the bottom of the can. More politics. Parks that are good for skate boarding are also good for BMX biking. But skateboarders believe that bikers are harder on the surface than they are and consequently do not like BMX bikers to use their parks. Notice the small white keystone image at the upper right. That figure is repeated across the background (you can just barely see them in the previous photo). Pennsylvania is known as “the Keystone State”, presumably for some role it played in the revolution.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Stagnation 1.4: Is the cost of ideation an issue for philosophy?

In the my first post in this series, Stagnation 1: The phenomenon and a simple-minded model with some remarks on search (pharmaceuticals) and process re-engineering (semiconductors), I asserted that “the economists have black box which we can call, say, the innovation engine. They don’t really know what goes on inside, but they are sure there are ideas in there, whatever they are”. Just what sorts of things do economists imagine to be in that black box other than ideas?

I’m not an economist. I don’t know, though I can imagine all sorts of things. As for myself, I went on to argue that something we might call The Structure of the World is in there as well.

In its naked generality “the structure of the world” is rather nebulous: Just what does it mean? In the two examples I considered in some detail, Moore’s Law in chip fabrication and the search for drugs that work on heart disease and cancer, I was able to be more specific. In the case of Moore’s Law we’re interested in the physical and chemical structure of chip materials at scales starting at, say one centimeter, and getting smaller by however many orders of magnitude. In the case of drug creation we’re interested in the very small set of compounds that can intervene in disease pathways in ways beneficial to patients.

What Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Web [1] have been characterizing as the difficulty of finding ideas is, from my point of view, the cost of discovering more about the world. Knowledge doesn’t come free. The world would have to be a very different place in order for that to be the case.

That brings me to a question that seems rather philosophical in character. Is the cost of knowledge to be considered incidental to that knowledge – that seems to be the default position of philosophers – or is it intrinsic? At the moment I favor the latter, though I don’t intend to offer a strong argument. Rather, just an informal observation or two.

Let us start with the perceptual psychology of J.J. Gibson. His ecological psychology, as he called, is grounded in the assertion that we cannot understand how perception works without understanding the structure of the environment in which the perceptual system must operate. In the context of his analysis of visual perception Gibson [2] addressed an issue formulated most poignantly by Rene Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641): How do I distinguish between a valid perception and an illusory image, such as a dream? The difference, Gibson tells us, between mere image and reality is that, upon repeated examination, reality shows us something new, whereas images only reiterate what we have seen before (256-257).
A surface is seen with more or less definition as the accommodation of the lens changes; an image is not. A surface becomes clearer when fixated; an image does not. A surface can be scanned; an image cannot. When the eyes converge on an object in the world, the sensation of crossed diplopia disappears, and when the eyes diverge, the “double image” reappears; this does not happen for an image in the space of the mind. [...] No image can be scrutinized – not an afterimage, not a so-called eidetic image, not the image in a dream, and not even a hallucination. An imaginary object can undergo an imaginary scrutiny, no doubt, but you are not going to discover a new and surprising feature of the object this way.
Gibson presupposes an organism which is actively examining its environment for useful information. It can lift, touch, turn, taste, tear and otherwise manipulate the object so that its parts and qualities are exposed to many sensory channels. Under such treatment reality continually shows new faces. Dream, on the other hand, simply collapses. Dream objects are not indefinitely rich. They may change bafflingly into other objects, but in themselves they are finite.

Gibson’s remark has an economic cast, where I mean economics in the broadest sense. Perception, and cognition by implication, requires effort, and will be undertaken only so far as that effort is rewarded. It is not only that it takes effort to apprehend reality, but that we take reality to be bounded by effort that is acceptably rewarded. When the rewards drop below threshold we conclude that we are no longer in touch with the real and we abandon the effort.

To the extent that I am correct in this, it would seem that the economists’ work on productivity, especially the exponential cost of achieving linear increases in productivity has fundamental philosophical implications.

* * * * *

This concludes my first set of remarks about and economics of productivity and the problem of stagnation. Now I want to switch gears and place these reflections in the context of human cultural evolution. At the moment I am imagining two (rather long) posts with provisional titles as follows:
  • Stagnation 2.0: The measurement of culture [there was stagnation in the past, long periods of it]
  • Stagnation 2.1: Ideas in the world and the phenomenon of rankshift
In the first post I’ll review some empirical work that has been done on measuring socio-cultural complexity while the second post has some more speculative reflections about major transformations in the course of the social-cultural evolution of human society.


[1] Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb, Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? March 5, 2018,

[2] Gibson, J. J., 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

AlphaZero: Chess belongs to the machines, now more than ever before – Implications please?

Steven Strogatz in the NYTimes, 12.26.18. In the old days (1997) IBM's Deep Blue beat Kasparov:
For better and worse, it played like a machine, brutally and materialistically. It could out-compute Mr. Kasparov, but it couldn’t outthink him. In Game 1 of their match, Deep Blue greedily accepted Mr. Kasparov’s sacrifice of a rook for a bishop, but lost the game 16 moves later. The current generation of the world’s strongest chess programs, such as Stockfish and Komodo, still play in this inhuman style. They like to capture the opponent’s pieces. They defend like iron. But although they are far stronger than any human player, these chess “engines” have no real understanding of the game. They have to be tutored in the basic principles of chess.

These principles, which have been refined over decades of human grandmaster experience, are programmed into the engines as complex evaluation functions that indicate what to seek in a position and what to avoid: how much to value king safety, piece activity, pawn structure, control of the center, and more, and how to balance the trade-offs among them. Today’s chess engines, innately oblivious to these principles, come across as brutes: tremendously fast and strong, but utterly lacking insight.
And now:
All of that has changed with the rise of machine learning. By playing against itself and updating its neural network as it learned from experience, AlphaZero discovered the principles of chess on its own and quickly became the best player ever. Not only could it have easily defeated all the strongest human masters — it didn’t even bother to try — it crushed Stockfish, the reigning computer world champion of chess. In a hundred-game match against a truly formidable engine, AlphaZero scored twenty-eight wins and seventy-two draws. It didn’t lose a single game.

Most unnerving was that AlphaZero seemed to express insight. It played like no computer ever has, intuitively and beautifully, with a romantic, attacking style. It played gambits and took risks. In some games it paralyzed Stockfish and toyed with it. While conducting its attack in Game 10, AlphaZero retreated its queen back into the corner of the board on its own side, far from Stockfish’s king, not normally where an attacking queen should be placed.

Yet this peculiar retreat was venomous: No matter how Stockfish replied, it was doomed. It was almost as if AlphaZero was waiting for Stockfish to realize, after billions of brutish calculations, how hopeless its position truly was, so that the beast could relax and expire peacefully, like a vanquished bull before a matador. Grandmasters had never seen anything like it. AlphaZero had the finesse of a virtuoso and the power of a machine. It was humankind’s first glimpse of an awesome new kind of intelligence.
Hmmmm.... Really?

Tellingly, AlphaZero won by thinking smarter, not faster; it examined only 60 thousand positions a second, compared to 60 million for Stockfish. It was wiser, knowing what to think about and what to ignore. By discovering the principles of chess on its own, AlphaZero developed a style of play that “reflects the truth” about the game rather than “the priorities and prejudices of programmers,” Mr. Kasparov wrote in a commentary accompanying the Science article.
And now for the implications:
The question now is whether machine learning can help humans discover similar truths about the things we really care about: the great unsolved problems of science and medicine, such as cancer and consciousness; the riddles of the immune system, the mysteries of the genome.

The early signs are encouraging. Last August, two articles in Nature Medicine explored how machine learning could be applied to medical diagnosis. In one, researchers at DeepMind teamed up with clinicians at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to develop a deep-learning algorithm that could classify a wide range of retinal pathologies as accurately as human experts can.[...]

The other article concerned a machine-learning algorithm that decides whether a CT scan of an emergency-room patient shows signs of a stroke, an intracranial hemorrhage or other critical neurological event. For stroke victims, every minute matters; the longer treatment is delayed, the worse the outcome tends to be. (Neurologists have a grim saying: “Time is brain.”) The new algorithm flagged these and other critical events with an accuracy comparable to human experts — but it did so 150 times faster. A faster diagnostician could allow the most urgent cases to be triaged sooner, with review by a human radiologist.

What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

White sprigs and red berrys, Longwood Gardens, 12.25.18

Is cultural change driven by your peers or, in effect, your death and theirs?

Stephen Vaisey, Omar Lizardo, Cultural Fragmentation or Acquired Dispositions? A New Approach to Accounting for Patterns of Cultural Change, Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, First Published October 10, 2016,

The authors argue that cultural fragmentation models predict that cultural change is driven primarily by period effects, whereas acquired dispositions models predict that cultural change is driven by cohort effects. To ascertain which model is on the right track, the authors develop a novel method to measure “cultural durability,” namely, the share of over-time variance that is due to either period or cohort effects for 164 variables from the 1972–2014 General Social Surveys. The authors find fairly strong levels of cultural durability across most items, especially those connected to values and morality, but less so for attitudes toward legal and political institutions.
After quite a bit of this and that, including some empirical work:
Summary of the Argument and Results

Motivated by the main lines of theoretical debate in cultural sociology today, our goal in this article was to assess the relative empirical merits of the cultural fragmentation and acquired dispositions models for understanding patterns of cultural and social change in the United States for the past four decades. We argue that the cultural fragmentation model, with its emphasis on common knowledge, public meaning, and externalized cultural influences, leads to the empirical implication that period effects should be primarily responsible for cultural change (Swidler 2001b). The acquired dispositions model, on the other hand, because of its emphasis on the past in the present in the form of the “imprinting” effect of early socialization, leads to the hypothesis that cohort effects should be a stronger predictor. The results are fairly clear in revealing that cohort-based processes are dominant in relation to period-based mechanisms in accounting for cultural change across a wide variety of attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. Put another way, if we want to make our best guess (net of age) about what a person thinks or what kinds of practices he or she engages in, we would be better off knowing what year the person was born than what year we are observing them.

Implications for Cultural Analysis

We take this pattern of results as evidence that, despite the failings and limitations of the postwar classical socialization model, sociologists after the “cultural turn” of the 1980s and 1990s might have be too hasty in rejecting the importance of cultural internalization in favor of external structuration by public forms of culture (Patterson 2014; Quinn 2016; Strauss and Quinn 1997). An acquired dispositions account that retains a notion of durable cultural internalization but rejects the cognitively implausible Freudian mechanisms proposed in classical socialization models thus emerges as the most defensible alternative.

Durable cultural internalization can be theorized from an acquired dispositions perspective using empirically specifiable processes of cognitive internalization characterized by early dispositional learning with lock-in and conservation (Bargh and Morsella 2008; Bourdieu 1990; Cohen and Leung 2009). Although it would certainly be an exaggeration to say that culture matters primarily via the classical socialization mechanism of deep internalization, people do appear to acquire durable dispositions in their formative years. These dispositions, in their turn, make them more likely to display certain beliefs and engage in certain practices over their entire life course, in partial independence from contemporaneous cultural influences (Marquis and Tilcsik 2013).

These findings are difficult to square with the predictions of cultural fragmentation–style models prioritizing the causal influence of contemporaneous conditions. It does not matter whether this external structuration is produced by “context,” changing institutional conditions, cultural codes, or framing effects (DiMaggio 1997; Swidler 2001b). If external structuration were the most important mechanism influencing (say) judgments, we would not expect period effects to be less relevant than cohort effects across such a wide range of cultural outcomes. In this respect, both the scope conditions and the range of explanatory phenomena that cultural fragmentation models are equipped to handle need to be better specified (Lizardo and Strand 2010; Patterson 2014; Vaisey and Lizardo 2010). One thing that is surely the case is that the cultural fragmentation model cannot serve as an overarching organizing framework in cultural analysis but must be supplemented by theoretical frameworks that allow the coherent conceptualization of the structuring effects of durably incorporated dispositions at the personal level (cf. Strauss and Quinn 1997).

Implications for Understanding the Role of Culture in Social Change

It is vital to note here, however, that the public mechanisms emphasized by cultural fragmentation theorists likely play a key role in some kinds of “punctuated” social change, even though they may (on average) exert little influence on the type of cultural change that is tracked by aggregate changes in attitudes and practices. Although the distribution of personal opinions may be changing slowly and steadily as the result of cohort replacement, public rituals and displays are essential for the generation of “common knowledge” (Chwe 2001:6–9) allowing “everyone [to] see that everyone else has seen that things have changed” (Swidler 2001b:87).

Nevertheless, although cultural fragmentation theorists such as Sewell (1996) and Swidler (2001a, 2001b) tend to emphasize “public enactment[s]” as both the cause and the signal of social change, we would argue that public rituals matter primarily because they signal a tipping point in new consolidated (and thus potentially durable) dispositions. As Pierson (2004:83) argued, a relatively “slow moving” causal processes (in our case the gradual shift in acquired dispositions in the population) does not have to result in a “gradual” change outcome; instead, through a threshold mechanism, acquired dispositions processes may combine with cultural fragmentation externalization and public knowledge mechanisms to generate punctuated patterns of social change. For instance, public rituals may allow already developed dispositions to become “public opinion,” changing norms, public accounts, and styles of justification and legitimation while creating opportunities for coordination among the like-minded (Chwe 2001). The GSS data used here do not permit disentangling perceptions of others’ attitudes—so-called third-order inference (Correll et al. 2012)—from one’s own attitudes, but it is likely that perceptions of others attitudes (or the “generalized attitude”) would exhibit much stronger period effects than the first-order attitudes themselves.

Once again, what's intelligence anyhow?

A recent Twitter discussion got started like this:

The discussion when on and on for awhile, ending up here:

At which point I offered my two cents:

I then linked to this old blog post, which explains just a bit more: Measurement: IQ and 5 Personality Factors.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Malibu at night


On the currency of "theory"

Whatever air of authority attaches to a “theory” is a relatively recent development. Theories have circulated through mathematics, medicine and philosophy without being accorded any particular weight on their own. Charles Hutton, an 18th-century mathematician, contrasted them with application and suggested that mere theory was sometimes incomplete without practice. The 20th-century scholar John A. Scott saw theory as a ruse deployed by unlearned hacks: “They regard a theory of more importance than facts,” he wrote of some of his peers, “for if they can only spin a theory they have no need of facts.” Outside scholarship, theories had even less import. An 1893 Washington Post article, “The Man Who Thinks,” mocked a bar patron who outlined a “theory concerning astral intoxication” — the joke being not just that the man was drunk but that he was drunk enough to think a theory might convince anyone it wasn’t his doing.

At that point, though, science was still relatively disorganized and imprecise. The modern connotations of “theory” are a legacy of the industrialization and professionalism of science, with theory and practice converging in larger labs, bolder experiments, better tools. Scientists began presenting and testing theories with increasing explanatory power and empirical backing, making it possible for them to put forth more penetrating explanations of how the world worked — “generalized” explanations that Albert Einstein called “theories of principle.” Their foundations, he wrote in 1920, were “not hypothetical constituents, but empirically observed general properties of phenomena, principles from which mathematical formulae are deduced of a such a kind that they apply to every case which presents itself.” Such theories weren’t just rigorous or extensive; they explained everything.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Flyin' at FDR in Philly, Jan 19, 2013

Who cares about the damn jetpack? What about a four day work week?

Tom Hodgkinson, Bring on the Four Day Working Week, The Idler, September 25, 2018:
Back in the 1930s, economists, intellectuals and trade union leaders were united in the belief that a shorter working day was fast approaching. The machines would shoulder more and more of the toil, they reckoned, leaving lots of time off for workers. A three or four day week would be ample to procure the necessities of life. The increase in leisure would be spent pursuing healthful recreations such as philosophy, dancing, sewing, cooking and wandering through the woods collecting mushrooms.

This was the view of John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in 1930 that by 2030 all economic problems would have been solved and the only issue left to deal with would be how to enjoy doing nothing without having a nervous breakdown. He was, perhaps surprisingly, an opponent of the work ethic. “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” he wrote in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, predicting that, in one hundred years’ time, “We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”

Bertrand Russell shared this Christ-like disdain for striving and argued for the four hour day. Oscar Wilde had predicted that the machine would be the saviour of man and would lead everyone to enjoy the life of an Athenian aristocrat: instead of toiling in the mills, we would wander through the groves and discuss atomism and the meaning of the “good life”. His contemporary Walt Whitman wrote of the ideal he called “higher progress”, in other words the liberation of human beings from wage slavery in favour of lazing about and reading books.

This democratic leisure ideal in fact had been a key element of the dream of the Founding Fathers. The second president, John Adams, forecast that his grandchildren would have the time to study “painting, poetry, music, architecture” and the other liberal arts, in short, that everyday life would be organised to allow the “pursuit of happiness”.

Things didn’t quite turn out like that. In the hands of a capitalist élite, supported by governments in most cases, the machine became an instrument for the creation of huge profits for a few, while the majority toiled long hours. The doctrine of consumption rather than time off was introduced.
You can say that again! Now this is more like it:
At the Idler we have aways argued that working long hours for a large company is almost like being a slave and very much like being an indentured employee, because we tend to buy our consumer goods and services on the credit card, and then settle up later.

Resources-wise, the best thing you can do for the planet, it could be argued, is absolutely nothing. To take a day off and lie on your back in the park all day is completely free, harms no-one and demands no fossil fuel inputs.

And what would we do with all this freedom? Sit around and watch Jeremy Kyle all day? No, say its defenders. Leisure is not just for shopping and TV. In our spare time we will do the things that bring us pleasure. Remember hobbies? We’ll be less stressed out and healthier as a result.

And while we in the UK may be just thinking about a four-day week, those plucky Swedes have gone ahead and done it. The council at Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, have announced that they are to begin a year-long thirty-hour week trial for city workers. “We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days,” said Deputy Mayor Mats Pilhem.
Who nows, maybe it will happen.
Lately even the great tycoons have joined in the chorus for a shorter working week. Google co-founder Larry Page recently declared in an interview: “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said, before outlining his scheme for less work all round. Page went on to say that people need to be more idle.

“Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.”

He said he had discussed the issue with none other than Richard Branson.

The Mexican telephone company billionaire Carlos Slim went one further and argued for the three day week. Speaking at a recent conference in Paraguay, Slim, often identified as one of the two richest men in the world, argued that this would provide more time for the important stuff of life – being idle. “We would have more time to relax, for quality of life,” he said.

We have sixteen years left to fulfil Keynes’s prophecy. The great increases in efficiency that capitalism has achieved over the last two hundred years, and which the economists boast about, should lead not simply to greater profits for shareholders and those at the top, but to an aristocratic style of life for the 99%.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Out of Africa, still, but not from a single region

The long run of cultural evolution, a ‘return to the state of nature’?

I’m told (or I’ve read), for I’ve not actually read him on this, the Marx believed that, through class conflict, history would move us to a regime where the state would whither away and we could once again live an un-alienated existence, if not in our ‘natural’ state, something very like it. Isn’t that what artificial intelligence (aka AI) promises us, if not something very like it (at least in some versions)? The machines take over the bulk of the physical and mental drudgery and we’re left to...what? Socialize? Play?

I’ve read that in the very simplest societies, hunting-gathering bands, that substance activities require only two hours a day from adults. How do they spend the rest of their time? Socializing, telling stories, singing songs, play? Isn’t that what UBI (universal basic income) is about, giving people the time to socialize, tell stories, make art, craft pots, knit scarves, weave baskets, and so forth, play?

If that’s the case, we aren’t ready? There’s values, or course. There may be value and dignity in work, but not in the bullshit jobs that so many of us have. UBI should liberate us from that, and wherever such jobs remain beyond the reach of AI they should be appropriately compensated (i.e. as hazard pay).

What about education? What about restoring the arts and crafts to primary and secondary education and expanding their scope.

And so forth.

175 views for this light-drenched shot of topiary garden and Longwood


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dan Wang on Moore's Law [beyond stagnation], with an addendum on entertainment

From Dan Wang, What I Learned in 2018:
Moore’s Law turned from a neat backwards-looking observation into an obligation for the entire chips industry to keep improving. One description that I like of it is that it’s a “clock that has become a chaotic attractor for innovation.” I don’t think there are many other technologies in which exponential growth in performance over decades is possible. But maybe there’s a handful more that are, and they await a nice label that will concentrate minds, mobilize capital, and attract talent to keep improving. Coming up with that label might be a kind of low-hanging fruit that would encourage greater growth.

I’d like this exponential progress to come to other fields, especially industrial technologies. Semiconductors are upstream of all electronics, which is a sector that has been vibrantly innovative over the last few decades. If we had exponential progress in a few more upstream technologies, we may be able to enjoy faster innovation in fields beyond computers, software, and the internet. Silicon Valley is rightly celebrated as a driver of innovation and wealth creation. But I’m not sure to what extent that Silicon Valley companies have yet promoted dynamism in the broader non-tech world. Companies there are very good at building software on top of and abstracted from the physical world. The tech companies we hear most often about tend to be capital-light, beautifully-scalable businesses that earn the most handsome returns for investors.

We’re excited about companies like Airbnb and Uber, which match consumers with underutilized assets. Better matching of supply and demand is valuable, but I’m looking for something more ambitious. Focusing on industrial technologies is more like taking a firm hold of the supply curve and pulling it downwards; that process can unconstrain the growth of many downstream companies. For example, energy is upstream of everything in the economy; think about how much more room AI would have to play with if energy costs were measured in cents rather than dollars. [...]

Instead of being enamored with downstream, consumer-facing internet companies, I wish more people could be excited about upstream, industrial technology companies. It’s easy to love smartphones, the internet, and all the apps we use without thinking about how semiconductor improvements have made a lot of these things possible. Furthermore, I wish that more of these industrial components can improve at the pace of Moore’s Law. We haven’t had quite as much progress in energy, space, chemicals, and medicine that we were expecting decades ago.

To some extent, Moore’s Law is an irrational commitment by the chips industry. It’s expressly driven by an engineering benchmark, i.e. to keep doubling transistor density, which is not necessarily a market- or customer-driven demand. This is a triumph of scientists and engineers over financial types, who would question why an abstract scientific challenge should be invoked for capital allocation decisions. In my view, this sort of irrationality is not a bad thing.
Read this in the context of two recent posts:
When I saw the Berlin Philharmonic this year, I thought about the complex system required to produce music of this quality. The few dozen musicians on stage are extraordinarily talented. They’re so good because the world, and especially Germany, has developed a superb pipeline of talent to staff this orchestra and others. The program was Schoenberg and Mozart, and I thought about how long it took to develop such a deep repertory of pieces that would include these two composers. I can also bring up the technologies required for the orchestra. The Berlin audience was sophisticated, and that takes time to develop too. That is a wonderful system that has gotten a lot of things right.

I had the same type of thought watching UFC as I did when I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic. UFC is an amazing spectacle, and so many things had to be developed before something of that quality could be produced. Think of Vegas, first of all, a remote city in the desert that has managed to attract people, not just for this fight, but year-round for entertainment. Second, consider all the accouterments around the fight: the seamless transitions; the interludes from Joe Rogan and Bruce Buffer, who are both talented announcers; the special effects of lighting, fog, and music, all of which combine to marvelous effect. Third, think about what it takes to market this type of event. And finally the fighters themselves, who know what they have to do to provide a good show.

It was then I felt that I grasped how outstanding the US is at producing entertainment. This is a valuable cultural competence. I don’t think there are any other countries that can develop an audience and put on so many types of high-quality shows.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Addendum, early Monday morning, 12.24.18:

Notice the trajectory of the essay (one comment for each section, which Wang separates with asterisks):
  1. Moore's Law and exponential growth.
  2. Music: "This year, my tastes in music veered towards the more adventurous. That means I made a conscious decision to dwell less on Beethoven and Wagner." And so he tells us of Mozart, Shostakovitch, and Verdi. Fine music all, but by what metric is it adventurous?  I digress.
  3. "I’m spending most of my time studying Chinese industrial policy and the country’s technology upgrading process. This was a busy year for work given the escalating trade war."
  4. "Enough highlights; let’s get on to self-criticism." Wang vows to write more, but "I’m more aggrieved by my lack of movie and television consumption in 2018."
  5. On to books, fiction and non-fiction.
  6. And the, at last, to television:  "The most novel thing I watched this year was the UFC fight between McGregor and Nurmagomedov. I found it a deep experience..."
  7.  "I failed this year when it comes to the most important type of learning activity that I do: playing enough sessions of Avalon, my favorite board game. Kevin suggests that he’d like to promote Avalon to become the golf of tech. I want that as well, so I’ll take this chance to evangelize the game." 
  8. Finally: "I have several questions."
"The golf of tech"–the game where deals are made? See my addendum to On the deep utility of parties as sites of transformation.

So, we start with serious business stuff, Moore's Law & the economy in general, and then to highlights in the expressive domain, and then back to business. That's a bit of a ring-form, no?

Then to self-criticism. Call that the center.

And then to books, fiction as well as non-fiction, followed by TV with a ritual climax (a UFC fight), and then to a game, an expressive activity where he is an active participant rather than a consumer.

Call the final section a coda, a pendant. It's outside the main form.

If so, that makes the post look like a ring-composition, rhetorically speaking, where the pivot comes with self-criticism. So, before the center he's full-composed, looking out on the world: business-art-business. Then he looks inward. And comes back out for another trio, with that televised UFC ritual in the center.

Sunrise at a gas station

Saturday, December 22, 2018

There is a fold in the fabric of reality. (Traditional) literary criticism is written on one side of it. I went around the bend years ago.

I’ve been trying to write this post for over a year now, maybe two. It seems to me that the idea is simple enough. But as soon as I get into it, it grows and grows and eludes me.


But there it us, up there in the title. All of it. Really.

And, yes, I know that “fold” is in use as a term of philosophical/critical art. I believe Lacan uses it. I’ve read a little Lacan, very little and years ago. Any resemblance between his use of the term and my current use is incidental.

I suppose that’s one reason it’s taken so long for me to plunge in. I really like the word, and in the use I propose. I just don’t want any Lacanian cross-talk.

So, reality is folded, at least once, but who knows how many times. The point of course is that the whole sheet is real. All of it. But what’s on different sides of the fold, very different.

On one side we have the meaning of it all. That’s where we find literature (and the arts). Literary criticism seeks to explicate that meaning. On the other side is...what? It all, all of it? How it’s constructed. Is this where we find science, but engineering as well?

Philosophical reminders: The Living Cosmos, and also Matter, Life, and Culture (so far).

The position that academic literary criticism held in the third decade of the previous century comes from its attempt, I suppose, to straddle the fold. To explicate the meaning of it all while still remaining in touch with the constructedness of, well, the text, of it all.

The attempt collapsed, failed. So here we are. On one side of the fold, speech, conversation. On the other side, the hunt, tracking, map-making.

Recent post: Is that it, do humanists (really) want to speak with the dead?

And that’s as far as I dare go, as I’ve ever gone. And this is what happened the last time I stepped out on this path:

On the defenestration of literary study and the existence of chaos in the universe

When I was young, and an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, literary study was a powerful and prestigious discipline, with no lack for undergraduate majors or fellowship money to support graduate students. These days the discipline fears for its life. Undergraduate enrollment is way down, most of the teaching is done by temporary workers of one sort or another, and there is a widespread feeling that things just aren’t clicking intellectually anymore. This feeling is way more than a defensive reaction to ridicule heaped on the discipline in various quarters–for this is, after all, an old story. Rather, this dis-ease is being generated from within the discipline itself: Where do we go?

656 views at Flickr (but that is likely to change real soon now)


On the deep utility of parties as sites of transformation

Alice Goffman, Go to More Parties? Social Occasions as Home to Unexpected Turning Points in Life Trajectories, Social Psychology Quarterly, First Published December 19, 2018:
Abstract: Reviving classical attention to gathering times as sites of transformation and building on more recent microsociological work, this paper uses qualitative data to show how social occasions open up unexpected bursts of change in the lives of those attending. They do this by pulling people into a special realm apart from normal life, generating collective effervescence and emotional energy, bringing usually disparate people together, forcing public rankings, and requiring complex choreography, all of which combine to make occasions sites of inspiration and connection as well as sites of offense and violation. Rather than a time out from “real” life, social occasions hold an outsized potential to unexpectedly shift the course that real life takes. Implications for microsociology, social inequality, and the life course are considered.
H/t Tyler Cowen

Addendum, early morning Monday 12.24.18: 

My good friend David Porush tells me that business is done over dinner. The details may be worked out and papers signed in an office, but the commitments are made during a social occasion, in a place apart, a party if you will. Perhaps on the golf course as well, at least for a certain generation or two and in certain businesses.

I think I’ve figured out how [to/I] think about space travel

A week ago I posted, Space Travel: What we have here is a failure of imagination. That was in response to a discussion of the topic at Crooked Timber, No planet but this one. The discussion has gone on since then, but the basic ‘battle lines’, if you will, had been drawn. On one extreme: We’ll do it all, journey to the stars faster-than-light, colonize the galaxies! At the other: No way, no how, never! Too inhospitable, too expensive! Various positions in between and me in the middle, trying to figure out what I thought. One thing I thought is that the vehement negative extreme bothered me more than loopy positive one. Why? Perhaps because unqualified optimism is a better way to proceed into an uncertain future and killjoy defeatism.

Here’s what I’m thinking: Yes, of course, there are limitations, always have been and always will be. But, we don’t really know what they are, not until we’ve tested them. And we’re a long way from having done that.

At this point the value of manned spaceflight, much less a Mars landing and a colony, is imaginative, not practical. Whatever we need to do in space, for practical reasons (mining the asteroids?) or scientific, can best be done with robots and AI. Let’s give them a workout. There are better things to be done on earth with the 100s of billions of dollars that would be required to even attempt colonies on the Moon or Mars.

For at least the next century, and probably more, we’ve got to deal climate change first of all. And we’ve got to do that at the same time we cope with international economic inequity. Everyone has to be lifted out of poverty to roughly the same level of material comfort. That requires economic growth.

It may also require adjustment to the earth’s total population. Here and there I’ve read of guestimates that the population will stabilize at 10-11 billion by mid-century. Assuming that is so, can the earth sustain that population in reasonable material comfort? That’s not at all obvious to me. Maybe we’ll have to slim down to 2-3 billion. That will be painful. At worst, catastrophically painful (environmental collapse, large scale possibly nuclear war). If not that, then several generations of suppressed reproduction.

Assume this all works out so that in a century or two (maybe three, post a New York 2140 stage) we have established equitable and sustainable arrangements. That would certainly include more effective means of international governance. I think an international government, a United States of the World, unlikely. It’s quite possible nation-states as we know them will cease to exist or will have become shells, with more power devolving on cities, plus new arrangements we don’t yet imagine.

We’ll also know a lot more about many things than we do now, including about computation and the mind. We’ll be in a post-Singularity world, not the fantasy nonsense of superintelligent machines, but a world in which our understanding has gone up a level as, say, Newton’s understanding surpassed Galileo’s.*

That’s the world I’m imagining. And in THAT world human space travel will still be on the imaginative table. It will still require heroic effort to establish colonies on the Moon, among the asteroids, on Mars, perhaps even beyond. But we’ll be living in a different world. What will we think then?

* William Benzon, Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think, New Savanna, May 16, 2017, Downloadable version,