Saturday, August 31, 2019

Maslow in the corporation

"After I Lived in Norway, America Felt Backward."

Thinking about Kisangani 2150, a possible style

If I’m going to write Kisangani 2150 I’m going to need a voice to do so, a style. I was looking around on my hard drive and came across this fragment from an aborted project called The Chronicles of Jivometric Johnson and the Lady Irene. It’s a bit informal and freewheeling for something that’s conceived as something of a sequel to New York 2140, but, and setting aside the issue of whether it’ll be in the mode of a novel of some kind or an imagined historical treatise, that’s only about the dynamics of the underlying world. It’s not about style, though admittedly this particular style does imply something of a mythical dimension to that world.

And yet...Why not?

Caveat:  Note that this is not supposed to be a draft of something that might go into K2150. It's something I had lying around. I drafted it for a somewhat different intent, now forgotten. It's just a thought.

At the River Jordan

Back in the early seventies, before the Internet, the iPhone, the PC, even before we got our asses out of Vietnam, but not before we forgot “The Age of Aquarius”, I told my friends that we were the Moses generation. We’d get to the banks of the River Jordan but we wouldn’t cross over into the Promised Land.

Well, we’ve been camped out now for several decades and I ain’t seen nobody cross the river. No one.

Obama, Al Thani, Karzai, Sarkozy, Trump, Macron, Bolsonaro, Putin, Modi, Abe, Xi, ‘n ‘em, they’re high up on a cliff jabbering away. Every once in awhile one of them’ll step to the edge, haul it out, and see if they can throw a stream across the river. Not even close, not a one of ‘em. So, who-ever he is, he shakes the last few drops off the tip, hides it away, and goes back to the high muckety-muck jibber jabber. And the River Jordan just keeps rolling along, covered in an oil slick from shore to shore and punctuated, of course, by a bit of Grand High Exhalted Urine here and there.

As for the rest of us, well, in one way or another folks pretty much bought into the idea that we’re the Moses generation. Though I did have the idea myself and don’t recollect getting it from anyone else, I don’t claim that its wide currency is my doing.

I sure hope it isn’t, because it’s a dumb idea. Obvious enough to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the Judeo-Christian scriptures—and that’s what my knowledge is, superficial—and dumb. Or at any rate dangerous. For it breeds complacency, inertia, and helplessness. Since we’re the Moses generation, the thinking seems to be, we might as well sit back an relax and let the next generation figure out how to cross the River Jordan.

And that’s what we’ve been doing, camping out on the banks of the River Jordan and preparing to wish the next generation Good Luck and Bon Voyage! when they finally set sail. Trouble is, THEY bought the damn story and have decided that they TOO are the Moses generation. And THEIR kids after them.

So here we are, three generations piled up against the River Jordan waiting for someone else to march the human race into the land of milk and honey. Meanwhile we have our toys to play with, our iPads and YouTubes and remix this curate that having a high old time cruising through three millennia of human blood sweat and tears as evidenced forth on the internet. We’re having all this fun extending our minds through digital tendrils grasping the globe, and the globe itself is strangling on phosphate run-off, methane fumes, oil slicks, acid rain, and radioactivity seeping into the water. Never mind, they say, never mind, the next generation will fix it. They’ll cross over. Me, I gotta’ watch me some of those old Ernie Kovacs shows. He was a Master. Lucy, too.

And so the pileup continued. Pink Cadillacs with the tail fins, Tamogatchis, fire brick from thousands of old blast furnaces, old blue jeans, TVs & radios, DC10s put out to rest, tons of old World Book encyclopedias and Hardy Boys mysteries, rotted sheet rock by the square mile, trash trash trash must piling up on the banks of the River Jordan. In among the trash, cave houses and cliff dwellings nestled in among the junk, WiFi dishes pointed in whatever direction and all draped in wires humming with digital juice.

* * * * *

He wasn’t much to look at, this,Jivometric Johnson: skinny, a bit over five feet tall, couldn’t tell how old he was ‘cause that changed with the light, as did his skin color. He was just this short, skinny, chameleonesque guy.

It was a thing of beauty, that stream. Shimmering golden yellow in a high parabolic arc that made it into Canaan, and then some. Talk about golden arches! Whew! That liquid gold did arch. The drops that didn’t make it to the other side, and not all of them did, fell into the river, plink, plink, plink. Where each one hit the surface the oil-slick retreated in an ever-widening ring. When the rings got wide enough they connected so that by the time he was done relieving himself there was a narrow but oil-free path across the river. First time in a decade anyone saw the water itself.

Now you’d think, what with the importance of getting over and our boy’s obvious talents in that regard, that the leaders would welcome him to the fold, maybe set up some lessons. But, no, not them. He was tossed in jail for a week for peeing without a license and disturbing the peace.

‘Bout the third day he was in there he reached way down in his pocket, way down, and fished out an ocarina, a sweet potato he called it. Started playing a sweet melody.

Suddenly there was a commotion over at the Old Cat Lady’s. The Cat Lady herself opened the door and shuffled out, first time she’d been out in weeks. She spends most of the time indoors with her cats. Nobody knows how many she has, 20, 30, maybe more, nor how she feeds ‘em. But she does, though the little fur balls’ll supplement her provisions with the usual: mice, birds, the occasional rat and every once in awhile you’ll see about a dozen of them go down to the river and gang up on one of those albino crocodiles that show up.

Anyhow, Cat Lady comes out and shuffles down to the jail. Can’t really call it a walk ‘cause her feet never leave the ground. Cat Lady’s a big women, almost six feet tall and rather heavy, though the weight’s well distributed. Like with Johnson you couldn’t really tell her age. Maybe she was 30, maybe 50, or anywhere in between. As for race, just call it the human race.

She gets down to the jail, cocks her ear listening to the sounds of Johnson’s sweet potato, and speaks, for the first time anyone’s ever heard her talk.

“Metric? ‘Zat you?”


“Yeah, it’s me, Lady Irene.”

Lady Irene? You mean the Old Cat Lady is really Lady Irene, Mistress of the Transcendental Shuttlecock?

Flowers and cars

Friday, August 30, 2019

By 3,000 years ago the planet had been “largely transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists.”

James Gorman, Humans Dominated Earth Earlier Than Previously Thought, NYTimes, August 29, 2019:
Humans substantially altered the planet much earlier than previously thought, a worldwide collection of archaeological experts reported Thursday. By 3,000 years ago, the experts wrote in Science magazine, the planet had been “largely transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists.”

People farmed, burned forests and grazed their goats, sheep and cattle. By about 1,000 BCE, with Mayan civilization on the rise in Mesoamerica and the Zhou dynasty beginning in China, what the authors describe as intensive agriculture, or continuous cultivation of the land, was “common in most regions where it is still practiced today.”

The results vary for different farming practices and different regions, said Erle Ellis, a geographer and environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, [...] But, he said, it is clear that the information pushes back the onset and spread of major human change to the global environment earlier than previously thought, sometimes by 1,000 years or more. [...]

The report seems to be a first. Archaeologists tend to be local or regional, devoted to particular sites and time periods. “There has never been a real effort to put together an empirical global land-use history,” Dr. Ellis said.

Some New Savanna stats, top posts, and a mystery

Of course, I do keep track of stats here at New Savanna. This is a graph of all time views:

Notice GINORMOUS spike for (roughly) 2018. Of course I noticed the dramatic increase as it was happening, but I have no idea what was going on. People, bots, or both? I have no idea.

Meanwhile, my post on sex in Ninja Scroll not only remains the most popular post, but sometime in the last month or so I crossed up 100,000 views line to 101,137. It's one of the oldest posts on the blog, and that no doubt contributes to that total. But it think it's popularity is mostly because it's about a very popular anime and because it's about sex.

Then we have my post about "Pink Elephants on Parade", from Dumbo (73,690). Old, but not as old as the Kawajiri. Again, I think it's the subject.

Notice that it lags considerably behind the Kawajiri.

My third most popular post (at 14,794), which lags far behind the previous two (it's also much more recent), is a bit of a surprise. It's a post about Miyazaki's last feature, The Wind Rises. Anime, yes, and Miyazaki certainly is popular. But it's no 'flashy' in the way Ninja Scroll or "Pink Elephants" are.

What's equally interesting is that those three are the most popular posts day to day, week to week:

The next two posts are from the last couple weeks, as are the rest of the posts in the "Popular Posts" box (scroll down the middle or so on the right side of the blog). So we have three posts about animation, one Disney and two Japanese, as consistently being the most popular posts here, so that get read week after week.

Let's take a closer look. This is the top five for the last week:

That's the same five as we saw previously. Here's the top five for today, as of 9:54 AM:

The Kawajiri remains at the top, but "Pink Elephants" has dropped to fifth, and the Miyazaki as disappeared. Finally, we have now, whatever that means, as of 9:54 AM:

The Kawajiri has disappeared, but "Pink Elephants" is fourth. But notice that post from way long ago on June 3, 2011, Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind, what's that about? It's about computational linguistics and natural language processing. And, you know what, I looked at it earlier today, so that's probably my activity we're seeing there.

Interesting, no?

Lessons learned at sea: compromise, tolerance, mutual aid [NY2140]

Andrew Revkin had an interesting oped in the NYTimes yesterday (29 Aug 2019), Greta Thunberg and the Lessons of the Sea. He explains: "n 1978, when I was 22, six years older than Greta is now, I serendipitously had the chance to sign on as a crew member on a 55-foot-long, partially home-built sailboat, the Wanderlust, that was circumnavigating the planet." It's the first lesson that caught my attention:
Our first long crossing, from Auckland to Sydney, Australia, was the stormiest. We spent eight out of 11 days on the Tasman Sea pounding into chaotic gale-driven seas. Without GPS or an autopilot, we had taken on extra crew members to handle the night watches. In cramped conditions day after day, everyone aboard felt unfairly overtaxed. But you learn to smooth rough edges, tamp hard feelings and not hoard the Hershey bars. Despite a no-smoking rule, the skipper, Lon Bubeck, even allowed the two chain smoking New Zealanders to light up — in the inflatable dinghy trailing behind.

This gets to my first point. In hashing out climate policy, accommodation is vital among those who have the same goal but differ on how to reach it. I’m thinking here, for instance, of clean energy advocates who disagree about the role of nuclear power in reducing emissions. It’s vital to acknowledge the inevitability, even desirability, of having a diversity of climate solutions.
Why'd that interest me? Perhaps for that last paragraph? Not really, though color me sympathetic. It's the first paragraph. Why?

Because it speaks to Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 – and here I'm thinking of yesterday's post, "Social change in New York 2140 [revolution revised and revisited]", especially the addendum. Why'd he crank it up to eleven on the sea level, a 50 foot rise when that's not what the models show? Because that would cause more stress, and more living in close quarters, like on an ocean-going yacht. The book is centered on one building, the Met Life Tower. All the central characters live there. Quarters are cramped, for everyone. Some of those characters are making a pretty good living, surely upper middle class whatever that would be in 2140, perhaps even in Tyler Cowen's top 10% to 15% (scan down to the "Society" section of that post; he's not imagining the cramped quarters of a post-climate change world). But they live in one-room apartments and they take their meals in a large communal dining hall.

Stern discipline.

Tough love?

Friday Fotos: Experiments in purple

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Social change in New York 2140 [revolution revised and revisited]

I’ve been thinking about New York 2140 and about social change, as that’s what’s at the heart of the book. How’d Kim Stanley Robinson engineer it?

Consider what Robinson had to say about his craft in Nature (20 December 2017):
Here’s how I think science fiction works aesthetically. It’s not prediction. It has, rather, a double action, like the lenses of 3D glasses. Through one lens, we make a serious attempt to portray a possible future. Through the other, we see our present metaphorically, in a kind of heroic simile that says, “It is as if our world is like this.” When these two visions merge, the artificial third dimension that pops into being is simply history. We see ourselves and our society and our planet “like giants plunged into the years”, as Marcel Proust put it. So really it’s the fourth dimension that leaps into view: deep time, and our place in it.
Of course, this is a self conscious and sophisticated version about that old cliché about science fiction, that it’s not about the future, it’s about the present.

In the case of NY2140 the present that interested KSR was the financial collapse of 2008. He wanted to rerun it so that it turned out differently, with the banks getting nationalized. Think about that, he created this whole world (just) so he could get a different outcome for that one event – flooded the world, raised the seas 50 feet, and changed the texture of social life, all the while keeping the basic institutional structure pretty much the same, all that to change that one event. But then that event was a society-wide event, and that’s why he had to do so much engineering, so much revisionist world building in the guise of science fiction, in order to bring about a different outcome.

Let’s first ask, however, why weren’t the banks nationalized in 2008? For one thing, the federal government was in Wall Street’s back pocket, pretty nearly, it seems like. But then that’s the case in NY2140 as well. For another thing there was no way for the outraged populace to turn their anger into political action. People were getting screwed by the banks, but there was nothing they could do but get angry. THAT’s what KSR changed.

One thing he did was change the texture of social life. You have a lot more “mutual aid” in neighborhoods and even buildings, like the Met Tower. They had gardens there and they even ate communally. Social life was more closely knit. That’s one thing.

Here’s a passage from a recent interview in Radical Philosophy conducted by Helen Feder (Feb 2018):
HF New York 2140 is an alternative future history. It tries to imagine, as you’ve said, how we get from a capitalist to a post-capitalist world, but through one building, the MetLife Building, and all the actors (people, human systems, ecosystems) in this network. Is the building also a microcosm of the relation between the money sphere and the biosphere?

KSR It was the way to tell that story, and it was an experiment in form, in the genre of the French apartment novel, used by Zola and others (recently by Thomas Dish, Geoff Ryman and John Lanchester).
At the start of the story the characters don’t know each other, but they live in the same apartment building. In my version of it, they eventually get to know each other to make the plot more interesting, rather than just a collection of short stories. It turned out to be quite a long novel, as you saw, because there were eight points of view and a dozen important characters, more than I usually deal with. Well, the Mars trilogy has scores of characters, but this was a single novel.

By the end of the story I try to make what’s going on in lower Manhattan scale up to the national and the global. You can’t have a local solution [to national and global problems]. You hear this focus on local solutions in Naomi Klein, in the work of all kinds of critics: ‘At least there’ll be resistance movements, there’ll be these little pockets.’ In global capitalism those are allowable discharge zones where energy gets dispersed; [they allow] people to think things are changing, while global capitalism continues its destruction. You need a global solution.
There’s our mutual aid, these “little pockets” of local solutions. But then he continues:
At the end of the novel the householder’s union causes a financial crash; the crash causes the federal government to take over the banks. Essentially it’s 2008 again, which indeed will happen again, and the question then will be, do we settle for a little fix or a big one? A big fix would be like what we did when we took over General Motors; we got it back to health and then sold it back to private ownership. When the banks crash again, instead of giving them a hundred cents on the dollar and telling them to go out and do more, we need to nationalise them. When I say nationalise them, there are specific plans as to how this might be done, how they might become fully owned subsidiaries of the American people, how finance might become a tool rather than a master.

What I like about New York 2140 is that it describes something that could happen in the real world. The mechanisms are in place. Congress could make the laws and the president could enact them. It’s not grossly dissimilar to what Bernie Sanders was advocating during his campaign
There’s that householder’s union, that’s the organizational vehicle that allowed these local pockets of discontent to amalgamate into an irresistible political force. The union made it possible to call a nationwide strike and win.

Do we have to wait for climate disaster for this to happen? I don’t know, I don’t know.

ADDENDUM! And KSR raised the oceans by 50 feet. Yes, that’s part of climate change. But he noted in an interview somewhere that none of the models projected 50 foot rise by 2140. Maybe 20 feet, but not 50. So why 50? For cosmetics, makes lower Manhattan look more Venice-like? But this is a novel, not a movie. We don’t actually see anything; we have to imagine it, which isn’t at all the same. But a 50 foot rise is going to cause more stress than a 20 foot rise. That HAS to be why he did it. You keep the institutional structure the same, but move things around inside it. He needed a 50 foot rise to get the appropriate displacements. Not that he had a formula or anything. It’s all intuitive.

Green screen [not special FX]

A call for the study of machine behavior

Iyad Rahwan et al., Machine Behavior, Nature 568, 477-486 (2019).
Abstract: Machines powered by artificial intelligence increasingly mediate our social, cultural, economic and political interactions. Understanding the behaviour of artificial intelligence systems is essential to our ability to control their actions, reap their benefits and minimize their harms. Here we argue that this necessitates a broad scientific research agenda to study machine behaviour that incorporates and expands upon the discipline of computer science and includes insights from across the sciences. We first outline a set of questions that are fundamental to this emerging field and then explore the technical, legal and institutional constraints on the study of machine behaviour.
In his landmark 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon wrote: “Natural science is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. We ask whether there cannot also be ‘artificial’ science—knowledge about artificial objects and phenomena.” In line with Simon’s vision, we describe the emergence of an interdisciplinary field of scientific study. This field is concerned with the scientific study of intelligent machines, not as engineering artefacts, but as a class of actors with particular behavioural patterns and ecology. This field overlaps with, but is distinct from, computer science and robotics. It treats machine behaviour empirically. This is akin to how ethology and behavioural ecology study animal behaviour by integrating physiology and biochemistry—intrinsic properties—with the study of ecology and evolution—properties shaped by the environment. Animal and human behaviours cannot be fully understood without the study of the contexts in which behaviours occur. Machine behaviour similarly cannot be fully understood without the integrated study of algorithms and the social environments in which algorithms operate.

At present, the scientists who study the behaviours of these virtual and embodied artificial intelligence (AI) agents are predominantly the same scientists who have created the agents themselves (throughout we use the term ‘AI agents’ liberally to refer to both complex and simple algorithms used to make decisions). As these scientists create agents to solve particular tasks, they often focus on ensuring the agents fulfil their intended function (although these respective fields are much broader than the specific examples listed here). For example, AI agents should meet a benchmark of accuracy in document classification, facial recognition or visual object detection. Autonomous cars must navigate successfully in a variety of weather conditions; game-playing agents must defeat a variety of human or machine opponents; and data-mining agents must learn which individuals to target in advertising campaigns on social media.

These AI agents have the potential to augment human welfare and well-being in many ways. Indeed, that is typically the vision of their creators. But a broader consideration of the behaviour of AI agents is now critical. AI agents will increasingly integrate into our society and are already involved in a variety of activities, such as credit scoring, algorithmic trading, local policing, parole decisions, driving, online dating and drone warfare3. Commentators and scholars from diverse fields—including, but not limited to, cognitive systems engineering, human computer interaction, human factors, science, technology and society, and safety engineering—are raising the alarm about the broad, unintended consequences of AI agents that can exhibit behaviours and produce downstream societal effects—both positive and negative—that are unanticipated by their creators. [...]

This Review frames and surveys the emerging interdisciplinary field of machine behaviour: the scientific study of behaviour exhibited by intelligent machines. Here we outline the key research themes, questions and landmark research studies that exemplify this field.
H/t 3QD.

See also, Beyond "AI" – toward a new engineering discipline.

Takato Yamamoto

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Dave Chappelle is a genius [Media Notes 10]

I just watched another Dave Chappelle special on Netflix: The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium. It was of course brilliant. Among other things he talked about O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby.

Early on he tells us he’s met O.J. four times and he’s going to tell us about each occasion. He then tells us about the 1st time, when he was 18 and just getting started. Of course we’re now waiting for him to spring each of the other occasions on us. That’s what this post is about, that little bit of structure. For that’s what he’s doing, imposing a simple long-form structure on his routine.

He drops the other two meetings with O.J. at suitable intervals. But he doesn’t really signal them – not at I recall. He just goes into the bit. On one of those occasions he has occasion to remark: “With all due respect, he ran for 11,000 yards.” I hear that.

Somewhere in there he brings up Cosby, talks about what Cosby meant to him. “But he raped 54 women.” He talks of Cosby once or twice before then end. And then he moves into the finish: Runs down Cosby’s achievements: 1st black man with an Emmy, cartoon show with black people who had appropriated proportioned facial features, Cosby Show, college donations, etc. But when Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I Have a Dream”, he spoke through a PA system that Cosby’d paid for.
The point is this. He raped, but he saved. And he saved more than he raped. But he probably does rape.
Thank you very much. Good Night!

And of course we’re all thinking, “What about the fourth time?” Chappelle paces the stage a bit, acknowledging the applause. And then:
Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! I forgot. The fourth time I met O.J. Simpson...
This is all very inspired, interweaving bits about Cosby and Simpson, telling us how many OJ stories we’re going to here. This is some higher level comedic strategizing. This is Dave Chappelle.

A bug's view of the world

Hollis Robbins and Tyler Cowen on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tyler Cowen interviews Hollis Robbins, who is a dean at Sonoma State University. (She also studied and worked with Dick Macksey at Johns Hopkins). She's an expert in African-American literature. The conversation was wide-ranging, as conversations with Tyler tend to be. I'm going to reproduce just this one excerpt. Why? Because, like Tyler, I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin until middle-age and I was surprised at how powerful it is.
COWEN: Why was Uncle Tom’s Cabin so effective in the fight against slavery? It was a best seller. Ostensibly, President Lincoln once said this was responsible for the Civil War. Why this novel?

ROBBINS: Well, have you read it?

COWEN: I have read it.

ROBBINS: How old were you when you first read it?

COWEN: Fifty-seven.

ROBBINS: Oh! How old are you now?

COWEN: Fifty-seven.


ROBBINS: You hadn’t read it before that?

COWEN: Correct. I’d looked at some of it, I think, in high school, but not really.

ROBBINS: That’s so interesting. Actually, when John Updike reviewed our version in the New Yorker magazine, he confessed that he had never read it before either. He also confessed to having put down our version because our annotations, he said, were too distracting, which I thought was fun. But, again, why do you think you didn’t read it?

COWEN: No one told me to. It is, in fact, one of the best American novels and one of the three or four best of the 19th century. Yet it’s become a school kid’s thing that you’re supposed to read, but nobody ever does. It’s gripping. It’s manipulative and interesting in informative ways.

ROBBINS: You’ve answered the question, then. It’s manipulative, interesting. What Stowe’s comparative expertise is, is creating these characters that live and jump out of the page. I wouldn’t call Uncle Tom a character that jumps out of the page, but his stalwart forthrightness, his devotion, his clarity of thought about what is right and what is wrong guide and ground the novel.

But we have Little Eva, who’s patterned a little bit on Dickens’s Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop. We have Topsy, who was just a sprite, an imp, sweet, generous, really extraordinary character. We have Simon Legree, who everybody knows as the avatar of a cruel overseer.

COWEN: Did the book convince more women or more men to oppose slavery?

ROBBINS: Well, the point of the book was to appeal to white women, frankly, to white Christian mothers in the North who could imagine their own child being taken from them.

In the first chapter of the book, Eliza, who is a light-skinned enslaved woman in Kentucky, learns that her son is going to be taken away from her, is going to be sold. She flees in the middle of the night and, in that famous scene, crosses the Ohio River on ice floes, which is a signal moment in American literary history.

In all of the illustrations and the paintings of this book, she is very, very light-skinned. If you take a look at any of these illustrations, white women readers would take a look and imagine themselves in that position.

COWEN: Harriet Beecher Stowe was Calvinist. Is this book actually a Calvinist book in terms of its implicit theology?

ROBBINS: No. This has to do a lot with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s relationship with her father, Lyman Beecher, who was a Calvinist preacher and whose doctrinal beliefs were so strong that he basically told his elder daughter, Catharine, that she was not going to be reunited with her fiancé in heaven because he hadn’t been saved, which is a cruel thing to say after your daughter loses a fiancé. Then saying, “Sorry, you’re not even going to be reunited in heaven.”

Harriet thought that that was a little bit too cruel, and so you see her Calvinism in her novel tempered a little bit by emotion. She thought —

COWEN: There’s free will in the novel, it seems.

ROBBINS: And there’s free will.

COWEN: Are there still Calvinists in American politics today?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s a good question. Do you think most of the candidates running for president today would even be able to say what Calvinism is? I tweeted this the other day.

COWEN: Mayor Pete perhaps, right?

ROBBINS: Perhaps, but can most Americans tell the difference between doctrines of Calvinism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Episcopalian? I doubt it.

COWEN: Is the portrayal of Uncle Tom in the novel in fact racist, as is sometimes alleged?

ROBBINS: Well, Uncle Tom is the racial epithet and has been almost from the beginning of the novel. I don’t think he’s racist. I think he is a character who works within his belief system as a character and does not fight back. He’s an avatar of nonviolence. Certainly, if you’re going to say that nonviolence and those who espouse it are racist, then you’re going to have a little bit of trouble thinking about where to put Martin Luther King.

Abstraction: 1600-2012

The marketplace is primarily about cooperation and only secondarily about competition

Paul Rubin, The Capitalist Paradox: How Cooperation Enables Free Market Competition, Truth on the Market, 21 August 2019.
The final point, and what ties it all together, is a discussion showing that the economy is actually more cooperative than it is competitive. There are more cooperative relationships in an economy than there are competitive interactions. The basic economic element is a transaction, and transactions are cooperative. Competition chooses the best agents to cooperate with, but cooperation does the work and creates the consumer surplus. Thus, referring to markets as “cooperative” rather than “competitive” would not only reduce hostility towards markets, but would also be more accurate.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019


Fire in the Amazon, climate change, and the limits of national sovereignty

Quinta Jurecic, Who Owns the Amazon?, NYTimes, Aug. 27, 2019:
The Amazon fires are a test case of sorts for how the climate crisis will strain the usefulness of seemingly simple concepts — like national sovereignty. Before calling up the military, Mr. Bolsonaro accused countries donating money to preserve the rainforest of wanting to “interfere with our sovereignty.” He also declared that the international condemnation he faced spoke to a “colonialist mentality,” criticizing what he saw as Mr. Macron’s encouragement for the G7, which does not include Brazil, to grapple with the problem on its own. These remarks speak to Mr. Bolsonaro’s nationalist politics — he came to power in part by decrying globalism — and they are overly simplified. But it would be a mistake to write them off completely.

The traditional understanding of the nation-state demands that — up to a certain limit — each nation has control over its own affairs. Climate change poses a problem for this framework: The burning Amazon affects not just Brazil but the whole world. (The portion of the Amazon in next-door Bolivia, for example, is also burning.) Does it really make sense, then, to defer to the sovereignty of the Brazilian government in addressing the problem? [...]

The problem is that, from the perspective of Brazil — and the other countries that may feel the brunt of this logic — this brave new paradigm risks becoming a very familiar story: The more powerful nations muscle their way in over the less powerful. [...] One of the puzzles of the current age is how a cadre of nationalist leaders are both struggling with the reality of crises spanning national boundaries and doing their best to double down on the idea of borders in the first place.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Views from the table top [Malibu Diner]

Who'd have thought, consumer culture is killing us. Time to reset national and corporate values.

Since the 1980s, American economic policy has insisted on the central importance of two things: cheaper prices for consumers and maximum returns for corporate shareholders. There is some logic to this: We all buy things, after all, and most of us own at least some stock.

But these priorities also generate an internal conflict, for they neglect, repress and even enslave our other selves: our identities as employees, producers, family members, citizens. And in recent years — as jobs become increasingly unpleasant and unstable, as smaller towns and regional economies are gutted, as essential industries like the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors engage in outlandish profiteering, and above all, as economic inequality becomes the trademark of our nation — the conflict seems to have reached a breaking point.

It wasn’t always this way. For most of American history, it would have been strange to suggest that buying things — as opposed to making them — was deserving of high regard or to suggest that the availability of cheap goods should be a major goal of economic policy. Most Americans were small farmers, craftsmen or merchants, and a person’s economic identity was typically that of a producer or a landowner. [...]

That changed over the course of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, it was the story of the rise of American consumer culture, the decline of farming, the spread of mass production to household goods and the birth of advertising. But the specific prioritization of consumers and shareholders in economic policy dates from the 1970s and ’80s, in what amounted to a mostly well-intentioned project gone too far.

Coal in Asia

Asian governments are the biggest backers of the filthiest fuel, The Economist, Aug. 22, 2019:
Asia accounts for 75% of the world’s coal demand—China alone consumes half of it. The Chinese government has taken steps to limit pollution and support renewables. Yet coal consumption there rose in 2018, as it did the year before. In India coal demand grew by 9% last year. In Vietnam it swelled by almost a quarter. To keep the rise in global temperatures to no more than 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial times, climatologists insist that almost all coal plants must shut by 2050, which means starting to act now. Today’s trends would keep the last coal plant open until 2079, estimates UBS, a bank. Asia’s coal-fired power regiment has a sprightly average age of 15, compared with a creaky 40 years in America, close to retirement. [...]

And then there is politics. Voters do not like breathing soot. More of them are concerned about climate change, too, as they face unpredictable growing seasons, floods and droughts.

Promisingly, more Asian politicians are voicing support for clean power. In July Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ president, instructed his energy minister to reduce his country’s dependence on coal. In June India’s government said it planned to have 500 gigawatts of renewable power by 2030.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

World literature: Isn't that what Macksey taught?

Spence Lee Lenfield, A World of Literature, Harvard Magazine, October 2019.
Most scholars define themselves as specialists in one or two centuries of one or two regions; Damrosch’s work across time and space makes him an outlier. He says he tells people, “I work mostly on literature between roughly 2000 and 2015. But ‘2000’ means 2000 B.C.E.

He is best known for his advocacy of “world literature,” which he defines in his (sensibly titled) 2003 book What Is World Literature? as “all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language.” This does not mean all literature ever created: some stays within the culture and language that produced it, and never leaves. World literature happens when Russian novels remake English literature; when a Turkish writer takes inspiration from a Colombian writer; when Japanese critics review translations of Lebanese poetry. It almost always involves re-interpretation and misunderstanding: a Spanish monk sent to suppress Aztec literature ended up disseminating it instead; subsequently, Aztec hymns envision a Christian God urging revolt against the Spaniards. World literature is also nothing new under the sun: Damrosch’s first book, Narrative Covenant, is about the influence of a range of Mesopotamian literatures from the first millennium B.C.E. on the composition of much of the Bible.

The field first gained traction in American universities around the turn of this century. Damrosch’s book appeared within a few years of works by two other scholars commonly tied to the concept: the late Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters and Franco Moretti’s article “Conjectures on World Literature.” Though their individual views differ, the three are often seen as the center of the new global focus in comparative literature. But Damrosch emphasizes that he doesn’t want world literature seen as a purely academic notion. “One of the things that’s interesting about [it] is that it didn’t come from elite graduate schools and percolate down, the way literary theory had,” he explains. “It’s much more bottom-up—from K-12 schools and community colleges, because they’re having these influxes of people from around the world, and they wanted to reach them. So they started teaching world-literature courses.”
H/t 3QD.

Boys and bikes

Saturday, August 24, 2019

How Cold War politics forged to the doctrine of scientific neutrality

Michael D. Gordon reviews Audra J. Wolfe, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science, in the Boston Review, August 21, 2019.
In her new book Freedom’s Laboratory, Audra Wolfe tells the story of how U.S. politicians and diplomats during the Cold War sought to mobilize apolitical science for ideological ends. As she shows, while there may have been roots of this twinned political/apolitical story going back to the age of Galileo and Newton, the confrontation with Communism sent the process into overdrive.

Through careful reading of reams of Anglophone materials culled from federal records, private correspondence, and newly declassified intelligence briefings, Wolfe unravels the distinctive meanings science took on within an American political and scientific elite at pains to distinguish “the West,” symbolically as well as substantially, from the Soviet Union. As Wolfe chronicles, the insistence that scientists must enjoy the freedom to pursue knowledge without political interference came to be deployed as an anti-communist weapon, winning so much support that it was able to underwrite (the concept “political interference” was deliberately silent on funding) much of the infrastructure of science as we know it—including the National Science Foundation (NSF). The separation many take for granted between science and politics, Wolfe thus shows, has a political history: it is partly “constructed and maintained through a series of political choices.”
Dialectical materialism made claims on the aims of scientific inquiry:
The official philosophy of science of the Soviet Union was dialectical materialism. In heated moments Soviet philosophers would argue whether cutting-edge scientific theories—relativity or quantum mechanics in physics, say, or resonance theory in chemistry—were compatible with the tenets of Lenin or Friedrich Engels. (Marx had comparatively little to say about such matters.) If a doctrine was found wanting—as happened with Freudian psychoanalysis in the face of Pavlov-inspired behaviorism—it was tragically suppressed, and its adherents occasionally brutally repressed. More frequently than not the demonized doctrines found champions who succeeded in averting the cudgel.

Then there was genetics—the most extreme ideological showdown in Soviet science, which set the terms for a dispute that would reverberate for decades. [...] Lysenko sold his theories as the only correct dialectical-materialist understanding of heredity, one based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics rather than Gregor Mendel’s particles of heredity (known since 1905 as “genes”).
I certainly remembering being taught about Lysenko in secondary school, with the point being made that we don't do that in America.

Germany and the bomb:
Wolfe also mentions briefly how many physicists found cause to criticize politicized science—to their minds, synonymous with science in totalitarian states—on rather different grounds. To them, at least initially, the great foil to the success of American science lay not in Stalin’s Soviet Union but in Hitler’s Germany, whose scientists had demonstrably failed to produce an atomic bomb. According to physicist Samuel Goudsmit, who had been sent on the heels of the troops into liberated Europe to acquire intelligence on Nazi nuclear efforts, the Germans had only their the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic ideology to blame.
And then there's the CIA:
The range of the CIA’s sponsored activities is truly staggering: translating biology textbooks, funding conferences, subsidizing academic publications, promoting nuclear disarmament (Pugwash again), and more. The scientists felt that they were doing their own work and promoting their own disciplines, and the CIA got what it wanted without anyone being the wiser—until Ramparts magazine and the New York Times blew the covers in 1967, that is. This moment is the climax of Wolfe’s narrative.

Wolfe is outraged at the opportunism of the CIA’s under-the-table promotion of science. But even after the exposés, many of the scientists who were unwittingly the instruments of this CIA largesse did not share her consternation. Science continued to be lavishly funded and to play an important role in Cold War politics. The story gradually becomes less how diplomats used scientists than how scientists used diplomats.
The political nature of science:
One upshot of Wolfe’s history is that it may unsettle those who assume that any assertion that “science is political” is an attack on science. That science is political is irrefutable and not connected to the reliability of the knowledge it produces. Insisting that science is apolitical cannot make it so, but it can and does keep us from better understanding the political conditions that make science possible, the political choices involved in organizing and administering it, as well as the political ideologies and structures that threaten it.
H/t 3QD.

Return of shaky cam – livin' for the night

Geography and psychology, distance from the equator

Evert Van de Vliert, Paul A. M. Van Lange. Latitudinal Psychology: An Ecological Perspective on Creativity, Aggression, Happiness, and Beyond. Perspectives on Psychological Science. First Published August 21, 2019,
Abstract: Are there systematic trends around the world in levels of creativity, aggressiveness, life satisfaction, individualism, trust, and suicidality? This article suggests a new field, latitudinal psychology, that delineates differences in such culturally shared features along northern and southern rather than eastern and western locations. In addition to geographical, ecological, and other explanations, we offer three metric foundations of latitudinal variations: replicability (latitudinal gradient repeatability across hemispheres), reversibility (north-south gradient reversal near the equator), and gradient strength (degree of replicability and reversibility). We show that aggressiveness decreases whereas creativity, life satisfaction, and individualism increase as one moves closer to either the North or South Pole. We also discuss the replicability, reversibility, and gradient strength of (a) temperatures and rainfall as remote predictors and (b) pathogen prevalence, national wealth, population density, and income inequality as more proximate predictors of latitudinal gradients in human functioning. Preliminary analyses suggest that cultural and psychological diversity often need to be partially understood in terms of latitudinal variations in integrated exposure to climate-induced demands and wealth-based resources. We conclude with broader implications, emphasizing the importance of north-south replications in samples that are not from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Friday Fotos: A quick sample of things seen and flicked at various times and places

* * * * *

From top to bottom:
  1. Ragweed in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, probably early morning
  2. Washington St. at 13th, Hoboken
  3. 11th Street Flower Garden, Hoboken
  4. 13th Street Pier, Hoboken, sunrise perhaps, or maybe it was just a misty day
  5. Standing in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, looking at Lower Manhattan; the construction cranes are atop One World Center
  6. Jersey City Heights looking Southeast over/into downtown

Communication is difficult – "all the lonely people, where do they all come from" – but this time it's about science, not love

 Sabine Hosssenfelder, You will probably not understand this, Backreaction, 22 August 2019:
I could tell you many stories of renown physicists who told me, or wrote to me, about their struggles to get people to listen to them. Being white and male, it seems, doesn’t help. Neither do titles, honors, or award-winning popular science books.

And if you look at the ideas they are trying to get across, there’s a pattern.

These are people who have – in some cases over decades – built their own theoretical frameworks, developed personal philosophies of science, invented their own, idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves. Along the way, they have become incomprehensible for anyone else. But they didn’t notice.

Typically, they have written multiple papers circling around a key insight which they never quite manage to bring into focus. They’re constantly trying and constantly failing. And while they usually have done parts of their work with other people, the co-authors are clearly side-characters in a single-fighter story.

So they have their potentially brilliant insights out there, for anyone to see. And yet, no one has the patience to look at their life’s work. No one makes an effort to decipher their code. In brief, no one understands them.

Of course they’re frustrated. Just as frustrated as I am that no one understands me. Not even the people who agree with me. Especially not those, actually. It’s so frustrating.

The issue, I think, is symptomatic of our times, not only in science, but in society at large. Look at any social media site. You will see people going to great lengths explaining themselves just to end up frustrated and – not seldom – aggressive. They are aggressive because no one listens to what they are trying so hard to say. Indeed, all too often, no one even tries. Why bother if misunderstanding is such an easy win? If you cannot explain yourself, that’s your fault. If you do not understand me, that’s also your fault.

* * * * *

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

–William Butler Yeats,
The Second Coming

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 𝑁 neurons might have one parameter (e.g., a threshold) associated with each neuron, and an additional 𝑁^2 parameters specifying the strengths of synaptic connections, for a total of 𝑁+𝑁^2 free parameters. Of course, as the number of neurons 𝑁 becomes large, the total parameter count in a fully connected ANN is dominated by the 𝑁^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