Saturday, July 31, 2021

Where's the flashing eyes and the floating hair?

What happens when you achieve a goal you’ve pursued for over 20 years? Crash, that’s what happens.

David Epstein talks with champion bobsledder, Steve Mesler.

Five or so years ago, Steve stayed with me while he was in town for work. I took him, and his gold medal, to meet the sports-crazy seven-year-old twin boys who lived next door. Everyone took a turn trying on the medal. When the boys’ father got his turn, he draped the saucer-sized medal over his neck, turned to Steve, and asked: “So, when you got this, was it just like, everything for the rest of your life is fine?” It was a compliment about Steve’s achievement, but also betrayed the gap between perception and reality when it comes to the lives of Olympians.

“If you would have asked me that question before I won gold,” Steve told me, “I would have said, ‘Yes, I’ll be good for the rest of my life.’ Bobsled was my identity, and that was everything that I wanted.” But over the next few years, Steve would struggle with building a new identity. He would also bury two teammates, both of whom struggled with mental health issues, and he would recognize and get help for his own depression.

Mesler talks of “Speedy” Peterson:

I remember watching Speedy win the Olympic medal that he’d strove for, and wanted for his whole career. He’d been through his ups and downs, and in February of 2010, he wins his silver medal. In July of 2011, he phones the police and lets them know where they can find his body. And he walks out into the woods in the mountains with a shotgun and…. So, you know, here’s Speedy in 2010, winning a medal, and a year later he’s dead. Speedy had that joyful side, and he also had a darker side. You know, our experiences were pretty similar in that we both reached our goals.

There’s sport and there’s the rest of your life:

I’m starting to talk to other athletes about, you know, some of the behaviors that you have are good for your sport, but not good for other parts of your life. And ultimately, I’m starting to recognize that it’s almost like you’ve got to go through the stages of grief, because you’re experiencing loss even when you win. Because I had this thing in my life, this pursuit of being the best in the world. I had these people in my life who are all going after the same thing, and then we accomplished it, which is fantastic. But nothing replaces that journey and camaraderie. That part of me is gone now. Whether it’s a win or a loss, the outcome is only a moment in time. February 27, 2010, that was the day I won a gold medal, but from June 1990 until February 2010 was the pursuit. And so you tell me which one you think is going to be easier to get over, the thing that happened in one day, whether you won or lost, or the thing that was 20 years?

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Is Facebook’s Metaverse announcement a distraction from PR problems in its core social media domain?

Enquiring minds want to know.

No doubt you’ve heard the Facebook is going all-in on research toward the Metaverse. What is the Metaverse? It’s a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious high-tech whosiewhatsit where we can all work together in virtual harmony. It’ll be way cool. Super.

However, Tim de Chant at Ars Technica suggests “Facebook’s metaverse gambit is a distraction from its deep-seated problems,” July 28, 2021. It’s the timing:

It’s clear that Zuckerberg has been thinking about this metaverse idea for a while. But the timing of Facebook's announcement is interesting, to say the least. Facebook has “a history of doing these kinds of technical projects that look like they might be revolutionary at times when they’re being criticized for their lack of social responsibility,” Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Maryland, told Ars. [...]

It's probably an overstatement to say that the metaverse news was released to serve as an intentional distraction from the company’s current problems. But the thought undoubtedly crossed someone’s mind at the company. There’s a “70 percent” chance that Facebook’s metaverse project is a “distraction from all the bad things that are going on,” Goldbeck said. “The last thing they want is more discussion of their algorithms and Q-Anon and extremist groups.”

As a distraction, the metaverse is almost too perfect. It’s a flashy news item that attempts to position Facebook and Zuckerberg as visionaries inventing the future. It’s also literally a way to escape reality. If Zuckerberg ever wanted a metaverse to escape to, where Facebook exerted influence over everything from physics to religion, that time is probably now.

Not meat and potatoes:

But in many ways, the metaverse project is a fundamental shift away from what made Facebook successful. First, Facebook is a company that tends to succeed when it iterates on existing ideas or solves genuine problems. Zuckerberg’s initial version of Facebook, called "Facemash," was a 2003 Harvard knockoff of another site called “Am I Hot or Not” that launched in 2000. Later Facebook iterations aped features from Friendster, MySpace, and others.

Even the company’s technological crown jewel, the News Feed, wasn’t created due to pie-in-the-sky dreaming about what could take social media to the next level. It was a solution to a real problem—as people added more friends on Facebook, they were getting inundated with updates. News Feed and its algorithms helped cut down on the chaos, prioritizing content that a user was more likely to engage with. Another Facebook hallmark—ads in the News Feed, the company’s current cash cow—was born out of its struggles to monetize users on mobile phones.

The metaverse also cuts against a key part of Facebook’s brand—allowing people to share their lives with friends and family. For many, the platform’s appeal comes from users' ability to like, comment on, and share content related to their real lives—not their virtual ones.

It feels a bit like what ethologists call vacuum activity. Wikipedia:

Vacuum activities (or vacuum behaviours) are innate, fixed action patterns (FAPs) of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of a sign stimulus (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity. Vacuum activities often take place when an animal is placed in captivity and is subjected to a lack of stimuli that would normally cause a FAP.

See also displacement activity:

Displacement activities occur when an animal experiences high motivation for two or more conflicting behaviours: the resulting displacement activity is usually unrelated to the competing motivations.

Alas, getting from those characterizations of Facebook’s behavior takes a bit more work than I want to undertake in a blog post. I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Billboard Hot 100 driven by anti-conformist bias?

From the linked article:

Abstract: What causes turnover on the Billboard charts? The neutral model of cultural evolution, which assumes that taste is transmitted via an unbiased copying process, provides precise predictions regarding expected popularity distributions and turnover within a popularity-ranked list. Recent advances in this line make it possible to characterize the likelihood of music taste transmission mechanisms by investigating departures of observed turnover rates from neutral model predictions. Here, I bias the neutral model to investigate four alternative conceptions of individual music taste transmission (song quality, individual status, social network, and anticonformist) and use agent-based simulations to examine the impact on turnover. I then compare modeled with empirical turnover data from the Billboard Hot 100 over the period from 1958 to 2021 and find that observed turnover patterns are reproduced only in an anticonformist model simulating the systematic rejection of the most popular songs. This finding was unexpected and challenges the notion of a generalized “preference for the popular.” Overall, this study contributes to ongoing debates regarding the mechanisms involved in the transmission of taste and the mechanics of fashion change.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Annotated Flatland

Erie Lackawanna Building [once the largest freight terminals in the country]

French teenagers love manga [what else is new?]

Aurelien Breeden, France Gave Teenagers $350 for Culture. They’re Buying Comic Books. NYTimes, July 28, 2021.

PARIS — When the French government launched a smartphone app that gives 300 euros to every 18-year-old in the country for cultural purchases like books and music, or exhibition and performance tickets, most young people’s impulse wasn’t to buy Proust’s greatest works or to line up and see Molière.

Instead, France’s teenagers flocked to manga.

“It’s a really good initiative,” said Juliette Sega, who lives in a small town in southeastern France and has used €40 (about $47) to buy Japanese comic books and “The Maze Runner,” a dystopian novel. “I’m a steady consumer of novels and manga, and it helps pay for them.”

As of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.

And then:

Naza Chiffert, who runs two independent bookstores in Paris, said the Culture Pass had already had a positive impact on her business. “Getting young people who read but who are more used to Amazon or big-box stores to come to us isn’t easy,” she said, but now she has teenagers in her stores every day.

Still, some worry that the pass will be a financial windfall for people from privileged backgrounds while doing little to help others expand their cultural horizons.

“A kid from the projects will lean toward what he already knows,” said Pierre Ouzoulias, a senator for the French Communist Party who has pushed to scrap the pass. “I can’t for one moment imagine a kid using the pass to go listen to Baroque opera.”

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

China's Sputnik moment? [the need for high tech self-sufficiency]

Fireworks (it's still July)

DeepMind releases preprint about an AI engine capable of playing many different video games

From DeepMind's blog, Generally capable agents emerge from open-ended play:

In recent years, artificial intelligence agents have succeeded in a range of complex game environments. For instance, AlphaZero beat world-champion programs in chess, shogi, and Go after starting out with knowing no more than the basic rules of how to play. Through reinforcement learning (RL), this single system learnt by playing round after round of games through a repetitive process of trial and error. But AlphaZero still trained separately on each game — unable to simply learn another game or task without repeating the RL process from scratch. The same is true for other successes of RL, such as Atari, Capture the Flag, StarCraft II, Dota 2, and Hide-and-Seek. DeepMind’s mission of solving intelligence to advance science and humanity led us to explore how we could overcome this limitation to create AI agents with more general and adaptive behaviour. Instead of learning one game at a time, these agents would be able to react to completely new conditions and play a whole universe of games and tasks, including ones never seen before.

Today, we published "Open-Ended Learning Leads to Generally Capable Agents," a preprint detailing our first steps to train an agent capable of playing many different games without needing human interaction data. We created a vast game environment we call XLand, which includes many multiplayer games within consistent, human-relatable 3D worlds. This environment makes it possible to formulate new learning algorithms, which dynamically control how an agent trains and the games on which it trains. The agent’s capabilities improve iteratively as a response to the challenges that arise in training, with the learning process continually refining the training tasks so the agent never stops learning. The result is an agent with the ability to succeed at a wide spectrum of tasks — from simple object-finding problems to complex games like hide and seek and capture the flag, which were not encountered during training. We find the agent exhibits general, heuristic behaviours such as experimentation, behaviours that are widely applicable to many tasks rather than specialised to an individual task. This new approach marks an important step toward creating more general agents with the flexibility to adapt rapidly within constantly changing environments.

When you look under the hood:

Analysing the agent’s internal representations, we can say that by taking this approach to reinforcement learning in a vast task space, our agents are aware of the basics of their bodies and the passage of time and that they understand the high-level structure of the games they encounter. Perhaps even more interestingly, they clearly recognise the reward states of their environment. This generality and diversity of behaviour in new tasks hints toward the potential to fine-tune these agents on downstream tasks. For instance, we show in the technical paper that with just 30 minutes of focused training on a newly presented complex task, the agents can quickly adapt, whereas agents trained with RL from scratch cannot learn these tasks at all.

By developing an environment like XLand and new training algorithms that support the open-ended creation of complexity, we’ve seen clear signs of zero-shot generalisation from RL agents. Whilst these agents are starting to be generally capable within this task space, we look forward to continuing our research and development to further improve their performance and create ever more adaptive agents.

Preprint of technical paper: Open-Ended Learning Leads to Generally Capable Agents.

H/t Alex Tabarrok

 Also, check out the comments a Less Wrong.

One of those old-time good ones, as Louis Armstrong used to say

When did the future become a site for human habitation like, say, crossing the ocean to colonize the New World?

We’ve always thought about the future: Where’s the next meal coming from? How do we prepare for the festival? Will the harvest be good this year? What’ll I leave the grand kids? I have something different in mind. When did we start thinking about the future as a time and place when things would be different from they are now, when they would be better, and made so by effort we can undertake now? When did the future become that (kind of) place?

So I put the question to the Twitterverse:

That’s interesting. Very.

I’ve been pushing the Disney line for awhile now, maybe two years. He had boundless enthusiasm for the capacity of technology and industry to create a new an better world. But as far as I can tell he’d pretty much decided that the human world was fixed in its arrangements. Of course, when I talk of Walt Disney I don’t mean merely or only Walt Disney. I’m using him as a proxy for mid-20th century America. That’s the world he spoke to and spoke for.

And that world had begun falling apart by the time Disney died in 1966: the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, the counter culture (“turn on, tune in, and drop out”), the OPEC oil embargo, it just gets worse and worse. And the future, what’s that? The future is “when are we going to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s Elon up to, more wild fires?”

I note that while a lot of science fiction is set in the future, not all of it is. Star Trek is, Star Wars is not. Sometimes science fiction is set in a world that’s just another fantasy space, like Narnia or Hogwarts, but sometimes it’s set in a world that’s (supposed to be) continuous with our world, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2150, or The Ministry of the Future. Take H. G. Wells. Is War of the Worlds set in another fantasy space, that happens to look a lot like the contemporary world, or is it in a world that’s continuous with, a potential extension of, the contemporary world? And The Time Machine? I’m not sure how to answer those questions.

I do know, however, that the Progress Studies movement seems to be much more interested in the question of “What happened to flying cars?” than in “What happened to the 15-hour workweek?” Why? I suppose the movement for Basic Universal Income is a bit like a push for the 15-hour workweek, but the emphasis is different.

And then there is Godwinian “perfectibility,” which Ted Underwood mentioned in a tweet. From Wikipedia:

Believing in the perfectibility of the race, that there are no innate principles, and therefore no original propensity to evil, he considered that “our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world.” All control of man by man was more or less intolerable, and the day would come when each man, doing what seems right in his own eyes, would also be doing what is in fact best for the community, because all will be guided by principles of pure reason.

Such optimism was combined with a strong empiricism to support Godwin’s belief that the evil actions of men are solely reliant on the corrupting influence of social conditions, and that changing these conditions could remove the evil in man. This is similar to the ideas of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, concerning the shortcomings of women as due to discouragement during their upbringing.

I don’t think the Progress Studies folks have a clue about that sort of thing. The tech-way to human perfection is obviously through technology: the Internet, virtual reality, augmented reality, something called the Metaverse, and above all, artificial intelligence. We’re to become one with our machines, if they’ll let us. Otherwise, they'll replace us. The horror! The horror!

But does anyone else have a vision of human perfectibility?

* * * * *

Let’s look at some passages from Keynes’s famous “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930).

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

Is anyone proposing to “map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs”? I don’t think so. Whenever I think about that my thoughts immediately lock on to the 60s & 70s counter-culture with its vague dreams of a coming Age of Aquarius (“let the sunshine in”). What happened to that? Gweneth Paltrow and Goop, that’s what happened, and of course Oprah Winfrey.

Keynes goes on:

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Where are we now? Billionaires in space, that’s where. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” that’s where.

But who knows, maybe there’s hope of progress lurking beneath the surface. For inequality is an issue that’s been festering in the civic sphere ever since Occupy Wall Street went live in September of 2011, proclaiming “We are the 99%.” Meanwhile, who’s going to help us figure out how to “use the new-found bounty of nature” that will come our way when we finally come to our senses? Who’s thinking about that? For without that there can be no progress.

More later.

The general neural topography of the language network is remarkably consistent across 45 languages.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Off color irises [jivometric]

Things change, but sometimes they don’t: On the difference between learning about and living through [revising your priors and the way of the world]

This is a year old (first published in July 26 of last year). I'm bumping it to the top of the queue because I'm thinking about these things once again.
It has long been obvious to me that there is an epistemic difference between knowing history and living through history. I now have half a notion of how to think about this. That’s what this post is about.

I begin by talking about the effect the fall of the Soviet Union had on me. That’s my paradigm example of the phenomenon I’m talking about. Call it a RUPTURE in my sense of the world. Then I consider my intellectual career as a series of ruptures where I had to reconsider my priors, if you will, and so rethink my intellectual foundations. Finally I move to a graphics revolution that could have happened, SHOULD have happened, as a result to digital technology. I saw it coming, but it never really got started. What was I missing? I conclude with some reflections on the current situation.
I list five such ruptures in all. Three INSIDE my primary intellectual trajectory, my intellectual career, while two are OUTSIDE that trajectory, but nonetheless affected me.

World history and the fall of the Soviet Union

It’s about having to revise your priors – I’m talking Bayes, as least informally, your prior commitments. Living through events forces that on you, or at any rate, gives you the opportunity to revise those priors. Merely learning about the past doesn’t do that. Changing how you think is deeper than learning about change.

My paradigmatic example is the fall of the Soviet Union. I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Cold War was going strong. I remember reading about how to construct bomb shelters, and thinking about where the family shelter should be. I remember talk of the missile gap; I remember the Cuban missile crisis. I fully expected to be living the Cold War when I died.

And then the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Cold War was all but over. Though some had anticipated this – I’m thinking particularly of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – I certainly did not. It took me by surprise.

What did I learn from that? Simple, that The World can change. Sure, I knew world history, I knew that things changed deeply and fundamentally, time and time again. But I hadn’t seen it for myself. I suppose I might have taken that simple lesson from the Civil Rights movement, but perhaps the persistence of racism blunted that achievement. The end of the Vietnam War? No, and I’d marched against that one and been a conscientious objector.

It was the fall of the Soviet Union that reached me, that forced me to abandon a set of simple, but fundamental – I was about to type “epistemic”, “epistemic commitments”, but no, it’s deeper – ontological commitments. For me the Cold War had ontological force. It was simply the way of the world. I learned about it in childhood and lived it through a quarter century of adulthood.

And then the world changed.

Let’s call that an OUTSIDE RUPTURE in my sense of the world, outside because it was outside my primary sphere of action and commitment.

My intellectual life

My intellectual life has had a number of “ruptures”, if you will. In the late 1960s I learned to interpret literary texts as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I was trained in so-called “close reading”, but was interested in structuralist analysis as well. In the spring of my senior year I became interested in “Kubla Khan.” I decided to undertake a structuralist analysis of the poem for a master’s thesis.

Worksheet, first 36 lines of "Kubla Khan"

As things worked out that project fell apart in 1970 or ‘71. “Kubla Khan” refused to submit to the methods I applied to it. My commitment to the poem won out and I was forced to abandon those methods. I tell the story in considerable autobiographical detail in “Touchstones” [1] and supply the intellectual detail in a working paper on Lévi-Strauss [2].

FIRST INSIDE RUPTURE, inside because it is dead center in my primary sphere of action and commitment. I could no longer believe that existing methods of literary criticism were adequate to the task of understanding how literary texts work. New methods, incidentally, that required visual thinking. Standard literary criticism has been and remains committed to expository prose as its fundamental intellectual medium.

In 1973 I went off to get a Ph. D. in the English Department at SUNY at Buffalo and ended up spending considerable time studying computational semantics with David Hays in the Linguistics Department. My dissertation ended up as a quasi-technical exercise in cognitive semantics as applied to literature, one where, for large sections, I drew the diagrams first and then wrote prose to explain them. In 1976 Hays and I published a humanities-oriented review of computational linguistics in which we proposed the development of symbolic systems capable of “reading” a Shakespeare play in an intellectually interesting way [3]. I fully expected to be working with such a system later in my career. That hasn’t happened, nor do I expect it to.

Part of a semantic network for Shakespeare's Sonnet 129

SECOND INSIDE RUPTURE. Symbolic computational systems are not adequate for understanding the mind.

But this was not so drastic as that first inside rupture. For one thing, Hays and I didn’t really believe that symbolic systems were adequate to the task. We’d been exploring how to ground them in analog systems and in distributed neural computation [4]. The failure, rather, was one of degree rather than kind. I had overestimated the power of symbolic systems. I would later pick up my interest in neural systems in conversations I had with the late Walter Freeman and I incorporated into the early chapters of my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) [5].

I suppose there was a THIRD INSIDE RUPTURE, or quasi-rupture, as well. In 1995 I discovered that a bunch of literary scholars was interested in “the cognitive revolution” – you know, the ideas I’d begun investigating in graduate school. That was in the Stanford Humanities Review. My work was forgotten but, and more importantly, computation was nowhere to be seen in this newer. Their version of cognitive science was thus very different from mine. It was in working through that difference that I figured out that I had been chasing form all along.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Walt Disney and the scientists, Hubble and Huxley

The photo was taken on October 24, 1940, about a month before the release of Fantasia. You can see art work for the film on the wall behind the men.

The moon on two different days last year

A note to my friend Bill Berry: Is anyone thinking about a more soulful future?

About a week ago my friend Bill Berry – we’d collaborated on Meanderings back in the early days of the web – had a long post on his Facebook page describing his and his wife’s search for a church. He wanted where the style of worship was like what he’d grown up with in Newark in the middle of the previous century. They weren’t having much success, and that saddened him. I posted a response to his Facebook page. It opens with a quote from his post:

That’s the thing. Style of worship is very particular and important. I was looking for what I had, what I walked away from, and couldn’t find it, probably because it didn’t exist any longer. Maybe it exists only in my head?

I think I can understand that. I don't know what you grew up with, but I'm pretty sure it isn't what I grew up with in suburban Western Pennsylvania. It was a Lutheran church and the people and the style where white. I can remember one Christmas service when I took it on myself to get a little enthusiastic and threw some variations into one of the hymns. People looked at me like I was doing something wrong, committing some kind of sin, you know, “Thou shalt not be enthusiastic in your worship of the Lord because then you might enjoy it and the Lord does not want you to enjoy anything, ever, certainly not singing his praises.”

Whatever it is you had growing up, I think we all need and want it, the style, the community. But how do you separate those things from the dismaying doctrine that so often accompanies them? A good friend of mine has been involved with his local Unitarian Church for years, in fact he's now executive director of the church, he told me – at about the time I'd been to that church service I told you about – that some Unitarian ministers were interested in Black vernacular preaching. Now as you know, Unitarians tend toward the cerebral and austere in doctrine and style, so for Unitarians to be hungering from some down home preaching, that's saying something.

But I think somehow that we as a society have to find a way to get there because otherwise we are not going to be able to get through the trying times ahead. I mean, let’s get real, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are not going to save us with their rockets. Bezos has figured out how to deliver cheap goods to us while exploiting his workers and business partners. Musk has given us the electric car, which is a good thing, but he's loony tunes on this Vulcan mind-meld neuro-technology. And hyperloop? That's mostly loopy hype.

Rockets are not the road to salvation. And salvation is what we need. You know what, we'll settle for some good songs that promise salvation. That will somehow get us through the darkness.

Who is trying to envision a future that isn’t centered on super-wonderful technology? We know how to do that, envision more and better technology. That will come. But there’s more to a better life than better technology. Does anyone know how to envision richer fuller lives for more people, richer and fuller because they are more meaningful, more soulful, more spiritual?

Graph theory and children's designs

Hinduism and Catholicism

Banksey refects on deep history

Monday, July 26, 2021

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A reminder of other things

Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades [#DH]

Significance of linked article:

Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time? Here, we look for the historical traces of cognitive distortions, thinking patterns that are strongly associated with internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety, in millions of books published over the course of the last two centuries in English, Spanish, and German. We find a pronounced “hockey stick” pattern: Over the past two decades the textual analogs of cognitive distortions surged well above historical levels, including those of World War I and II, after declining or stabilizing for most of the 20th century. Our results point to the possibility that recent socioeconomic changes, new technology, and social media are associated with a surge of cognitive distortions.

Abstract from linked article:

Individuals with depression are prone to maladaptive patterns of thinking, known as cognitive distortions, whereby they think about themselves, the world, and the future in overly negative and inaccurate ways. These distortions are associated with marked changes in an individual’s mood, behavior, and language. We hypothesize that societies can undergo similar changes in their collective psychology that are reflected in historical records of language use. Here, we investigate the prevalence of textual markers of cognitive distortions in over 14 million books for the past 125 y and observe a surge of their prevalence since the 1980s, to levels exceeding those of the Great Depression and both World Wars. This pattern does not seem to be driven by changes in word meaning, publishing and writing standards, or the Google Books sample. Our results suggest a recent societal shift toward language associated with cognitive distortions and internalizing disorders.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

CORRECTION – Alas, the study is deeply flawed [7.26.21]

Check out the whole thread on Twitter.

Is Elon Musk Different? [Progress]

Walter Isaacson reviews two books about Musk in the NYTimes:

LIFTOFF: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger.
POWER PLAY: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, by Tim Higgins.

He tells how Musk went for broke in 2008 when the Falcon 1 had crashed and burned three times and they only had parts for one more flight. That forth rocket worked. At the same time Tesla only had three weeks of cash left. By putting millions of his own cash at risk, Musk coaxed more money from his investors and Tesla and avoided bankruptcy. He drove the Model S prototype in March 2009.

Miraculously, Musk had survived what seemed like two certain flameouts. “It felt like I had been taken out to the firing squad, and been blindfolded,” he said. “Then they fired the guns, which went click. No bullets came out. And then they let you free. Sure, it feels great. But you’re pretty [expletive] nervous.”

In his famous “Think Different” ad for Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs saluted people like himself: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels… Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Musk is in some ways the current incarnation of Jobs. As these two books show in vivid detail, Musk can drive people hard. He can drive them to distraction. But he can also drive them to do things they never dreamed were possible. “Please prepare yourself for a level of intensity that is greater than anything most of you have experienced before,” he wrote in one staff memo. “Revolutionizing industries is not for the faint of heart.”

Like Jobs, Musk has a reality distortion field. “In meetings, Musk might ask his engineers to do something that, on the face of it, seemed absurd,” Berger writes. But unlike Jobs, Musk has an understanding of physics and thermodynamics that has helped him know what boundaries could be successfully pushed. “When they protested that it was impossible, Musk would respond with a question designed to open their minds to the problem, and potential solutions. He would ask, ‘What would it take?’”

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fireworks, natural and unnatural

Up, up, and New Jersey

Sabine is on the case: What’s the difference between valid speculation and bad science?

Sabine Hossenfelder, Can Physics Be Too Speculative? Backreaction, July 24, 2021.

She acknowledges that speculation is critical to intellectual progress, but...

The question how much speculation is healthy differs from the question where to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. That’s because physicists usually justify their speculations as work in progress, so they don’t have to live up to the standard we expect for fully-fledged scientific theories. It’s then not as easy as pointing out that string theory is for all practical purposes untestable, because its supporters will argue that maybe one day they’ll figure out how to test it. The same argument can be made about the hypothetical particles that make up dark matter or those fifth forces. Maybe one day they’ll find a way to test them.

The question we are facing, thus, is similar to the one that the philosopher Imre Lakatos posed: Which research programs make progress, and which have become degenerative? When speculation stimulates progress it benefits science, but when speculation leads to no insights for the description of nature, it eats up time and resources, and gets in the way of progress. Which research program is on which side must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

She goes on to consider several examples:

  • Dark matter
  • Early universe and fifth forces
  • String theory
  • Multiverse theory
  • Is Oumuamua alien technology?

I don’t think there’s a clear line between valid speculation and intellectual nonsense. I doubt that Hossenfelder does either; she certainly doesn’t make any such claim. The problem we have to place we can ‘stand’ and observe science from the outside and thereby observe what lines of investigation where heading towards truth and which ones were just lost in the wilderness. If such a point of view were available to us, we’d just go to it and then zip right over to the truth, skipping the painstaking process of scientific observation entirely. Thus the problem of distinguishing valid speculation from high-class nonsense is something the community must solve however it can.

I’ve become interested in a related problem: When does a fruitless line of investigation resort to signaling behavior to close itself off from the world? Signaling is simply the superset of what has become called virtue signaling in a variety of current debates surrounding issues of social justice, but also conspiracy theories. To emit a signal, in this sense, you assert a belief that many consider to be outrageous in order to affirm your solidarity with some in-group. You affirm your loyalty to Donald Trump by asserting (among many other things) that, yes, his was the largest inauguration ever. You affirm your loyalty to QAnon by asserting your belief in a worldwide ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. And so forth. Are any lines of degenerate science in such a zone?

Friday, July 23, 2021

Friday Fotos: Trumpet [elegant plumbing]

Billionaires in Space, Part 5: Is nothing sacred? [What is an engineer mage?]

In my experience that question – Is nothing sacred? – is usually asked in a tone of exasperated irony by someone who, more likely than not, is a thoroughly secular person. I’m a secular person, but I ask the question without irony, which implies that I am also asking whether the category of “the sacred” is a meaningful one in a secular world. Nor am I exasperated, much. More curious, and pondering.

My friend the late Charles Cameron was a deeply religious man, a mystic, and a poet. He feared that, if travel to the moon became routine, that would rob the moon of its value as an attractor for contemplation of the sacred. In my recent article at 3 Quarks Daily I made a remark that points in that direction:

The fact that at long last America had landed on the moon, that changed the valence of the whole man-in-space project. As long as it was out there in the future we could treat it as a blank slate and write anything on it we wished. Now we had been there, three of us at least; it became real in a way it had not been before.

I then went on to mention an episode in The Crown, season 3, episode 7, “Moondust.”

Prince Philip had been feeling a bit depressed over the fact that he’d given up a career as an air force pilot to be, in effect, a jewel in his wife’s crown. The Apollo astronauts, however, were on a tour of Britain and he arranged to have a private meeting with them. It did not go as he’d hoped. They had not somehow become magical larger-than-life beings. They were mere men, like himself, and not particularly articulate about the experience of having landed on the moon.

What I didn’t say is that that episode began with Philip speaking to a cohort of priests who had come to a retreat at an otherwise unoccupied house on one of the royal estates. As they tell him why they’d come to the retreat he gets restless and tells them that they need action, not contemplation. He leaves. Then we have the incident with the astronauts. As the episode closes Philip has returned to the retreat, apologized to the priests, and asked for their help in working though is mid-life issues.

Charles saw the short blog post I did about that episode and remarked in comments:

Okay. If “religion” fails to offer the sense of mystery and wonder, and “science” in the form of going to the moon (dust, mainly, as if a reminder of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” unfortunately) doesn’t assuage the quest to “meaning” either, something we might term “imagination” or "spirituality" – perhaps falling somewhere between the two, or in triangulation with a meditative “peace”, might still do the trick. Anyway, that's the direction my own “quest” / “questioning” is leading me in...

Notice all the scare quotes and the trailing ellipses. THAT, I believe, is where we are, though just who “we” refers to is an open question, one perhaps best answered by each individual. But in the end we – some very substantial collective – are going to have to agree on some kind of answer and that answer will help guide us through the climate issues facing us and will guide us perhaps into outer space. To what end? That has yet to be determined.

...we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves.

I don’t think Richard Branson has anything useful to say in this conversation. He’s just a charismatic joy-riding billionaire. Bezos is less charismatic – the cowboy hat did not do the trick – and I doubt that he has much to say either, though he has a lot more money to spend.

And there is the peculiar shape of his rocket, which has been getting a fair amount of attention. I’ve already linked to Joe Rogan’s Instagram comment, which is rather crude, as one can expect from Rogan. But Rogan has the most watched pod-cast on the planet. Then there’s this video on YouTube:

It’s approaching a million views. That’s not Joe Rogan territory, but it’s worth thinking about. How many more views will it get? How many others are or will be satirizing the shape of that rocket.

When I first saw the shape I thought nothing of it. And when people started either hinting at or outright saying it’s a giant dick, I dismissed those remarks. Why? Because the shape of the rocket is largely dictated by physical considerations. It has to have the shape of a cylinder and the top needs to taper. Now I’m beginning to wonder. Does the capsule really need to be wider than the rocket itself in a way that resembles the glans of a human penis? Was that aerodynamically necessary? Didn’t any one in Blue Origin’s PR department point out that that shape could be embarrassing?

Aren’t these questions just a little silly? Maybe yes maybe no. The fact that they arise speaks to the lack of a shared cultural framework through which we can understand this current space race as anything more than billionaires showing off and living out childhood fantasies. Yes, there’s the tech and the possibilities of spin-offs. That’s what NASA said back in the 1960s. It was a thin truth then and it’s thin now. Technology isn’t what’s driving this race now – except, perhaps, in the case of Musk. But let’s finish up with Bezos first.

I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a billionaire who may think he’s some kind of god. I hear Bezos thinks we are or should be an interstellar species. So what? That’s been in science fiction for decades. He gets no credit for thinking such thoughts. Whatever he is, he is no philosopher king. Nor perhaps should he be. I could say more about Bezos – his predatory attitude toward his employees for example, but let’s just leave it there.

And then there’s Elon Musk. I’ve written so much about him I’ve made him a named topic here. As I remarked yesterday, “He’s built an actual [space] business, though one that depends on getting government contracts. He wants to go to Mars. I don’t know what I think about that.” He may well go down in history as the Henry Ford of the electric automobile. He has some strange ideas about direct brain-to-brain communication and apparently he’s not a very nice person. So what? He’s not a philosopher king either.

But he may be something else. A real life Tony Stark? To be honest, I’m not invested enough in the Marvel Universe to know whether or not that judgment is worth spit. But I rather doubt that the Marvel Universe can support what I have in mind, what I’m searching for, what Charles Cameron was searching for. Can Musk support that? 

He is an engineer. A designer. He may even be a profound engineer. A builder. Maybe he is an engineer mage.

We’ll see.

There is this idea, at one and the same time a cliché and a profound truth, that we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves. Does Richard Branson think there is anything greater than Richard Branson? Jeff Bezos? Does cheering them on lift us out of ourselves to something greater?


I’m not sure about Musk.

* * * * *

Why engineers? you ask. Because engineering is about designing and constructing. I have quite a bit to say about engineers and engineering here at New Savanna. In the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I characterized my method as speculative engineering. One of the important things about Grace Lindsay’s new book, Models of the Mind: How Physics, Engineering, and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain, is that she recognizes the importance of engineering. More personally, my father was an engineer, a very good one. It’s in my blood, as they say. 

Compared to science and scientists, engineers don't get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. Engineering is not as deeply implanted in our philosophical superstructure as science is. Philosophy of science is a thriving subject. Philosophy of engineering? Doesn't exist. I suspect there is a class issue here, the gentleman scientist vs. the blue collar engineer, but also calculation vs. manipulation. There's an intellectual issue as well. This bears looking into.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Žižek on environmental catastrophe

Slavoj Žižek, Last Exit to Socialism, Jacobin, 7.21.2021:

So what should we do in such a predicament? We should above all avoid the common wisdom according to which the lesson of the ecological crises is that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life — limit our individualism, develop new solidarity, and accept our modest place among life on our planet. Or, as Judith Butler put it, “An inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.”

But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2°C (35.6°F), we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on Earth, not as a modest species. The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon “our smaller and more mindful role” — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.

If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were, able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option; it is a false exit to a catastrophe. As universal beings, we should learn to accept our environment in all its complex mixture, which includes what we perceive as trash or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive since it is too large or too minuscule (Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”).

What to do:

The answer to the heat dome in the United States and Canada is not just to help the affected areas but to attack its global causes. And, as the ongoing catastrophe in southern Iraq makes clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare of the people in catastrophic conditions will be needed to prevent social explosions.

All these things can — hopefully — be achieved only through strong and obligatory international cooperation, social control and regulation of agriculture and industry, changes in our basic eating habits (less beef), global health care, etc. Upon a closer look, it is clear that representative political democracy alone will not be sufficient for this task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local self-organizations of people, as well as with a strong international body capable of overriding the will of dissenting nations.

I am not talking here about a new world government — such an entity would give opportunity to immense corruption. And I am not talking about communism in the sense of abolishing markets — market competition should play a role, although a role regulated and controlled by state and society. Why, then, use the term “communism”? Because what we will have to do contains four aspects of every truly radical regime.

First, there is voluntarism: changes that will be needed are not grounded in any historical necessity; they will be done against the spontaneous tendency of history — as Walter Benjamin put it, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then, there is egalitarianism: global solidarity, health care, and a minimum of decent life for all. Then, there are elements of what cannot but appear to die-hard liberals as “terror,” a taste of which we got with measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms and new modes of control and regulation. Finally, there is trust in the people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.

The Way Forward

All this is not a morbid dystopian vision but the result of the simple realistic assessment of our predicament. If we don’t take this path, what will happen is the totally crazy situation which is already taking place in the United States and Russia: the power elite is preparing for its survival in gigantic underground bunkers in which thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government should function even in such conditions. In short, government should continue to work even when there are no people alive on the earth over whom it should exert its authority.

H/t 3QD.

Billionaires in Space, Part 4: What's the net worth of Darth Vader? Did he have a 401K?

Billionaires in Space, Part 3: What do I think? [What's the WHOLE picture?]

It’s complicated. I’ve written a fair amount on man-in-space. Somewhere in their I’ve told how, when Sputnik was launched in October of 1957, my father took me outside to observer the night sky. He pointed Sputnik out to me? Did I actually see what he was pointing at? Could you actually observe Sputnik from earth? I don’t know, but I believed we saw Sputnik that night. That is when my personal life met world-historical time in my memory.

Even before then I’d been drawing pictures of space ships, flying saucers, robots (remember, Forbidden Planet had come out a year before Sputnik). I watched Walt Disney extol the virtues of space travel. I assembled plastic models of rockets and space ships. I even designed some. I was into it. I wanted to become an astronaut.

But when I came time to enter college, I declared a psychology major, then changed to philosophy, and ended up doing a de facto degree in literature. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 I didn’t watch it on TV. It was too ‘establishment.’ And I wasn’t into establishment.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, I was in Orlando, Florida at a trade show. I took the last day off to drive to Kennedy Space Flight Center and see the land from which those moon rockets were launched. They had a Saturn V hanging from the roof in one long shed. I was awed. I felt that I was on sacred ground.

Billionaires in space? Right around the corner Michael Liss asked me a question:

Bill, Disney's insistent focus on the future was part business, but it was also part mission. Are there futurists now who you think have the resources (or access to them) and desire to do the same? I'm knocking out the vanity space-flights because they seem purposeless, but you can disagree.

Here’s my reply:

That’s a very interesting question, Michael. And context matters. You’re right about Disney, part business AND part mission. Moreover, back in Disney’s time science fiction wasn’t all over the screen and, of course, humans had not yet landed on the moon. Things are very different now.

Bezos was born in 1964. He would have been five when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. What could that possibly have meant to him? Star Trek came on the air in 1968; Star Wars came out in 1977. He’s grown up in a world with space-oriented science fiction, one where humans have been to the moon and back, and were now flying missions to low earth orbit. In that world, does thinking Disney-like thoughts count as vision any more? Just WHAT DOES count as vision?

When all these ideas are out there as science fiction, what counts as vision? Has Bezos done anything more that flip the switch on some science fiction tale and say, “I want one of those, I’m a billionaire?” Is he doing anything more than re-enacting childhood fantasy? Is his vision just slip-streaming off of good old Uncle Walt?

And what was he doing wearing the cowboy hat? You know what I think of when I think of cowboy hats in space? That’s right, Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strange Love. In a way I’d like to see Bezos earn that hat by bull riding on the rodeo circuit for a year, or actually working on a cattle ranch. If he wants to prance around in the bedroom with his current squeeze while wearing a cowboy hat, that's fine. That's play. But when he's in public with millions of people watching, no, he doesn't get to do that. He doesn't get to play while millions are hurting from Covid, some of whom work for his company. He doesn’t get to mess with American myth simply because he’s a billionaire.

Musk, I think, is in a different class. He’s built an actual business, though one that depends on getting government contracts. He wants to go to Mars. I don’t know what I think about that. But he wants to do it for real. If he actually does it, that changes the game, big time. Even if it’s only a one-time shot and he leaves some dead astronauts on Mars.

But vision?

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I’m not at all sure that I like the idea that, at the moment, the billionaires dominate media coverage of humans-in-space. Space should not be the preserve of rich men. It belongs to us all, no?

Not, mind you, that the race to the moon was for the good of humanity. It was America vs. the Russians, one nation-state against another. Don’t like that either.

Which is better, dueling billionaires or dueling nation? Of course China is getting to the act as well. How does that change things?

I do note, however, that Bezos is being lambasted, at least on Twitter, for that cowboy hat and for the phallic shape of his rocket. That’s fair game; it’s all to the good. He’s also been criticized for his remarks about how he couldn’t have done it without all his wonderful Amazon employees. In making those remarks he was playing the benevolent paterfamilias; but he was being criticized as an exploitive boss. That too is fair.

These guys don’t get exclusive control over the spin. How much traction will the resistance get? I don’t know. It remains to be seen just how these events get interpreted. That’s just beginning.

What I’m getting at is that we have to think of the whole picture, what these billionaires do AND how those actions play out in the public sphere. What are we as a culture and a society making of all this right now? Where are we, and our billionaires, going?

This is going to take awhile.