Friday, May 31, 2024

Test & Drain

Why don't we dream of building perfect societies anymore?

Rohit Krishnan asks that question at Strange Loop Canon. He starts with a story:

Robert Owen was a Welsh industrialist. Born in Newtown, Owen moved to Manchester when he was quite young, and quickly rose to prominence as a manager in the cotton industry.

He was self-educated, reading everything that he could get his hands on. He was particularly impressed by the enlightenment thinkers, from Locke’s theories on human development and the importance of education to Rousseau’s ideas on natural human goodness and the corrupting influence of society. They resonated with Owen’s belief in the perfectibility of human beings through environmental improvements.

His success at New Lanark Mills in Scotland, where he implemented progressive labor practices such as fair wages, reasonable working hours, and comprehensive education for workers' children, demonstrated his commitment to improving social conditions through rational management.

After he had his economic success he wanted to put his grand theories into play and create a true utopian society.

So he created New Harmony, in Indiana, aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of social reform through cooperative living and education. He brought about the smartest people he could find, artists and scientists and intellectuals, to make New Harmony incredible.

It worked for a while too, even though its story ends in decline. New Harmony faced economic difficulties, internal disagreements, and lack of enough practical skills among its members.

There are at least a couple interesting things here. One is the fact that New Harmony seemed to have a strong undercurrent around things we consider highly modern, around equality and collective living and education.

The second, which is arguably more interesting, is that they clearly believed in the perfectibility of man. Some combination of the christian belief with the American belief with the Enlightenment belief combined to say “we can be so much better”. They truly believed that with individual effort we could create a better society. And what's more, they felt they could demonstrate it, and did just that by gathering up followers and heading to the middle of America to show the world.

Krishnan tells a few more such stories along with this and that. I urge you to read the whole thing. He published three charts which I find useful. I'll put them here without comment (click on them to enlarge):

Here's his final paragraph:

The spirit of pioneering ambition is perhaps our best features as a species. We only seem to get it in glimpses as you glance through history, seemingly at random as if a capricious muse bestows it on us, outside our control. But this isn’t preordained, nor is it true. If audacious optimism and a focus on utopian outcomes is achievable, then not doing so is a fault of the spirit. It is worth asking why this form of optimism is no longer around.

I made a long comment, which I append below the asterisks.

* * * * *

First, thanks for the charts, Rohit, they're most useful.

Beyond that, yes, no, not really, we can't get there from here.

Let's look at your last paragraph. Your last sentence: "It is worth asking why this form of optimism is no longer around." YES. But I've got doubts about the first sentence of that paragraph: "The spirit of pioneering ambition is perhaps our best features as a species." I know what the words mean, and I have half-a-hunch what you mean by the sentence, and I'm not buying it.

I live in an intellectual world where evolutionary psychology is important. I don't buy it, but I take it seriously. In THAT world your sentence is most easily read as an assertion about our biological nature. I don't think that pioneering ambition is somehow in our genes. But, for example, I'm willing to believe that an exploratory urge is in our genes, and not only ours, but in many animal species. And I'm quite willing to believe that that urge enters into the construction of pioneering ambition.

What do I mean by that, construction? As a crude analogy, think of chess. On the one hand we have the rules of the game, the 8 by 8 board, the different pieces, and the legal moves. You have to know that in order to play the game at all. Think of that as analogous to our biological nature. In order to play even a halfway decent game of chess you need to learn some tactics and strategy; those things are defined over the basic rules, but cannot be reduced to them. That's cultural evolution.

And that's where we get pioneering ambition. That takes us to your next sentence: "We only seem to get it in glimpses as you glance through history, seemingly at random as if a capricious muse bestows it on us, outside our control." But it seems to crop up most strongly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I once asked my humanist colleagues about that: When did we start thinking about the future as a time and place when things would be different from what they are now, when they would be better, and made so by effort we can undertake now? That's what they told me, late 18th century. The American Revolution started in 1776, the French Revolution a decade later. Note that the American Constitution contained a procedure for making amendments because the framers believed that the future would be different in consequential ways.

Why then? You mention the Enlightenment. Yes, but it didn't come out of nowhere. There's a history there, a lot of cultural evolution. The same with the Industrial Revolution. How are the cognitive underpinnings of those developments constructed out of the "raw stuff" of biological human nature? Hardly anyone is even asking the question. But it's the sort of thing David Hays and I gave careful thought to in elaborating our theory of cultural ranks. That's just the barest beginning but it does provide a way of thinking about how something like pioneering ambition might be constructed.

Beyond that, well, it's complicated. Walt Disney was optimistic about the future and perhaps did more to promote the idea of a technology-fueled quasi-utopian future than any other single person. You can see his vision in a short promotional film he made in 1966, a few months before he died. In that film he lays out his vision for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow (EPCOT). What actually got built as EPCOT is far less interesting. After Walt died the world that had nurtured that vision fell apart, though not because Disney died. For all sorts of reasons, some of which you mention.

We can't go back. We need to figure out a new vision (or visions) for the future. One way I have of thinking about that is something I call Kisangani 2150. Why that name? It's derived from New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson's novel about the world in 2140. It's neither utopian or dystopian. But it's believable. My idea is to take the world, more or less, run it forward 10 years and center the story in Kisangani. Why Kisangani? Because it's deep in the Congo Basin, which is a very different part of the world from New York. Also, there's literary resonance. Kisangani is the location of the Inner Station in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That, as you may recall, is where Kurtz went mad. And there's music, which I explain in the post where I first entertained the idea: Kisangani 2150, or Reconstructing Civilization on a New Model.

Basically, we have to rethink EVERYTHING. No time to waste.

Friday Fotos: Through the window

Nationalism in Online Games During War

Bilen, Eren and Doghonadze, Nino and Khubulashvili, Robizon and Smerdon, David, Nationalism in Online Games During War (May 20, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

Abstract: We investigate how international conflicts impact the behavior of hostile nationals in online games. Utilizing data from the largest online chess platform, where players can see their opponents' country flags, we observed behavioral responses based on the opponents' nationality. Specifically, there is a notable decrease in the share of games played against hostile nationals, indicating a reluctance to engage. Additionally, players show different strategic adjustments: they opt for safer opening moves and exhibit higher persistence in games, evidenced by longer game durations and fewer resignations. This study provides unique insights into the impact of geopolitical conflicts on strategic interactions in an online setting, offering contributions to further understanding human behavior during international conflicts.

Culture, Religion, and Identity: Can't We All Get Along? [Walter Benn Michaels on Diversity]

This is from the ancient days, at The Valve (now defunct). It's an extended footnote to: Politics Beyond the Personal: Diversity, Identitarian Rhetoric, and Equality.  If you take a dive into the WaybackMachine you can read this post in its original context, where it is followed by some comments.

* * * * *

Now that we're going hot and heavy on religion, I'd like to take another look at Michaels, who devotes his 6th and penultimate chapter (of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality) to “Religion in Politics: The Good News.” The news is good because, Michaels says, at last he has found something that cannot be assimilated to the identity engine.

I don't have a well-formed argument in mind. I just want to raise some issues.

Religion vs. Culture

The first issue I want to raise is a rather pedantic one about the notion of culture that Michaels has been employing throughout the book. Consider this relatively early passage in the religion chapter. (p. 174):

Like ideological affiliation but more radically, religious identity is very different from racial or cultural identity. The big selling point of cultural identity (the selling point, really of the very idea of identity) is that cultures are essentially equal. That's what makes them different from classes, since classes are essentially unequal - they involve more or less money. And it makes them different from religions too, since if Christianity tells the truth, all other religions must be false.

I find this treatment of cultures and religions as different kinds of entities to be a bit odd. The oddity isn't quite of Michaels's own making - I do believe it to be inherent in the ideas Michaels is critiquing - but it is not clear to me why Michaels takes this at face value.

I would think that most professional social scientists and humanists regard religion as itself a cultural phenomenon - at least in large part, for there is a great deal of speculation these days about possible biological roots for religion. That is to say, from the point of view of these intellectual specialists “culture” is a category that subsumes religion and so cannot be in conceptual parallel with it, as Michaels treats it. I understand that Michaels is not analyzing the concepts of professional intellectual specialists, that he is analyzing politically active concepts, but the fact that he nowhere even acknowledges this somewhat different notion of culture, not even in a footnote, bothers me.

I note that, when intellectual professionals talk of culture in this way, so that religion is a facet of culture, they are also “standing outside” not only any particular culture, but outside of all cultures. Sometimes the stance of a hypothetical Martian anthropologist is invoked in this regard. I further note that, the concept of cultural relativism was originally an epistemological and methodological one. The idea was that you can't understand another culture in terms of your own; you must understand it on its own terms. In taking this stance the intellectual professional is not, of course, called on to adjudicate the truth claims made within various cultures and stated as universal truths.

Of course, the idea that professional intellectuals can “stand outside” has been called into doubt - an issue I've touched on in my earlier piece in this Michaels-fest. If you can't stand outside, then cultural relativism makes no sense as an epistemological principle. It simply collapses into an ontological notion, that all cultures are somehow equal.

So where is Michaels standing in The Trouble with Diversity? Is he attempting to stand outside the political field he is critiquing or is he critiquing it from within? It's not clear to me what kind of issue this is, whether it matters, and how it bears on Michaels's general treatment of religion. It's all a muddle.

Belief and Practice

Then there is the question that's arisen in the discussion Adam Roberts initiated on Dawkins and Eagleton: What is the relationship between statements of belief and religious practice? This is also at issue in Alan Wolfe's review in Slate:

Nor do all religions assign the same priority to belief as evangelical Christians do; observance, for some, is more important than belief, and so long as a society allows them to keep their strict observance, they can easily live together with others of different convictions. And even those who believe that Jesus is the way have come to accept that others can find God in other ways. Since Nostra Aetate (1965), the Vatican has worked assiduously to recognize the validity of Judaism to Jews, and the great bulk of American evangelicals, for all their talk of witnessing the faith, do not routinely tell their Hindu co-workers that they will burn in hell. In a world in which intermarriage is a fact of life and switching congregations hardly worthy of notice, religious diversity is an inescapable fact, not a logical impossibility.

It does seem to me that Michaels concentrates on doctrine. Consider this long paragraph (p. 180):

The problem, then, with thinking of religious diversity on the model of cultural diversity is that it turns what should be a debate about the validity of different religious beliefs into a consensus about their equal worth and thus obscures their relevance to public policy. It's precisely religion's claim to universality that makes what Neuhaus calls “religiously based public values” matter in American public life. By public, he means first that the religious component should not be privatized; can can't think of someone's faith the way Jefferson famously did when he remarked that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” If my neighbor's belief in God involves also, say, a belief that abortion is wrong, it does and it ought to affect me. It cannot be treated as a merely private fact about him, such as the fact tht he likes Chinese food or opera. And by public, Neuhaus also means that the religious arguments made in the public or political sphere should themselves be what he calls “transsubjective.” “Public decisions,” he says, “must be made by arguments that are public in character. A public argument is transsubjective. It is not derived from sources of revelation or disposition that are essentially private and arbitrary.” Identities can be private - it really does do me no injury if my neighbor is black. Identities are not transsubjective - the things that make me who I am need not make anybody else who she is. But beliefs, Neuhaus rightly insists, are neither.

It is one thing to point out that competing claims to universal truth cannot all be true. At most, only one claim can be true, though it is quite possible that none of the competing claims is true. That is one thing.

But it is not at all clear to me, given the kinds of examples that Wolfe has given, that the question of competing truth claims is the central political question. It is an issue, certainly, but it is not clear to me that it dominates the politics of religion. What are the practical limits of peoples willingness to accommodate competing beliefs and practices? I don't think they are unbounded, nor should they be, but I don't think we can determine those limits through logical examination of doctrine.

Fear of Fundies

Finally, let us consider the specific context in which Michaels is arguing. Though he tends to make his arguments in universal terms, i.e. about truth claims of any and all religions, he isn't arguing about politics in Japan or India or Brazil or France, for example. He's concerned about politics in the United States. In that context, the religious right is the focal point of religion in politics. That religious right consists largely of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, mostly, but not entirely, Protestant.

I've got this vague impression that the fundamentalists and evangelists we (the progressive left) find so fearsome are, to some extent, a figment of our imaginations. For whatever reason, we prefer to demonize them rather than dialogue with them. This is not something I'm prepared to argue in detail, but . . .

Consider the following paragraphs from an article Malcolm Gladwell published last year:

Not long ago, the sociologist Christian Smith decided to find out what American evangelicals mean when they say that they believe in a "Christian America." The phrase seems to suggest that evangelicals intend to erode the separation of church and state. But when Smith asked a representative sample of evangelicals to explain the meaning of the phrase, the most frequent explanation was that America was founded by people who sought religious liberty and worked to establish religious freedom. The second most frequent explanation offered was that a majority of Americans of earlier generations were sincere Christians, which, as Smith points out, is empirically true. Others said what they meant by a Christian nation was that the basic laws of American government reflected Christian principles-which sounds potentially theocratic, except that when Smith asked his respondents to specify what they meant by basic laws they came up with representative government and the balance of powers.

"In other words," Smith writes, "the belief that America was once a Christian nation does not necessarily mean a commitment to making it a 'Christian' nation today, whatever that might mean. Some evangelicals do make this connection explicitly. But many discuss America's Christian heritage as a simple fact of history that they are not particularly interested in or optimistic about reclaiming. Further, some evangelicals think America never was a Christian nation; some think it still is; and others think it should not be a Christian nation, whether or not it was so in the past or is now."

As Smith explored one issue after another with the evangelicals-gender equality, education, pluralism, and politics-he found the same scattershot pattern. The Republican Party may have been adept at winning the support of evangelical voters, but that affinity appears to be as much cultural as anything; the Party has learned to speak the evangelical language. Scratch the surface, and the appearance of homogeneity and ideological consistency disappears. Evangelicals want children to have the right to pray in school, for example, and they vote for conservative Republicans who support that right. But what do they mean by prayer? The New Testament's most left-liberal text, the Lord's Prayer-which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring ("Thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven"), then welfare relief ("Give us this day our daily bread"), and then income redistribution ("Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors"). The evangelical movement isn't a movement, if you take movements to be characterized by a coherent philosophy, and that's hardly surprising when you think of the role that small groups have come to play in the evangelical religious experience. The answers that Smith got to his questions are the kind of answers you would expect from people who think most deeply about their faith and its implications on Tuesday night, or Wednesday, with five or six of their closest friends, and not Sunday morning, in the controlling hands of a pastor.

The entire article is worth reading. And you might want to take a look at some of the papers at Christian Smith's website.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Domestic matters, so colorful (& better than Pop-Tarts)

We'll know we've reached the mythical "AGI" when we can create autonomous industrial facilities on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids

Tyler Cowen recently had a conversation with Michael Nielson, which ranged all over the place, as Cowen's conversations tend to do. Here's snippet:

COWEN: You have reason to think we’re going to last a thousand years in a civilized state. Not every person dead —

NIELSEN: I think getting off planet Earth and establishing a civilization elsewhere is very, very important. Yes. Very hard for economic reasons but utterly crucial.

COWEN: Robots, in a sense, make it harder because you could send robots to Mars to do whatever might be economically useful there, means you never work hard on having humans do it.

NIELSEN: Yes, that’s true. We’re pretty curious.

COWEN: The robot will take perfect footage. Whatever is there, the robot will send back to us. You’ll have your whatever is the current version of Apple Vision Pro on. It will seem very realistic.

NIELSEN: You’re an economist. I’m a romantic, I think.


NIELSEN: Might be the difference.

COWEN: We’d have to settle them at scale, so 20 people on Mars limping along.

NIELSEN: Oh, we’re talking about a million people, not 20 people.

COWEN: If we can do a million, we can do a billion, I would think.

Perhaps we'll colonize Mars, perhaps we won't. That's not what interests me at the moment. What interests me is the possibility of creating and maintaining infrastructure, robots, and manufacturing infrastructure on Mars. Will that one day be possible? I don't know & I don't have a strong opinion either way. I note, however, that at the present we're a long way from having robots that could do all the physical tasks necessary to assemble and maintain manufacturing infrastructure. I'm thinking in particular of bottom-level locomotion and physical manipulation.

Beyond that, there's the business of managing the activity. It's all well and good that we now have LLMs that can craft fluid prose on a wide variety of subjects and are useful in writing computer code. But it will take a lot more than that to run a factory. Among other things, that will require sophisticated planning capabilities, which are currently beyond the capacities of LLMs. But I don't see any reason why we could develop that technology. LLMs are NOT the end of the technology pipeline. There's more to come.

Finally, I note that what Mars is too far away for real-time monitoring and control from earth, it's certainly possible for human operators on earth to perform various high-level analytic and planning tasks if that proves necessary. If we can create and maintain autonomous facilities on Mars, the Moon, and asteroids, that operate a decade or more without on-site human intervention, I'd say that, yes, we've achieve AGI, whatever that is. As for superintelligence, at that point, who cares?

There's been a fair amount of conceptual work on self-replicating factories. In particular, I recommend study undertaken by NASA in the summer of 1980: Replicating systems concepts: Self-replicating lunar factory and demonstration. From the Introduction:

As the cost of fossil-fuel energy continues to escalate and supplies of readily accessible high-grade ores and minerals gradually become depleted, the utilization of non- terrestrial sources of energy and materials and the develop- ment of a nonterrestrial industrial capacity become increasingly desirable. The Moon offers plentiful supplies of important minerals and has a number of advantages for manufacturing which make it an attractive candidate factory site compared to Earth. Given the expense and danger associated with the use of human workers in such a remote location, the production environment of a lunar manufac turing facility should be automated to the highest degree feasible. The facility ought also to be flexible, so that its product stream is easily modified by remote control and requires a minimum of human tending. However, sooner or later the factory must exhaust local mineral resources and fall into disrepair or become obsolete or unsuitable for changing human requirements. This will necessitate either replacement or overhaul, again requiring the presence of human construction workers with the associated high costs and physical hazards of such work.

The Replicating Systems Concepts Team proposes that this cycle of repeated construction may possibly be largely eliminated by designing the factory as an automated, multi- product, remotely controlled, reprogrammable Lunar Manufacturing Facility (LMF) capable of constructing duplicates of itself which would themselves be capable of further replication. Successive new systems need not be exact copies of the original, but could, by remote design and control, be improved, reorganized, or enlarged so as to reflect changing human requirements. Afew of the benefits of a replicative growing lunar manufacturing facility (discussed at greater length in secs. 5.4 and 5.5) include:

(1) The process of LMF design will lead to the develop- ment of highly sophisticated automated processing and assembly technologies. These could be used on Earth to further enhance human productivity and could lead to the emergence of novel forms of large-scale industrial organization and control.

(2) The self-replicating LMF can augment global industrial production without adding to the burden on Earth's limited energy and natural resources.

(3) An autonomous, growing LMF could, unaided, construct additional production machinery, thus increasing its own output capacity. By replicating, it enlarges these capabilities at an increasing rate since new production machinery as well as machines to make new machines can be constructed.

(4) The initial LMF may be viewed as the first step in a demonstration-development scenario leading to an indefinite process of automated exploration and utilization of nonterrestrial resources. (See fig. 5.1.) Replicating factories should be able to achieve a very general manufacturing capability including such products as space probes, plane- tary landers, and transportable "seed" factories for siting on the surfaces of other worlds. A major benefit of replicating systems is that they will permit extensive exploration and utilization of space without straining Earth's resources.

Read the whole thing. It'll give you a decent overview of what's required. While you're at it, read this post from 2017: Summer 1981, When I advised NASA on their computing infrastructure. That's when I learned about that NASA study and made my own contribution to the effort: An Executive Guide to the Computer Age.

Jewish Humor: “You outta try it, it’s better than ham” [All in the Family] [Media Notes 125]

From the YouTube page, in turn taken from here:

"A Perfectly Imperfect Eulogy: Archie Bunker’s best friend, Stretch Cunningham, died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and he is asked to give a eulogy. Feeling he is over his head, he enlists his son-in-law, the Meathead, to help him write the eulogy. Mike himself is an atheist, but Archie convinces him to include mentions of Jesus Christ, trying to be sensitive towards Stretch’s faith. What Archie does not know is that Stretch was Jewish.

The show, “All in the Family,” famously dealt with social issues. Racism was among the regular topics. They wrestled with black-white relations, anti-Semitism, and related concerns. But Stretch was his best friend, making it all beyond mere tolerance. He loved Stretch.

When Archie approaches the podium, he realizes his written eulogy is inappropriate and does his best to adjust. He wings it in a very Archie Bunker style.

There are layers here. All in the Family was developed and produced by Norman Lear, whose parents were of Russian-Jewish descent. It co-started Rob Reiner, son of Carl Reiner, who was a major force as an actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter in the early years of television and for years after. With that in mind, think about the name of the show, All in the Family.

All in the Family

H/t Dan Everett.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Upstairs Downstairs [not a TV show]

How to Build & Understand GPTs

This conversation runs for over three hours. I've not yet listened to the whole thing. I'm about 2 hours and 15 minutes in, and that's taken me three or four sittings. I find it interesting. Yes, it's technical, a bit out of my range. But not so far that I can't get a feel for what's going on. The opening discussion of long contexts is interesting. I'm now in the discussion of feature spaces, which is interesting as well. Here's a transcript.

(00:00:00) - Long contexts
(00:17:04) - Intelligence is just associations
(00:33:27) - Intelligence explosion & great researchers
(01:07:44) - Superposition & secret communication
(01:23:26) - Agents & true reasoning
(01:35:32) - How Sholto & Trenton got into AI research
(02:08:08) - Are feature spaces the wrong way to think about intelligence?
(02:22:04) - Will interp actually work on superhuman models
(02:45:57) - Sholto's technical challenge for the audience
(03:04:49) - Rapid fire

Here's a comment I made:

Two things, both about superposition: first a note about the brain, and then a note about linguistics.

FWIW, a bit over two decades ago I had extensive correspondence with the late Walter Freeman at Berkeley, who was one of the pioneers in the application of complexity theory to the study of the brain. He pretty much assumed that any given neuron (w/ it's 10K connections to other neurons) would participate in many perceptual or motor schemas. The fact that now and then you'd come up with neurons who had odd-ball receptive properties (e.g. a monkey's paw, or Bill Clinton) was interesting, but hardly evidence for the existence of so-called grandmother neurons (i.e. a neuron for your grandmother and, by extension, individual neurons for individual perceptual objects). As far as I can tell, the idea of neural superposition goes back decades, at least to the late 1960s when Karl Pribram and others started thinking about the brain in holographic terms.

Setting that aside, a somewhat limited form of superposition has been common in linguistics going back to the early 20th century. It's the basic idea underling the concept of distinctive features in phonetics/phonology. Speech sound is continuous, but we hear language in terms of discrete segments, called phonemes. Phonemes are analyzed in terms of distinctive features. That is, they are analyzed in terms of the sound features that distinguish one speech sound from another in a given language. The number of distinctive features in a given language system is smaller than the number of phonemes. I don't know off hand what the range is, but the number of phonemes in a language is on the order of 10s and the number of distinctive features will be somewhat smaller for a given language. So phonemes can be identified by a superposition of distinctive features.

The numbers involved are obviously way smaller than the features and parameters in an LLM. But the principle seems to be the same.

Ramble on ChatGPT, GOATLiC, Intelligence, and stuff

Once again my brain is all jammed up so I’m having trouble getting anything done. Why? Because there are these things I want to do, things I know I should do, and they keep colliding into one another whenever I attempt to actually do something. So it’s time to ramble on through to see where I am.

Report on ChatGPT

That’s still hanging over my head. I’ve been working on it since December and it’s still not done. Most of it, 90%, maybe 95%, but it’s still not done. Why haven’t I done it?

I don’t know. Maybe at this point it just bores me. But maybe I’m afraid to finish it. It’s not like that’s the last thing I’m going to do on ChatGPT. I’ve already done a fair amount of work since the cutoff point for research-to-be-included. And maybe I don’t want to finish because I know that when I’m done it will likely end up in the same bottomless pit everything else does. It’ll be out there on the internet, but who cares?

That’s always the question: Who cares?

Anyhow, I need to say something about metalingual definition of Anthropic’s idea of Constitutional AI and something about prompt engineering and barriers to entry. Alan Kay thought we made a mistake in the promulgation of computing by making everything so “user friendly” that too few people learned to program. I suspect that may have been a barrier-to-entry problem. Some professionals learned to program because it was a useful skill, though they otherwise had little interest in programming. That’s mostly in technical disciplines. For the rest of us, low-to-moderate programming skill simply didn’t get us enough to be worth the opportunity cost. Does the utility of prompt engineering change that. If all you want is to look up stuff, then the answer is “no, it isn’t.” But maybe some skill in prompt engineering might be more widely useful.

The discipline of literary criticism

I’ve been working on this thing since December as well. This is my series on the greatest literary critics (Greatest of All Time, Literary Critics, aka GOATLiC). I’m still hung up on Howard Bloom, which is where I was the last time I rambled, back in March. This time, though, I may have found a way out: Susan Sontag. I want to use her early essay, “Against Interpretation,” as a fulcrum on which to lever my treatment of Bloom.

Why? In the first place, that essay is very well known, and justly so, and it seems people are still thinking about it, a half century after it was originally published in 1964. In a way, then, it’s current, whereas I’m not sure that anything by Bloom is. In that essay, to put it crudely, she says that criticism – for she’s talking about art, film, and literature – is divided between interest in form and interest in interpretation. Interpretation is evasion and dismissal. We need to pay more attention to form. In particular (p.8):

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms.

YES, of course. That’s what I’ve been working on. And the profession may be waking up to that.

Thus, in writing, or attempting to write, an obituary for Theory and Critique (Bloom’s School of Resentment) Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski and say (from their introduction to Critique and Postcritique, 2017, p. 6):

In what might appear to be a reprise of Susan Sontag’s well-known argument in “Against Interpretation”—a stirring manifesto for an erotics rather than a hermeneutics of art—critics have questioned the value of reducing art to its political utility or philosophical premises, while offering alternative models for engaging with literary and cultural texts.

What’s this have to do with Bloom? On the one hand, as far as I can tell, he’s made no contribution a critical “erotics,” if by that one means attention to description and form. Interestingly enough, though, he wasn’t very interested in interpretation either, at least not since The Anxiety of Influence in the early 1970s. He was doing something else, something which, I need to argue, or more likely, merely assert, hasn’t proved to be very fruitful.

The other thing is that in The Western Canon, he keeps asserting that he’s doing all this in the name of “the aesthetic.” But he says next to nothing about what that is. We’d all have been off if he’d channeled his “inner Sontag,” if I may, and said explicitly just what that is and then used that as a means of examining his chosen texts. Note that I don’t mean he should have adopted Sontag’s ideas, but rather he should have adopted her mode and intellectual register and said something intelligible about the aesthetic. That would have been valuable. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he stuck us with his ex-cathedra pronouncements. 

But in the end, why should anyone care about Bloom’s pronouncements? That he’s a very smart guy, perhaps as brilliant as any literary critic of the last half-century, that’s not enough in itself. He didn’t use his brilliance in a fruitful way.

Chess, Language, and AI

Here’s another on-going project that’s left over from March’s ramble. The idea is to think about what intelligent does, where I’m interested in the processes of search and evaluation. I’m thinking of this as case studies in the operation of intelligence. The history of science, and intellectual history more generally, is full of such material. But I want to reflect on work that I’ve done for the simple reason that I have better access to records of process: What have I had to do in the course of my work? Thus I’ve just sketched out one potential post:

Seven discoveries I’ve made in literature [form]

  • Kubla Khan
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Cat and the Moon
  • Shakespeare Triad
  • Metropolis
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

We’ll see how that does.


Metalingual definition, constitutional AI, and interpretability

That’s a post about large language models that needs to be done, real soon now.

Dusk at the Center for Experimental Urban Design

The geometry of intelligence: From protein folding to language and the epistemic affordances of the transformer architecture

Fabian Offert, Paul Kim, Qiaoyu Cai, Synthesizing Proteins on the Graphics Card. Protein Folding and the Limits of Critical AI Studies, arXiv:2405.09788v1

Abstract: This paper investigates the application of the transformer architecture in protein folding, as exemplified by DeepMind’s AlphaFold project, and its implications for the understanding of large language models as models of language. The prevailing discourse often assumes a ready-made analogy between proteins – encoded as sequences of amino acids – and natural language – encoded as sequences of discrete symbols. Instead of assuming as given the linguistic structure of proteins, we critically evaluate this analogy to assess the kind of knowledge-making afforded by the transformer architecture. We first trace the analogy’s emergence and historical development, carving out the influence of structural linguistics on structural biology beginning in the mid-20th century. We then examine three often overlooked pre-processing steps essential to the transformer architecture, including subword tokenization, word embedding, and positional encoding, to demonstrate its regime of representation based on continuous, high-dimensional vector spaces, which departs from the discrete, semantically demarcated symbols of language. The successful deployment of transformers in protein folding, we argue, discloses what we consider a non-linguistic approach to token processing intrinsic to the architecture. We contend that through this non-linguistic processing, the transformer architecture carves out unique epistemological territory and produces a new class of knowledge, distinct from established domains. We contend that our search for intelligent machines has to begin with the shape, rather than the place, of intelligence. Consequently, the emerging field of critical AI studies should take methodological inspiration from the history of science in its quest to conceptualize the contributions of artificial intelligence to knowledge-making, within and beyond the domain-specific sciences.

Think of this in relation to the Structured Physical System Hypothesis (SPSH) of Saty Chary:

‘A structured physical system has the necessary and sufficient means for specific intelligent response’. By structured physical system, I mean, an analog design, e.g. a Rube Goldberg apparatus, or a Braitenberg (!) vehicle, etc. This is in contrast to this: PSSH - Physical Symbol System Hypothesis - 'A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action'.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Floating cities: The wave of the future?

The Metaverse won't work because it will be too slow for interpersonal synch

It has to do with timing lags over the internet. The auditory system is very sensitive. Adam Neely starts explaining at about 5:18, where he's talking about the difficulty of jamming with other musicians over the internet. It turns out that the speed of light is a limiting factor. Thus, he explains (5:33) that it takes almost 20 ms to travel from New York to Paris, which is ten times the 2 ms audio threshold for simultaneity. Thus musicians in New York and Paris cannot jam with one another over the internet. To do that, the musicians have to be physically close to one another to cut down the latency. He gets to the Metaverse at 6:33.

Robo-boss's open door policy

Innovation rate and population structure moderate the effect of population size on cumulative technological culture.

Bluet, A., Osiurak, F. & Reynaud, E. Innovation rate and population structure moderate the effect of population size on cumulative technological culture. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 11, 649 (2024).

Abstract: Cumulative technological culture is defined as the increase in efficiency and complexity of tools and techniques over generations that allowed humans to conquer the whole Earth. While one part of the puzzling ability of humans to develop such a form of culture lies in their cognitive capacities giving rise to reliable transmission of information, another lies in the impact of demographic factors. Indeed, many studies have examined the impact of population size, innovation rate and population structure on cumulative technological culture. Here, we present a computational model based on a previous model of micro-society that we extended to study the impact of population size and the influence of innovations on cumulative technological culture. Our results showed that population size exhibits an influence on cumulative technological culture, principally in small-scale populations. Additionally, the model suggests that the innovation rate constrains cumulative technological culture and the importance of population size. Indeed, when innovations are frequent, the impact of population size is diminished. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that individuals rely more on themselves than on others to innovate in earlier generations as well as in small populations. However, when populations grow as well as in later stages of evolution, reliance on innovation from others increases. Overall, these results indicate that population size has a limited impact on cumulative technological culture and that other demographic factors such as innovation rate could offer a viable alternative explanation for archeological records.

In the studio of your robo boss

Is there a robo-boss in your future?

David Streitfeld, If A.I. Can Do Your Job, Maybe It Can Also Replace Your C.E.O., NYTimes, May 28, 2024. The opening paragraphs:

As artificial intelligence programs shake up the office, potentially making millions of jobs obsolete, one group of perpetually stressed workers seems especially vulnerable.

These employees analyze new markets and discern trends, both tasks a computer could do more efficiently. They spend much of their time communicating with colleagues, a laborious activity that is being automated with voice and image generators. Sometimes they must make difficult decisions — and who is better at being dispassionate than a machine?

Finally, these jobs are very well paid, which means the cost savings of eliminating them is considerable.

The chief executive is increasingly imperiled by A.I., just like the writer of news releases and the customer service representative. Dark factories, which are entirely automated, may soon have a counterpart at the top of the corporation: dark suites.

This is not just a prediction. A few successful companies have begun to publicly experiment with the notion of an A.I. leader, even if at the moment it might largely be a branding exercise.

Can executive functions be automated by an A.I.?

EdX, the online learning platform created by administrators at Harvard and M.I.T. that is now a part of publicly traded 2U Inc., surveyed hundreds of chief executives and other executives last summer about the issue. Respondents were invited to take part and given what edX called “a small monetary incentive” to do so.

The response was striking. Nearly half — 47 percent — of the executives surveyed said they believed “most” or “all” of the chief executive role should be completely automated or replaced by A.I. Even executives believe executives are superfluous in the late digital age.

Tan Yu, robo-boss?

The Chinese online game company NetDragon Websoft, which has 5,000 employees, appointed what it calls an “A.I.-driven rotating C.E.O.” named Tang Yu in 2022. “We believe A.I. is the future of corporate management,” said the company’s founder, Dejian Liu, adding that it was part of NetDragon’s move into the “metaverse-based working community.”

Tang Yu, who is personified as a woman, does not appear on an online chart of NetDragon’s management team, but the company announced last month that she had won “the coveted title of ‘China’s Best Virtual Employee of the Year’” at the China Digital Human Industry Forum. Another executive picked up the award for her. NetDragon’s A.I. employee team is in charge of performance evaluations and mentoring, among other duties, the company says.

There's more at the link.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Shadow over the crosswalk on a January morning

Five epochs of energy and evolution

Bumped to the head of the queue because it is relevant to my idea that the (possibly local) universe has seen three arenas  – matter, life, and culture – so far and may be on the cusp of birthing a fourth or as yet indeterminate nature.
* * * * *
Olivia P. Judson, The energy expansions of evolution, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0138 (2017)

Abstract: The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Free energy is a universal requirement for life. It drives mechanical motion and chemical reactions—which in biology can change a cell or an organism1,2. Over the course of Earth history, the harnessing of free energy by organisms has had a dramatic impact on the planetary environment3,​4,​5,​6,​7. Yet the variety of free-energy sources available to living organisms has expanded over time. These expansions are consequences of events in the evolution of life, and they have mediated the transformation of the planet from an anoxic world that could support only microbial life, to one that boasts the rich geology and diversity of life present today. Here, I review these energy expansions, discuss how they map onto the biological and geological development of Earth, and consider what this could mean for the trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Here's some cream for your coffee

How the US manufactured 300K airplanes for WWII in five years

Brian Potter, How to Build 300,000 Airplanes in Five Years, Construction Physics, May 23, 2024. This is a long and fascinating article. I'm not going to attempt to summarize it or excerpt the whole thing. But I'll give you two excerpts. The first is about production volume:

Prior to the war, aircraft were produced using small scale, job-shop type manufacturing methods: Individual aircraft were assembled in place piece by piece, largely by hand, not unlike the way cars had been built prior to Ford’s Model T. It was a slow, expensive, and labor-intensive process: On a per-pound basis, it cost about 30 to 40 times as much to build an aircraft than it did a car. And while the auto industry produced 1,500 times the number of cars as the aircraft industry did planes, it did so with just eight times as many workers. In other words, it took almost 200 times as many workers to build an aircraft as it did a car.

In part this was due to the comparatively small volumes of aircraft being built, which precluded the use of capital-intensive manufacturing methods with high upfront costs but low unit costs. But it was also due to the unique challenges of aircraft themselves, which made adopting efficient mass production methods difficult. For one, aircraft were far more complex than other mass-produced goods. While a car had around 5,000 parts, a B-25 bomber had around 165,000, not including the tens of thousands of parts in the engines, instruments, and other equipment, or the 150,000 rivets needed to stitch the plane together. And the performance requirements for aircraft were much higher: An aircraft piston engine, for instance, was much more powerful, much lighter per horsepower, and was pushed much harder than a car engine. A 1930s-era Ford V8 could generate about 85 horsepower, while aircraft engines generated 1,000 to 2,000 horsepower, and a car engine weighed about 6.9 pounds for every horsepower it generated, compared to 1 to 2 pounds for an aircraft engine. And while a car engine rarely exceeded 22% of its maximum power, an aircraft engine regularly ran at maximum power, or even above maximum power.

This meant that aircraft manufacturing had much tighter production tolerances than car manufacturing, and much more machining was required to make parts as light as possible. It also meant using lightweight materials like aluminum sheets and magnesium castings that other manufacturers had limited experience using. Meeting these strict tolerances required greater control over the production environment: Aircraft engine factories were air conditioned to minimize heat fluctuations and kept at constant 50% humidity to minimize surface rust.

Ensuring aircraft would meet their demanding performance standards also required much more inspection than other types of manufacturing. An aircraft engine and its constituent parts might undergo 70,000 inspections during the manufacturing process. When Ford engineers visited a Pratt & Whitney factory to learn about aircraft engine manufacturing, they initially thought the job “looked easy” and that the quality and precision requirements were excessive, but as they studied the engines, their performance requirements, and the need for reliability, they changed their minds. At a Ford aircraft engine plant that eventually employed around 15,500 workers, 3,000 of them were inspectors.

Here's three paragraphs on design drawings:

Even the seemingly simple task of assembling a complete set of drawings and parts list for an aircraft to be built proved monumentally difficult. When Ford first began work to produce the B-24, it found that drawings only existed for about 80% of the aircraft, and the ones that did exist had numerous inconsistencies. Ford ultimately redid the entire set of drawings, turning the original 7,500 drawings into more than 20,000 that could be more easily understood by workers inexperienced in aircraft manufacturing. Similar efforts were required by nearly every airframe manufacturer as they scaled up operations and transferred their designs to other companies.

One of the reasons for this poor state of production control, and another difference between aircraft manufacturing and other types of manufacturing, was that aircraft designs were constantly changing. With conventional manufacturing, design of the factory took place once designs were “frozen” and no more major changes to the design would take place. Mass-production factories achieved their high efficiencies by having carefully arranged and timed flows of material, which would be disrupted by major design changes that might require new tools, different parts, and changed material routing.

But while attempts were made to “freeze” aircraft designs to make manufacturing easier, ultimately this proved infeasible. Designs had to be constantly improved to address deficiencies, improve performance, and deliver aircraft that were capable of overcoming the enemy. Engines were upgraded to be more powerful, parts that were found to fail frequently were redesigned, and new guns and other equipment was installed.

There's much more at the link.

Pop-Tart, partially eaten

Sterling K. Brown takes the Hot Ones challenge [Media Notes 124]

From the YouTube page:

Sterling K. Brown is an Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe Award–winning actor you know from beloved TV and film projects like This Is Us and Black Panther. He's also got a pair of acclaimed films this year—Biosphere, out now on AMC+, and the Cord Jefferson–directed satirical drama, American Fiction, coming in December. But how is he with spicy food? Find out as the veteran thespian takes on the wings of death and discusses on-screen deaths, the G.O.A.T. football movies, and his enduring love of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare sonnet starts at roughly 21:03.

Think about the crazy-ass network of historical contingencies that stretch from, say the first publication of that sonnet in 1609 to November 30, 2023, when Brown recited that sonnet after having eaten a progressively hotter raft of ten chicken wings with hot sauce. FWIW I was in graduate school in Buffalo in the mid-1970s about a decade after Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar got Buffalo-style hot wings started. But it would be a while before they became a national phenomenon.

I suppose we could follow one line of causality that runs from Shakespeare up through whenever Sterling Brown read those sonnets and memorized that one. Then we can follow another line that leads from that moment to Brown being on the Hot Ones podcast. There’s another line of causality the eventuates in the invention of Buffalo Wings in 1964 and then leads to the first Hot Ones podcast, whenever that was back in 2015. These lines of causality meet up when Brown is one the show. Now, was the sonnet recitation planned from the beginning? Did Brown know it was coming? Who knows.

Here's an earlier post about Hot Ones, with clips of Cate Blanchett and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Pop-Tarts on the waterfront

How Legal Twitter (RIP) became a source of legal talent and eventually filed suit against Elon

John Leland, How a Profane Joke on Twitter Spawned a Legal Army, NYTimes, May 26, 2024.

This is a fascinating story about what was once Legal Twitter (now dispersed under the Musk dispensation) became a focused source of legal talent I've collected a few passages. It begins with Akiva Cohen, a New York trial lawyer who liked to hang out on Legal Twitter.

How it began in confluence of different cultures:

Posts about legal cases on Twitter, which is now called X, typically draw little participation from non-lawyers. Mr. Mignogna’s case was something different.

“It triggered this avalanche of people who were fans of Vic Mignogna, who came in looking to defend Vic’s honor,” Mr. Cohen said. Some waged harassment and threat campaigns against Mr. Mignogna’s accusers and other women who had criticized him.

Mr. Cohen, joined by other lawyers on the thread, started to gleefully dismantle Mr. Beard’s legal arguments, sniping alternately at him, Mr. Mignogna and Mr. Mignogna’s supporters. “And it just sort of exploded from there,” Mr. Cohen said.

Comments on the thread piled up — a thousand, two thousand, five thousand. One lawyer claimed his cellphone got so many notifications that it thawed a frozen burrito in his briefcase.

Someone decided the thread needed a name. Thus was christened the Threadnought.

“It was kind of at the intersection of different cultures,” said Ken White, a California lawyer and titan of legal Twitter who posts as PopeHat. “You’ve got the anime culture, and then you’ve got this online troll culture, and then you’ve got law Twitter culture. And they intersected with spectacular results.”

Kathryn Tewson:

One of the Threadnought’s fiercest voices belonged to Kathryn Tewson, a self-described “unemployed housewife,” with no legal training but a gift for argument. She had her own reasons for jumping on the thread.

“I don’t like bullies and I don’t like fraud,” she said from her home outside Seattle. “I saw a bunch of people harassing and bullying the women who were the target of this lawsuit. And that just did not sit well with me.”

Ms. Tewson, 49, entered the fray with undisguised relish.

“I love fighting on the internet,” she said, almost chuckling. “I have loved fighting on the internet almost since there was an internet to fight on.” [...]

Ms. Tewson started to privately question Mr. Cohen and another lawyer, Dylan Schmeyer, about defamation law, so she could make better arguments. Mr. Cohen was impressed.

“She was astoundingly quick to pick up and understand legal concepts, ferociously curious and intelligent, quick on her feet and good with words, and excellent at asking the right questions — over and over and over again,” Mr. Cohen said. On the thread he tweeted: “Kathryn, are you sure you don’t want to go to law school so I can hire you?”

One problem: She did not have a college degree. “So Akiva said, ‘Would you go to paralegal school?’” she recalled. Mr. Cohen told her that when she finished, he would either hire her or make sure someone else did.

So she went.

She became his second hire. Realizing that

amid the trash talk and snark, the Threadnought offered a rare look into how other lawyers’ minds worked, how they broke down cases or constructed arguments. It was much more revealing, he figured, than looking at a lawyer’s résumé or law school background. Plus, he saw that they cared enough to do this analysis for free, in their spare time.

His first was Dylan Schmeyer in Colorado. There was no intention to build a virtual litigation team, but in time, that's what happened. The Mignogna suit was eventually dismissed and the Threadnought lawyers turned their attention to suits stemming from the 2020 presidential election, producing what became known as the Litigation Disaster Tours.

One reader of these Disaster threads was Don McGowan, who was the general counsel for Bungie, a video game company based near Seattle.

Bungie had a problem. People were selling software that enabled players to cheat at the company’s popular game Destiny 2, which ruined the game for those who chose to play by the rules. Bungie wanted to sue. The cases would require a lawyer who could explain technical details in terms a jury could understand.

Mr. McGowan thought Mr. Cohen’s Twitter dissections did just that. “I said, ‘Wow, if he’s this able to make this nonsense comprehensible, he must be so good in front of a jury,’” Mr. McGowan said. He retained Mr. Cohen to handle the case.

Mr. Cohen’s reaction: “‘You’re joking, right?’ Like, that’s not a thing that happens.”

In the Bungie case, the lawyers applied a novel use of federal racketeering law. They won a $16 million judgment and established that sellers of cheat codes could be criminally prosecuted for copyright infringement and money laundering. It brought them attention and more business.

With the added case work, Mr. Cohen needed another lawyer. Again he turned to the people he had met through Twitter. Mike Dunford, a Threadnought regular, was finishing a Ph.D. program in copyright law and planning to enter academia. Like Mr. Schmeyer, he had virtually no legal experience — in fact, no interest in practicing law. But he knew a lot about intellectual property and copyright law, areas where Mr. Cohen was getting work. [...]

Mr. Cohen, who before the Threadnought had barely enough cases to keep himself busy, soon expanded his team to six lawyers and three support staff members — all working virtually; all but one he had met through Twitter.

It was a ridiculous way to build a litigation team. But it made a kind of sense, said David Lat, who founded the legal website Above the Law and now writes the newsletter Original Jurisdiction.

“On the one hand, a lot of people would think you’re just hiring a bunch of randos you met online,” Mr. Lat said. “On the other hand, what he has been doing is weirdly meritocratic. Instead of hiring people based on where they went to law school, which is how a lot of legal hiring is done, he’s hiring based on seeing how people think and write in real time and under pressure. I think it’s gutsy, but it seems to be working for him.”

Meanwhile, Elon Musk and purchased Twitter and dismissed many employees. Many complained that they were getting proper severance pay. Lauren Pringle, a legal journalist who edits Chancery Daily, knew some of these people and sent them to Cohen and Tewson.

Soon, Mr. Cohen and his small team, all scattered around the country — in Hawaii, Colorado, Washington State, Long Island — were representing more than 200 former Twitter employees in two lawsuits and arbitration. The cases involved mountains of work against an adversary with seemingly bottomless resources, with no money coming in unless or until they prevail.

Those cases are ongoing. And, as a result of Twitter's transformation into X, Legal Twitter is no more.

You should read the whole thing.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Is “Kind of Blue” the greatest jazz album ever?

That’s been said. But, while I love the album, I find the idea that there is some GOAT (greatest of all time) jazz album to be empty. Ted Gioia discusses Kind of Blue in the following video. It’s excellent and illuminating discussion. He’s got his doubts about the idea of it being the greatest.

Early in his remarks, Gioia notes that it is often recommended to people as the first album they should listen to if they want to get into jazz, and the first album they should buy. I think that’s a much more interesting issue, and one that doesn’t depend on believing that Kind of Blue is the best album ever.

One thing Gioia does mention, is that it is a well-recorded album. That’s a superficial consideration, but very real. He points out that much excellent jazz was recorded before the advent of high fidelity recording and that some of the best jazz musicians were never recorded in high fidelity, e.g. Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown. I agree. When I first started listening to jazz I started with high fidelity recordings and found older recordings, such as Louis Armstrong, a bit difficult to get into because of the sound quality.

But that’s a superficial issue. A more important issue is the nature of the music itself. Kind of Blue is modal jazz, jazz that is based on scales, not on often complex harmonic progressions. That’s much easier for beginners to grasp that bebop or swing, where you have to be able to parse the harmonic structure in order to grasp the improvisation. If you can begin making sense of improvised lines in modal jazz, that will make it easier to deal with improvisation over complex harmonic structures. Thus Kind of Blue is a good starting point for exploring other styles.

That’s what makes it such an important album in the jazz canon. It’s centrally located within the universe of jazz styles. Gioia gets at this indirectly when he points out that the musicians on the album – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans – had different stylistic leanings. Kind of Blue thus becomes a meeting point for stylistic diversity.