Agents of SHIELD meets its “End”

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It took only a week for me to catch the Season 5 finale of Agents of SHIELD, fittingly called “The End”. It was pretty fantastic, actually, even if it barely tied into the Avengers flick. Agents of SHIELD has been the little show that could, toiling away while the MCU bounces from spectacle to spectacle.
Spoilers, of course.

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The best thing about The Last Jedi

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I finally got to see The Last Jedi (after two previous failed attempts, both amazingly sold out afternoon shows, a month after the premier).  I liked it a lot.  My personal rankings of the “main” Star Wars movies is now something like

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars (A New Hope)
  3. The Force Awakens
  4. The Last Jedi
  5. The Return of the Jedi
  6. The Revenge of the Sith
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. The Attack of the Clones

But there was something that really stands out.  Spoilers ahead!

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The power of the dark side

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No, this is not a political post.  🙂

I absolutely tore through the omnibus Kindle editions of the Darth Vader comic (one of several in the rebooted Marvel line).  I guess it really paid off for Amazon to make Volume 1 free to Prime members because it hooked me fast.  I ended up buying Volumes 2 through 4 as well as the crossover event Vader Down.  Combined, they cost me about what a standard novel would, and they were well worth the money.

Oh, spoilers below.

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Facetious blueprint

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An AI researcher (Kai-Fu Lee) has written an article (“A Blueprint for Coexistence with Artificial Intelligence“) that fails at its own goal, spectacularly.  He assures us we need not end up in the dystopias so common in movies and literature.  And I wanted to his assurances to be convincing, because I happen to feel the same way.  But they aren’t, because he (deliberately, I say) pulls a bait-and-switch, and so doesn’t attend to the actual matter of interest.

Lee dwells on narrow AI, good for using deep learning to achieve one task (say, winning at Go).   He is breezily dismissive of general AI, machine learning that can learn new tasks.  It’s not here (he says, correctly) and it’s not close (he asserts, with little basis).  I have to assume that, as a research in AI, he is aware of the history of the field, with its fits and starts and sudden, unexpected breath-taking leaps of innovation.  Is it guaranteed that we will get generalized AI within a century?  Of course not — but I don’t think the smart money bets against.

Restricting himself to narrow AI, Lee obviates the import of his article.  No one is worried that AlphaGo is going to take over the world.  And it was the MCP‘s chess-playing origins that made it a threat.  The AI people fear — the AI we have to worry about coexisting with — is the AI that can think as well as and as broadly as a human … or better.

To be fair, Lee correctly notes the actual threats that narrow AI poses for our economy.  Lots of people are going to find themselves replaced by machines that perform their jobs more quickly, more surely, and more cheaply.  It’s not in any way obvious that those jobs will be replaced, the way that jobs lost in the Industrial Revolution were replaced.  We’re not swapping out muscles; we’re swapping out minds.  For the past two centuries, industry has paid an increasing premium on renting the supercomputer in your skull.  If actual supercomputers can outperform your brain, it’s not clear what economic asset of value you’ll have left.

Lee’s “blueprint” revolves on that.  He calls for an economy that recognizes the (so-far) unique capacity of the human mind for love.  And he might be right.  Surely we will need to find some other asset, and our computational capacity will not be it.  Narrow AI, tailored to narrow goals, will never threaten human dominance in that arena.

But general AI is coming, probably sooner than Lee thinks, and there is no good reason to assume that emotions will remain forever outside its ken.  After all, emotions served some evolutionary purpose for us.

Looking for hive mind help on a course

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Actually, on two courses.  The school I’m at (Newark Academy) ends the year with a nine-day “June Term”, wherein students take one class for six hours a day.  June Term classes are supposed to be experiential and rigorous, and maybe a bit weird.  All teachers are supposed to suggest courses; I made three idea proposals and the committee liked two of them.

Now I have to formalize my thinking and write an actual proposal for each.  I’m still (as of 2017 July) in the spitballing stage and thought I could benefit from some outside input.  If you have the time and interest, please follow this link to a Google doc where you can share your thoughts.  (NB: It’s an open edit document so please be civil to one another!)  I am particularly interested in ideas for field trips and for how to organize six-hour days when it can’t be lecture-and-response.

The two courses, by the way, are The End of the World as We Know It: A scientific approach to catastrophe and Seven Days Plus Two: The Art and Science of World Building in Fiction.  The first will be a modified form of a course I ran at Hun, but I think it will need a fair bit of work.

Unintended ironies

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A GOP Congressman (Clay Higgins, LA) decided to film a selfie movie in the gas chamber at Auschwitz (no, really), in which he tells constituents that the horrors really spoke to him:

“A great sense of dread comes over you in this place,” Higgins says, leading the viewer on a five-minute, nine-second tour of the site, with a dirge-like solo violin playing in the background. “Man’s inhumanity to man can be quite shocking.”

So far, so good.  It’s hard to argue with that.  I watched the entire five minutes and am glad I did, because I was ready to ridicule him for glibly appropriating the Holocaust to make a political point.  That was unfair.  He is appropriately somber, even horrified, and he makes no attempt to make light of or dismiss the enormity of what happened there.

But the lesson he takes away is not that we all have an obligation to each other, that evil arises anywhere and must be resisted everywhere, or that the world must not stand silent and willfully blinded while horrors unfold.  No, he thinks somehow that Auschwitz reinforces his own jingoistic isolationist slant on things.  He thinks that we must wall ourselves off, lock ourselves away, and fear outsiders (all outsiders) as morally equivalent and morally suspect, even dangerous:

“This is why homeland security must be squared away, why our military must be invincible,” says Higgins, a former law enforcement officer who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. “The world’s a smaller place now than it was in World War II. The United States is more accessible to terror like this, horror like this.

Somehow, in five minutes, he can’t quite bring himself to say that the victims were Jews, and that they were victims because they were Jews — that they were the targets of unreasoned, dehumanizing, state-sponsored fear and hate.  That they had been painted by a broad brush as dangerous, subversive, and threatening, blamed for all the woes of a drifting nation in the throes of economic and demographic change … and that many of them were not snatched from abroad but were victimized by the country of which they were citizens.

The lesson of Auschwitz, or at least one of them, must be this: It’s not about “keep that evil out”.  It’s about “It must never happen here”.  We mustn’t fool ourselves that we, or anyone, are intrinsically immune to the cancer of spirit that led here.  The camps were not built by disenfranchised, diffuse foreign hordes but by one of the preeminent powers and cultures of Europe.  It’s likely that many of the victims he laments found their way to safety barred by an America too focused on its “homeland security” to allow anyone past the golden lamp.

So, unexpectedly, I respect the emotion that this man clearly felt, the horror and even perhaps empathy for the victims of the Holocaust.  But I think these chambers stand as a stark challenge to his philosophy, not as an endorsement of it.

 

I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize

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I am stunned.  Although I spent the last week cautioning people from assuming a Clinton victory, although I told myself it’s never over until the ballots are cast, I realize now that I never actually entertained the possibility of a Trump victory.  I had too much faith in the basic decency of the American people, in the strength of our institutions, in the essential goodness of the American experiment.  I understand now that I was naïve.

It is possibly the only thing I understand.

I haven’t seen exit polls or autopsies.  I have not read commentary or watched spin.  Right now I am working from the barest electoral facts, which is a majority in the electoral college and a majority of the popular vote.  I have no intellectual escape route: For this result to be announced, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere among something I thought I understood.  I don’t believe that widespread electoral fraud is feasible.  I don’t believe that polling so consistent can be consistently wrong together.  And I don’t believe that the American people would elect to the highest office a buffoon who is open about his racism, misogyny, and narcissism.  But at least one of those things has happened.

Very soon – already, I suspect – there will begin the quadrennial nodding of heads and reading of bones to discern the “true America”.  We’ll hear the lessons people should learn from this – what Clinton did wrong, what Trump got right.  It will take only a day or so for this to crystallize into paeans about the wisdom of the American voter, where the consensus is that Democrats moved too far too fast for a country not ready for the change.  This victory will become, in hindsight, inevitable.  And the cycle of bullshit will begin again.

But it will be a darker time.  We just held an election that, more than ever before in my lifetime, offered two stark choices:  The America of the future, or the America of the past.  We had a chance to move past our history, to begin a new covenant that recognizes how our country is changing and celebrates that change, that preserves core American values while accepting new circumstances, that would fashion itself into a beacon for the 21st century.  And we had the opportunity to plug our fingers in our ears, scream loudly, and stamp our feet demanding that we somehow travel back to a mythical time that never existed, an America of the past – a time where vast swaths of the population suffered routine indignities and oppression for the crime of being different, when people knew their place and were slapped down for thinking about leaving it, when the accidents of your birth mattered more than the content of your character.

We were engaged in a battle for the soul of America.  And the good guys lost.

I don’t know what’s coming next.  I have one foot over the abyss and am trying right now just to regain my balance.  This election has taught me that I do not really understand my nation or its people the way I thought I did, and the way ahead is shrouded.  But I do know history.  I know that it never ends well when a people chooses an erratic self-absorbed, willfully ignorant, and simply hate-filled leader.  I know that it never ends well when a nation decides to scapegoat a fraction of its population to avoid demographic fact.  I know that it never ends well when an aging power becomes aware of the fragility of its status and turns inward to root out the supposed enemies sapping its vitality.  We’ve seen this play before.

And perhaps that’s the core of my anger and disappointment.  Our grand experiment to transcend history, to do better, to be better than what came for … that lies broken on the floor.  We are just as scared, as easily manipulated, as damaged as anyone else.  We can be swayed by empty slogans and schoolyard bullying and adolescent appeals.  Despite falling in line with fevered calls to recognize American exceptionalism, the electorate has rendered America ordinary.  I wasn’t prepared for that.

I hope I will never accept it.

 

In which Dinesh D’Souza proves he doesn’t know the difference between past tense and present tense.

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(written in response to an insipid Facebook post by the -- thankfully -- inimitable Dinesh D'Souza, showing the idiotic comic copied above)
“Is” is not the same as “was”.
 
But, hey, what would you expect from a hack?
 
I think it’s actually hilarious that defenders of the modern GOP think they can win arguments by brining up what the Republican Party was before the Southern Strategy. Sure, the GOP used to have moderates and even progressives in it, and sure, the GOP of the 1860s took some bold stands on racial equality. Moreover, the Democratic Party was home to racists, segregationists, and secessionists.
 
Oops, there’s that key word again…”was“. Starting in the middle of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party began to take a more progressive stand and to drive out the racists, segregationists, and secessionists. Luckily for those outcasts, the other major party — that would be the Republican Party, if you’re having trouble keeping track — decided that, to score cheap electoral victory, it would happily become the new home for racists, segregationists, and secessionists. It banked on exploiting the fears and prejudices of the White majority because electoral success looked easier that way. Of course, you can’t spend 40 years pandering to the lowest ugly factors of human nature without eventually becoming tainted by them and transforming into the beast you thought you were controlling.  So here we are today, with Donald Trump nothing more than the unfiltered id of the raw sewer of racial entitlement and resentment that Richard Nixon, Kevin Phillips, and Lee Atwater tapped into.
It must be conceded that “The Democratic Party opposed integration and Civil Rights for over 100 years”.  That puts the end of their opposition to, hmmm, let’s see, carry the one… oh, yeah, the 1960s.  Meanwhile, the Republican Party embraces racist attitudes and policies today — not fifty years ago, but today.  Really, which one are we supposed to cheer?  Proving once again that Dinesh D’Souza is an idiot.
I am actually quite proud of the fact that I was disdaining Dinesh D’Souza back in the late 1980s, before he was a national disgrace and a widely-known joke.

Three thoughts on the FBI’s bite at the Apple

I had three thoughts after reading about the brewing conflict between Apple and the FBI.

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I read a primer in Vox on the developing fight between Apple Computer and the FBI, and it spurred three distinct thoughts in me.

The basic contention is whether Apple should be forced to disable a security feature on the phone of the San Bernadino shooter, so that the FBI can brute-force the phone without fear of it nuking itself after some number of bad guesses (10, I think, but I’m not sure).

Firstly, the author includes the line

The concern is that the government is trying to take advantage of a particularly odious defendant to set a precedent that could have much broader implications.

Well, duh.  The defendants in all important civil liberties cases look like terrible people, because those are the people the state most egregiously assaults.

Secondly, there’s a thing I don’t understand, and would love to hear from someone who knows:  To change the behavior, it seems to me, Apple would have to craft a special iOS update.  But after that, the crippled update would have to be installed.  Won’t it require knowing the passcode for that to happen?  Can Apple force an update down the pipe even to phones that are locked?  It seems to me that the request of the FBI is not only odious and an offense to the safety of citizens.  It might also be technically impossible.

Thirdly, I am a little disappointed — assuming what I’m about to say is actually true — that the NSA or other competent agency doesn’t have the capacity to read out the non-volatile memory non-destructively somehow.  They could then run an iPhone simulator with the copied data and brute-force it.  Every time it froze or self-erased, the agency could just reboot the simulator and try again.  This would take time but then you wouldn’t need any sort of help from Apple.

Or maybe the NSA doesn’t want to admit to having such a capacity.  🙂