America is a Choice

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It’s been two years since I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize, and I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with what that means.  I suspect that won’t be ending any time soon.

Over the course of this administration, my social media feeds have been peppered with reactions to outrages that were virtually unimaginable (in my bubble) before — an accelerating dash toward authoritarian or even dystopian policies and attitudes: Endorsing political violence.  Calling for imprisonment without trial or even evidence.  Designating a free press “the enemy of the people”.  Caging children.  

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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.

Lunacon 2014 (2): Saturday

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Even though Lunacon is over, I’m going to keep writing up my notes and impressions, if only to keep writing in general.

Saturday was the busiest day of the con, and it certainly showed in my personal programming grid.  I faced the typical con paradox:  Too many good panels all at the same time.  I ended up at the following:

Marc Cohn @ The City Winery, 2012 Jan 26

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{This has apparently been sitting in my Drafts folder for four years.  Oops.  I never finished it, so it ends abruptly. -=-BLG}

It’s been a while (a real long while) since I’ve gotten to a Marc Cohn show, but this one was worth it.  He played the City Winery, which is an odd hybrid of concert space, fine dining, boutique winery, and microbrewery.  I ordered my ticket early and got a really good seat at the last row of tables on the floor, just before the risers to a second tier.  And I snagged one that faced the stage (as about half of them face away), saving myself a tremendous crick in my neck.

I arrived well early so as to get dinner ordered and done before the show.  The food selection is a bit limited though it seemed like there was lots of good stuff on the menu.  I got a flatbread pizza and finished with an order of house-made pretzels that somehow or another are made from the house wine.  I don’t really get how that works.  The pretzels were fine (crunchy and mostly unsalted, which actually is what I wanted).   Since I don’t drink, I can’t speak to the wines.

On riots, protests, and the legitimacy of violence (short)

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For everyone who has counseled the citizens of Baltimore (and Ferguson and…) that “violence is not the answer” and that it would be better if everyone just protested peacefully:

1) As has now been documented extensively, the protests were by and large peaceful — and even more by and large, ignored by the national media.

2) Violence certainly is an  answer — and one which history shows can be quite effective in prompting change.  See for proof the French Revolution, or the American Revolution, for that matter.  Of course violence is a random and uncontrolled beast, and the odds are that the reaction it prompts will not be the outcome desired… but usually, something will change.  For people who’ve spent their whole lives trapped in a system crushing them without end, any change might be welcome, at least at first.

Would you prefer peaceful protest to violent outbursts?  Would you see people advocate for the redress of grievances without resorting to threats or damage to property or even lives?  Then address the systemic evils, the in-built hardships and unspoken oppressions, the things done not through active racist thought but through the far worse passive racist without-thought.  You want people to respect the police?  Then demand that the police behave respectably.  You want your cities to be bastions of peace?  Then save them from being cauldrons of hopelessness.

Above all, if you want this problem to “just go away”, pay attention to it — and for love of all that is true, pay attention even when the fires have gone out and the windows have been repaired and the next big distraction comes down the tube.  This problem has been centuries in the making and we’ve squandered five decades or more in addressing it — it won’t ever go away until we finally put it away.

What explains the waning influence of research blaming black poverty on black culture

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Vox has an article purporting to explore “The real reason research blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”.  And it’s fine so far as it goes, but it still dances around the reality.

Why has “blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”? Because the same dire straits and dead-end traits show up among the non-college-educated White population: increased parental absenteeism, increased substance abuse, socioeconomic lock. Since it would obviously be crazy to deduce that these problems are intrinsic to White culture, it’s no longer fashionable to assign a genetic driver to them. In reality of course, the actual lesson is: Take away good-paying jobs and educational opportunity, and — shocker! — families and communities feel stressed, leading to more disorder.

http://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8253495/moynihan-report-liberal-backlash