Health of the Republic politics technology

FB Recap: Social Media and the Body Politic

originally posted on Facebook on 2018 March 25

Here’s the thing. This week we’ve learned about massive breaches of trust and the evils that the superconnected Internet can bring. But we’ve also seen truly inspiring and uplifting photos that speak to real change — and not only would we never have seen these pictures without social media, the protests and rallies would never have HAPPENED without social media.

Is social media going to save the world? Probably not. Is it going to destroy the world? Probably not.

A sense of history is in order here: After the fascist triumphs of the 1930s, there was a lot of ink spilled about the evils of radio, used by those fascists to whip up the populace. After imbroglios like the Spanish-American War, there was much angst over the power of newspapers. It didn’t take long for the printing press to be decried as the devil’s work.

You know what the common thread was? Some bad actor early adopters managed to grasp the potential of the new medium and used it to spike a fever in the body politic. Then, the body politic developed antibodies — the new and brazen became known and boring, and got worked into the usual order of things. I feel that’s where we are now. So #deleteFacebook if you think it’s important or if the bargain you’ve made with Zuckerberg no longer matches your priorities. But whether you give up or not, social media is now part of our ecosystems … and I honestly believe, that’s not in the end a bad thing.

personal philosophy technology

Facetious blueprint

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.

science science fiction teaching technology

Looking for hive mind help on a course

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.

review science fiction technology

Review: Agents of SHIELD season finale

I caught up on the end of the season for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.  (Yes, it’s that time of summer when I get to catch up on the shows I missed.)  The first season ended with the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when the entire Marvel universe was scrambled.  Could Season Two match it?

Short answer: Surprisingly, yes.  Spoilers ho.

personal ramblings technology

Miracles and Wonder

2013-08-14 15.04.38 I just received the Kingston 64 GB USB flash drive shown above.  It holds (duh) 64 gigabytes of data.  I’ve included a US quarter for size comparisons. My first computer was a Commodore-64, for which I had the venerable C1541 floppy disk drive. That used 5.25″ floppy disks — which were actually floppy, you could bend them (though that was not advised!) — and could cram as much as 165 kB onto each one. Yes, that’s kilobytes. This means that, to hold the same amount as the flash drive, I would need something like 406,721 floppy disks. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch about 33 miles, or half again as long as you’d need to bridge the English Channel. Laid out in a square, they would cover an area of about 1.8 acres or 1.44 (American) football fields. Stacked, they would stand 650 m tall, or about 1.46 Empire State Buildings. A single floppy disk cost about $2.25 (when purchased in bulk, and we would obviously have to do that!). So the cost to own this much storage would be about $915,120. We probably shouldn’t neglect you’d have to buy the drive as well — that would add $400. OK, we probably could neglect that.  Oh, wait. That was in 1982. According to the Inflation Calculator, $915,520 in 1982 would be equivalent, more or less, to $2,144,035 in 2012. (Information not available for this year yet.) I paid the princely sum of $37. And got free shipping. (And don’t need a warehouse to store my 400,000 disks!) My point? We live in an age that would leave Scheherazade a-gasp and disbelieving. We live in an age of miracles.

Also, get off my lawn.

politics ramblings science fiction technology

The buzz about the loop

So Elon Musk has revealed his great new intercity transit idea, the HyperLoop.    It would seem the emphasis should be on the first syllable — to wit, HYPE — but I’ll leave engineering analyses to those far more qualified than I.  My impression is that Musk offers vaporware that over-promises and under-delivers, that will never be implemented and would fail if it were.  (See here for one take-down.)  I’m more interested in how he generated all this buzz and why the media fell all over itself to hype it.

A good starting point is simply that it’s August and the news is slow.  There haven’t been any recurrences of the 2010 summer of rage to capture the media’s attention.  So a guy who’s always been good at self-promotion and who has a flair for the cool can definitely garner a few minutes air time.  But I think there’s more.

First, as a society, we fetishize monetary success and idolatrize those who achieve it.  We assume that anyone who’s made a bunch of money must be intrinsically smart, clever, or wise, and that this means he — and it is almost always a “he” — will magically have expertise in areas far removed from the one in which he made his fortune.  (Not to double-link, but this point really is made nicely at the article above.)  This impulse is particularly virulent in an age when the captains of industry must desperately justify their outsized share of the economy to the plebes whom they stand upon, and since media empires are one of the trappings of those captains, the popular media go along.  We must worship success and idolatrize financial achievers, because otherwise the grueling inequality of our system would make us monsters.

Second, and not unrelated, we live in an age that builds up the private enterprise but denigrates the public work.  An entrepreneur is to be hailed and held up; a privately-funded superssytem is admirable.  But a public/private partnership that slogs through all the legwork of providing a high-speed rail system?  That must be torn down.  It is considered prima facie susceptible to corruption, of course, but it’s even worse if it succeeds.  A successful HSR project would not only pump money into the economy; it would be evidence that government can succeed, and our current political atmosphere cannot sustain that sort of heresy.  (There are definite shades of Atlas Shrugged here, which probably also help explain the positive reception of a subset of the media.)

Third, the HyperLoop idea plays into a creeping anti-professionalism in American culture.  We are more and more convinced that “expertise” doesn’t exist.  Anyone with a big idea can succeed!  Details are for wimps!  This myth comforts those at the top of the pyramid, of course, because it can post facto justify their position and tells them it’s OK to leave the hard work of, say, designing things to others.  (I submit it’s one reason for the idolization of Steve Jobs, whom many have distorted into just an idea guy.  I don’t think Jobs himself fell victim to this; he insisted on solid work and good design.)  The Big Idea myth, ironically, also comforts those not at the top.  They can imagine that, someday, their own Big Idea will come and they will catapult into the stratosphere of the 1%.  They don’t have to work, or save, or plan; they just have to wait for inspiration.  (A twisted version of this is peddled to our youth, who see their way out of the morass in athletic or musical stardom — and again, the assumption is that talent trumps training.)

Finally, and not unrelatedly at all, the HyperLoop ties into the strain of romanticism that infest American pop culture.  We celebrate the dashing hero, the incorruptible outsider, the lone genius.  Our central myth is the rugged individualist.  Of course, our understanding of how the West was won is little more than myth.  Consistent and continual community-building made this country, not loners standing in wastelands.  Our films reinforce this, even in our science fiction, with The Professor the common archetype for the “good” scientist (and the evil genius his dark counterpart):  A man (and again, it’s almost always a man) who stands outside the scientific consensus, sees things no one else can imagine, and single-handedly fashions exotic new technologies and whole worlds from the fruits of his solitary mind.  This is the exact opposite of science, of course, with its community of learners and its painstaking assembly of new knowledge from the pieces contributed by hundreds of peers.  But The Hero is sexier than the team, and so we celebrate that.  We find irresistible the idea that the one guy — a genius or a billionaire — could sweep past the hundreds of researchers, activists, and experts patiently slogging away.  (Any consideration of this fight would be remiss without pointing toward David Brin’s brilliant analysis of Star Wars versus Star Trek and what each says about our values.)

We live in a complex and scary world, with intimidating and complicated problems.  It’s a dangerous conceit to believe that there are simple and clear answers that, somehow, no one’s thought of.  It happens from time to time, of course, but so do lightning strikes.  The human mind amplifies the impact of rare events and accords them a too-great weight in how we plan things.  The solution to high-speed intercity transit is unlikely to come out of the blue from a guy who’d hardly thought about the problem before.

Some people have made dark rumblings that Musk —  a man who’s trying to sell cars and thus has a motive to sabotage trains — might just be committing an underhanded intellectual fraud in pursuit of profit.  I don’t think that’s true.  I think he’s deluded by his impression of his own genius, and his delusions neatly plug into our societal ones.

movie music personal review technology

Tron: Legacy — soundtrack

Being a geek of a certain age, I of course went out to see Tron: Legacy as soon as it opened in the theaters. And being a geek of a certain type, and having listened to Wendy Carlos‘ ethereal soundtrack to the original Tron, I also purchased the soundtrack to this one as soon as it was available. This was my first introduction to Daft Punk, whom (I must admit) I first even heard of when their role was announced to much rejoicing. On receipt of the CD (yes, I still buy physical goods from time to time), I learned that they had worked on the orchestration with Hans Zimmer, a composer whose other cinematic work I do know and enjoy.

I say all this to make clear that I cannot evaluate the album as to its “Daft Punkness”. On my first listen through, I was underwhelmed. Wendy Carlos notwithstanding, I am not much of a fan of techno, and this album is certainly that. But having spent the cash I gave it a few good listens, and then I noticed that I was replaying the music in my head throughout the day. That’s just about the best recommendation you can give an album: it’s something you want to keep listening to. It evokes the movie (which I very much enjoyed) without being dogmatically tied to it. I’ve played these tracks for more than anything I’ve purchased in the past year or so.

humor technology

I like programmers with a sense of humor…

dropbox is one of my favorite “cloud” utilities.  It keeps a directory synchronized across many computers, allowing remote access and automatic backup.  Whenever you set up dropbox on a new computer, all of the files need to be copied across.  As you might imagine, this can take some time.  Usually, dropbox pops up a little balloon telling you how many files are left and about how long it will take.  But if you are syncing a huge amount of data…

… well, you get the message below.


books review science fiction technology

Review: Metatropolis

Edited by Jack Scalzi
Rating on an arbitrary 5-point scale: 4 out of 5

Metatropolis is a science fiction anthology exploring, as it claims, the “future of cities”.  That’s not strictly accurate. It’s really a collection of stories that explore the question: If we as a species are going to survive the mistakes of our forebears (particularly ecological mistakes), what will human society have to look like?  It’s pretty clear that we won’t be able to ratchet up world living standards to the stereotypical 2.4 kids in the suburbs mid American ideal.  Resources are too finite and indeed running out.  If our profligate carbon society doesn’t right itself soon, if we face a Century of Judgment, then what will emerge from the drowned coasts and droughted interiors?

The five authors (Jack Scalzi, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder) don’t really offer blueprints and white papers, of course.  They offer five distinct tales, appropriately interdependent, that explore a possible future.  This is a shared world on the model of Aspirin’s Thieves’ World, though not quite so sprawling or tightly woven.  It is clear that the authors spent considerable time together thrashing out their shared world — though, in keeping with the theme, much of that might have been online and virtual.

So, does the book succeed?

personal technology

Why I have no respect for design behaviors at Microsoft

I’ve received my new laptop and am working on getting it outfitted and up to speed.  (This process, by the way, is distressingly like moving to a new home and is equally as frustrating and potentially as traumatizing.)  After logging in for the first time, the system helpfully suggests that you create a system backup.  This is a wise and useful thing to do, so that you can restore to original conditions, and I was impressed that Microsoft offered it.


It takes fiendishly long to generate the system image — after about two hours of waiting, I gave up last night and went to bed.  During the night, the other “helpful” feature of Windows 7 kicked in, which was automatic downloading and installation of updates.  As anyone who works with Microsoft knows, you can’t even think about an update without Windows needing to reboot, which it did … automatically.  This interrupted the system backup, of course; and since the system has changed, the backup can’t even just pick up from where it left off.

Net result?  I must begin the backup again and wait another two hours for it to run.   I will have had my laptop for over a day without being able to run a single program on it.  What is the overwhelming temptation, of course?  To skip the backup “for now” and just dive in.  So these two choices for Microsoft have the combined effect of discouraging proper computer hygiene — and for many users, probably taint the whole idea of backups in general.

Way to go, Microsoft!

(By the way, I have of course also now turned off the automatic install option, as it’s insane to let anyone just drop stuff into your operating system without at least some chance at review.  Once again I am reminded of a mantra I’ve had since at least Windows 95:  Whatever default behavior Microsoft settles on, it’s the wrong one.  We could call their philosophy “default-to-fail”.)