Caveat: debate-o-matic

One of the subjects that I taught to my students in Korea that I considered most valuable, both for the English skills it engendered as well as for general thinking ability, was debate.

I was the “debate teacher,” and I was well-known for even turning lessons otherwise structured into impromptu debates. The kids mostly seemed to get something out of it.

So now… they’re trying to make an AI (artificial intelligence) that can do debate – in the same way that we have machines now that play chess or baduk (“go”), that diagnose medical conditions or explore other planets. This is just another small step.

I watched this video.

I am both disappointed and impressed. This is often the case when confronting these odd black boxes that computer engineers are constructing these days. They can seem preternaturally smart and eerily stupid at the same time. The AI participating in this debate clearly had a lot of facts to hand, and was reasonably competent at marshaling them in a well-structured argument. But it missed the key thrust of its human opponent’s argument, and thus its rebuttal almost failed to make sense. I was somewhat annoyed that the moderators, who spent time afterward discussing what they’d just done, failed to bring this up.
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Caveat: what we see

“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” – Giorgio Morandi (Italian painter, 1890-1964)

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Natura Morta, oil on canvas, 1956.


Unrelated: what we don’t see…

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ – ‘Are you worthy?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ – ‘No.’ – ‘Then you are just unworthy.'” – attributed to Pascal

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Caveat: Outside? Play?

I ran across these fascinating videos and blog-entries about a linguist / speech pathologist who is training her dog to use “word buttons.” The dog seems to carry on spontaneous conversations with her owners. She pushes the button “outside” the owner says “not now.” She tries again. The owner says “I’m sorry.” And then the dog pushes the button “play.” The owner says “OK. Let’s play.” This seems very close to toddler-level language use.

Here is the link.

As a linguist, I am slightly skeptical that this can be called “language” in any strict sense. But I have also always thought that Chomsky (et al.) and his notion of a specific “language faculty” in the human brain wasn’t necessary. I have long had an intuition that language is just an “emergent property” of the complex neural networks evolution created for the purpose of “being a mammal.” As such, human language is not qualitatively distinct from the language-like behavior of higher mammals. Rather, it is simply a massive scaling-up. This type of animal behavior feels like a confirmation of that intuition.
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Caveat: πoetry

I saw this at a blog I read, called JF Ptak Science Books. The guy is a dealer in old and rare books, with an emphasis on books related to the history of science and ideas. He often posts very interesting things.

He found a text of a poem published in 1905, which has an unusual constraint: each word in the poem has the same number of letters as a digit of the number π (3.141592653589793238462643383279), in order.

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The poem’s text:

Sir, - I send a rhyme excelling
 3     1   4  1   5       9
In sacred truth and rigid spelling.
 2    6     5    3    5      8
Numerical sprites elucidate
    9        7        9
For me the lexicon's dull weight.
 3  2   3     8       4     6
   If "Nature" gain,
    2    6      4
   Not you complain,
    3   3     8
Tho' Dr. Johnson fulminate. 
 3    2     7       9

Most definitely a bit of oulipisme-avant-le-lettre.
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Caveat: Temperance

Some people know I mess with tarot cards.

I don’t believe them at all. I am an empiricist and a rationalist, and committed to that. But I also enjoy apophenia – the misreading of random data as meaningful. It strikes me as a deeply human trait. And my interest in tarot is probably related to that – in this random set of cards, we’ve imbued each card with many layers of semiotic detritus, and then we can plow through the cards and find some interesting meanings, perhaps leading to reflection.

Well I pulled a card to define my year, 2020. And got the card called “Temperance.”

I pulled a series of cards to to define my month, January, and the summary card was again “Temperance.”

I  guess I could consider temperance – what is it, exactly?

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Caveat: hay montes

Penas (Verso XXXIV)

¡Penas! ¿Quién osa decir
Que tengo yo penas? Luego,
Después del rayo, y del fuego,
Tendré tiempo de sufrir.

Yo sé de un pesar profundo
Entre las penas sin nombres:
¡La esclavitud de los hombres
Es la gran pena del mundo!

Hay montes, y hay que subir
Los montes altos; ¡después
Veremos, alma, quién es
Quien te me ha puesto al morir!

- Jose Marti (poeta cubano, 1853-1895)

This poem was recently brought to my attention because my friend Bob asked if I could provide some insight and translation for the poem, for a choral production he’s working on that includes this text set to music. It seems not that different from other things I’ve blogged, and given how sparse my blog has been intellectually, of late, I thought I might as well post what I gave him here.

It’s important to separate who Martí actually was from the mythical being he’s been made into by subsequent generations of Cubans of all political stripes. He was a classical liberal, and in an aesthetic school called “modernismo” -not exactly the same as “modernism” because of different circumstances. He spent a lot of time in the US during various exiles from Cuba, and was heavily influenced by US poets such as Walt Whitman. He was no communist, but he was aware of Marx and I believe may have interacted some with socialists and communists and anarchists in Europe – you take your allies where you can find them. He did believe in universal human rights as that doctrine emerged from the wake of the abolition movements of the 19th century.

I do believe this poem is political. He was fighting for Cuban independence from Spain, inspired by the liberal fantasies (ideals) exemplified to whatever degree of accuracy by the US, Mexico, Guatemala – all countries where he spent time. So what he’s saying is that the time for self-pity is over. Stop complaining and get up and fight for your freedom, fellow Cubans = fellow humans everywhere. That’s how I interpret it. There are mountains we should be climbing, now, battles to be fought. We’ll let God sort out later who was good and who was bad.

Versos was published in 1891, and Martí died while leading Cuban freedom fighters in Cuba in 1895. His political program was quite mature at that point, and it would be hard to read the poem any more innocently.

Here is my own word-for-word translation.

Problems! Who dares to say
That I have problems? Later,
after the lightning-bolt, and the fire,
I'll have time to suffer.

I know about a deep regret
among the problems without names:
The enslavement of men
is the great regret of the world!

There are mountains, and there's need to climb
the high mountains; later
we shall see, soul, who [it] is
that has set you, for me, to die.

The key word, of course, is penas. I prefer the translation “problems” – it feels contemporarily idiomatic. Penas has a very wide semantic field: “pains” “sufferings” “sorrows” “guilt” “sins” “problems” etc. Especially in the context.

We deploy the word “problems” in modern English similarly. Cf rapper Jay-Z, “I got 99 problems ….”

I almost chose to translate it as “complaints” – to emphasize the fact that the tone of the poem (to me) is a bit of “Get off your butts, people, and DO something!”

Other vocabulary worth comment: pesar. Also fairly wide. I prefer “weight” to “regret” but that doesn’t work with the intensifier “deep”. Perhaps “heavy weight” rather than “deep regret.”

As a syntactician, I love the double (in)direct objects in the last line (“… te me …”) – what Spanish grammar is famous for, in stumping linguists and being a fairly famous example of something characteristically difficult about the language.

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Caveat: Incademic

The Quechua language, the historical Native American language of the Inca Empire in the prehispanic period and still alive today, has gone academic: a woman wrote and defended her doctoral thesis entirely in Quechua for the first time in history, in Lima, Peru.

Perhaps this is the first time any Western Hemisphere language has claimed the academy? The only other possible example might maybe have arisen with Nahuatl in Mexico, but I can’t find evidence.
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Caveat: the base alloy of hypocrisy

In this historical moment when a motley riot of neo-know-nothingists are mucking about with the levers of government, I find hope for humanist values in the apropos observations of a certain famous politician:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
– Abraham Lincoln

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Caveat: Summa Logicae

William of Ockham, Summa Logicae

Today universals are par for the course,
As when horseness is said of a horse.

And dogness is solemnly logged for a dog,
And logness is doggedly barked of a log.

And now the whole lot of us
Are expected to talk as though hippopotamateity inhered in a hippopotamus.

But all of these quiddity-quoddity hacks
Could not tell a duck from the fact that it quacks.

– Justin E.H. Smith (American essayist and philospher, b. 1972)
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Caveat: Click Here

The internet’s first “banner ad” turns 25 years old today. That’s actually kind of surprising. The internet feels like it’s always been there, at some level, but yes, in my own memory, there was a time it did not exist.

Some historians have placed the original “banner ad” on it’s own, 1994-style webpage: here. And you can click through to see the original advertisement, in the original format.
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Caveat: the beauty of things is sufficient

It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending – I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)

[…]

The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.

[…]

I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

– Robinson Jeffers (poet, 1887-1962)
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Caveat: On Democracy’s Spiral

Sometimes I have essentially decontextualized insights and I decide to write them down. I was reading some blog about current political events, and thought the following. It’s not a reasoned argument, just an idea that occurred to me.

In a true democracy, it seems to me that the things people believe about government will eventually become true about government. If people believe their government is dangerous, the government will become more and more dangerous over time. If people believe their government is corrupt, the government will become more and more corrupt over time. This can go the other direction too, though: if people believe their government is capable of solving social ills, then more and more social ills will be solved by government over time. If people believe their government is a virtuous protector of individual rights, then the government will become more and more virtuous in this way over time. There is a most disturbing aspect of this “spiral effect” of democracy, however: if people specifically come to believe their government is undemocratic, then the government will become less and less democratic over time. And the problem, there, unlike any of the other spirals, is that there is no way to spiral out from this problem once you’ve descended, because once the government is no longer democratic, this feedback process is no longer in effect. Thus the absolute most important belief for the nurturing and sustenance of a democracy is the belief in democracy itself.

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Caveat: Evidence of Our Life in the Future

I have been reading some, online, these days, about quantum computers. I don’t understand them at all, but I was made curious by the recent news about Google’s new, supposed “quantum supremacy.”

This led me down a garden path of blogs and articles, and one thing that I ran across was this picture, from a 2017 article about an IBM quantum computer.

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What happened is I became sidetracked by the aesthetics of the picture, which seemed more within my grasp than the nature of the machine.

The picture looks like illustration from the cover of a science fiction magazine. It does not seem to, in any way, resemble what we think of as a “computer” as they currently exist. It is mysterious and beautiful and abstractly futuristic.

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Caveat: Wagyaan giina gha naahlingaay da aasgii gwaayaay inggut ll qinsgaayan

Gaaysta ll qayits dluu
haw ising xhitiit ahlaang tsaagudan ghan ll qaattlagan.
Ll sghunsaangan.
Gam tlagw ll naahlingaay qanggaangan,
Stluuttsadang haw suugangan.

Xhitiit ga ghan ll qiingwas
gyaan llaga ttl gwawgangan.
Wadluu llagu ll naahlingaay gaws dluu
gwii tlakkwaan·gan ll xitgwan·gangan.
Wagyaan giina gha naahlingaay da aasgii gwaayaay inggut ll qinsgaayan.

Wadluu hin Yaahl {ll} suudayan,
"Hlaxaayik gha hl xit."
Giina guunaga Hlaxaayit ttaaya gyangan
ahljiiyahlu gha lla ll suudayani.

"Haw giina gunagaay gyans hl kkudii,
dang tsin isis ahla," hin lla ll suudayan.
Wakkyanan llaga ll hlghwagayan.

Llaga ll hlwaagas ghan aa
giina guunagas unsadalan dluu,
"Hahl gwaa ttakkanaay,
dii kkuuk gha hl naa," hin lla ll suudayan.
"Wagyaan dang giidalang gam tsaghagudangghang asga."

Ahljiiyahlu wiid llagha ll naagan
lla ll tsindas ahla.

- Kingagwaaw
When he [the Raven] left that place,
here came another bird with no home of his own.
He was all by himself.
He had no place to live,
the Sapsucker said.

When he perched with other birds,
they drove him away.
And so, having no place to live,
he kept flying all the time.
And he searched the Islands for something to live in.

Then the Raven said,
"Fly to Hlaxaayik."
He said it because
something dead stood at Hlaxaayik.

"Peck the standing dead thing with your beak.
It's alright; it's your grandfather," he said to him.
Nevertheless, he was afraid of it.

When the dead thing understood
that he was afraid of it,
it said to him, "Grandson, come here.
Live in my heart,
and your children will not be left homeless."

That's where he lives even now,
because that is his grandfather.

- Kingagwaaw (Haida storyteller, early 1900s), translated by Robert Bringhurst

The above fragment appears quoted in the footnotes of Bringhurst’s translation of the Qquuna Cycle by the Haida poet Skaay, in Bringhurst’s volume Being in Being.

Caveat: a lottery for participation

Periodically, in the United States, people go around with guns killing random people in public. This is just part of our culture, apparently – check the news.

Here is someone thinking about this cultural phenomenon.

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting in a way that Durkheim would immediately recognize. As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed. – Kieran Healy

Caveat: Not Just America

In fact, the incarceration of children whose parents are in violation of rules about migration is a global problem. I was recently impressed by some discussion of the growing problem in my erstwhile home, South Korea, where it is normally an untouchable subject.

You can read about it here. The below video is included on that site.

irreversible effects of immigration detention on children (full version) from APIL Korea on Vimeo.

My important point is that the recent outrage among some parts of the US population about this issue is in fact quite narrow and parochial. This is a global problem and the US is at best a minor violator. That doesn’t excuse it. Rather, I think this core problem of child punishment for parental behavior is key to understanding why migration restriction regimes are on par with chattel slavery in ethical terms.

Caveat: ikr

Excerpts from the chat app on Abraham’s smartphone:

God: kill your son
Abraham: srsly?
God: damn right
Abraham: um…ok
God: holy f* nm
God: jk
Abraham: jeez…
God: hah on that topic i’ll prolly kill mine tho lol
Abraham: wtf?
God: ikr

  • Credit where credit is due: I found a joke, online, similar to this, but much shorter and not “all in” with respect to the chatspeak. Inspired by that, I expanded the concept to the above.

Caveat: on literacy

One of my hobbies has been to assist managing a website, related to my geofiction hobby. I’m not very good at it – I find managing a classroom of unruly 7th graders easier than managing what is, presumably, one of the better-disposed regions of the internet. I just don’t seem to have the right sort of charity in my character for coping with faceless trolls and idiots.

I had a kind of insight today, as I was reacting to a complaint that the documentation on the site is “too inconvenient to read” and that we should make videos explaining how to use the site and its toolset.

Here’s my thought, condensed semi-aphoristically:

There are two types of literacy: there is the ability to read, and there is the willingness to read. Arguably, failure in education is more about failure in the latter than in the former.

Caveat: There, in the calm of some Platonic dream

This poem, below, was not written by a human being, as best I understand. It was written by one of those new “learning algorithm” AIs (Artificial Intelligences), where you give the AI a large pile of “training data” (i.e. in this case, a vast corpus of human-written poetry) and then say, more or less, “OK, give me a new one like that.” It works similarly to the way google-translate manages to make sense out of changing one language to another, without actually understanding a damn thing. It’s statistics, writ large.

Methinks I see her in her blissful dreams:
Or, fancy-like, in some mirage she lies,
Majestic yet majestic, and of seems
The image of the unconquerable skies.

Methinks I see her in her blissful dreams:
—Or, fancy-like, in some majestic cell,
Where lordly seraphs strew their balmy dreams
On the still night, or in their golden shell.

There, in the calm of some Platonic dream,
Sits she, and views the unclouded moon arise
Like a fair lady full of realms divine;

And, all at once, a stony face and bright
Glittering in moonlight, like the noon-tints of a night.

I found it, and other AI-generated poetry, on the slatestarcodex blog.

All very interesting.

 

Caveat: not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage

AOC was talking at the SXSW conference. An excerpt:

We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.

[…]
We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.

[…]
Capitalism is based on scarcity. What happens when there is enough for everyone to eat? What happens when there is enough for everyone to be clothed? Then you have to make scarcity artificial. And that is what has happened.- AOC

Then the moderator said: that’s “Full Star Trek Socialism.” AOC just smiled.

The concept of the “post-scarcity society” has been around for a long time. And now we find that AOC is fluent in this thinking – that was not a prepared speech, but rather a response to an audience question. I’m interested.

Caveat: intoxicated by slogans

A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations. The member of a mass movement, afraid of his own isolation, and his own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within himself the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, he seeks a movement that will protect his weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify his acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not “ours.” This must be brought into line – or destroyed.

Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and which makes man the living image of God. – Thomas Merton (American monk, 1915-1958)

[daily log: walking, 4km; tromping, 250m]

 

Caveat: on the emergent paradigm

Here is a random philosophical thought, not fully developed, which occurred to me the other day.

Most people don’t care about the surveillance state and/or the lack-of-privacy which is being induced by modern technology. There is actually a simple reason for this lack of concern. It is because, in fact, that lack of privacy is the human cultural baseline. Through most of history, humans lived in small, extended family or tribal-sized groups where everyone knew what everyone else was doing. What is happening now is a return to that baseline, but within the context of a much larger social structure: city, nation, planet. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing: a global village of 8 billion. What’s to worry about? It’s like it always was. The anomaly was the period between the invention of cities and states (approx. 2000 BC) and the development of instantaneous universally distributed communication. In the grand scale of things, it’s a pretty short period of anomaly.

[daily log: walking, 4km]