Monday, November 24, 2014

Quote of the Day

Not responding is a response--we are equally responsible for what we don't do. In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle.

- Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Quote of the Day

Base Commander: Anything I do at this point will only make things worse. Anything! 
Chief of Police: Many people would charge in anyway. 
Base Commander: Oh, the urge to do something during an emergency is very strong. It takes training and discipline to do nothing.

- Freefall by Mark Stanley

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

I'll give you a few examples of what I mean by that. Maybe I'll start with Netflix. The thing about Netflix is that there isn't much on it. There's a paucity of content on it. If you think of any particular movie you might want to see, the chances are it's not available for streaming, that is; that's what I'm talking about. And yet there's this recommendation engine, and the recommendation engine has the effect of serving as a cover to distract you from the fact that there's very little available from it. And yet people accept it as being intelligent, because a lot of what's available is perfectly fine.

The one thing I want to say about this is I'm not blaming Netflix for doing anything bad, because the whole point of Netflix is to deliver theatrical illusions to you, so this is just another layer of theatrical illusion—more power to them. That's them being a good presenter. What's a theater without a barker on the street? That's what it is, and that's fine. But it does contribute, at a macro level, to this overall atmosphere of accepting the algorithms as doing a lot more than they do. In the case of Netflix, the recommendation engine is serving to distract you from the fact that there's not much choice anyway.

There are other cases where the recommendation engine is not serving that function, because there is a lot of choice, and yet there's still no evidence that the recommendations are particularly good. There's no way to compare them to an alternative, so you don't know what might have been. If you want to put the work into it, you can play with that; you can try to erase your history, or have multiple personas on a site to compare them. That's the sort of thing I do, just to get a sense. I've also had a chance to work on the algorithms themselves, on the back side, and they're interesting, but they're vastly, vastly overrated.

I want to get to an even deeper problem, which is that there's no way to tell where the border is between measurement and manipulation in these systems. For instance, if the theory is that you're getting big data by observing a lot of people who make choices, and then you're doing correlations to make suggestions to yet more people, if the preponderance of those people have grown up in the system and are responding to whatever choices it gave them, there's not enough new data coming into it for even the most ideal or intelligent recommendation engine to do anything meaningful.

In other words, the only way for such a system to be legitimate would be for it to have an observatory that could observe in peace, not being sullied by its own recommendations. Otherwise, it simply turns into a system that measures which manipulations work, as opposed to which ones don't work, which is very different from a virginal and empirically careful system that's trying to tell what recommendations would work had it not intervened. That's a pretty clear thing. What's not clear is where the boundary is.

[---]

I haven't gone through a whole litany of reasons that the mythology of it AI does damage. There's a whole other problem area that has to do with neuroscience, where if we pretend we understand things before we do, we do damage to science, not just because we raise expectations and then fail to meet them repeatedly, but because we confuse generations of young scientists. Just to be absolutely clear, we don't know how most kinds of thoughts are represented in the brain. We're starting to understand a little bit about some narrow things. That doesn't mean we never will, but we have to be honest about what we understand in the present.

A retort to that caution is that there's some exponential increase in our understanding, so we can predict that we'll understand everything soon. To me, that's crazy, because we don't know what the goal is. We don't know what the scale of achieving the goal would be... So to say, "Well, just because I'm accelerating, I know I'll reach my goal soon," is absurd if you don't know the basic geography which you're traversing. As impressive as your acceleration might be, reality can also be impressive in the obstacles and the challenges it puts up. We just have no idea.

This is something I've called, in the past, "premature mystery reduction," and it's a reflection of poor scientific mental discipline. You have to be able to accept what your ignorances are in order to do good science. To reject your own ignorance just casts you into a silly state where you're a lesser scientist. I don't see that so much in the neuroscience field, but it comes from the computer world so much, and the computer world is so influential because it has so much money and influence that it does start to bleed over into all kinds of other things. A great example is the Human Brain Project in Europe, which is a lot of public money going into science that's very influenced by this point of view, and it has upset some in the neuroscience community for precisely the reason I described.


- Jaron Lanier, The Myth Of AI


Quote of the Day

People often ask, "What is the single most important environmental population problem facing the world today?" A flip answer would be, "The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!

- Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Friday, November 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

In fiction, villains start with some great scheme to do something awesome, and that immediately makes them fascinating to the reader. The hero - if you're doing this poorly - sits at home and just waits for the villain to do something awesome so they can respond. This is a problem. The solution is for your heroes to have a great and awesome scheme also, that just isn't evil.

- Brandon Sanderson

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone - Especially the Wealthy

Another brilliant piece by Mike Lewis - Read the whole thing here:

Jack Kenney’s assault on teenaged American inequality began at breakfast the first morning. The bell clanged early, and the kids all rolled out of their old stained bunk beds, scratched their fresh mosquito bites, and crawled to the dining hall. On each table were small boxes of cereal, enough for each kid to have one box, but not enough that everyone could have the brand of cereal he wanted. There were Fruit Loops and Cheerios, but also more than a few boxes of the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation. On the second morning, when the breakfast bell clanged, a mad footrace ensued. Kids sprung from their bunks and shot from cabins in the New Hampshire woods to the dining hall. The winners got the Fruit Loops, the losers a laxative. By the third morning, it was clear that, in the race to the Fruit Loops, some kids had a natural advantage. They were bigger and faster; or their cabins were closer to the dining hall; or they just had that special knack some people have for getting whatever they want. Some kids would always get the Fruit Loops, and others would always get the laxative. Life was now officially unfair.

After that third breakfast, Kenney called an assembly on a hill overlooking a tennis court. He was unkempt and a bit odd; wisps of gray hair crossed his forehead and he looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a week. He was also kind and gentle and funny, and kids instantly sensed that he was worth listening to, and wanted to hear what he had to say. “You all live in important places surrounded by important people,” he’d begin. “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.” Eyes closed, talking as much to himself as to us, he described the life of not-so-quiet desperation until every kid on the hill wondered what this had to do with the two-handed backhand. Then he opened his eyes and finished: “You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” And then he moved on to why no one should ever hit a two-handed backhandwhile every kid on the hill squirmed and reddened and glanced at each other, wondering if everyone else realized what an asshole he’d been.

On the fourth morning, no one ate the Fruit Loops. Kids were thrusting the colorful boxes at each other and leaping on the constipation cereal like war heroes jumping on hand grenades. In a stroke, the texture of life in this tennis camp had changed, from a chapter out of Lord of the Flies to the feeling between the lines of Walden. Even the most fantastically selfish kids did what they could to contribute to the general welfare of the place, and there was not a shred of doubt that everyone felt happier for it. The distinction between haves and have-nots, winners and losers, wasn’t entirely gone, of course. But it became less important than this other distinction, between the givers and the takers.


Quote of the Day

I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.

- Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quote of the Day

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

- Robert Frost

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Quote of the Day

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

- Apple Inc.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quote of the Day

I have a slightly different cut on the Snowden revelations. I think it shows the NSA more as the Keystone Cops than as Big Brother. What is striking to me is how little James Bond-like stuff was going on and how little they did with all this information. That’s why I think, in some ways, the NSA is more in this anti-technological zone where they don’t know what to do with the data they find. So they just hoover up all the data, all over the world. I think it was news to Obama that he was tapping into [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s cell phone.

One way to think about this is that if the NSA bureaucracy actually knew what they were doing, they would probably need way less information. What’s shocking about Snowden is how much information they had and how little they did with it.


- Peter Thiel