Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.

- Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Quote of the Day

Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you're happy again, then you'll have given up. Do you understand? And you can't give up, I won't let you.

- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Monday, August 21, 2017

Quote of the Day

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.

- Seneca

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Why Are So Many Smart People Such Idiots About Philosophy?

Philosophy is important for more than just a while, and has serious, practical uses for all of society. There are countless examples of philosophy of mind theories’ relevance to neuroscientists, or cases where political philosophers have shaped politicians.

Historically, physics and mathematics have often overlapped with philosophy, and many great scientists engaged with philosophers to advance their own thinking. (Einstein’s work can be studied alongside that of Kant, for example.) The physicist behind the theory of relativity was also a philosopher of science and, as Hall points out, Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking.

Philosophers also address the assumptions that underly science. “There’s a huge element in science of relying on our capacity to reason,” says Hall. “The way that capacity gets deployed in scientific inquiry often involves unstated but fairly substantial assumptions about the simplicity and elegance of the natural world. Philosophers bring to the table an awareness of how rich the set of assumptions are.”

So, for example, in the video Nye mockingly expresses his confidence that the sun will come up tomorrow. Philosophers are confident of this too, but few feel certain that they can explain exactly what causes this daily phenomenon—or any event. The 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument that we don’t have a reasonable understanding of causation at all, but only presume cause and effect when two things have been observed as conjoined in the past, is notoriously difficult to refute. The problem underlies much of physics and is hardly insignificant.

And then there’s the development of formal logic, which was devised by philosophers a little over 100 years ago and is the foundation of coding and computer science—in other words, the grounding for all modern technology.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

No one I spoke to in the loose, interdisciplinary group of scientists working on plant intelligence claims that plants have telekinetic powers or feel emotions. Nor does anyone believe that we will locate a walnut-shaped organ somewhere in plants which processes sensory data and directs plant behavior. More likely, in the scientists’ view, intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network. Much of the research on plant intelligence has been inspired by the new science of networks, distributed computing, and swarm behavior, which has demonstrated some of the ways in which remarkably brainy behavior can emerge in the absence of actual brains..

“If you are a plant, having a brain is not an advantage,” Stefano Mancuso points out. Mancuso is perhaps the field’s most impassioned spokesman for the plant point of view. A slight, bearded Calabrian in his late forties, he comes across more like a humanities professor than like a scientist. When I visited him earlier this year at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, at the University of Florence, he told me that his conviction that humans grossly underestimate plants has its origins in a science-fiction story he remembers reading as a teen-ager. A race of aliens living in a radically sped-up dimension of time arrive on Earth and, unable to detect any movement in humans, come to the logical conclusion that we are “inert material” with which they may do as they please. The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us. (Mancuso subsequently wrote to say that the story he recounted was actually a mangled recollection of an early “Star Trek” episode called “Wink of an Eye.”).

In Mancuso’s view, our “fetishization” of neurons, as well as our tendency to equate behavior with mobility, keeps us from appreciating what plants can do. For instance, since plants can’t run away and frequently get eaten, it serves them well not to have any irreplaceable organs. “A plant has a modular design, so it can lose up to ninety per cent of its body without being killed,” he said. “There’s nothing like that in the animal world. It creates a resilience.”

Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The “sessile life style,” as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound. In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn’t been touched, the sound primed the plant’s genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, done in Mancuso’s lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water..

The sensory capabilities of plant roots fascinated Charles Darwin, who in his later years became increasingly passionate about plants; he and his son Francis performed scores of ingenious experiments on plants. Many involved the root, or radicle, of young plants, which the Darwins demonstrated could sense light, moisture, gravity, pressure, and several other environmental qualities, and then determine the optimal trajectory for the root’s growth. The last sentence of Darwin’s 1880 book, “The Power of Movement in Plants,” has assumed scriptural authority for some plant neurobiologists: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle . . . having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs and directing the several movements.” Darwin was asking us to think of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal, with its main sensory organs and “brain” on the bottom, underground, and its sexual organs on top.


The sessile life style also helps account for plants’ extraordinary gift for biochemistry, which far exceeds that of animals and, arguably, of human chemists. (Many drugs, from aspirin to opiates, derive from compounds designed by plants.) Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex molecular vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them. A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had previously been thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar. The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators..

One of the most productive areas of plant research in recent years has been plant signalling. Since the early nineteen-eighties, it has been known that when a plant’s leaves are infected or chewed by insects they emit volatile chemicals that signal other leaves to mount a defense. Sometimes this warning signal contains information about the identity of the insect, gleaned from the taste of its saliva. Depending on the plant and the attacker, the defense might involve altering the leaf’s flavor or texture, or producing toxins or other compounds that render the plant’s flesh less digestible to herbivores. When antelopes browse acacia trees, the leaves produce tannins that make them unappetizing and difficult to digest. When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed, it has been reported, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the animals..

Perhaps the cleverest instance of plant signalling involves two insect species, the first in the role of pest and the second as its exterminator. Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars. Scientists call these insects “plant bodyguards.”.


“I define it very simply,” Mancuso said. “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.” In place of a brain, “what I am looking for is a distributed sort of intelligence, as we see in the swarming of birds.” In a flock, each bird has only to follow a few simple rules, such as maintaining a prescribed distance from its neighbor, yet the collective effect of a great many birds executing a simple algorithm is a complex and supremely well-coördinated behavior. Mancuso’s hypothesis is that something similar is at work in plants, with their thousands of root tips playing the role of the individual birds—gathering and assessing data from the environment and responding in local but coördinated ways that benefit the entire organism.

“Neurons perhaps are overrated,” Mancuso said. “They’re really just excitable cells.” Plants have their own excitable cells, many of them in a region just behind the root tip. Here Mancuso and his frequent collaborator, František Baluška, have detected unusually high levels of electrical activity and oxygen consumption. They’ve hypothesized in a series of papers that this so-called “transition zone” may be the locus of the “root brain” first proposed by Darwin. The idea remains unproved and controversial. “What’s going on there is not well understood,” Lincoln Taiz told me, “but there is no evidence it is a command center.”

How plants do what they do without a brain—what Anthony Trewavas has called their “mindless mastery”—raises questions about how our brains do what they do. When I asked Mancuso about the function and location of memory in plants, he speculated about the possible role of calcium channels and other mechanisms, but then he reminded me that mystery still surrounds where and how our memories are stored: “It could be the same kind of machinery, and figuring it out in plants may help us figure it out in humans.”


Mancuso and his colleagues are writing the next chapter in “The History of Increasing Humiliation.” Their project entails breaking down the walls between the kingdoms of plants and animals, and it is proceeding not only experiment by experiment but also word by word. Start with that slippery word “intelligence.” Particularly when there is no dominant definition (and when measurements of intelligence, such as I.Q., have been shown to be culturally biased), it is possible to define intelligence in a way that either reinforces the boundary between animals and plants (say, one that entails abstract thought) or undermines it. Plant neurobiologists have chosen to define intelligence democratically, as an ability to solve problems or, more precisely, to respond adaptively to circumstances, including ones unforeseen in the genome.

“I agree that humans are special,” Mancuso says. “We are the first species able to argue about what intelligence is. But it’s the quantity, not the quality” of intelligence that sets us apart. We exist on a continuum with the acacia, the radish, and the bacterium. “Intelligence is a property of life,” he says. I asked him why he thinks people have an easier time granting intelligence to computers than to plants. (Fred Sack told me that he can abide the term “artificial intelligence,” because the intelligence in this case is modified by the word “artificial,” but not “plant intelligence.” He offered no argument, except to say, “I’m in the majority in saying it’s a little weird.”) Mancuso thinks we’re willing to accept artificial intelligence because computers are our creations, and so reflect our own intelligence back at us. They are also our dependents, unlike plants: “If we were to vanish tomorrow, the plants would be fine, but if the plants vanished . . .” Our dependence on plants breeds a contempt for them, Mancuso believes. In his somewhat topsy-turvy view, plants “remind us of our weakness.”

- Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan

Quote of the Day

Friday, August 18, 2017

Quote of the Day

Far from making America great again, Mr. Trump has betrayed the foundations of our common citizenship. And his actions are jeopardizing any prospect of enacting an agenda that might restore the promise of American life.

I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Quote of the Day

Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.

- Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Don't Be a Sucker - 1947 Post-WW2 Anti-Fascist Educational Film by USA

1947 anti-fascist video made by US military to teach citizens how to avoid falling for people like Trump is relevant again.

Quote of the Day

While it is true that many people simply can't afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we've somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority.

-  Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quote of the Day

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.

- George Orwell

Monday, August 14, 2017

Compassion vs. Cruelty: Why You Should Read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy never reveals the origin of the cataclysm because the novel is not concerned with how the world came to ruins. It’s concerned about the state of morality in a post-apocalyptic world.

And the father, who is unnamed to highlight the universality of the book, is crossed, like we are, as he attempts to raise his child to be decent and civil in an indecent and uncivilized world.

Son: We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
Father: No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

The Road forces its characters and its readers to weigh the costs of both compassion and cruelty.
That moral divide of, “Do I dehumanize others for my own survival?” 

The cannibals have resorted to dehumanization to fill their stomachs with food. Yet in doing so, they are selfishly killing humanity’s chances of survival.

McCarthy parallels such selfish cruelty with the father’s heroic attempts to teach his son why compassion, more than cruelty, is necessary for humanity’s survival.


The Road as a Guide to Parenting

"You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were."

You will never find The Road waiting on the shelves in the Parenting section of a bookstore. But beyond the terse, dystopian, survival story it’s about how to raise a child in the bleakest of hours.

Read the dedication page.

McCarthy dedicates The Road to his then 7 year old son John Francis.

In his interview with Oprah, McCarthy calls his son the coauthor of the book. Because many of the conversations in the book were based on real conversations McCarthy had with his own son.

McCarthy has said that The Road is everything he wants to teach his son about growing up, about life, about being “a good guy.”

The father continually tells his son, that no matter what, “You must carry the fire.”

Yes, the fire is literal–the boy needs the fire for warmth and to cook but fire is metaphorical for compassion and love.

Because, the father believes it’s the fire that will spring the boy’s survival.

And I couldn’t agree more.

- More Here from Jay Armstrong

Quote of the Day

It’s a self-organizing process, by which selection will arrive at some standard of beauty all by itself, in the absence of any adaptive benefit—or, indeed, despite maladaptive disadvantage.

- The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us by Richard O. Prum

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

If a man has frequent intercourse with others either for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will quench the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched. Since then the danger is so great, we must cautiously enter into such intimacies with those of the common sort, and remember that it is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without being partaker of the soot himself. For what will you do if a man speaks about gladiators, about horses, about athletes, or what is worse about men? Such a person is bad, such a person is good: this was well done, this was done badly. Further, if he scoff, or ridicule, or show an ill-natured disposition?

- Discourses, 3.16 by Epictetus

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

If Adam Smith had strapped on a bee suit—or a safari jacket, or a scuba mask—he could have discovered that the animal kingdom is, in fact, a chamber of commerce. “Biological markets are all over the place,” says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.

These discoveries have not just deflated economists’ anthropocentrism but have challenged biological dogmas as well. “We all learned not to treat animals in an anthropomorphic way, but a theory that was produced to explain human behavior nevertheless matters in biology,” says Peter Hammerstein, Noë’s co-author and a professor of theoretical biology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. “In fact, I believe some of it works better in biology than in humans.”

Noë began to think about economics in biology in 1981 as he worked on a post-doctorate degree in Kenya. “A big baboon gave me the idea,” he says. Baboons live in large hierarchal groups, and Noë was interested in when and how low-ranking males teamed up to challenge a more dominant male to mate with a female. Cooperation was common in nature—not just between animals of the same species but also between different species (for example, a plant and its pollinator). But the origins of cooperation were a mystery. How could two animals work together when Darwin’s theory of evolution taught about survival of the fittest? Shouldn’t natural selection always favor ruthless self-interest?

“It was one of the early questions in behavioral biology,” says Hammerstein. “Why do animals not always kill each other? Why is aggression limited?”

When Noë began his fieldwork, behavioral biologists proposed two theories for cooperation. The first, called “kin selection,” held that an organism could sometimes better propagate its genetic material by helping a close relative reproduce rather than trying to reproduce itself. An ant colony, for instance, has a huge number of sterile female workers who help raise the young of a kindred queen. But kin selection couldn’t explain why a fish such as the cleaner wrasse can pick parasites from the teeth of a barracuda with almost no risk of becoming a meal itself. They shared no genes, so a predator ought to reap a dual reward by eating the dentist after the cleaning.

“Reciprocal altruism” was the second main evolutionary theory for cooperation. Biologists argued that natural selection could favor cooperation between two organisms that interact repeatedly over their lifetimes. One individual conferred some benefit on the other, knowing that the benefit would be repaid down the line. The crux of reciprocal altruism was the idea of partner control. How could an altruist guarantee that his partner would return the favor?

To answer this question, biologists looked to game theory, which sought to model conflict and cooperation strategies between self-interested individuals. The most famous example was the two-player game called the prisoner’s dilemma, and biologists used it to write elaborate formulas for how reciprocal altruism might have evolved. “It was all theoretical papers stacked on top of each other, and at the bottom there was no empirical evidence,” Noë says. “I’m inclined to look at what real animals do.”


In 1994, Noë and Hammerstein laid out their new theory of biological markets in the journal Behavioral Ecology & Socialbiology. The paper fused the biologists’ different styles: Hammerstein developed the mathematical models, while Noë dug through the scientific literature for evidence from the field. Examples turned up across the animal kingdom. Male scorpion flies offer females a “nuptial gift” of prey before mating. In some species of bird, such as the purple martin, a male will allow another male to occupy part of his territory in exchange for help raising his young. Lycaenid butterfly caterpillars produce a sweet “nectar” whose only purpose is to attract ants, which eat the nectar and protect the caterpillars from predators.

In each example the “exchange rate” is not fixed but rather contingent on the supply of available partners. “It is essentially a supply-demand theory,” says Frans de Waal, the eminent primatologist from Emory University and a former mentor of Noë. The more male scorpion flies available on the market, the larger the nuptial gift the female will demand. The male purple martin chooses the most juvenile-looking and least threatening tenant. And the caterpillars adjust the amount of nectar they produce to the number of ants in the vicinity.

Noë and Hammerstein felt their paper laid out a radical new way to understand cooperation in nature, but there was not much immediate enthusiasm from their peers. “Because it was not in the big journals, it took off very slowly,” Noë says. The new theory inspired some of their students, though, who took it into the field. “I thought this is such a different way of looking cooperation and it made intuitive sense,” says Redouan Bshary, a professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Although he had trained with Noë in primatology, Bshary learned to scuba dive so he could study the animal that had long fascinated biologists who study cooperation: the cleaner wrasse.

Cleaner wrasses are small, ribbony fishes with black racing stripes from eye to tail. They aren’t the flashiest fish on the reef, but they are perhaps the cleverest. Each wrasse occupies a “station” on a piece of coral, which other fish visit when they are feeling crusty. The wrasses eat the dead skin and parasites off their clients, but not all clients receive equal treatment. Some clients have to wait longer than others, and a wrasse sometimes spices up its diet by sneaking a painful bite of healthy scales and mucus.

Bshary believed that market forces could explain the differences in service quality. He began his research in the Red Sea, where he divided the wrasses’ clients into two categories: the floaters with big ranges, who could travel between several cleaning stations; and the residents with small ranges, who couldn’t reach more than a single cleaning station. Floaters would be able to shop among stations, Bshary reasoned, while residents would not. Indeed, Bshary found that the floaters almost always received prompter and gentler treatment. The wrasses made residents wait longer for cleaning and were also much more likely to munch on residents’ healthy scales and mucus, demonstrating another well-known law of economics: Monopolists are jerks.

The Secret Economic Lives of Animals

Quote of the Day

For what purpose do you choose to read? Tell me. For if you only direct your purpose to being amused or learning something, you are a silly fellow and incapable of enduring labour. But if you refer reading to the proper end, what else is this than a tranquil and happy life? But if reading does not secure for you a happy and tranquil life, what is the use of it.

- Discourses, 4.4 by  Epictetus

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Hundred Years of Crypto Anarchy

This is Ft. Knox. There’s something like $200B worth of gold stored here. A game theorist might reckon that it’s economically rational to spend up to $199B to break into the vault and steal the gold.

Except that we have a $600 billion defense budget. In the physical world, whoever has the biggest weapons gets to make the rules.

This isn’t true for the digital world. Encryption is cheap to defend and expensive to attack. To brute force a 128-bit RSA key would take a million billion years with a supercomputer.

Threats of violence are useless here.

- More Here

How America Lost It's Mind !

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet the institutions and forces that once kept us from indulging the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—have enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades.

A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes “miracle cures” on his daily TV show. Cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. When a political-science professor attacks the idea “that there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable.

Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and truthiness and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the past several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks, which Donald Trump slid down right into the White House.


The idea that progress has some kind of unstoppable momentum, as if powered by a Newtonian law, was always a very American belief. However, it’s really an article of faith, the Christian fantasy about history’s happy ending reconfigured during and after the Enlightenment as a set of modern secular fantasies. It reflects our blithe conviction that America’s visions of freedom and democracy and justice and prosperity must prevail in the end. I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland. I wonder whether it’s only America’s destiny, exceptional as ever, to unravel in this way. Or maybe we’re just early adopters, the canaries in the global mine, and Canada and Denmark and Japan and China and all the rest will eventually follow us down our tunnel. Why should modern civilization’s great principles—democracy, freedom, tolerance—guarantee great outcomes?

Yet because I’m an American, a fortunate American who has lived in a fortunate American century, I remain (barely) more of an optimist than a pessimist. Even as we’ve entered this long winter of foolishness and darkness, when too many Americans are losing their grip on reason and reality, it has been an epoch of astonishing hope and light as well. During these same past few decades, Americans reduced the rates of murder and violent crime by more than half. We decoded the human genome, elected an African American president, recorded the sound of two black holes colliding 1 billion years ago, and created Beloved, The Simpsons, Goodfellas, Angels in America, The Wire, The Colbert Report, Transparent, Hamilton. Since 1981, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the globe has plummeted from 44 percent to 10 percent. I do despair of our devolution into unreason and magical thinking, but not everything has gone wrong.

What is to be done? I don’t have an actionable agenda, Seven Ways Sensible People Can Save America From the Craziness. But I think we can slow the flood, repair the levees, and maybe stop things from getting any worse. If we’re splitting into two different cultures, we in reality-based America—whether the blue part or the smaller red part—must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and for future generations. We need to firmly commit to Moynihan’s aphorism about opinions versus facts. We must call out the dangerously untrue and unreal. A grassroots movement against one kind of cultural squishiness has taken off and lately reshaped our national politics—the opposition to political correctness. I envision a comparable struggle that insists on distinguishing between the factually true and the blatantly false.

It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims that George Soros and Uber are plotting to make his muscle car illegal—but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Things are in a sense so wrapped up in mystery that quite a few philosophers, even the exceptional ones, have concluded that they are wholly beyond our comprehension.  Even to the Stoics themselves they seem difficult to understand.  Indeed, every assent we give to the impressions of our senses is liable to error, for where is the man who never errs?

- Marcus Aurelius

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Quote of the Day

If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, depart from us in peace. We ask not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May your chains rest lightly upon you and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.

- Samuel Adams

Monday, August 7, 2017

Quote of the Day

[He] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.

- Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Smartphone Generation - A Statistical Portrait

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state.  He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few.

Historia Augusta

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Wisdom of the Week

Quote of the Day

Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings throughout many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted.

- Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas

Friday, August 4, 2017

Why Schools Don't Educate

Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic - because the community life which protects the dependent and the weak is dead. The products of schooling are, as I've said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on the telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves.

The daily misery around us is, I think, in large measure caused by the fact that - as Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago - we force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with its absurdities.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety, indeed it cuts you off from your own part and future, scaling you to a continuous present much the same way television does.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its "homework".

"How will they learn to read?" you say and my answer is "Remember the lessons of Massachusetts." When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them.

But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers, we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most, and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the "basics" anymore because they really aren't basic to the society we've made.

Two institutions at present control our children's lives - television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction. In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.

- More Here from John Taylor Gatto

Quote of the Day

If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.

- Isaiah Berlin

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Quote of the Day

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

- George Orwell

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Quote of the Day

The brain is heavily influenced by genes. But from birth through young adulthood, the part of the human brain that most defines us (frontal cortex) is less a product of the genes with which you started life than of what life has thrown at you. Because it is the least constrained by genes and most sculpted by experience. This must be so, to be the supremely complex social species that we are. Ironically, it seems that the genetic program of human brain development has evolved to, as much as possible, free the frontal cortext from genes.

- Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Monday, July 31, 2017

Quote of the Day

If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, July 30, 2017

That Idiot's State of Mind & Ours

For some mental-health practitioners, the ethical debate is a distraction from a larger point. In a forthcoming book called “Twilight of American Sanity,” Allen Frances, a professor emeritus at Duke University Medical College, argues that the more urgent concern is unravelling the national psyche that brought our politics to this moment. Frances told me, “We need to be looking in the mirror to see what’s wrong with us that would allow someone who is so unsuitable for the Presidency to rise to the highest and most dangerous office in the world. Trump’s psychology is far too obvious to be interesting. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to understand Trump. He’s the most transparent human being who ever lived. Giving it a name doesn’t explain it or change it.”

As Trump rages in the White House, the country has settled into a summer numbness. The protests have grown less frequent; the country has escaped to the beach; the latest cell-phone push notifications from news apps no longer produce a skip of the heart. Diagnosing that sense of permission and paralysis is an urgent problem, Frances said. “The instruments for dealing with Trump are political,” he added. “Psychological name-calling is an impotent avoidance of our responsibility as citizens, and it represents a failure to try to get insight into us, which is much more important.”

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, dont you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

It was early June when I walked through those same doors, to see what was going on. The D.O.E. makes its home in a long rectangular cinder-block-like building propped up on concrete stilts, just off the National Mall. It’s a jarring sight—as if someone had punched out a skyscraper and it never got back on its feet. It’s relentlessly ugly in the way the swamps around Newark Airport are ugly—so ugly that its ugliness bends back around into a sneaky kind of beauty: it will make an excellent ruin. Inside, the place feels like a lab experiment to determine just how little aesthetic stimulation human beings can endure. The endless hallways are floored with white linoleum and almost insistently devoid of personality. “Like a hospital, without the stretchers,” as one employee put it. But this place is at once desolate and urgent. People still work here, doing stuff that, if left undone, might result in unimaginable death and destruction.

By the time I arrived the first eighth of Trump’s first term was nearly complete, and his administration was still, largely, missing. He hadn’t nominated anyone to serve as head of the Patent Office, for instance, or to run FEMA. There was no Trump candidate to head the T.S.A., or anyone to run the Centers for Disease Control. The 2020 national census will be a massive undertaking for which there is not a moment to lose and yet there’s no Trump appointee in place to run it. “The actual government has not really taken over,” says Max Stier. “It’s kindergarten soccer. Everyone is on the ball. No one is at their positions. But I doubt Trump sees the reality. Everywhere he goes everything is going to be hunky-dory and nice. No one gives him the bad news.”

At this point in their administrations Obama and Bush had nominated their top 10 people at the D.O.E. and installed most of them in their offices. Trump had nominated three people and installed just one, former Texas governor Rick Perry. Perry is of course responsible for one of the D.O.E.’s most famous moments—when in a 2011 presidential debate he said he intended to eliminate three entire departments of the federal government. Asked to list them he named Commerce, Education, and … then hit a wall. “The third agency of government I would do away with ... Education ... the … ahhhh … ahhh … Commerce, and let’s see.” As his eyes bored a hole in his lectern, his mind drew a blank. “I can’t, the third one. I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” The third department Perry wanted to get rid of, he later recalled, was the Department of Energy. In his confirmation hearings to run the department Perry confessed that when he called for its elimination he hadn’t actually known what the Department of Energy did—and he now regretted having said that it didn’t do anything worth doing.

The question on the minds of the people who currently work at the department: Does he know what it does now? D.O.E. press secretary Shaylyn Hynes assures us that “Secretary Perry is dedicated to the missions of the Department of Energy.” And in his hearings, Perry made a show of having educated himself. He said how useful it was to be briefed by former secretary Ernest Moniz. But when I asked someone familiar with those briefings how many hours Perry had spent with Moniz, he laughed and said, “That’s the wrong unit of account.” With the nuclear physicist who understood the D.O.E. perhaps better than anyone else on earth, according to one person familiar with the meeting, Perry had spent minutes, not hours. “He has no personal interest in understanding what we do and effecting change,” a D.O.E. staffer told me in June. “He’s never been briefed on a program—not a single one, which to me is shocking.”

Since Perry was confirmed, his role has been ceremonial and bizarre. He pops up in distant lands and tweets in praise of this or that D.O.E. program while his masters inside the White House create budgets to eliminate those very programs. His sporadic public communications have had in them something of the shell-shocked grandmother trying to preside over a pleasant family Thanksgiving dinner while pretending that her blind-drunk husband isn’t standing naked on the dining-room table waving the carving knife over his head.


What’s the second risk on your list?,” I ask.

“North Korea would be up there,” says MacWilliams.

Why do I, as an incoming official at the D.O.E., need to be worried about North Korea?

MacWilliams explains, patiently, that there lately have been signs that the risk of some kind of attack by North Korea is increasing. The missiles the North Koreans have been firing into the sea are not the absurd acts of a lunatic mind but experiments. Obviously, the D.O.E. is not the only agency inside the U.S. government trying to make sense of these experiments, but the people inside the national labs are the world’s most qualified to determine just what North Korea’s missiles can do. “For a variety of reasons the risk curve has changed,” says MacWilliams guardedly. “The risks of mistakes being made and lots of people being killed is increasing dramatically. It wouldn’t necessarily be a nuclear weapon they might deliver. It could be sarin gas.”

As he doesn’t want to go into further detail and maybe divulge information I am not cleared to hear, I press him to move on. “O.K., give me the third risk on your list.”

“This is in no particular order,” he says with remarkable patience. “But Iran is somewhere in the top five.” He’d watched Secretary Moniz help negotiate the deal that removed from Iran the capacity to acquire a nuclear weapon. There were only three paths to a nuclear weapon. The Iranians might produce enriched uranium—but that required using centrifuges. They might produce plutonium—but that required a reactor that the deal had dismantled and removed. Or they might simply go out and buy a weapon on the open market. The national labs played a big role in policing all three paths. “These labs are incredible national resources, and they are directly responsible for keeping us safe,” said MacWilliams. “It’s because of  them that we can say with absolute certainty that Iran cannot surprise us with a nuclear weapon.” After the deal was done, U.S. Army officers had approached D.O.E. officials to thank them for saving American lives. The deal, they felt sure, had greatly lessened the chance of yet another war in the Middle East that the United States would inevitably be dragged into.

At any rate, the serious risk in Iran wasn’t that the Iranians would secretly acquire a weapon. It was that the president of the United States would not understand his nuclear scientists’ reasoning about the unlikelihood of the Iranians’ obtaining a weapon, and that he would have the United States back away foolishly from the deal. Released from the complicated set of restrictions on its nuclear-power program, Iran would then build its bomb. It wasn’t enough to have the world’s finest forensic nuclear physicists. Our political leaders needed to be predisposed to listen to them and equipped to understand what they say.

Yeah, well, never mind science—we’ll deal with Iran, I could hear some Trump person thinking to himself.

- More Here from Mike Lewis

Quote of the Day

There’s no point in being nuts if you can’t have some fun with it.

- John Nash, A Beautiful Mind

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Case for Cursing

You know when you stub your toe and involuntarily utter an expletive? You probably didn’t give it much thought, but you might have been on to something.

As children we’re taught that cursing, even when we’re in pain, is inappropriate, betrays a limited vocabulary or is somehow low class in that ambiguous way many cultural lessons suggest. But profanity serves a physiological, emotional and social purpose — and it’s effective only because it’s inappropriate.

“The paradox is that it’s that very act of suppression of the language that creates those same taboos for the next generation,” said Benjamin K. Bergen, author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.” He calls this the “profanity paradox.”

“The reason that a child thinks the F-word is a bad word is that, growing up, he or she was told that it was a bad word, so profanity is a cultural construct that perpetuates itself through time,” said Dr. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s an affliction of its own creation.”

Swearing and cursing are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference in their origins. A curse implies damning or punishing someone, while a swear word suggests blasphemy — invoking a deity to empower your words. For the sake of modern discussion, both words are defined as profanity: vulgar, socially unacceptable language you don’t use in polite conversation.

The paradox is that profane words are powerful only because we make them powerful. Without their being censored, all of the words we designate by a first letter and “-word” would just be average terms.

In “The Stuff of Thought,” Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and a professor at Harvard, listed a few functions of swearing. There’s emphatic swearing, for instance, which is meant to highlight a point, and dysphemistic swearing, which is meant to make a point provocatively.

But swearing is beneficial beyond making your language more colorful. It can also offer catharsis. A study co-authored by Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. So when you stub your toe and howl an expletive, it might help you tolerate the pain better.

- More Here

Paving the Future of Blockchain Technology

The advent of these massive mining pools and the consequent power bestowed on the organizations behind them really begin to challenge the idea of Bitcoin as a decentralized cryptocurrency while increasing the possibility of 51% attacks, which we’ll discuss later. In short, if the trend continues, we may reach a state where new bitcoin discovery is almost completely dominated by the largest miners.

Micali instead proposes Algorand, an incentive-less public blockchain that attacks the Byzantine Generals’ Problem by swapping out the generals in each round through a randomization process. While I won’t discuss the mechanics in detail here, this approach avoids the amount of computation resources needed for proof-of-work and yields faster transactions as a result.

The differing approaches revolve around the interesting philosophical question about whether humans are dominated by their altruistic or selfish urges as a whole. Proponents of Micali point to chronic, altruistic seeders on Bittorrent and distributed computing projects like Genome@Home as evidence that we do not always need incentives to promote altruistic behavior. Meanwhile, Vitalik Buterin and Vlad Zamfir of the Ethereum Foundation are firmly in the opposite camp, believing that without incentives and penalties, people can be at best apathetic (why even log on?) and at worst malicious.

While the bulk of the blockchain movement embraces the idea of incentives and cryptoeconomics, it is definitely possible that Micali’s system and variants of it may take root in parallel.

It is an open question of whether you need incentives or not, and I don’t think it can be determined in an academic model. It is actually going to be determined by evidence. You launch something and you see what happens. — Charles Hoskinson, Previous Ethereum CEO

While Bitcoin’s PoW system is not perfect, the fact remains that the paradigm-shifting, cryptoeconomic principles it was built on (cryptography to secure the past, economics to ensure the future) have led to its survival and adoption for almost a decade.


To assess the design of protocol capability to mitigate these existing and theoretical flaws in these security models, developers utilize two concepts:

The first is the cryptoeconomic security margin, which measures the consequences (in dollars lost) of those violating a protocol guarantee. Theoretically, since the attacker can execute the P + epsilon attack at zero cost provided he or she has the budget, Bitcoin’s PoW system can be said to have a cryptoeconomic security margin of zero!

Cryptoeconomic proof is somewhat similar; it is an assurance or message from a participant in the network that something is true. In the event that it turns out not to be true, that participant will lose a certain amount of money.

So let us examine the most ambitious project on blockchain tech today — the coming Casper update to Ethereum that attempts to drill to the heart of these problems by switching the platform proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. While a discussion about the intricacies of Casper’s Proof-of-Stake (PoS) system is beyond the scope of this article, in short PoS seeks to provide a very large cryptoeconomic security margin by enforcing large security deposits of Ethereum in lieu of computing power in order to serve as a validator. This security deposit, or cryptoeconomic proof, acts as a potent deterrent. The message is clear — cause trouble and lose everything!

Casper forces participants to enter a SchellingCoin Game (as outlined by our iron-styrofoam throne example) where they are forced to bet their security deposits on what the majority will be. Using the same recursive logic we discussed in the iron throne game, the majority of participants will accurately vote on which transactions are valid because each participant expects everyone else to reach the same conclusion. As such, PoS is resistant to the P + epsilon attack because the attacker will have to credibly show an enormous budget to subsidize the participants’ security deposits in the event that they end up voting in the minority.

In the context of the security models, we can see Casper’s resilience in the uncoordinated choice model and from bribing attackers. Casper is also theoretically susceptible to the 51% attack stemming from the coordinated choice model. However, like Bitcoin, as Ethereum grows the costs of doing such an attack are so prohibitive as to almost completely discourage it. In Casper’s case, the threat of losing the stakes of all involved is an even stronger deterrent.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.

- Leonardo da Vinci

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Deep Learning for NLP Best Practices

Word embeddings

Word embeddings are arguably the most widely known best practice in the recent history of NLP. It is well-known that using pre-trained embeddings helps (Kim, 2014) [12]. The optimal dimensionality of word embeddings is mostly task-dependent: a smaller dimensionality works better for more syntactic tasks such as named entity recognition (Melamud et al., 2016) [44] or part-of-speech (POS) tagging (Plank et al., 2016) [32], while a larger dimensionality is more useful for more semantic tasks such as sentiment analysis (Ruder et al., 2016) [45].


While we will not reach the depths of computer vision for a while, neural networks in NLP have become progressively deeper. State-of-the-art approaches now regularly use deep Bi-LSTMs, typically consisting of 3-4 layers, e.g. for POS tagging (Plank et al., 2016) and semantic role labelling (He et al., 2017) [33]. Models for some tasks can be even deeper, cf. Google's NMT model with 8 encoder and 8 decoder layers (Wu et al., 2016) [20]. In most cases, however, performance improvements of making the model deeper than 2 layers are minimal (Reimers & Gurevych, 2017) [46].

These observations hold for most sequence tagging and structured prediction problems. For classification, deep or very deep models perform well only with character-level input and shallow word-level models are still the state-of-the-art (Zhang et al., 2015; Conneau et al., 2016; Le et al., 2017) [28, 29, 30].

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Leaders should never be satisfied. They must always strive to improve, and they must build that mind-set into the team. They must face the facts through a realistic, brutally honest assessment of themselves and their team’s performance. Identifying weaknesses, good leaders seek to strengthen them and come up with a plan to overcome challenges. The best teams anywhere, like the SEAL Teams, are constantly looking to improve, add capability, and push the standards higher. It starts with the individual and spreads to each of the team members until this becomes the culture, the new standard. The recognition that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders facilitates Extreme Ownership and enables leaders to build high-performance teams that dominate on any battlefield, literal or figurative.

- Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Quote of the Day

Becoming a modern society is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities that make a society Western, in contrast, are special: the classical legacy, Christianity, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society.

- Samuel P. Huntington

Monday, July 24, 2017

Samuel Huntington Anticipated the Current Political & Intellectual Battles

To understand our current turmoil, the most relevant of Huntington’s books is not “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996) or even “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” (2004), whose fans reportedly include self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer. It is the lesser-known and remarkably prescient “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” published 36 years ago.

In that work, Huntington points to the gap between the values of the American creed — liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism — and the government’s efforts to live up to those values as the central tension of American life. “At times, this dissonance is latent; at other times, when creedal passion runs high, it is brutally manifest, and at such times, the promise of American politics becomes its central agony.”

Whether debating health care, taxes, immigration or war, Americans invariably invoke the founding values to challenge perceived injustices. Reforms cannot merely be necessary or sensible; they must be articulated and defended in terms of the creed. This is why Trump’s opponents attack his policies by declaring not only that they are wrong but that “that’s not who we are.” As Huntington puts it, “Americans divide most sharply over what brings them together.”

The book looks back to the Revolutionary War, the Jacksonian age, the Progressive era and the 1960s as moments of high creedal passions, and Huntington’s descriptions capture America today. In such moments, he writes, discontent is widespread, and authority and expertise are questioned; traditional values of liberty, individualism, equality and popular control of government dominate public debates; politics is characterized by high polarization and constant protest; hostility toward power, wealth and inequality grows intense; social movements focused on causes such as women’s rights and criminal justice flourish; and new forms of media emerge devoted to advocacy and adversarial journalism.

Huntington even predicts the timing of America’s next fight: “If the periodicity of the past prevails,” he writes, “a major sustained creedal passion period will occur in the second and third decades of the twenty-first century.”

We’re right on schedule.

- More Here

Future of Deep Learning

  • Models will be more like programs, and will have capabilities that go far beyond the continuous geometric transformations of the input data that we currently work with. These programs will arguably be much closer to the abstract mental models that humans maintain about their surroundings and themselves, and they will be capable of stronger generalization due to their rich algorithmic nature.
  • In particular, models will blend algorithmic modules providing formal reasoning, search, and abstraction capabilities, with geometric modules providing informal intuition and pattern recognition capabilities. AlphaGo (a system that required a lot of manual software engineering and human-made design decisions) provides an early example of what such a blend between symbolic and geometric AI could look like.
  • They will be grown automatically rather than handcrafted by human engineers, using modular parts stored in a global library of reusable subroutines—a library evolved by learning high-performing models on thousands of previous tasks and datasets. As common problem-solving patterns are identified by the meta-learning system, they would be turned into a reusable subroutine—much like functions and classes in contemporary software engineering—and added to the global library. This achieves the capability for abstraction.
  • This global library and associated model-growing system will be able to achieve some form of human-like "extreme generalization": given a new task, a new situation, the system would be able to assemble a new working model appropriate for the task using very little data, thanks to 1) rich program-like primitives that generalize well and 2) extensive experience with similar tasks. In the same way that humans can learn to play a complex new video game using very little play time because they have experience with many previous games, and because the models derived from this previous experience are abstract and program-like, rather than a basic mapping between stimuli and action.
  • As such, this perpetually-learning model-growing system could be interpreted as an AGI—an Artificial General Intelligence. But don't expect any singularitarian robot apocalypse to ensue: that's a pure fantasy, coming from a long series of profound misunderstandings of both intelligence and technology. This critique, however, does not belong here.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.

- Mark Twain

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.

- Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

- The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Quote of the Day

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

- Ernest Hemingway

Friday, July 21, 2017

Quote of the Day

We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right - one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.

- Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Quote of the Day

Just because someone screwed up your past, it doesn’t mean you should give them permission to screw up your future.

- Zig Ziglar

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Quote of the Day

The more precise you are, in general the more likely you are to be wrong.

- J.L. Austin

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Quote of the Day

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.

- Viktor Frankl

Monday, July 17, 2017

Quote of the Day

I repeat this history because I don’t think moral obliviousness is built in a day. It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a person’s mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing; to take the normal human yearning to be good and replace it with a single-minded desire for material conquest; to take the normal human instinct for kindness and replace it with a law-of-the-jungle mentality.

It took a few generations of the House of Trump, in other words, to produce Donald Jr.

- David Brooks

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Quote of the Day

If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more tranquility. But to eliminate the necessary actions, we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well.

-  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

Lesson 1 - Scope Matters

In discussing large-scale models, it’s difficult to avoid mentioning Jorge Luis Borges’s thought experiment about a 1:1 scale map from “On Exactitude in Science”:

“In time, . . . the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”

The point we take from Borges (and from Cheramie) is that no model can be a complete recapitulation of the real world. Instead, we bracket off parts of the world, model those parts, and use the insights it gives us to make interventions in the world. The Army Corps couldn’t model the entire Missippi Basin drainage system either. They could only follow tributaries so far upstream before having to make generalized assumptions about the inputs to the system they modeled. They also couldn’t model all the outputs - their model doesn’t extend past Baton Rouge, let alone out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Similarly, the inputs for computer models are the outputs of other processes not captured by the model itself, and so the outputs of a model are only as valid as the understanding of the conditions that feed into it. If a minor creek jumps its bank upstream from region modeled by the Mississippi Basin Model, it could have downstream effects that the model could never capture. If the conditions that produce the data points we use to feed our model change, so too can the validity of our model change. The success of projects like AlphaGo rely on modeling closed systems, e.g. the game of Go, which is why AI for games are (relatively) easy and applied, real-world AI is much harder. Machine learning is great at predicting the future when the future resembles the past, but it takes a lot more to predict the lay of the land when the ground shifts under our feet.

Lesson 2 - Materials Matter

In building their Mississippi Basin Model, the Army Corps had to approximate the “real world” with the materials they had at their disposal. The engineers shaped and textured concrete, installed brass plugs, and accordion-folded sheet metal to approximate the incredibly complex effects of trees, sand, clay, roads, and crops on the speed, direction, and volume of water passing over the landscape in high-water conditions. They had to develop a measure of “frictional resistance” to translate between the real world of rocks and trees and the model world of concrete and metal. In computer modeling, the proxies we choose to represent the real world are just as important. We don’t know where people are, necessarily, but we do have a great degree of confidence about where their GPS-enabled phones are. Similarly, another example of this comes from the world of computer vision, where attempts to produce soccer highlights from video struggled with following the ball (exciting moments are more likely the closer the ball is to the goal). Eventually, one team discovered that players tend to follow the ball, and players are easier to track, so the players became a useful proxy for addressing a harder question.

It is from these approximations of reality that we’re able to train the coefficients of our models, and so, importantly, the proxies we choose are the materials that shape how inputs relate to outputs. The models themselves have a material affect on outputs, too. If we assume that inputs are linear, and put them in to a linear model, they will produce a linear output. If the relationship between inputs and outputs is not actually linear, then the model will not fit, in every sense of the word. The Mississippi Basin Model had to pick and choose what it could approximate, and reduce everything else to coefficients. Wetlands disappeared form the model, as did evaporation and siltation. The lesson Cheramie draws from this is that “it doesn’t matter how much territory the model covers if it relies on the amputation of inconvenient complexities to be manageable. The simulation becomes thin.” Computer models can manage a great deal more complexity than physical models, but the crucial complexity that data scientists should pay careful attention to is the material relationship between the reality we hope to model and the proxies we choose to represent that reality. Neural networks with external memory, that learn to remember and recollect, are attempts to build “context awareness” and long-term memory into neural networks. This can be understood as an attempt to model a larger chunk of the world, to bring in more materials without having to explicitly declare every variable worth considering.

Learning from Real-World Models: The Mississippi Basin Model and Machine Learning

Quote of the Day

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

- Isaac Asimov

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

I have seen many storms in my life. Most storms have caught me by surprise, so I had to learn very quickly to look further and understand that I am not capable of controlling the weather, to exercise the art of patience and to respect the fury of nature.

- Paulo Coelho

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Quote of the Day

Of all the plants that cover the earth and lie like a fringe of hair upon the body of our grandmother, try to obtain knowledge that you may be strengthened in life.

- Winnebago (Native American) (on nature)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Quote of the Day

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These "anti-realist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial -- notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

- Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Sunday, July 9, 2017

John Roberts’ Commencement Speech @ his Son’s 9th Grade Graduation

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

- via MR

Quote of the Day

Don't wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.

- Albert Camus

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

The METI group aims to improve on the Arecibo message not just by targeting specific planets, like that super-earth orbiting Gliese, but also by rethinking the nature of the message itself. ‘‘Drake’s original design plays into the bias that vision is universal among intelligent life,’’ Vakoch told me. Visual diagrams — whether formed through semiprime grids or engraved on plaques — seem like a compelling way to encode information to us because humans happen to have evolved an unusually acute sense of vision. But perhaps the aliens followed a different evolutionary path and found their way to a technologically advanced civilization with an intelligence that was rooted in some other sense: hearing, for example, or some other way of perceiving the world around them for which there is no earthly equivalent.

Like so much of the SETI/METI debate, the question of visual messaging quickly spirals out into a deeper meditation, in this instance on the connection between intelligence and visual acuity. It is no accident that eyes developed independently so many times over the course of evolution on Earth, given the fact that light conveys information faster than any other conduit. That transmission-speed advantage would presumably apply on other planets in the Goldilocks zone, even if they happened to be on the other side of the Milky Way, and so it seems plausible that intelligent creatures would evolve some sort of visual system as well.

But even more universal than sight would be the experience of time. Hans Freudenthal’s ‘‘Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse,’’ a seminal book of exosemiotics published more than a half-century ago, relied heavily on temporal cues in its primer stage. Vakoch and his collaborators have been working with Freudenthal’s language in their early drafts for the message. In Lincos, duration is used as a key building block. A pulse that lasts for a certain stretch (say, in human terms, one second) is followed by a sequence of pulses that signify the ‘‘word’’ for one; a pulse that lasts for six seconds is followed by the word for six. The words for basic math properties can be conveyed by combining pulses of different lengths. You might demonstrate the property of addition by sending the word for ‘‘three’’ and ‘‘six’’ and then sending a pulse that lasts for nine seconds. ‘‘It’s a way of being able to point at objects when you don’t have anything right in front of you,’’ Vakoch explains.


All of which takes us back to a much more down-to-earth, but no less challenging, question: Who gets to decide? After many years of debate, the SETI community established an agreed-­upon procedure that scientists and government agencies should follow in the event that the SETI searches actually stumble upon an intelligible signal from space. The protocols specifically ordain that ‘‘no response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.’’ But an equivalent set of guidelines does not yet exist to govern our own interstellar outreach.

One of the most thoughtful participants in the METI debate, Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto, has argued that our decisions about extraterrestrial contact are ultimately more political than scientific. ‘‘If I had to take a position, I’d say that broad consultation regarding METI is essential, and so I greatly respect the efforts in that direction,’’ Denning says. ‘‘But no matter how much consultation there is, it’s inevitable that there will be significant disagreement about the advisability of transmitting, and I don’t think this is the sort of thing where a simple majority vote or even supermajority should carry the day . . . so this keeps bringing us back to the same key question: Is it O.K. for some people to transmit messages at significant power when other people don’t want them to?’’

In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.

‘‘I think we need to rethink the message process so that we are sending a series of increasingly inclusive messages,’’ Vakoch says. ‘‘Any message that we initially send would be too narrow, too incomplete. But that’s O.K. Instead, what we should be doing is thinking about how to make the next round of messages better and more inclusive. We ideally want a way to incorporate both technical expertise — people who have been thinking about these issues from a range of different disciplines — and also getting lay input. I think it’s often been one or the other. One way we can get lay input in a way that makes a difference in terms of message content is to survey people about what sorts of things they would want to say. It’s important to see what the general themes are that people would want to say and then translate those into a Lincos-like message.’’

When I asked Denning where she stands on the METI issue, she told me: ‘‘I have to answer that question with a question: Why are you asking me? Why should my opinion matter more than that of a 6-year-old girl in Namibia? We both have exactly the same amount at stake, arguably, she more than I, since the odds of being dead before any consequences of transmission occur are probably a bit higher for me, assuming she has access to clean water and decent health care and isn’t killed far too young in war.’’ She continued: ‘‘I think the METI debate may be one of those rare topics where scientific knowledge is highly relevant to the discussion, but its connection to obvious policy is tenuous at best, because in the final analysis, it’s all about how much risk the people of Earth are willing to tolerate. . . . And why exactly should astronomers, cosmologists, physicists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, sci-fi authors or anyone else (in no particular order), get to decide what those tolerances should be?’’

- Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.) by Steven Johnson

Quote of the Day

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

- Christopher Hitchens

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Two Problems With Science

On the one hand, we have outright fraud – i.e. making up data, or otherwise lying, breaking the basic rules of science.

On the other hand we have questionable practices such as: publication bias, p-value fishing, the File Drawer, sample size peeking, post-hoc storytelling, and all of the other dark arts that can lead to false positive science. These are permissible, even encouraged, by the current rules of doing and publishing science.

These two problems are similar in some ways – they’re both “bad science”, they both lead to failures to replicate, etc. – but in underlying essence they’re very different, so much so that I’m not sure they can be usefully discussed in the same breath.

Fraud and questionable practices are different in terms of their harms. Fraud is a more serious act and it causes local harm, introducing major errors into the record. But in terms of its overall effects, I believe questionable practices are worse, as they systematically distort science: ensuring that, in some cases, it is difficult to publish anything but errors.


In finance, you have some people who break the rules. Bernie Madoff is the current poster boy for this. Such people harm others by outright criminal acts. But then we have the people who play by the rules, and still cause harm. The global financial crisis was in essence caused by all of the major American banks going all-in on a bet, and losing. Yet no-one broke the rules: the regulations allowed banks to gamble. The problem was not rule-breaking, but the rules (or lack thereof).

Here’s the curious thing: the financial crisis did more harm than Madoff’s scam, even though what Madoff did – theft by fraud – was more immoral than what the bankers did – gambling unwisely.

That’s confusing to our ethical sense and our emotions (who should we feel more angry at? Who’s ‘worse’?) but it’s really no surprise: precisely because what the banks did was above board, everyone did it so the damage was huge. If it had been illegal for banks to gamble all their money at once, individual banks might still have broken that rule, locally, but it’s unlikely that the system would have been threatened.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this: everyone following bad rules is often worse than individuals breaking good rules.

- More Here