Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

This is one of those books everyone is supposed to have read, but I certainly never had. It's very powerful because he talks in detail about the realities of slavery, some of which I had never contemplated. Most disturbing was the fact that so many slave owners would get their female slaves pregnant. Frederick Douglass was most likely the son of his master, and that let him speak first hand of the horrors of what that means. Not only does it mean being ostracized by other slaves for being lighter, and being hated and punished by that master's wife, but also being treated worse than the others by the master because he wants to show that he is not giving any special treatment. He talks at length about the less obvious horrors of slavery, some of which gets deep into interesting human psychology. Observations about how the more religious a slaveholder is, the crueler they are likely to be are thought-provoking, as was his discussion of the nature of the Christmas holiday in slaveholding households, where slaves were encouraged to get drunk to the point of extreme discomfort so that returning to work seems more comfortable, coming away with the unconscious message that one is better off not being free. I particularly liked his tales of how he learned to read, and how the fact that his master forbid him learning to read served as a primary motivator to actually do it. One thing I thought was very clever was that after moving to the city, he would make friends with free white children, and challenge them to writing contests, learning from them in the process.
Eventually, he tells tales of attempting to escape, but unfortunately, when he does actually escape, he doesn't share details of how it actually happened, because he doesn't want to incriminate those who helped him. Maybe he tells that story in another of his works -- I wonder. Regardless, the thing that makes the book great is the frankness and the details. Reading it, it paints a clear picture of how barbaric life was just a few generations ago, and makes it hard to understand how slavery could have lasted so long.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Star Wars Super Graphic

This fun book by Tim Leong is a collection of cute charts and graphs of Star Wars information. I picked it up because, well, sometimes I'm expected to say intelligent things about Star Wars. I've never been a super fan, but I do appreciate the solidity of the world. Anyway, the book is fun. Some of the charts are just jokes with no real info, but others are very thought provoking. I think my favorites were a graphic showing all the times there has been a dismemberment (every movie but Episode I); how long it would take to watch all the movies (17 hours), read all the comics (18 hours), and read all the novels (81 hours); and a map showing the chronological travels of R2-D2. I really like any world solid enough that you can chart out things like that. One day, I hope to make a giant map of the complete travels of the TARDIS. No Episode 8 in this book, though, but now he's got an excuse for a new edition.

Friday, January 5, 2018


I heard about Paul Auster's novel novel in the London Review of Books. I always like unusual story structures, and also time travel, so the idea of a story told of four parallel lives of one person intrigued me. There is no sci-fi in it, it isn't really time travel. Just a storytelling structure where minor things are different in a person's life, and the ripple effects are illustrated. The chapters are numbered as 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, 2.2, ... so that we cycle through the four lives of the four versions of the protagonist. For me, by far, the most interesting parts were the childhoods of the four Archie Fergusons. As the characters grew older, it felt like the author was dwelling on memories of political events from the sixties that surely were a big deal at the time, but to me felt stale and dull. The autobiography of the book shows through a great deal -- for many parts of it, one gets the feeling that the author has set aside storytelling in favor of remembering, which felt somewhat self-indulgent to me. I did the audiobook, read by the author, and I felt sure that I could hear a different tone in his voice when moving from storytelling into remembering.

In short, I liked the front parts better than the back parts, and did feel like it went on longer than was polite. It did manage to come around to a clever sort of conclusion. In some ways, the book made me think of Proust, the way it is self-indulgent, and so much about memory and detail. I didn't regret reading it, but on the other hand, I can't say I recommend it, either. Maybe if it was 40% shorter and had a few more surprises in it, I would. When it was focused on storytelling, I liked it -- but during the times where it felt like the author was writing for himself and not for us, I was sad because it makes the book feel like a clever idea that didn't really reach its full potential.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

I finally got around to finishing this book by philosopher Nick Bostrom. The book takes the point of view that once superintelligence (that is, greater than human intelligence) shows up, it will accelerate itself to quickly become incredibly powerful, and potentially very dangerous, possibly leading to the elimination or enslavement of the human race. This is a rational idea on the face of it, but the more I reflect upon it, the less it worries me. I think there are reasonable worries to have about superintelligence, but I don't think that extermination or enslavement are the real worries here. In short, here are...

 Five Reasons Jesse Schell Is Not Worried About Superintelligence. 
1) AIs are generally there to help humans. AIs are going to be created by humans, to serve human interest. There won't just be "one big AI", or "singleton" as Bostrom nerdily terms it, there will be thousands of AIs, created for thousands of purposes. The vast majority of these purposes will be for serving humanity, or at least serving certain subsets of humanity (corporations, institutions, nations, etc.). If some AI does want to destroy or enslave humanity, it will need to do so in opposition to the thousands of AIs that are trying to help humanity. It is kind of like worrying that human beings will destroy all cats. Yes, we could do that, if we all wanted to, but we don't want to. And even if 10% of the population really set their minds to destroying all cats, they would have a hell of a fight on their hands.
2) AIs have no meaningful competition with humans for anything. It is natural for humans to assume that intelligent AIs will have human-type wants and needs: most centrally, survival. But AI brains are likely not to have such a strong focus on survival as human brains. Humans must focus strongly on survival because we are so fragile. We only live a short time, and can only reproduce for an even shorter time. Further, our brains are insanely fragile. Deprived of oxygenated blood for five seconds, and our brains undergo irreversible chemical reactions that completely destroy them. AIs don't have to worry about any of this. They can be backed up, paused, rebooted, and replicated endlessly. So, except in cases where it is engineered into them, they won't be struggling for survival, and certainly not in a competitive way with humans.
3) Intelligence is overrated. Philosophers and other intelligent people naturally have a bias towards overvaluing intelligence. But in reality, intelligence and power do not seem strongly correlated. Take a look at lists of the most intelligent people and the most powerful people. If the most intelligent people can't take over the world, why would the most intelligent machines be able to do it? Further, who is to say that the value of intelligence continues to increase linearly as "thinking power" increases? Perhaps, as with many things, there are diminishing returns after a certain point, and it is not out of the question that we are near that point already.
4) Hardware exceeds expectations, software never does. When predicting the future, two common mistakes are to undervalue how much computing hardware will improve, and to overvalue how much software will improve. Brains are software. And, yes, we're making great strides towards improving AI -- but the idea of software suddenly getting super great overnight by training itself seems unlikely, because true intelligence involves such a complex matrix, and it can't be achieved simply by thinking, it must get there through doing and getting feedback, which can be fast for things easily simulated, but slow for things that can't. Say, for example, you wanted an AI to get good at playing with a dog. Using evolutionary AI techniques, you would need the AI to play with a dog in millions of experimental iterations, and comprehend the dog's reaction. It's just not practical. This isn't to say that AI won't advance -- it will, and it can on one-dimensional simulable problems. But that's a small subset of intelligence, and for that reason, I suspect that the 2020's (and probably 2030's) will be the decade of AI idiot savants.
5) The revolution will be slow. I've been following AI closely for thirty-five years. In the 80's, I assumed, as did many others, that we'd have human level AI by the year 2000. Turns out it's way slower than that, and we have a long, long way to go. We are going to see some amazing advances, but like all software, it is going to be flaky, slow, problematic and disappointing. We are going to have decades to figure out how we are going to deal with it, and being humans, we are going to make it all about us, all about serving our needs. This isn't to say that there won't be problems, accidents, and disasters. There will be -- just like there are computer viruses. But computer viruses won't destroy computing, any more than viruses will wipe out life on earth -- it just isn't in anyone's interest, not even the interest of the virus.

I suspect that the most positive thing that will arise from the development of superintelligence will be that it will force the human race to figure out what we actually value. Technology will bring the problematic gifts of immortality and superintelligence, and we'll be given the choice of giving up humanity for something theoretically better. But are these things better? We'll have to decide what it is about humanity that we value. Is life better if we give up negative emotions? If we give up suffering? If we give up death? Being forced to confront these questions will be good for us. Personally, I think that superintelligence is far less dangerous to our humanity than immortality is, since so much of what it means to be human is centered on survival of the individual and the species. I suspect, looking back from the year 2100, we will find that immortality was the real peril to our species.

Those are my thoughts for now. I did appreciate all the thought that went into this book, it gave a lot of good structure to think about and react to. For no good reason, it makes use of words like "propaedeutic," but they serve as a good illustration as to why intelligence of any kind is unlikely to conquer the world anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Modern Times

Here's another Chaplin film that everyone knows from the iconic gear scene, but I think very few people have seen all the way through. I really think of it as Chaplin's masterpiece. It presents itself as a silent film, but it isn't, really -- it has a recorded soundtrack, which includes talking -- however, it largely follows a creepy rule: In Modern Times, only machines are allowed to talk. The effects and editing are incredible, and the film keeps moving, vigorously, from scene to scene. I never thought about it, but the passion for creating 8-bit games at this point in time is a lot like Chaplin continuing to make silent films into the late thirties. The message of the film is fascinating -- when men behave like machines they are degraded, but when they behave like humans, they are the most elevated, and the most successful. The film doesn't rub your nose in this, but sneaks up on it, and implies it, with tricky things like Chaplin's famous nonsense song at the end -- it's such a human situation, a human solution to a very human problem. This film will stay relevant until we truly understand, embrace, and protect what it means to be human, and we have a long way to go before we get there.

Also: Yeah, Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

It Happened One Night

This is one of those movies that I've heard about my whole life, largely made reference to by innumerable sitcoms where a new couple has to share a bedroom unexpectedly. The actresses in those shows always seemed to take on such an almost reverent attitude about the film, as if there was something in the romantic story that they aspired to in their real lives. But I can't say I've ever heard anyone in real life talk about the film that way. It is a very corny idea for a story -- heiress flees fiancee, and gets help dealing with harsh reality by a down-on-his-luck reporter, and they fall in love along the way. It's mostly a movie about moments -- the hitchhiking scene, the singing on the bus scene, and of course the "walls of Jericho" scene. And there is an undoubted chemistry between Colbert and Cooper. Frank Capra doesn't do a lot of love stories, so this one stands out compared to his other films. And there are so many fascinating stories around this film. Apparently Colbert wasn't interested in doing it, and they made the film incredibly fast (4 weeks) so they could meet her expensive weekly rate. It is based on a short story called Night Bus (that I would like to read sometime) that Capra apparently read in a magazine in a waiting room, and thought it would make a good film. After it was made, Colbert is said to have told her friends that she just made the worst picture of her career. It must have been quite a surprise, then, when the film won five Oscars, including Best Actress. Everything was working against this film, but there is something magical in it. I think it centers on the father character - the film does something very clever here, making a kind of straw man villain, and then taking that villain away, creating a sudden shift from external opposition to internal opposition, creating a "cave" situation where the protagonists must each transform for the story to resolve. It really is a sort of a rabbit out of a hat -- if you know a story that has the same structure as this one, I'd love to know about it.
And speaking of rabbits, apparently Bugs Bunny's carrot eating was inspired by the carrot scenes between Cooper and Colbert in this film. I guess it shows that when we make things, one never knows what effect they might one day have.

Monday, January 1, 2018


I was excited to see this book by Steven Johnson, especially given that I've liked some of his previous books, such as The Invention of Air, and Everything Bad Is Good For You. The central premise is that most serious advances in civilization begin in pursuit of pleasure, and often play. I believe this very firmly, it is part of what makes my life so interesting -- by focusing on new kinds of play, one is necessarily at the leading edge of technology, for while "serious" applications need new technologies to be at a certain level of maturity to be useful, playful applications can sculpt themselves around the strengths and weaknesses of the technology as it exists. One example I think of often is Hey You, Pikachu, the voice recognition game that Nintendo released in 1998. Of course, at that point the technology was so primitive that it often misunderstood what the player was saying, but the choice of Pikachu, who is mischievous and frequently disobeys his trainer, made it seem like it was part of the design. Johnson's book is full of dozens examples of this sort, going back to the beginnings of music, taverns, photography, and much else. The book was full of many stories I was very familar with (Hedy Lamarr using player piano technology to invent frequency-hopping torpedos, for instance), but also many about which I had never heard, including:

  • Inventor of the stereoscope
  • The origin of "phantasmagoria"
  • Edison being scared by a lion at the first theme park
  • Abner Doubleday almost certainly didn't invent baseball
  • Dice were added to chess, then taken away again
  • Native Americans discovering isoprene
  • The Game of Chess by Jacobus de Cessolis
  • Cardano predating Pascal re: probability theory
  • The existence of the Claude Glass

In all, it was a pleasing book, that I'm glad I read. I always have too many books around, more than my shelves can handle, and it is not a pleasing thing on the psyche. I have a pipe dream that I'll have an entry in this blog every day. Who knows? Maybe I can do it!