Thursday, May 31, 2018

Artificial Intelligence Is Better Than None

The carmaker Tesla has been in the news lately, and not in a good way. I’m not referring to business news about production holdups of the sort that occur in all manufacturing from time to time (recently in the Ford F150 line, for example), but to accidents involving the Tesla Autopilot. By the numbers, this self-driving feature is safer than a human driver. Much safer. Among human-driven cars in the U.S. there is 1 fatality for every 86,000,000 miles driven. For Autopiloted Teslas there is 1 per 320,000,000 miles – a 270% improvement. Yet, accidents do happen. In the past couple of months they include non-fatal collisions with a parked police car and a fire truck as well as a fatal collision with a dividing barrier: all on Autopilot.

Tesla X interior
Self-driving capability is a form of Artificial Intelligence, and accidents by AIs tend to be of a different character than those by people. People get distracted. They misjudge distance, speed, acceleration, risks, and time. They are careless. They deliberately take chances because of impatience or just for the sport of it. AI is great at speed/time/distance judgments, it doesn't get distracted, and it doesn’t know how to be careless. AI is not very good, though, at comprehending and responding to novel situations. People can tell the difference between a road and a road hazard in pretty much all circumstances, no matter how unusual. AIs might have trouble recognizing the difference in unfamiliar configurations. People often are foolish drivers, but they generally know when they are being foolish and taking risks. AIs don’t have a clue. This means that the AI accidents that do happen probably wouldn’t have happened had a human been driving. That more lives and property are saved by AI drivers than are lost to them provides no comfort to the victims. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the numbers, and the self-driving systems get better and less accident-prone each year.

The tech has come a long way since the early 2000s. In 2004 DARPA offered a $1 million prize to the winner of the Grand Challenge, a 150 mile course in the Mojave Desert to be driven by totally autonomous self-driving vehicles. Not a single one of the 15 vehicles that entered the race finished it. Three never made it past the starting line -- one of those three flipped over. In the 2005 race five out of 23 finished, though one of those exceeded the maximum 10-hour time limit. By 2007 the tech had advanced so much that the desert no longer was deemed sufficiently challenging, so the competition became the Urban Challenge complete with traffic lights and 4-way-stops. All 11 teams completed the course.

AIs, however, do not think like people and probably never will. The limitations of AI at making “common sense” judgments are what concern many folks not just with regard to civilian cars but with regard to the growing number of autonomous military robots. Said UN investigator Christof Heyns, “a decision to allow machines to be deployed to kill human beings deserves a collective pause worldwide." Yet, the military situation is analogous to self-driving cars. Presumably war machines won’t be unleashed except in combat situations, and in those circumstances they are less prone than people to friendly fire or to misidentifying targets – and they never act in anger or from fear. They, as The Economist noted, "have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot's judgment in the way it affects a soldier's." Robots, in short, are kinder: in effect, that is. They don’t understand kindness or cruelty as such. For that they would need consciousness – the meta-state of not only knowing but knowing that one knows – and outside of science fiction they are far from having that.

(Whether robots ever could be better than people at love as well as at war is a discussion I’ll leave to others, e.g. roboticist David Levy who authored Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships.)

As for cars, I’m not willing to surrender the steering of mine just yet. I don’t even like to use Cruise Control even though every vehicle I’ve bought for the past 25 years has had it. Nonetheless, it suits me just fine if all the other cars on the road are self-driving. I would feel happier and safer.

Radiohead – Killer Cars

Friday, May 25, 2018

Peruse to Snooze

Reading oneself to sleep has at least one advantage over late night television: only a lamp might be left on unintentionally when the sandman comes. That is preferable to being awakened at 3 in the morning by an infomercial shouting, “SuperKitchenWizardGoop can’t be bought in stores but if you call or go online NOW to buy a bottle at only $19.95 we’ll send you a second bottle ABSOLUTELY FREE!” So, more often than not, the former is my soporific of choice. The latest occupants of the end table:

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From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
I’ve written before about Doughty, her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and her quirky Ask a Mortician videos. Doughty’s start in the funeral business was as a crematory employee, but she since has founded a Los Angeles funeral parlor specializing in un-embalmed and casket-free natural burial: simple shroud straight in the ground. In her follow-up book to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty tells us of her world travels and her investigations of various funerary practices. They include ritual disinterment of the remains of family members for extended home visits in Indonesia, spa-like crematories in Japan, glass coffins in Barcelona, and open-air cremation in Colorado. One of her many points is that the American-style commercialized and expensive funeral industry seems normal to us only because we’re accustomed to it. There are other ways, and to the extent those ways insulate us less from the realities of mortality, they can be better for us in more respects than the degree of strain on one’s wallet. She argues persuasively that more realistic contemplation of and experience with death can enhance our appreciation of life.

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The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann
Many of the early-to-mid 20th century thinkers and scholars in the field of psychology are known by non-specialists today (if at all) mostly through summaries of their work in college textbooks – often written by very unsympathetic authors. Few have been caricatured more unfairly than Sigmund Freud, whose books deserve to be read in full; they remain valuable, insightful, and far more open-minded than commonly depicted. Neumann (1905-1960) has met similar modern-day dismissal, but this tome in particular remains worth a look. In it he describes the evolution of mythology – mostly though not exclusively Western – from Neolithic times to classical civilization and beyond: the changing prominence of Uroboros, the Great Mother, heroic journeys, et al.  He then argues that individual consciousness from childhood to adulthood parallels that mythological evolution.

The second part about individual consciousness isn’t convincing and wasn’t widely regarded as such in 1949 when the book was published. There are far less misleading ways to describe the development of consciousness post-infancy than by trying to shoe-horn it into a grand mythological framework. That said, his thoughts on mythology during and after the dawn of civilization actually are valuable, grounded in evidence, and intriguing, which is to say he ironically is a better historian than a psychologist.

**** ****

Head On by John Scalzi
John Scalzi writes well, accessibly, and wittily with a flavor reminiscent of golden age scifi authors. He is best known for his Old Man’s War series, which is military scifi ala Heinlein. He has an unrelated space opera series starting with Collapsing Empire; the second entry will be released this year. He also has a Lock In series, which is in a near-future detective genre, consisting so far of Lock In, the novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, and the most recent addition Head On.

The premise of the Lock In series is that a pandemic of a virulent variant of the flu has left a small percentage of the population completely paralyzed but fully competent mentally; these people are called Hadens after the name of the syndrome. Robots with full sensory apparatuses are developed that the Hadens can control remotely by thought. While their biological bodies remain bedridden and require care, they still can experience the world through the eyes and other senses of their robots. Like avatars in online games, their robots may bear little similarity to their actual selves. They can “travel” almost instantaneously by renting a robot in a distant city and operating that one instead the usual one. The Haden who is the first person narrator of the novels is FBI agent Chris Shane. Any initial image the reader might form of the character might well be revised as he or she notices that there is never a clear statement as to the sex of the bedridden biological Chris even though sex robots are a plot element in the second novel.

 In Head On, Hilketa is a brutal and rapidly expanding spectator sport played by Haden-operated specialty robots. The sport can be spectacularly violent since only machinery gets damaged; the operators remain safe in bed. When prominent athlete Duane Chapman dies – biologically dies – during a game as his robot is torn apart, Chris Shane and FBI partner Leslie Vann investigate. The investigation turns up fraud, questionable finance, sports franchise politics, adultery, drugs, arson, and murder. Questions are raised that we already ask about online activities: for example, is it adultery if it only involves your robot? The novel is a solid scifi-mystery-thriller.

**** ****

Basic Writings – Martin Heidegger
Heidegger is another 20th century thinker – a philosopher this time – who, outside of a corner of academia, is better known from summaries in textbooks than from his original writings. In truth, he is not among the philosophers I had read in depth. I knew him primarily from excerpts and from summaries of the textbook kind, so it was past time to pay him more attention. I can’t say it was a revelatory experience though his scholarship is undeniable. He reminds me of a prep school teacher I had long ago who was apt to return my essays with the notation “Define your terms!”

A rigorous examination of terms is indeed a legitimate and significant philosophical enterprise. Descartes convinced himself of his own existence by cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), but Heidegger, referring to this example, asks what it means to think and then proceeds to analyze the matter in detail. Define your terms, RenĂ©! In his seminal work Being and Time, he asks what we mean by “Being.” What do we mean by an entity and what do we mean when we say it exists? He tells us: “Insofar as Being constitutes what is asked about, and insofar as Being means the being of Beings, beings themselves turn out to be what is interrogated in the question of Being.” Got that? Good.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9 Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty, Jane Espenson, Karl Moline, Joss Whedon
Last year on the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, I praised the show as worthwhile fare both for teen and adult viewers:  All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy. The show lasted seven seasons ending in (considering its budget) a spectacular finale. Joss decided to follow up the series with a Season 8 in comic book form. Freed from the restrictions of live action TV, Season 8 is an over-the-top romp that would have broken even the most generous fx budget of any attempt to film it. Reviews of Season 8 weren’t uniformly positive, but I think that’s because the comic assumes the reader has an intimate familiarity with the TV series. A passing familiarity won’t do. Do you know why Willow flayed Warren alive? Do you know why she terminated her friendship with Amy the erstwhile rat? Do you know why Angel and Buffy avoid getting it on? If you answered no to any of those (and “passing familiarity” should be enough to get the last one) you’ll miss major character motivations in the comics. There are many such details that the comics presuppose the reader knows. If you have seen all seven seasons, however, Season 8 will make sense (Buffyverse sense) and will be fine fun.

Season 8 tied up the loose ends of the TV series well enough that I felt no particular urge to read any of the subsequent “seasons” – until now. Amazon kept prodding me about it with its recommendations and finally offered Season 9 at bargain prices. Season 9 is much more reminiscent in tone to the later seasons of the TV show. In the TV series Buffy lived a largely normal life when she wasn’t battling vampires and supernatural forces. In Season 9 she is back in form with a job as a barista and an apartment with roommates. Dawn and Xander have an adult relationship. Willow strives to return magic to the world: Buffy had destroyed the seed that permitted magic in Season 8. Season 9 once again presumes familiarity with the TV series and also to at least some degree with the spin-off series Angel – Illyria from the latter is a prominent character in the story arc. The characters are nicely complex: friends are not always reliable allies but villains sometimes are. As usual, events escalate so that only desperate action can prevent global catastrophe.  

**** ****

The shelves in my library have limited spare space, and appropriate wall space for yet another bookcase is running short, too. So, I always have to decide whether a recently finished book is shelfworthy. These five passed muster and can introduce themselves to their new neighbors on the shelves.

Green Day – At the Library

Sunday, May 20, 2018

May Maneuvers: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Garden State Rollergirls

Last night at its home Morristown track The Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted the Brick City Bruisers team of the Garden State Rollergirls (GSR). #12 Tess T. Rossa scored the first four points of the game for GSR: a first glimpse of a persistent talent for slipping through the pack. #8 Lil Mo Peep scored the first points for JDB, but in the early jams GSR built up an early lead 12-21. A single 19 point power jam by #3684 Californikate reversed the situation putting JDB in the lead for the first time 31-21. GSR showed an especially flexible blocking strategy, at one point racing ahead of JDB jammer Lil Mo Peep and other times forming walls; GSR also made frequent use of star passes. JDB blockers coordinated well and showed aggression. Jammers from both teams often pressured opposing lead jammers into calling off jams. JDB held its lead through the remainder of the first half, but not a safe one. In the final jam of the first half #1732 BlackEye Betty put 17 points on the board for GSR, putting the halftime score at 97-74.

The bout continued to be competitive in the bulk of the second half. Forceful blocking saw hard takedowns including of Californikate, Lil Mo Peep, and Greta Turbo, though all stayed in the game. Lil Mo Peep put JDB over the 100 mark and #1348 Baked Beanz, getting the star in a star pass, did the same for GSR, at which moment the score stood at 120-103. From this point onward, however, the JDB lead widened as penalties and power jams more often favored the Morristown team. Despite an 18 point jam by BlackEye Betty in the next to last jam, JDB retained its lead. In the final jam Californikate ran out the clock in a power jam. Final Score: 208 – 159 in favor of JDB.


Blocker – #200 Clara Form
Jammer – #1732 BlackEye Betty

Blocker  – #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes
Jammer – #8 Lil Mo Peep

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The High Road

All of my grandparents were born in or before 1900, a time when hashish, cocaine, and opium were legal. Laudanum (opium and alcohol) was available over-the-counter as a pain reliever. The nation was never so high before or since. It didn’t hurt productivity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the U.S. economy grew at a 6% annual rate – not smoothly by any means but on average. The Drug War began in earnest during World War One and alcohol Prohibition began in 1920. The latter was famously a failure. The former was less famously so, but a failure nonetheless. Despite spotty loosening of laws against marijuana in recent years, the bulk of the drug war continues to this day. So far as I know, my grandparents stuck with alcohol. Both sets fermented their own wine during Prohibition. (I still have their equipment in my garden shed.) One grandfather was fond of whiskey, but not so much as to noticeably interfere with his work or family life. That this properly was anybody else’s business was a notion alien to all of them.
The wine kit in the shed

This bit of history was brought to mind in the past few hours by the news and by a TV show. Let’s address the news first: there are very few pronouncements from the politically divergent inhabitants of the White House and Drumthwacket (the NJ Governor’s Mansion) that bear much similarity to each other, but the ones on “the opioid crisis” are interchangeable. Both threaten to double down on traditional Prohibition-style penalties and both promise to spend more money. The federal spending bill approved last month boosted spending to “combat opioids” by $3,300,000,000. Despite severe budget problems, the new NJ governor has proposed to spend $100,000,000 to do the same including $31,000,000 for “social risk factors,” which sounds deliberately vague, and $13,000,000 for improved data collection, which does also. I think we can assume these efforts on the federal and state levels will be as effective as all the other wars against drugs and alcohol have been in the past. The biggest effect of recent efforts to limit access to prescription opioid painkillers has been to drive pill users to heroin, which besides being more effective is (precisely because it is entirely illegal) cheaper, more available, and highly likely to be contaminated with deadlier substances such as fentanyl.

Said Aldous Huxley in his 1958 essay Return to Brave New World: “The habit of taking vacations from the more-or-less purgatorial world, which we have created for ourselves, is universal. Moralists may denounce it; but, in the teeth of disapproving talk and repressive legislation, the habit persists, and mind-transforming drugs are everywhere available. The Marxian formula, ‘Religion is the opium of the people,’ is reversible, and one can say, with even more truth, that ‘Opium is the religion of the people.’”

After the news was a rerun of Mom. I usually don’t discover favorite TV series during their initial broadcasts. Typically, while I might be aware of them, I don’t try them until a year or two after cancelation: a delay that at least can provide the advantage of several seasons on which to binge. Mom is an exception. The notion of taking on the dark subject matter of addiction as comedy appealed to me with the first episode back in 2013. It’s now in a fifth season on CBS and the first four seasons are already syndicated to other channels. In an age of prickliness and intentional humorlessness, modern edgy sitcoms of the old Norman Lear variety are rare, and this one is welcome. (Soap box aside: All humor that matters is inappropriate, but we can’t get it without allowing space for inappropriate humor that doesn’t matter too. Not even death is off-limits. GB Shaw: "Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs.") Recovering (sometimes relapsing) alcoholics with dysfunctional family and personal relationships who nonetheless struggle to get on with their lives make surprisingly good comic characters. Anna Faris and Allison Janney are ideally cast as mother/daughter alcoholics Bonnie and Christy. They and the rest of the cast successfully express the absurdity in life events that are not in and of themselves funny at all. The characters’ humor in desperate circumstances is their biggest strength and the show’s biggest asset. (I wrote a short story years ago about substance abuse called Blow though I neglected to make it funny.)

Few of us have escaped being harmed by addiction, either directly or by the actions of other people in our lives. This is why proponents of Prohibition of this or that substance continue their well-intentioned crusades in the face of a history of counter-productivity – the old saw about good intentions and pavement is no less relevant for being hoary. Attempts at authoritarian solutions, aside from being ineffective, raise a host of other issues as well. The only kind of war on drugs that has been shown to work is the kind represented in Mom: personal choice. Until an individual wants to stop (and we have to acknowledge that some folks never will), no amount of punishment or “help” will succeed. The desire to stop can’t just be a passing thing in the midst of a hangover either; it has to persist after the hangover wears off, too. With that choice, while there are no guarantees, help might actually help.

Ringo Starr – No No Song

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Brightly Dark

“Noir” originally described a type of movie especially prevalent in the 40s and 50s. You know the ones: This Gun for Hire, Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, etc. They feature sleaze, lowlife, crime, corrupt cops, and wisecracking dames. The protagonist is cynical: often a disillusioned former idealist. The villain is worse only by degree. The term later was back-applied to the books on which so many of the movies were based: books by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson.

The style of writing and filmmaking persists (neo-noir), but it was so well suited to its initial decades that a deft hand is required to make it work in the 21st century. Too easily the result can resemble parody. It can be done, and is done, but one way to ease the process is to set the work in the 40s and 50s. This approach was taken in a book by Christopher Moore released last month and by Michael Winterbottom in his 2010 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 book The Killer inside Me.

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Noir by Christopher Moore
I’ve long liked Christopher Moore’s satiric style, so that alone was enough reason to consider buying his latest book. Set in 1947 San Francisco, the novel’s on-the-money homage to noir clinched the sale. Moore captures the patter of the genre. This actually concerns him somewhat: before the text proper, Moore asks the reader’s indulgence for the book’s era-appropriate un-PC dialogue. (Frankly, most – not all – of it is refreshing.)

Sammy isn’t anyone special and his moral code is flexible. He chooses not to mention that his bad foot isn’t a war injury as everyone assumes; in reality it had kept him out of the service. He falls hard for the to-die-for shapely war widow Stilton (“like the cheese”) who chooses not to mention that (for her at least) her status is not so tragic. Sammy is no detective Philp Marlowe and Stilton is no heiress Vivian Rutledge; he’s a bartender and she’s a waitress. When he and “the Cheese” find themselves embroiled in murder, corrupt police, renegade federal agents, snake venom, and a secret organization of one-percenters, the two must punch seriously above their weights to survive. Unexpectedly, behind all the commotion is a mysterious event that took place in Roswell, New Mexico.

The novel has good action, good drama, unlikely twists, dual narratives, and shameless sentiment. It is funny without descending into full-on parody. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

The Killer inside Me (2010)
I read Jim Thompson’s book decades ago. A 1976 screen adaptation was not very well done, so I was curious to see if this one was more successful. I’ve caught snippets of it here and there, but only last week did I finally watch it through.

Deputy Sherriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) hides his calculated sociopathy and sexual depravity by affecting a folksy dullness in a 1950s West Texas town. He is well-liked in town and by his respectable girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) whom he keeps as part of his smokescreen. However, when his sadism is matched by the masochism of the prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), the brutal violence depicted is not the comic book variety one sees in Kingsman or Kill Bill! It is vile, base, degraded, and all too credible.

Lou sets up a scene at Joyce’s house to look like Joyce and her customer/lover young Conway killed each other. He does this for amusement because young Conway’s father is someone against whom Lou holds a grudge. The outcome of the movie depends on whether Lou’s set-up holds up under investigation.

Disturbing, but Thumbs Up.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Post Grad

The onset of May means many things. Among them: 2nd Quarter property taxes are due; spring weather, which has had many false starts locally this year, should finally stick; and graduation season has arrived. The last of those three comes particularly to mind since I need to find a college graduation present for someone before Saturday. When I first heard the date it seemed to me that May 6 was early for that ceremony, but memory deceived me. A glance at my browning-with-age degree, which regrettably is not really made of sheepskin (trivia: lignin in wood pulp causes the brown aging effect), shows that even in ancient times the schedule was about the same.

Except for the date, I remember both my high school and college graduations quite well along with the few days before and after. In both cases the prevailing sensation was anticlimax. I remember walking back to my dorm after my very last class at GWU while thinking to myself, “I should be feeling more than this.” It just felt like any other stroll that I had taken on that sidewalk 1000 times before. Anticlimax was perhaps more understandable four years earlier. While I looked forward to moving on from a rural prep school with 100 students to an urban campus with thousands, it was still fundamentally just a prospect of more school. So it proved to be. The biggest difference was the city. Had I chosen a less urban campus I might have noticed little change at all. The end of college was a different matter altogether, but that didn’t sink in right away. It did a few months later.

Graduation Blues is a well-known phenomenon. For more than a dozen years the graduate’s life had been demarcated by school. Progress was clearly defined by grade and by grades. Suddenly, that’s over. There is no progress other than what one defines for oneself. Personal anomie is a common initial response. While there are good reasons for some folks to go on to graduate school for various academic, scientific, and technical career paths, more than a few post-grads opt for more school not for any of those good reasons but just to delay facing its end. Whenever it comes, the transition from academia to career is seldom easy. There are rare cases of instant success – the current version of Cinderella – as some princely corporation offers a high-paying position directly out of college because, so to speak, the shoe fits, but the key word is “rare.” The typical experience is struggle – often a lifelong struggle – that at least at some point is likely to involve serving coffee and/or wielding a shovel. Upward mobility is a possible but not guaranteed long-term outcome.

Then there is the sensation of backsliding. Independence at college is more often illusory than real. There are still people today who work their own ways through college, but most youths rely heavily on parents, scholarships, and loans. Nonetheless, independence feels real as one lives away from home “as an adult.” That, too, ends suddenly. Typically, the graduate is back living with parents in a way no different than when a teenager. Nor is there any certain upcoming date as to when that might change. Besides, the grad probably owes a teensy amount of money in student loans, and the lender will be sending its first love notes requesting payment. It’s no wonder graduates get the blues or even full-blown depression.

I’d like to offer Pollyanna “here’s how to turn it all around” advice, but I really don’t have any. Graduation Blues are just a normal phase that some people get past quickly and others slowly. We do get past them though. Most of us eventually get our footing and get the hang of life beyond school. This does have its pleasures, not the least of which is real independence. Not much will be free, but we can be free nonetheless. That counts for more than a 4.0 average ever did.

Alice Cooper – School’s Out