I was maybe suckered too much by the subtitle, hoping for some good hulk smash of nonsense, and didn't read the fine print before buying. McIntyre is a philosopher of science, and so much of the book is more about not-solving the demarcation problem, i.e. how do you tell science from nonscience. In the main, I'm sympathetic to his treatment. It's just not a question that keeps me up at night.
As much as I've seen creationists and other pseudoscientists approvingly quoting Popper and Kuhn, I'm glad McIntyre craps on both of them. Or at least craps on Popper and what people generally think Kuhn said.
I say he not-solves the problem, because he doesn't find a 1-to-1 definition that would include all science and exclude all non-science. And I agree with him that this is probably a fools errand.
But he does find something to help, what he calls "The Scientific Attitude", and this is something that is found in science (but not exclusively in science). So one might be able to bake cakes with the scientific attitude, but that doesn't necessarily make baking a science. On the other hand, if you can show that a creationist is NOT adopting the scientific attitude, then we know that her version of creationism is not science.
In brief, phrasing things somewhat my own way, if you're doing science, then the ultimate decider is the universe. The scientific attitude is to be humble in the face of empirical data. If the data slays your theory, the scientific attitude is to take it with good grace, and modify your opinions and ideas, rather than trying to modify the data (fraud) or ignore the data (denialism) or play pigeon chess (pseudoscience).
He addresses how economics and the other social sciences could make better use of the scientific attitude (without having to become particle physics in the process). This is probably the most thought-provoking chapter of the book.
And he does hulk smash some stupidity, which is always agreeable.
OK, I'm not selling it, I can tell. But if you're up for something really well-made and really out-of-the-box, this is it.
It's interesting to me that an important theme of the game is a very pro-social message of help and cooperation that comes across as affecting and sincere. Not only to help the NPCs in the game, but also fellow players, with whom you can tangentially interact. They don't appear in the world, but structures and thingummies that they build in the world show up in your own and vice versa. And there's some gamification to it in the form of 'likes' a la social media. If someone uses a ladder you placed to scale a cliff, you get a like.
I could attempt to summarize more of the game, but I think it's best as a new world to be explored. Just go jump in.
The book seems to be a reworking of material Shane has shared in her AI weirdness blog. On the one hand, it shows, on the other hand, it makes for light entertaining reading.
I was a little disappointed that the scope of the book focuses on various flavors of machine learning AI (as opposed to symbolic or strong AI). Of course, the latter is a super hard problem, but it's of infinitely more interest.
But the book does reinforce the idea that machine learning AI is terrible and terrifying. If you set it the task of winning at chess and other games, it does an amazing job, because it's easy to 'reward' the program with victory or points. But when the goal is to teach an AI to, for example, act as a customer service agent, or identify what's in a picture, or drive a car down the street, it's harder to train them when the victory condition is 'act like a human would act'.
So the book is a compilation of more or less hilarious and horrifying failures of AI. The basic idea is to train your AI to absorb training data and make a bajillion connections so that it can spit out more of the same. The problem seems to be that we're bad at setting tasks, bad at giving clean data, and bad at making the original judgments the AI is trying to emulate. One of the common examples is text generating AIs, where you train your AI on recipes or Harry Potter novels and let it make up its own once it gets the hang of it. Another common thing of the sort is the autocomplete or Google's help in finishing your search request, which is how "Why won't my parakeet eat my diarrhea?" became a thing. Once the AI randomly latched onto that as a cromulent phrase, people making google searches also latched onto it. That's some serious click bait there. And thus the problem. The Google AI takes those clicks as 'rewards' that it is very accurately predicting what people were going to ask.
But mostly they're just odd, like the motto hearts Shane recently posted:
Other examples look at trying to decipher what's in a picture. For training data, the AI used people-generated descriptions of pictures and then went number crunching away. Now ask yourself, honestly, how many times have you described a picture by saying, "It has zero giraffes in it." probably never. But if there were a giraffe in the picture, you'd probably be likely to mention it. So the AI has seen a few pictures that are described as containing giraffes, but it has never seen a picture described as having zero giraffes in it. The result is that the AI often declares that there are giraffes in pictures that do not contain giraffes.
This kind of bias in the sample has real-world consequences as well. An AI trained to make hiring or loan application decisions turns out to be very good at modelling the human-generated data and discriminating against the same kind of people the employers and banks do. Since the AIs are rather opaque black boxes, it's hard to root out such bias, since we don't really know what the AI is paying attention to.
A related example from driving. The researchers thought they were teaching the AI to keep the car in the middle of the road, and not driving off the sides. Instead, they seems to have taught the AI to keep the green grass at fixed locations on either side of the field of view. When the car went onto an overpass, the green disappeared and the car was flummoxed.
Great, amusing read that shines a light on some important issues as inevitably medical and financial data gets churned through AIs like this.
The Witchfinder's Sister, by Beth Underdown
I found this a disappointment. Matthew Hopkins was an English witch-finder who had a brief, but very nasty career. I was ready to get my hate on, but the Hopkins of this novel does not seem to much resemble the original. As the title suggests, the book follows Hopkins' [entirely fictional] sister Alice as she returns to join his household after she is widowed. There are dim family secrets that slowly get winkled out, but the action stays on Alice, so much of the witchfinding occurs offstage. It does provide a slow excruciating crescendo as our narrator gets ever more closely involved with the witchfinding and the deplorable details emerge.
But the motivations provided by the backstory conflict with what we know of the real Hopkins, and the author toys with witchcraft being real, which seems like a bizarre step. If people really can and do magically murder people, it's worth finding them out. The tragedy of the witchhunts is that it was all bullshit.
The religion of the Greeks was a very different kind of thing than Christianity, so 'atheism' or 'impiety' meant something very different as well. For the Greeks religion was more practice and performance, rather than theological litmus tests.
Atheism was not really a word that people self-applied, but it (like now) was used more to denigrate your political or philosophical enemies. For that reason, and the lack of complete sources, Whitmarsh has to pick his way through the surviving bits and epitomes and satires to try to draw a picture of ancient Greek philosophical atheism. There's not much there there, but he does a good job showing the threads that remain.
Anyway, some of my random notes:
It is said that while another man was marveling at a series of temple dedications put up by survivors of sea storms, Diogenes retorted that there would have been many more if the nonsurvivors had also left dedications.
Atheists: snarky jerks for 2500 years.
What the Greek epics were not, however, were theological or liturgical works. Excerpts might be performed at festivals, but there is no evidence that they were used in a specifically ritual context. The performers themselves were not priests but rhapsodes, specialist singers known for their showy dress and gesture. These might claim to be divinely inspired (as the rhapsode Ion does in Plato’s dialogue of the same name), but their aim was to thrill, inspire, and instruct, not to fill their audiences with a sense of the godhead. Relative to Israel and other cultures of the ancient Near East, Greece handled its national literature in a strikingly secular way (from a monotheistic perspective).
Theagenes associated Apollo, Helios (the sun god), and Hephaestus with fire, water with Poseidon and the river god Scamander, Artemis with the moon, Hera with the air (the two words are anagrams in Greek: ēra and aēr). He also saw gods as oblique ways of talking about human faculties: Athena signifies the intellect, Ares folly, Aphrodite desire, Hermes reason. In the fifth century BC, Metrodorus of Lampsacus decoded Homer’s text systematically into a symbolic representation of the world. The original texts of Theagenes and Metrodorus are now lost, but in 1962 an allegorical commentary on a now lost mystical poem based on Hesiod, dating to the late fifth century, was discovered near Thessaloniki: the surprise discovery of the so-called Derveni papyrus opened a window onto the ingenious practices of the early allegorists.
While not necessarily atheistic, Whitmarsh points to some healthy skepticism:
Here he is, for example, on centaurs: What is said about the Centaurs is that they were beasts with the overall shape of a horse—except for the head, which was human. But even if there are some people who believe that such a beast once existed, it is impossible. Horse and human natures are not compatible, nor are their foods the same; what a horse eats could not pass through the mouth and throat of a man. And if there ever had been such a shape, it would also exist today.
"This is the grave of Hippo, whom Fate made equal in death to the immortal gods."
Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs. Although he escaped, he retained a reputation for impious thought. Socrates, at his own trial, had to remind his jurors not to confuse him with Anaxagoras.
On the Sacred Disease, however, argues that the illness can be explained by factors that are entirely internal to the human organism. “It appears to me,” writes the author in the introduction, “to be in no way more divine or sacred than other diseases; it has a natural cause, from which it originates, like other illnesses. People consider its nature and its cause as divine out of ignorance and wonder.”
In the case of the first book of On Piety, the scroll had also been cut in two, and the halves had been catalogued separately, and later generations had been unaware that the two belonged together. To make matters worse, several fragments, and all the early drawings, had been spirited away from Italy to Oxford. The reunited and reconstructed text, which was published in 1996 by Dirk Obbink, is one of the great achievements of modern classical scholarship
Religion as social control:
There was a time when humans’ life was unordered, Bestial and subservient to violence; When there was no reward for the noble Or chastisement for the base. And then, it seems to me, humans set up Laws, so that justice should be tyrant And hold aggression enslaved. Anyone who erred was punished. Then, when laws prevented them From performing open acts of force, They started performing them in secret; and then, it seems to me, Some shrewd man, wise in his counsel, Discovered for mortals fear of the gods, so that The base should have fear, if even in secret They should do or say or think anything. So he thereupon introduced religion, Namely the idea that there is a deity flourishing with immortal life, Hearing in his mind, seeing, thinking, Attending to these things and having a divine nature, Who will hear everything said among mortals, And will be able to see everything that is done. If you plan some base act in silence, The gods will not fail to notice.
The specifics of Diopeithes’s decree probably came (via Craterus or someone like him) from the records in Athens’s own official archive. It seems genuine enough.6 The decree targets two kinds of criminality. The first is not recognizing (nomizein) the gods. The Greek word is ambiguous and can suggest either their ritual worship or belief in their existence. Perhaps this ambiguity was intentional, so that prosecutors could use the law to sweep up both those who were derelict in their fulfilment of religious obligations and those who held heterodox beliefs. This would fit with the corresponding extension of impiety from the sphere of ritual into that of belief. The second activity outlawed is “teaching doctrines regarding the heavens,” which might seem at first sight a completely different issue.
As the narrative progresses, we come ever closer to the beating heart of Panchaean society, the temple of Zeus Triphylios (“of the Three Tribes”) that stands on an acropolis. Euhemerus has much to say about the beauty and the grandeur of the temple. But, he says, it concealed a surprise: a golden pillar, inscribed with a record of the deeds of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. The inscription revealed that the Olympian gods were originally human beings and an exceptional generation of rulers of Panchaea. It was Zeus himself who traveled around the world and instituted his own cultic worship. In other words, Panchaean society is sustained by a religion based upon the worship of a “god” who is no more a god than you or I.
Lucretius’s Epicurus is a crusader not so much against rituals and state institutions as against the false beliefs that oppress us with fear of death, punishment, and the afterlife. Liberation will be found not in smashing organized religion (no Epicurean ever suggested that) but in rejecting the received, mythical view of the gods as aggressively vengeful and accepting that in the materialist view of things they have no influence over our lives.
In the myth, his fleet had been stayed by a calming of the waters, which Artemis had imposed because Agamemnon had killed a deer on land sacred to her. “Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to urge,” concludes Lucretius: “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” one of the poet’s most famous lines (Voltaire, for example, sent it to Frederick II of Prussia in 1737 when urging the cause of secularism). Lucretius’s point is that this misunderstanding of the shifting nature of wind (which he explains elsewhere in purely material terms) is more than simply an error. When we fail to understand the truth about nature, and more particularly when we substitute religious for scientific understanding, terrible consequences can ensue.
Essentially, Stoicism taught that happiness is achieved not by pursuing appetites but by living according to nature: one’s own nature, but also that of the universe itself. Everything that happens in the universe is directed toward the best outcome; our duty as individuals is to discern, as best we can using our rational powers, what that outcome is and to bend our lives toward facilitating it.
The doxography of atheism is particularly significant because of the relative marginality of atheism in antiquity. To be an atheist was, for most, to be a member of a virtual rather than a face-to-face community. There were no real-world schools of atheism that allowed one disbeliever to engage in dialogue with another. It was doxography alone that offered that network, linking together disparate individuals and weaving together their disparate beliefs into a shared set of doctrines that collectively made up a philosophy of atheism.
As a whole, Pliny’s disquisition suggests that the idea of deity is a human construction. “God,” he says at one point, “is one mortal helping another.” We make our own divinity through our behavior toward others.
Nevertheless, there are some cute scenes here and there, all in Laumer's typical light style.
A guy from our Earth dreams his way into a fantasy world and gets involved in some intrigues. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that it seems to slightly presage some of Zelazny's Amber -- the ability of certain special people to alter the world. The basis is not at all like Zelazny's, but like I said, it rings familiar.
Hansen moved to Turkey as a young journalist and immersed herself in the local politics and culture, and wound up learning a lot about the US and its involvement/meddling in foreign countries, and how the people of those countries subsequently view the US. I have a hard time assessing my feeling about the book. Some of it may be generational. For me Vietnam was history, but it certainly loomed large, and the 80s was all about US meddling in the Americas, and the aftermath of our previous meddling in Iran.
It's hard for me to not imagine our disastrous meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan not inspiring similar cynical feelings in millennials, but Hansen seems to have sprung from a more conservative family. Anyway, half of my reaction to the book is, "How could she ever have been so naïve?"
And then the second half of my reaction to the book is, "How can she be so credulous?" Just because she's getting information about the US from critics in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Greece and elsewhere is hardly a guarantee of trustworthiness. So sometimes the kneejerk anti-Americanism rankled.
She's pretty down on Ataturk, deriding his modern day secularist Turkish followers as Western-style hedonist educated elites working towards some alien 'modernity' that is not-Turkish. I mean, that's probably accurate to a certain extent, but it's weird seeing her spend a fair amount of the book being something of an apologist for Erdogan and his Islamist tendencies, only to be suddenly shocked by them a bit further on.
I also have some doubts she understood some of the things she was hearing about. She spends some time on the problems in Greece.
“Did you ever take side money from your patients?” Everybody was listening. “Yes.” “Are you still taking money on the side?” “Not anymore.” “Why?” “Because now, the way things are, I’d be lynched.” The fact that cracking down on doctors counted as a positive development in Greece was a sign of just how troubled Greek society had become.
Greeks aren't upset about doctors performing healthcare. The crucial piece there is 'side money'. One of the huge problems in Greece is tax evasion. Greece can't perform services for its citizens (or pay back loans to international banks) if people are hiding income under the table.
Think Tank: Forty Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience, edited by David J. Linden
A neat idea. Ask 40 experts in neuroscience what one thing they'd most like to tell an interested layman about how the brain works. 40 different topics, 40 different takes, 40 different writing styles. Obviously, some wind up being more interesting than others, but the essays are short enough that you'll find something interesting pretty soon. Here's how Linden describes the book:
Scientists are trained to be meticulous when they speak about their work. That’s why I like getting my neuroscience colleagues tipsy. For years, after plying them with spirits or cannabis, I’ve been asking brain researchers the same simple question: “What idea about brain function would you most like to explain to the world?” I’ve been delighted with their responses. They don’t delve into the minutiae of their latest experiments or lapse into nerd speak. They sit up a little straighter, open their eyes a little wider, and give clear, insightful, and often unpredictable or counterintuitive answers. This book is the result of those conversations.
And now just some other snippets that interested me:
After three months of practice, the volunteers could juggle for an entire minute without mistakes—and there were distinct changes in their brains. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI),10 used here to examine the anatomical structure of the brain, revealed a selective expansion in the gray matter of the mid-temporal area, the part of the brain that processes the speed and direction of moving objects. There was also an enlargement of the brain region for perceptual motor coordination and visual attention, all components of the skills needed to become a proficient juggler. Three months later, after a break from practicing, most volunteers could no longer juggle, and the corresponding brain expansions had reversed. In just six months, this experiment showed that training causes transient, but very real, structural changes in the brain!
Might there be functional consequences for this reorganization of limited cortical resources? Let’s return to the London taxi drivers. What we have yet to mention is that the taxi drivers’ expansion of the posterior hippocampus comes at the cost of the anterior hippocampus.17 The overall volume of the hippocampus is the same between drivers and controls; it’s just the regional volumes that differ. The posterior hippocampus is thought to store spatial representation of the environment, such that an expansion here could allow for a more detailed mental map. In contrast, the corresponding reduction in anterior hippocampus might explain some of the functional deficits seen in taxi drivers. Most broadly, they’re worse than nondrivers at forming new visual and spatial memories. For example, when given a complex line drawing to copy, they’re worse at redrawing the figure in a later memory test; this task tests the ability to remember how visual elements are spatially arranged.
Another interesting paradox is demonstrated with use of the thermal grill. This device consists of alternating warm and cool metal bars. Not surprisingly, if you place your hand on the grill when the warm and cool bars are activated separately, you will experience warm and cool sensations respectively. However, when the warm and cool bars are turned on together, most individuals will feel intense, burning pain. And they will reflexively quickly withdraw their hands. With the thermal grill, there is pain in the absence of “painful” stimuli; it is an illusion of pain.
Then, in 2005, Edvard and May-Britt Moser and colleagues reported that cells in the entorhinal cortex, one synapse upstream of the hippocampus, respond in a hexagonal grid pattern in space—that is, according to a distinct pattern that is spatially periodic in two dimensions. These “grid cell” responses are strikingly unrelated to the behavioral trajectories of the animals, rather reflecting an internally organized structure imposed on experienced space, sometimes likened to graph paper. O’Keefe and the Mosers received the Nobel Prize in 2014 for these discoveries.
Why does the brain need to predict sensory events that might happen in the future? To answer this question, let us try an experiment. Take a book and place it in your left hand, and then ask a friend to pick up the book from your hand. You will notice that as the book is lifted off your hand, your hand does not stay perfectly still but shifts upward. Now place the book back in your left hand and use your right hand to pick up the book. Something remarkable happens: the left hand that was holding the book remains perfectly still.
Most recently, a set of genes has been described that controls language in both humans and African grey parrots, despite anatomical differences in brain organization between humans and birds and the absence of a common ancestor that shares the language trait.
Fascinating experiment where they showed monkeys paired images of major brand logos with... sexy and unsexy pictures of monkeys. Over time, the monkeys associated the brand logos with sex and status. Haha, stupid monkeys!
Our advertising campaign was remarkably effective. Monkeys developed preferences for brands associated with sex and status. Both males and females preferred brands paired with sexual cues and the faces of high-status monkeys. These findings endorse the hypothesis that the brain mechanisms that prioritize information about sex and status shape consumer behavior today, to the advantage of marketers and, perhaps, our own dissatisfaction.
People were shown faces that were either beautiful or neutral and statements or pictures that depicted morally good or neutral acts. Parts of the brain that respond to rewards in the orbitofrontal cortex also respond to both facial beauty and moral correctness, suggesting that the reward experienced for beauty and goodness is similar in the brain.
This similar experiment on humans is interesting as well. I've often made the comparison that moral judgments are subjective judgments, just as aesthetic judgments are. Here's some evidence that they are treated similarly by the brain, at least in this limited context.
I would very much like Paul Verhoeven to make a film of this in much the same vein as his excellent take on Heinlein's Starship Troopers, because some deep-level parody is the only way to fully enjoy this tale.
1950s American Engineer Man builds a bomb shelter when the Big Whoops arrives. Inside are AEM, his fat alcoholic wife, his feckless son whom he's putting through law school, his plucky daughter, her plucky friend from school, and a Negro servant. AEM is large and in charge and will shoot anyone who dares disobey him. They're all alive due to his forethought despite this terrible catastrophe. But, when you think about it, is it really all that bad?
AEM: "Well it's hard to take the long view when you are crouching in a shelter and wondering how long ou can hold out. But Barbara [plucky school chum -- I'm not sure this is before or after AEM has had post-atomic war coitus with her] I've been worried for years about our country. It seems to me that we have been breeding slaves -- and I believe in freedom. This war may have turned the tide. This may be the first war in history which kills the stupid rather than the bright and able...
the boys in service are as safe or safer than civilians. And of civilians those who used their heads and made preparations stand a far better chance. Not every case, but on the average, and that will improve the breed. When it's over, things will be tough, and that will improve the breed still more. For years the surest way of surviving has been to be utterly worthless and breed a lot of worthless kids. All that will change."
Barbara: I suppose you're right. No, I know you're right. ... Killing the poorest third is just good genetics...
Ultimately they leave the shelter [I'm not sure whether this is before or after AEM's daughter tell him that of the three men present, she would most like to have sex with him.] and they've been blasted into the future, which is fortunate since it's not too radioactive. So AEM makes a few more orders and organizes civilization, until they are improbably picked up by the people of the future. With the Northern Hemisphere wiped out by the Whoops, the earth is now ruled by dark-skinned people with white-skinned slaves [I'm not sure whether this is before or after half the case has used the n-word]. Further twaddle ensues. I'll give it this -- it's reasonably engaging and as each section of plot kind of plays itself out, Heinlein comes up with something else interesting to happen. But the whole thing feels.... well, let me just quote a bit more.
[AEM] concentrated on being glad that Barbara was a woman who never chattered when her man wanted her to be quiet.
The blurbs promise quite the fireworks, and it's hard to miss with a block populated by robots, sorcerers, and children on their way to growing up. But while I admire some of the askew descriptions Davis provides, and the dream-like and daydream-like departures from pedestrian fiction, ultimately some of these departures go too far into obscurity or opacity. The characters are drawn with a good feel for internal mental detail, despite their absurd world, but most of their preoccupations are almost numbingly mundane.
And since it is an assemblage of short stories or vignettes, the whole never becomes any more that the sum of its parts (and as a reader, I missed some of the parts wandering off stage never to reappear again.)
And here I am catching up with "Paper Dragons," which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1986. Originally published in Imaginary Lands, I have the standalone version from Axolotl Press with the intro by Blaylock's pal Tim Powers.
The story has a lovely dream-y feel of Northern California with a lot of what makes Blaylock Blaylock. Animals behaving strangely. People behaving strangely. And the petty foibles of human society -- like tossing tomato worms into a neighbor's yard. Not much of a story, but more a prose poem on the possibility of the magical being just around the bend, or behind a passing cloud.
The Sinking City is a Lovecraftian videogame. Lovecraft doesn't translate well to films or videogames, where most people just add tentacles to make it 'Lovecraftian'. But the Sinking City does a pretty fine job of capturing more of the spirit, so on that level it's successful. Your hard-boiled, ex-Navy diver investigator finds his way around a decrepit town beset by a flood (yes and the occasional tentacled monster). He's been told he can find the answers to his nightmares and visions, and various people around town are happy to pay him to solve their own particular problems.
Perhaps the most novel and 'Lovecraftian' gimmick is the Mind Palace, which provides a concrete game mechanic that corresponds to a mind 'correlating its contents'. Clues that you find on a case can be matched together two-by-two to form deductions that get you closer to the ultimate solution of the case.
Not very novel is a SAN meter that when it gets low results in additional visions and hallucinations. Sometimes, it's handled pretty ham-fistedly, but other times it creates some pretty vistas. I consciously avoided getting the sanity upgrades because I enjoyed the phantasmagoria.
Drawbacks are long load times and some glitchiness, and some extreme logic gates. You the player can have figured out where to go next, but unless your character has schlepped over to the newspaper morgue to confirm the location, the clues won't be there. They only magically appear once they've been unlocked by the schlepping. Sometimes you have to look at this clue before you look at that clue, or it won't give up all its secrets.
The combat system is not very good. If you're looking for combat as the point of a game, this is not it. But if you want some moody investigating, it has something going for it. Probably a C+/B- for a gamer, but an B+/A- for me.