Friday 24 June, 2022

Ultimate Selfies – #1

Degas: self-portrait in a soft hat.

Quote of the Day

”Yet her conception of God was certainly not orthodox. She felt towards Him as she she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer; and in some of her speculations she seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains.”

  • Lytton Strachey on Florence Nightingale in his Eminent Victorians (one of my favourite books).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Crowley | Salonika


If you want an example of sardonic anti-militaristic mockery, then this is hard to beat. A Cork woman who’s married to an Irish soldier in the British army during WW1 is musing on her situation. ‘Salonika’ is the Greek city of Thessaloniki, home to a British military base at the time. Men in Cork who avoided joining the British army were known as ‘Slackers’.

The lyrics are a scream. For example:

They tax their pound o’ butter
They tax their ha’penny bun
But still with all their taxes
Thеy can’t beat the bloody Hun.

Or the (nationalist) moral of the story:

And never marry a soldier
A sailor or a Marine
But keep your eye in the Sinn Fein boy
With his yellow, white and green.

You need a strong Cork accent to do this properly, and Jimmy Crowley meets that requirement perfectly.

Long Read of the Day

Exorcising a New Machine

An interesting take by David Kordahl on the LaMDA controversy .

Here’s a brief story about two friends of mine. Let’s call them A. Sociologist and A. Mathematician, pseudonyms that reflect both their professions and their roles in the story. A few years ago, A.S. and A.M. worked together on a research project. Naturally, A.S. developed the sociological theories for their project, and A.M. developed the mathematical models. Yet as the months passed, they found it difficult to agree on the basics. Each time A.M. showed A.S. his calculations, A.S. would immediately generate stories about them, spinning them as illustrations of social concepts he had just now developed. From A.S.’s point of view, of course, this was entirely justified, as the models existed to illustrate his sociological ideas. But from A.M.’s point of view, this pushed out far past science, into philosophy. Unable to agree on the meaning or purpose of their shared efforts, they eventually broke up.

This story was not newsworthy (it’d be more newsworthy if these emissaries of the “two cultures” had actually managed to get along), but I thought of it last week while I read another news story—that of the Google engineer who convinced himself a company chatbot was sentient…

I found this interesting because it was about an argument into which I had naively wandered in my Observer column.

I also liked Bill Benzon’s comment, just under the essay, especially his observation that LaMDA-type engines don’t just do what they’re programmed to do. In a way, that’s the key to understanding machine-learning systems.

In Bill’s terms:

I’m definitely with you on both sides of this: No, LaMDA is not sentient, but Yes, something very important is going on and Lemoine’s reaction is not as silly as some would have us believe. As I argue right in around the corner, in my current 3QD piece, Welcome to the Fourth Arena – The World is Gifted, our basic conceptual repertoire likely dates back to the late 19th century and fits that world rather well. That’s a world that had mechanical calculators and tabulators, and so those concepts could cope with much of what digital computers have been doing, like tabulating census figures or calculating artillery tables (early applications).

But these new engines, like LaMDA, aren’t like that. They aren’t even programmed as we’ve been told computers are programmed. They don’t do just what they’re programmed to do. They have a peculiar kind of semi-autonomy.

That leaves us with two conceptual problems. The experts need to figure out just what these things are doing. They’re working on that. I’ve been reading some interesting work. But then there’s the general understanding. Most of us are not going to work up the expertise needed to follow technical accounts of what these things do. But we still need to think about them. We need to do better than fall back on the now-outdated dichotomy between (elaborate albeit) inanimate contraptions and living minds.

Understanding the Disunited States

If you haven’t had time to follow the House investigation of the January 6 ‘insurrection’ in the Capitol by Trump followers, then this episode of the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast is worth a listen. It’s 40 minutes long, so make some coffee first.

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