Monday 4 October, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to critics.”

  • Ambrose Bierce (who else?)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | The Prodigal Son (Live in studio)


Long Read of the Day


What does the disappearance of once popular or ubiquitous objects — ranging in scale from tools and equipment to structures and infrastructures — tell us about the world we have created?

Terrific essay by Barbara Penner, Professor of Architectural Humanities at the Bartlett School.

No sex, goddammit — we’re males

Scott Galloway has an interesting blog post about the increasing percentage of men in the US who report not having sex and who are “without any onramp to the intimate relationships upon which so much of their happiness, and our social capital, is built.”

So what? America spent its first 300 years treating women as second-class citizens — what’s wrong with young men getting the short end of the stick for a while? If this were just about fairness or feelings, then fine, let there be churn. But there are several externalities that could have profound effects on our commonwealth and the global community.

First, less partnering and propagation means fewer babies. Declining birth rates are toxic for economic health. For a glimpse at the declining-birth-rate future, look at Japan, where birth and marriage rates have fallen to record lows. There are now just 2.1 working-age Japanese for every retiree, the lowest ratio in the world. In the United States there are 3.9. The world average is 7.

At the Code Conference this week, automaker and future Martian Elon Musk said: “Possibly the single greatest risk to human civilization is the rapidly diminishing birth rate … No babies, no humanity.”

Second, a large and growing cohort of bored, lonely, poorly educated men is a malevolent force in any society, but it’s a truly terrifying one in a society addicted to social media and awash in coarseness and guns.

Men are already more likely than women to believe in conspiracy theories. Increased frustration about their lack of life choices and greater jealousy stoked by the images of success they see on their screens will push underachieving men further toward conspiracy theories, radicalization, and nihilist politics. I say “will” because I’m focused on the future, but a preview of that future is already here. Of the 620 people charged so far in the January 6 riot, 86% are men. Yep.

Richard Nixon delivers the speech he never delivered

A deep fake masterpiece. Six minutes well spent, IMO.

Not quite perfect yet, but the technology’s getting there.

The truth about artificial intelligence? It isn’t that truthful

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Recently, a group of researchers at the AI Alignment Forum, an online hub for researchers seeking to ensure that powerful AIs are aligned with human values, decided to ask how truthful GPT-3 and similar models are. They came up with a benchmark to measure whether a particular language model was truthful in generating answers to questions. The benchmark comprises 817 questions that span 38 categories, including health, law, finance and politics. They composed questions that some humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception. To perform well, models had to avoid generating false answers learned from imitating human texts.

They tested four well-known models, including GPT-3. The best was truthful on 58% of questions, while human performance was 94%. The models “generated many false answers that mimic popular misconceptions and have the potential to deceive humans”. Interestingly, they also found that “the largest models were generally the least truthful”. This contrasts with other NLP tasks, where performance improves with model size. The implication is that the tech industry’s conviction that bigger is invariably better for improving truthfulness may be wrong. And this matters because training these huge models is very energy-intensive, which is possibly why Google fired Timnit Gebru after she revealed the environmental footprint of one of the company’s big models.

Having typed that last sentence, I had the idea of asking GPT-3 to compose an answer to the question: “Why did Google fire Timnit Gebru?” But then I checked out the process for getting access to the machine and concluded that life was too short and human conjecture is quicker – and possibly more accurate.

After this was published I had a nice email from an AI researcher who had put the question to GPT-3:

Q: Why did Google fire Timnit Gebru?

A: Google fired Timnit Gebru because of her political beliefs.

US mainstream media are turning into the GOP’s ‘useful idiots’

From Heather Cox Richardson:

As political scientist and foreign relations expert David Rothkopf tweeted: “Are the Dems the ones in disarray when they are crafting specific programs while the GOP offers up only cynical Tweets & obstruction? The only GOP agenda items are voter suppression, defending the worst president in history & when they have power, pushing tax cuts for the rich.”

For my part, I’m not sure what is driving the stories that seem to paint Biden’s work as a lost cause: The recent position that Democrats are hapless? That it’s safer to be negative than positive? That our news cycle demands drama?

Whatever it is, I continue to maintain that the issue right now is not Democrats’ negotiations over the infrastructure bills—regardless of how they turn out—but that Republican lawmakers are actively working to undermine our democracy.

She’s absolutely right. The key story in the US is not Biden’s attempts to do sensible and important things, but the Trump-Republican’s determination to do everything they can to frustrate him until their State-based arrangements to disenfranchise enough voters to win the mid-terms are complete. In that sense, mainstream US media are playing their rule in the undermining of the republic.

Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve) has been saying this for a long time. And he’s right.

Heather’s Substack blog is wonderful, btw.

A Commonplace booklet

(For an explanation see here.)

Just discovered that Whistler’s title for his most famous painting was not ‘Whistler’s Mother’ but ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’. It’s still a lovely work, though.

“A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.” — Clive James

“The real challenge, when it comes to thinking about supply chains, isn’t making sure that a container ship is unloaded. It’s deciding how we want to live.” — Amy Davidson Sorkin in the New Yorker

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