Tuesday 8 November, 2022

On Putin’s border

Riga, 2017

Quote of the Day

“The secret of power is the knowledge that others are more cowardly than you are”

  • Ludwig Borne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Once in a While


Thanks to Ian Cole for the tip.

Long Read of the Day

AI is plundering the imagination and replacing it with a slot machine

Terrific essay by Annie Dorsen in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which puts the current obsession with ‘AI’-generated art in its proper, humanistic, context. It’s about the difference between (a) the process that an artist develops to create an algorithm and (b) the process through which the art maker uses an already developed set of instructions to generate an output. Dorsen is a theatre director and writer whose works explore the intersection of algorithmic art and live performance and her essay gets to the heart of what’s happening to us as we are enmeshed in the current obsession with DALL-E and the like.

Much has been written about the cheesy aesthetics of AI-generated art. A bigger issue is the exploitation of living artists, who are neither credited nor compensated for the use of the existing works that feed the programs’ datasets. (It’s also worth noting that even as these companies scrape millions of images from the internet, appropriating the work of others for their own commercial ends, the code running these models is protected by copyright.) Others have also pointed out the enormous energy consumption of AI models, and the massive amounts of user-generated data collected by them. All of that is true.

But there should be an even deeper concern: These tools represent the complete corporate capture of the imagination, that most private and unpredictable part of the human mind. Professional artists aren’t a cause for worry. They’ll likely soon lose interest in a tool that makes all the important decisions for them. The concern is for everyone else. When tinkerers and hobbyists, doodlers and scribblers—not to mention kids just starting to perceive and explore the world—have this kind of instant gratification at their disposal, their curiosity is hijacked and extracted. For all the surrealism of these tools’ outputs, there’s a banal uniformity to the results. When people’s imaginative energy is replaced by the drop-down menu “creativity” of big tech platforms, on a mass scale, we are facing a particularly dire form of immiseration.

The conventional narrative about digital technology is that it is all about the augmentation of human capabilities — as good ol’ Douglas Engelbart envisaged. But in practice it is as much about asset-stripping human capabilities, turning its delighted users into supercharged Skinnerian pigeons. This is particularly the case with the ‘AI’-powered graphics tools, which leave their delighted users tweaking prompts to try and get a result they want, for all the world like pigeons pecking at levers.

Good essays should open up a subject rather than close it off. This one achieves that IMO.

Doc Searls on the ‘metaverse’

A characteristically insightful take on Zuckerberg’s pet obsession…

As for Meta (and its Reality Labs division), virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) via headgear are today where “Ginger” was before she became the Segway: promising a vast horizontal market that won’t materialize because its utilities are too narrow.

VR/AR will, like the Segway, will find some niche uses. For Segway, it was warehouses, cops, and tourism. For VR/AR headgear it will be gaming, medicine, and hookups in meta-space. The porn possibilities are beyond immense.

As for business, both Twitter and Facebook will continue to be hit by a decline in personalized advertising and possibly a return to the old-fashioned non-tracking-based kind, which the industry has mostly forgotten how to do. But it will press on.

Not much discussed, but a real possibility is that advertising overall will at least partially collapse. This has been coming for a long time. (I’ve been predicting it at least since 2008.) First, there is near-zero (and widespread negative) demand for advertising on the receiving end. Second, Apple is doing a good job of working for its customers by providing ways to turn off or thwart the tracking that aims most ads online. And Apple, while not a monopoly, is pretty damn huge.

It may also help to remember that trees don’t grow to the sky. There is a life cycle for companies just as there is for living things.

My commonplace booklet

Things I hadn’t known

By Andrew Kissinger on the Facebook science humor group, via Adam Tooze.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

So, why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass came up with this?’, you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses’ asses.) 

Now, the twist to the story: When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.

And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important? Ancient horse’s asses control almost everything.

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