November 27th, 2016 by Wil
Recently, an online petition circulated demanding that the electoral voters voting for Trump change their vote to Clinton. One argument made was that the electoral voters should do this because Clinton won the popular vote by handy margins.
The counter argument to this was that Trump could say, “Look, I pursued a specific campaign strategy to win this election and that stategy was to win the electoral college. If you now say I needed to win the popular vote, you are changing the rules after we all played the game.” And it would be a fair point.
Now there’s currently a bit of rumbling from some Democrats that the country should get rid of the electoral college. And they’ve got a legitimate grievance. Twice in 16 years a Democrat has won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. It would seem that getting rid of the college would benefit Democrats, no?
But it may not be that simple. We realize that all of a state’s electoral votes go to whoever wins the majority vote in that state. (There are rare exceptions to this.) And certain states reliably swing one way. My state of California is a good example; it always swings towards Democratic candidates. As a result, Republican voters in this state are disincentivized to vote—why vote for your guy when you know he or she has no chance of getting your state’s electoral votes?
However, if we switched to a popular vote, that disincentive disappears. Suddenly a lot of people who might not be that eager to vote have a reason to do so. Suddenly their vote does count. And suddenly political parties have a lot more reason to actively pursue those votes. (Right now, I suspect a lot of Republicans don’t even bother with California.)
Now, does this mean the popular vote would swing more Republican? Obviously there are plenty of Red states where, under a popular vote system, Democratic voters might be more incentivized to vote. The only way to really figure this out would be to examine the populations and voting tendencies of each state and take some educated guesses. I did look up the voting tendencies of the current US population and it’s about an even split between Dems and Repubs. (There are more registered Democrats, but independents tend to slightly swing Red which evens it out.) So it’s hard to really predict what the results of a popular vote would be.
The larger point here is that you can’t make predictions about one system based on the results from another. Or, more boldly, don’t fuck with shit unless you really know what you’re doing.
Now, of course, there’s a reasonable, non-partisan argument that we should just switch to the popular vote system because it is more democratic.
November 21st, 2016 by Wil
I’m currently working on an acid logic piece taking a look at Scott Adams’ predictions about Trump and seeing how they stand up to the election results. Obviously Adams was right on his main prediction that Trump would become President.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of Adam’s arguments. One comment he makes often is that reality doesn’t exist. Physical reality like molecules might exist (though Adams is at times dubious of that; very Buddhist of him) but social reality and political reality are not real. Trump, I think Adams would say, created a new political reality via masterful powers of persuasion. People who clung to the old reality, who did not see how Trump was changing the rules of the game (I might fall into this category) got played.
I just stumbled across an article about rapper Kanye West going on a long political rant onstage in Sacramento. He make comments that sound Adams-esque.
During his rant West said: “If your old a– keeps following old models, your a– is going to get Hillary Clintoned. You might not like it, but you need to hear it.”
Frankly, that would be a great motto for the Democratic Party going forward.
West, it should be noted, states he is going to run for President in 2020. Before the Trump victory I would have presumed the likelihood of this actually happening to be low. Now I’m not so sure.
November 14th, 2016 by Wil
I can often be founding complaining in this blog about the speed of modern life. The constant assault of news, media, texts, emails, and even entertainment turns us into distracted, annoyed and un-focused creatures.
I’d like to further argue that the speed of modern information does more than just upset our personal equilibrium. It upsets the zeitgeist—the shared context the pervades the cultural moment.
Zeitgeist is a deliberately vague word (despite being German) but we all have some familiarity with it. It’s whatever makes the culture of now feel like the culture of now. It’s the hit songs on the radio, it’s the shows on Netflix (not so much TV) that people are talking about, it’s the news stories that fill the air, and on and on.
I think in the past, we had a bit more time to acclimate to the zeitgeist. Trends would rise and they would sit there in the air a bit before wafting away. To use an example, hair metal, the genre of heavy metal popular in the 1980s, lasted a good 2-3 years* before being usurped by grunge, which itself lasted even longer. I don’t think that’s the case now. Musical genres seem to rise and fall rather quickly.
* If one wants to gets picky about it, one could really identify two periods of hair metal in the 80s. There was the early 80s period that brought about groups like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot, and the later period kicked off by Guns-n-Roses which led to a mass signing of hair metal bands to record labels.
Another example: I was just listening to some podcast where an interviewee was bemoaning the loss of power experienced by magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic. These magazines are still around, of course, but the guy was complaining that they no longer “drove the conversation.” These magazines no longer define the zeitgeist in the way they used to.
There’s also a political and intellectual zeitgeist happening at any moment. (Clearly the political zeitgeist just had a massive change with the election of Donald Trump.) This zeitgeist is defined by the topics and policies under discussion, the books being read, the blog posts making the rounds, the ideas about politics, policies and ethics defining the spirit of the times. And I think that zeitgeist too is moving much quicker.
How do I know? Well, Trump is a good example. The media—the guys who should control the zeitgeist or at least have some insight into it—got him wrong at the beginning and then continued to get him wrong. At the start, they, like me, thought he was a joke. Then they predicted his political implosion five thousand times. Then they predicted, armed with lousy polls, that he would lose the election. And yet here we are.
The media aren’t controlling the zeitgeist. They’re playing catch-up with it.
I’ll give an example of my personal failure to feel the zeitgeist. When Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, I figured he’d last about two days. The “socialist” moniker was going to kill him, I thought. Instead, he had a long run and a case can be made that he would have defeated Trump had he been given the spot. What did I get wrong?
I think it’s that the term “socialist” just doesn’t carry the negative connotation anymore. I grew up in the 80s during the chill of the cold war when “socialist” wasn’t that far from “communist,” and the communists were the guys with a billion nukes pointed at us. We feared them. But someone who is in their twenties today (and many of Sanders supported were young) would have never experienced that fear, at least not directly. For them, the power of these terms has changed, and thus so has the zeitgeist.
November 13th, 2016 by Wil
This is my first post-election post and while I do feel like I’ll have plenty to talk about down the line, for now I want to touch on a single thought that jumped into my head.
We understand that part of Trump’s appeal was that he is anti-free trade. He wants to undo free trade agreements like NAFTA, TPP etc.
(I’ll note here that I generally favor free trade though I don’t have particularly thought out reasons for this. I generally like simpler rule sets for things and nothing is simpler than “free.”)
Let’s also revisit the moral thought experiment called the trolley problem. Philosopher Joshua Greene describes this in his book “Moral Tribes”
A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big to stop the trolley and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?
Fundamentally, the trolley problem asks whether it is all right to sacrifice one person to save five, or, more broadly, whether the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.
The complaint from a subset of Trump voters is that free trade agreements took their jobs away. This New Yorker article examines some of the details of all this.
“…economists agree almost unanimously that free trade boosts a nation’s overall welfare. In March, 2012, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business polled a panel of economic experts, fifty-six per cent agreed and another twenty-nine per cent strongly agreed that “Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment.” But even within the precincts of orthodox trade theory (which is not, I am told, the whole of economics), free trade is acknowledged to have a downside, too. In June, 2012, half of the same panel of experts agreed and another thirty-three percent strongly agreed that “Some Americans who work in the production of competing goods, such as clothing and furniture, are made worse off by trade with China.” The professional consensus among economists, in other words, isn’t that free trade helps everyone; it’s that free trade so benefits the country as a whole that the government should find it easy to compensate the subset of citizens hurt by it—those who lose their jobs because workers abroad displace them.”
So, free trade is good for society as a whole, but there’s definitely a group that it screws. If no meaningful help is offered to people (and little is according to the article and others I’ve read) it should be no surprise that they will demand change.
What intrigues me here is that this election seems to drag a boring thought experiment out of the halls of academia and into the real world. The trolley problem asks about the morality of sacrificing the welfare of a few for the welfare of many. And that’s exactly what we face with the issue of free trade.
Of course, it’s more complex than that. How do we measure these benefits to larger society or these deficits to smaller groups? How do we measure economic pain? Merely in dollars and cents? Or do we try to factor in ethereal elements like dignity, pride and self-worth and even unintended consequences? Some liberals are doubtless now feeling that if free trade means that the people you sacrifice then vote in Donald Trump, it’s not worth it.
(Another point to keep in mind here: Democrats did have an anti-free trade candidate, Bernie Sanders, and there’s a lot of evidence that he could have bested Trump.)
On a final tangent, in a later paragraph, the New Yorker article argues that merely throwing money at Americans screwed by free trade doesn’t solve the problem.
Even if a welfare program like the Trade Readjustment Allowance were amped up, it’s not likely that this population would become meek and grateful. They’re aware that the socioeconomic élite—lawyers, financiers, and consultants—profited mightily from the economic changes by which they were dispossessed over the past couple of decades, and I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class.
This struck me as it’s very similar something I wrote many months ago in a post entitled “Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump.”
The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities.
Had Hillary Clinton read my blog post and integrated its wisdom, I suspect she would be President right now.
November 6th, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been reading a rather dense, philosophical book called “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennett. I’m not sure how much I’m getting out of it but it does have one interesting nugget worth reporting on.
To understand this nugget I have to first describe our general view of reason and emotion. This view is that reason is sort of the antidote to emotion. Men’s emotions run wild and a stern application of reason is necessary to “talk them off the ledge.” (You see this point brought up often during this contentious election cycle.)
The view intimated the Dennett book is that, in fact, emotion is a cure for reason. Evolution “created” emotion to ward of the potential dangers of reason.
What do I mean? Well let’s say you were captured by some fiend and he asked you to make a choice. He was going to kill one person and that person could be your son or some guy in China whom you’d never met. A person operating on pure reason would have trouble with this decision. He or she might factor in the relative ages of these two people, deciding who still had the most life to live. He or she might try to take a guess at what productive things each potential target might do in their lives in order to ascertain who was the most valuable person.
An emotional person (e.g. the rest of us) would say “kill the Chinese guy.” We might be torn about it, but I think that’s the decision most of us would ultimately make because we would would have a strong emotional connection to our child and very little emotional connection to a stranger. (This brings to mind Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment.)
This idea—that emotion helps us make decisions—ties in with the work of Antonio Damasio. In his book, “Descartes’ Error” he described people who, due to some pathology, had lost their ability to really feel emotions. As a result, their decision-making abilities went in the toilet. I think Damasio described a fellow who was fired from his work because he couldn’t prioritize tasks. The boss would tell the guy to finish a report and he would miss the deadline because he spent 8 hours arranging staplers. He could not prioritize because every option had equal emotional “weight” (and that is to say, none.)
This also ties in with some fears I’ve seen expressed about artificial intelligence. The concern is that A.I. might be programed to do some task like construct a new kind of material and then decide that human bones are the best source for this new material and therefore the A.I. would instigate massive genocide to farm for human bones. It would do this because it would operating using only logic and no emotional weighting. (I’m using a vastly simplified example of this fear, but you get the drift.)
November 2nd, 2016 by Wil
I stumbled across an interesting article discussing how scientists are rendering data in musical form. This, apparently, allows them to sense patterns in the data they might otherwise be unaware of.
Scientists can listen to proteins by turning data into music
Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work — by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.
The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.
“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”
If you don’t fully comprehend what this all means, well, I’m right there with you. But one can easily envision a way that different values of data could be thought of as steps away from a average value, and those steps could be represented as a musical scale. So really large musical leaps would indicate major deviations from an average.
And here’s another article also about data being transformed into music. I guess this is a “thing.”
Detecting patterns in neuronal dendrite spines by translating them into music
There’s some example of this “dendritic spines as sound” music here and it’s pretty unappealing. (Part of the problem is that it’s rendered with hideous midi instrumentation.)
October 18th, 2016 by Wil
I just finished an article on computers writing music which got me thinking about computers thinking. (Thinking being a big part of music writing.) When humans compose music, or write stories, or do any artistic pursuit, we are consciously processing our decisions, deciding to do this or that or try this or that idea. If computers can start to replicate these processes, they would be doing them unconsciously. (Unless we want to consider, as some have, that computers are conscious in some weird way, but that’s a debate for another time. For now I will presume they are not conscious.)
So let’s think about this. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a character named Bob who drives his car a lot. In my mind, Bob is a person and his car is an object an I shuffle them through various scenarios that create tension in fiction etc. How would a computer approach writing a story about Bob and his car. (Computers writing fiction is not that far off.)
Well, computers would never really be aware of Bob and his car. Ultimately a computer is simply turning the states of millions of transistors from on to off or vice versa. Bob would essentially just be several bytes worth of data, data simply being a collection of transistors in various states. All words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.—are simply data captured by the state of transistors. The point being the computer never really knows the meaning of the words. At best it “knows” the flow of electricity (and even that statement is a stretch.)
Essentially, computer programs map symbols (letters, music notes, patches of color, etc) on to these transistors. And then they manipulate these mapped symbols to do various things, one of which is to create art. The symbols only have meaning to the audience, which is us humans. In a sense, a novel writing by a computer could be said to not exist until a conscious human reads it.
So what makes us different from computers? We are conscious, obviously, but also these symbols have actual meaning to us. The word “Bob” can have an actual meaning, referring to particular guy, fictional or not, who has various behavioral tendencies, characteristics, a certain appearance etc. To us, Bob (the word) can represent a real person. We can map symbols to ideas/concepts/entitities.
And yet, our brains work in a way pretty similar to computers. Our neurons are powered by electricity and we, in some weird way, hold information in our synapses. So why do we humans experience meaning when computers don’t?
October 5th, 2016 by Wil
Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.
The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.
Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.
That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.
Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.
(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)
As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.
Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show
The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports.
The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”
The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.
“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN.
On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.
A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…
Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.
Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.
Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)
It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.
Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.
October 3rd, 2016 by Wil
In the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” there’s a moment when an interlocutor asks Turing, a math genius, “Can machines think the way men do?” As Turing answers it becomes apparent there were really two questions in that query. One is, “Can machines think (at all)?” Second is “Can machines think in the manner of men?” (For the record, Turing’s answers are yes and no.)
So how do we humans think? I think (ha ha) that we believe we largely think in a sort of logical fashion, almost like a series of programmatic steps. We may think, “I’m hungry. I should go to the store to get a sandwich. It’s hot out so I will take the car.” And we do often think this way though we don’t really “think out” all the dialogue. For this kind of thinking we are largely consciously aware of what’s going on. We don’t suddenly find ourselves buying a sandwich for no reason.
But we are also aware that some of our thinking is subconscious. We muse upon a problem, decide to put it away or “sleep on it,” then suddenly a day later the answer appears to us magically. (I solved a particularly pesky VPN issue this way years ago.) It seems clear that some part of our brain was working on the problem without us being aware of it.
Buried in the dialogue in the Turing film is, perhaps, the idea that machines, specifically computers, can’t consciously think. They’re thinking is more like our unconscious processing.
Let me throw in an added complexity. Let’s say a guy looks at a beautiful woman and says, “I’d sure like to have sex with her!” It would appear he wants sex, as everybody does, and his brain is voicing a thought that occurs to him upon the appearance of a attractive mate. The thinking is all conscious. But we humans also have the idea of evolution and the notion that what really drives us is our cells’ desire* to pass on their genes. According to this idea, somewhere along the line there’s some kind of information processing (something like thinking) that says, “Ah, here’s a chance to pass on our genes. Let’s dupe this guy into thinking he merely wants to put his penis in this attractive female.” So there’s two levels of “thought” here—the guy’s conscious thought and some weird level of informational processing occurring well below the brain.
*Of course, we don’t really think cells are conscious in such a way that they can have desires. But on some level are cells are driven to the goal of duplicating themselves.
Anyway, I don’t what to make of all this but thought (ha ha) I would put it down.
September 29th, 2016 by Wil
I continue to track Scott Adams’ blog to view his predictions about Trump. But today he tackled a different subject and he made note of something I’ve thought about myself.
Another key part of my prediction is that the Caliphate will start to weaponize hobby-sized drones for attacks all over the world.
Drones, these little miniature helicopters that are popping up all over the place, seem the perfect vehicle to lob explosives into crowds of people. I’m not talking about the rather small drones you see at the park, but the kind of drones that can have cameras mounted on them, or the kind Amazon is testing for deliveries. If it can carry a package it can certainly carry a bomb. And if the sky is awash with Amazon drones how will we tell the legal drones from ones delivering death? (There may actually be a way, in fact, I presume there is, but it complicates things.)
I think the bigger picture here is this realization: for every new technological advance from now on, we need to ask: how could this be employed by terrorists? Certainly robots and drones have obvious implications for terrorists. So too do advances in the biological sciences like the designing of virus in a garage laboratory. And what can people create with 3d printers?
On a side note, recall that it was the Japanese in WWII who first utilized drone bombs.