Clinical Trial Society

“One implication is that 25, 50, 250 years from now, we become a kind of clinical-trial society in which empirically driven decisions are constantly popping up. But by clinical-trial society, I mean all sorts of questions, because the information net becomes so rich — and the capacity to understand or deconvolute that information, because of computational power and because of A.I.-dependent algorithms, becomes so rich — that we begin to subject aspects of human behavior, human selves, that were previously considered outside the realm of assessment to a kind of deeper clinical assessment.”

—Siddhartha Mukherjee in roundtable discussion with Regina Barzilay, George Church, Jennifer Egan, and Catherine Mohr in “From Gene Editing to A.I., How Will Technology Transform Humanity?New York Times Magazine. November 16, 2018.

This discussion strikes me as terribly naïve and would have benefited from the perspective of someone like James C. Scott. Legibility on the scale imagined here may benefit the average person, but it will primary serve the interests of capital. It will be an instrument of social control and a catalyst of inequality, as Egan points out.

Another issue? What kind of human beings will be created when we start becoming a manufactured product? And what of those born outside this process? Will people whose DNA hasn’t been scrubbed to acceptable norms be second-class citizens? Who decides what those norms will be?

Technological utopianism is just as bad as any other fundamentalism. Science and knowledge will always be serving someone’s agenda, and while the benefits may trickle down, it shows a series lack of historical perspective to imagine it will primarily benefit those on the receiving end.

Persuasive Maps

“This is a collection of “persuasive” cartography: more than 800 maps intended primarily to influence opinions or beliefs – to send a message – rather than to communicate geographic information. The collection reflects a variety of persuasive tools , including allegorical, satirical and pictorial mapping; selective inclusion; unusual use of projections, color, graphics and text; and intentional deception. Maps in the collection address a wide range of messages: religious, political, military, commercial, moral and social.”

https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

h/t Open Culture.

Computational Thinking

“Computational thinking assumes that perfect information about the past can and should be collected and synthesized to inform decisions about the future.”

—John Thomason, “Is It Easier to Imagine the End of the World Than the End of the Internet?The Intercept, November 24, 2018.

A review of the book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle. It is interesting throughout.

Bridle’s central point is about our mental models and that technology is not value neutral. John Thomason points out that technology isn’t just ideas but tangible capital from which the people investing in it are expecting a return.

Think about artificial intelligence. Once you introduce a technology that will fundamentally change the landscape, e.g., introducing autonomous vehicles on the roads, then the model that the autonomous vehicles use to make decisions will also have to change as they change the environment.

Easily said, but clearly some changes will happen that might be unknown factors influencing the model, not accounted for in its decision making, and so forth. One current example is how human biases get baked into training data and influences the decisions of the model. The problem can be very subtle and there may be no obvious solution to it, assuming people are aware of the problem at all and that it can be fixed.

Arbitrary Image Stylization in the Browser

ai-arbitrary

Arbitrary Image Stylization in the Browser is an algorithm that will take any two pictures and apply the style of both of them to a third picture.

For an example, I took two posters from the Spanish Civil War that are out of copyright, i.e., Victoria and Izquierda, and I applied those styles to the official picture of President Trump on Wikipedia. The following was the result:

ai-arbitrary-trump

I did something similar with my avatar.

mono-psycho

It took a couple of minutes to run on my computer. It helps to close a few tabs. The results were consistently interesting. Recommended.

Watching Babylon 5 in 2018

Note: I’ve tried to avoid any spoilers, which significantly limits this discussion.

In June 2018, Babylon 5 became available on Amazon Prime. On Amazon Prime, the series starts with The Gathering, which is a 2 hour pilot that lays out the narrative framework with different actors from the main series. Then, it’s 5 seasons of 22 episodes of ~45 minutes a piece. So, if you want to watch it, you’re looking at investing about ~85 hours of your life. Is it worth it?

Babylon 5 was planned from the start to be a 5 season series. It has a multi-season narrative arc that uses an ensemble cast with characters and situations that evolve in a way that is interesting and engaging. From episode to episode, different characters are central to the story, which gives each character a depth that is unusual for any television series, even today.

It’s an epic science fiction story. It involves a couple of thousand years of history but is focused on just 5 crucial years within that span, with each season lasting a year. It’s a complete world, with multiple alien civilizations and individuals that are central to the narrative, where Earth is one culture among many. While evolving technology plays an important role in plot dynamics, it’s really the relationships and interplay between different people and cultures that drive the action. Every character and society has strengths and is flawed in some important way, which really breathes life into the series.

Clearly, Babylon 5 has had a major impact on rethinking what kind of story a television series could convey, and it was a precursor to the best television series of today. But, it does have some weaknesses.

The CGI from the mid-1990s has not aged well, but I don’t think it detracts significantly from the story. You could make the argument that while Season 5 ties up a lot of loose ends, it is the weakest season and could be skipped. Some of the acting is stilted. There are elements of the story that are reminiscent of a soap opera. There are also some story lines that end abruptly because of personnel changes or they are just left dangling. On the whole, Babylon 5 feels like an organic piece of story-telling, but it is a little messy. In many ways, it’s reflection of real life. It also explores universal questions about love, time, addiction, diversity, cooperation, brokenness, etc. There is much to consider beyond the story itself.

Watching it now, in the context of a global move to nationalist politics and fear of the Other, I found that there was much in the story that speaks to our historical moment, even though there is almost 25 years separating them. Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed watching Babylon 5 in 2018. It may be eclipsed by the likes of The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and the many excellent series that exist today, but it is still good enough to be included in any conversation about important series worth watching. If you are a fan of other science fiction series beyond Star Trek variants and Star Wars, i.e., Farscape, Firefly, X-Files, Quantum Leap, Sense8 (also by J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5), etc., chances are good you will like Babylon 5.

If you’re on the fence, try the first five episodes of Season 1.

The Parable of Fish & Turtle

“Once there was a fish and a turtle who were friends. They had been living in the same lake together for some time. One day the turtle decided to visit the land surrounding the lake. She had a good look around and came back to tell her friend the fish of the wonders she had seen. The fish was very interested and asked the turtle what it was like on land. The turtle answered that it was very beautiful. The fish then wanted to know whether it had been transparent, cool, rippling, shiny, smooth, good for gliding, buoyant, and wet. When the turtle said it had none of these attributes, the fish said, ‘What can be beautiful about it then?'”

—Ayya Khema, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.” Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987. Pg. 146.

!(Usefulness > Happiness)

I keep seeing Darius Foroux‘s writing showing up as a Pocket recommendation through Firefox. Recently, “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness” was the top recommendation. It ends on this note:

“Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”

Being contrary, it reminded me of this famous Zen quote:

“Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Darius states on his main page that his areas of concern are: productivity, habits, decision making and personal finance. It occurs to me that the modern preoccupation with “Getting Things Done,” efficiency, “time management” and so forth is just a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It’s an extension of the existing culture, where your value or usefulness is determined by how much money you make.

But, let’s take it at face value. Let’s imagine Elon Musk. He’s reinvigorated the space race, electric cars, energy storage, and other industries. Few people could make the claim that they have been more useful to society.

Elon Musk does not have a goal to be “useful,” broadly defined. He has a specific goal, i.e., to facilitate the colonization of Mars before climate change or some other extinction event closes the window of possibility for humanity. Everything he does is geared toward forwarding that goal.

A society needs people like Elon Musk for its long term survival. But, it doesn’t need a lot of them. So, what of everyone else?

Is usefulness to other people a purpose to which we all should strive? And what then of the people that do not have an obvious use, people that are a burden to society? Or, more ambiguously, people that aren’t useful in any obvious way? Or the fact that almost everyone will at some point be “useless”? How will we find value in our lives then?

This is where the Zen quote really gets to the point. People crave money, power and fame. All of these are “useful,” but they are also a distraction. They reinforce the ego. They make people dissatisfied with what they have or scared they will lose it. They make people less adaptable to change. Defining the purposes of life as usefulness is a recipe for creating unhappiness as our usefulness, however defined, changes.

The Story of Steinmetz

“Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.

Steinmetz…responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:

  • Making chalk mark on generator $1.
  • Knowing where to make mark $9,999.

Ford paid the bill.”

—Gilbert King. “Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of SchenectadySmithsonian.com. August 16, 2011.